12 May 2012

Gospel Bullets: "Piety vs Pugilism" in Church of Christ Preaching

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Church, Church History, Grace, K. C. Moser, Ministry, Preaching, Restoration History
Several years ago David Edwin Harrell characterized the Churches of Christ  as “the spirited redneck offspring of the Disciples of Christ.” Some took considerable exception to his words and they are, perhaps, inflammatory. But it is a fair question to ask if there was any truth to his observation. My own perspective is that he was probably not far from the truth. The rumble tumble of religious conflict from the first two thirds of the 20th century provides the social and theological context for the ministry and critique of K. C. Moser.  Debates were one of the primary modes of religious communication. Consider the following well known preachers and the number of debates they had: L. S. White (1867-1949) had over 150; C. R. Nichol (1876-1961) had 350; J. D. Tant (1861-1941) amassed 350; Joe S. Warlick (1866-1941) is the champion with a whopping 399!

Preaching was often cast in combat images. Speakers spoke of “gospel bullets” instead of “gospel facts.” Satire and ridicule were share among these preachers (not limited to Churches of Christ either). This kind of preaching was called in the literature “manly” or “plain.”

R. L. Whiteside wrote in early 1932 for the need of more “straight gospel preaching.” Apparently some were complaining about the unpleasant image of the church in the community.  For Whiteside, though, “the faithful preacher knows” such preaching “makes it the more binding.”

Preaching that stressed the love of God was frequently referred to as “sissyism.” Rather than being “real men” these preachers were weak and feminine — they were called “soft.”   “Let us forever have done with pop-Gun irrelevant sermonettes [sic] on pifling, sub-minor topics, which can have no more weight against sin and the world than peas shot at a mountainside.”

A classic example of this tendency is Hugo McCord’s evaluation of a sermon preached by R. H. Boll in 1936. The name of the article is telling: “Piety Versus Pugilism.” McCord summarizes Boll’s message in a paragraph then makes these comments,

The spirit of the discourse was certainly spiritual and devout, and no Bible believer could deny that every word was true.”

But McCord is not satisfied with this. Boll did not stick it to the “sects.” It never stressed “man’s side” of salvation. Hear McCord,

True, it was a devotional service, true, it was emphasizing God’s side rather than man’s side of forgiveness. But any sermon that treats God’s forgiveness of man is surely perverted if it doesn’t give the conditions which man must comply … Such a sermon, though good in reverence, and in exaltation of God did more harm than good … Bro. Boll’s sermon was purely faith only as far as practical purposes are concerned … Boll was niceness gone to seed.

Fred Rowe, long time publisher of the Christian Leader, invited J. Edward Meixner to do a meeting. After several rather pugnacious sermons, Rowe (over dinner) asked JEM to preach a sermon on the Prodigal Son in Luke 15. After hesitating a minute Meixner said, “Brother Rowe I cannot do it, I have never studied the subject.

Of course not all preachers were guilty of this.  However we get a gloomy picture of the state of preaching in Moser’s day. It was militant. It was issue oriented. And, if K. C. Moser is to be believed, it was frequently “crossless.” There are wonderful exceptions … Boll was one of them but look how he was castigated for that exception by Hugo McCord no less. The “spirit” of Moser’s teaching was cutting against the grain. He became the embodiment of “sissy” preaching.

I began with Harrell’s characterization of our being rednecks.  I end with an observation by Price Billingsly about preaching in 1920. Billingsly is protesting the education of preachers because that only resulted in the perversion of the true militant gospel.  He would rather be a “M  A  N” in God’s sight than have an “M  A.”  He continues,

But I will hope they will excuse me, VERITABLE RED-NECK and born insurrector [sic] that I am, for inquiring as to just what they intend to do with these degrees … I am a little doubtful of such equipment making them more effective gospel preachers.”

Moser stands out in bold relief.  Perhaps when we step inside the world Moser actually lived in we come to understand his criticism of preaching within Churches of Christ.  The Gospel of Christ is not preached with bullets but with surrendering love.

6 Responses to “Gospel Bullets: "Piety vs Pugilism" in Church of Christ Preaching”

  1. Matthew Lee Says:

    I am glad that most preachers today have gotten over the early 1900s style of “manly” preaching at least most of the ones I’ve encountered.

  2. hopespringsblog Says:

    Great post Bobby. Thanks!

  3. Randall Says:

    Thanks for another interesting post. The anecdote about Fred Rowe asking J. Edward Meixner to preach on the prodigal son is one that I have heard before. However, I do not know the source. I would appreciate it if you could provide it.

  4. Wade Tannehill Says:

    Informative post! Guess I’ll get back to preparing my sisssy sermon for Sunday now. 😉

  5. Mr. Mcgranor Says:

    I have been informed and inspired. Thanks.

  6. Robert Limb Says:

    I have been thinking along similar lines, but more broadly, that the war metaphor may not be the best way to envisage evangelisation today. Maybe we could teach out to atheists, for example, by talking about things we may, or should have in common, like respect for the planet, or racial equality, rather then blasting them as “the enemy”. Just because Jesus told us to love our enemies doesn’t mean we should make as many as possible!

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