Reuel Lemmons was one of two speakers at the 1988 Midwest Preachers’ Retreat. His topic that year was “The Church in the 21st Century”. He lived only 4 months after this retreat. Just days before his death, he preached the following sermon in Hamby, Texas. I’ve read this sermon multiple times. I offer it here to those of you who follow the Midwest Preachers’ Retreat blog .
REUEL LEMMONS: WHERE WE ARE GOING, January 22, 1989
Preached at Hamby, Texas – One of a series of 3 sermons preached 3 days before his death on January 25, 1989.
“His drive and love for world evangelism has inspired thousands through his work in Pan American Lectures, World Bible School, and editorials in brotherhood papers. This drive led him to preach and teach, even with a bad heart, up to his last hour. The Sunday before his death he asked a friend to drive him to Hamby, Texas, so he could preach for a reunion of a church he had preached for in his college years. He often said that he wanted to die with both feet in the pulpit, and he almost did. We were told that, even though his voice was weak and his body was shaking, his last sermon was one of the best he ever preached.”
Image, Vol. 5, No. 3, p. 13.
It has been a pleasure indeed to be with you here today, and I will remember it as long as I live. It’s really good to be able to come back to Hamby. These electronic gadgets really make this 20th century cluttered with things. Used to, you had to stomp and holler and squall for people to hear you, and then when you had said it, they could’nt can it and play it back to you ten years from now. So it’s really getting complicated.
I started out this morning talking to you about our roots and why a restoration movement is always in demand. I think it is an amazing thing that right now practically every religious group I know has its own restoration movement going. Most all of the big old denominations have gone off into liberalism or extreme legalism, and an element out of nearly every one of them is pulling out in a back to the Bible effort. The very fact that every town is ringed with independent churches that are Bible Tabernacles or Grace Covenant churches, or whatever, they’re trying to get away from the denominational names. They still have the denominational doctrines, most of them, but they’re trying to get away from the denominational tag, and they’re trying to do what we have been trying to do. They’re trying to purify religion and get it back toward the Bible.
One time I attended a luncheon in Long Beach, California where the great Methodist missionary, E. Stanley Jones , was speaking. And he was speaking on restorationism, back-to-the-Bibleism, and I couldn’t resist the urge to do it. I was beside him on the platform, and I said, “Mr. Jones, have you ever considered the Back-to-the-Bible plea as it’s presented by churches of Christ?” And he said, “I have”. And then there followed a long embarrassing pause. He said nothing and I said nothing, and finally somebody had to say something, so I said, “Well, what do you think of it?” And E. Stanley Jones turned right around in my face. He said, “Undoubtedly they have the greatest plea under heaven, but, he said, “they defend it with the most narrow, sectarian bigotry I ever saw.” And that taught me a lesson. I never will forget that. We don’t mean to do that, but that’s the way we come across to people. And I’m not really saying that we don’t need to do some of that. I think if you’re going to stand for something you have to stand for it and let the chips fall where they may, but you don’t have to be mean about it, and you don’t have to act like you thought you were the only one who had an inside track on it. The Lord didn’t give the Bible to the church of Christ; He gave it to the world, and the world doesn’t have to strain its understanding of God through what we know as the church of Christ any more than it has to strain it through the Roman Catholic Church. The world is free to get its concept of God directly from God Himself through His own revelation. And the Bible is the screen; the Church mind is not.
You know, pretty soon after the apostasy started, the Church replaced Jesus as the center of everything. At Pentecost it was Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, and within a hundred years it was Church, Church, Church, Church. And we know the difference. They lost the bullseye, they lost the target, and they replaced Christ with the Church. Brethren, I’m talking to you now about where we’re headed and what’s out yonder in front of us. And I feel that one of the greatest dangers is, that we ourselves may follow the same course, and replace Christ with the Church. I’ll tell you why. You pick up the next copy of The Gospel Advocate or The Christian Chronicle, and take a red pencil and circle every time the expression “Church of Christ” appears in the publication. I picked up a Chronicle just a month ago, I believe, either the November or December issue, and on one page I circled 63 times where the “Church of Christ” this, “Church of Christ” that, “Church of Christ” something else. We’re so “Church of Christ” conscious that we’re losing sight of the Christ of the Church. This is going to be one of our great dangers in the future. It’s going to be hard to keep our sights centered on the Christ who purchases the Church, and the Christ who gives us redemption, and on the Christ who died for our sins, and on the Christ who is coming back for us. It’s so easy to get it off on a tangible something that you can see marked by a brick building on the street corner. And we’ve done that to the extent, that if you go by and see the words “Church of Christ” on your building, you know who that is, don’t you? If you go by and it’s some other words, you dismiss it. “That’s not us,” is it? So we are having our problems with sectarianizing the thing we undertook to unsectarianize. We undertook to wash the sectarian spirit out of the religious world, and what we did was instill the sectarian spirit into the Church.
I got a letter from a fellow in Alabama not long ago criticizing an article I had written using the term “sectarianism” to describe some of our affairs. Back in the early days of the restoration, the sectarians, the sects, were all the denominations, you know. Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, and so forth, because at that time they thought of the whole religious pie as the one Kingdom of Heaven of which each denomination was a sect. You have to be a part of the thing before you could be a sect of it, you know. But the truth of the matter is, denominationalism is outside the Kingdom of Heaven. The world is full of denominational people who have never obeyed the Gospel, never been bought by the blood, never undergone the new birth, and they have no part in the Kingdom of Heaven even though they’re religious, and even though they go to church. The Kingdom of Heaven is made up of the born-agains of John 3. And then after you get into the Kingdom of Heaven you can cut that thing up into sectarian pieces of pie. And that’s what we’ve done. Anti-Sunday School, Anti-orphan homes, the anti-this and the anti-that. And our sectarianism is in our own laps. I think the Campbell debates helped to emphasize the issue-orientation of our people. Our folks have become issue-oriented. We have to have an issue to thrive on, every ten years we’ve got to have a new issue. It was the non-Sunday school, anti-fermented wine, the anti-woman teacher, the long-hair bunch, the anti-cooperation hobby, the marriage and divorce thing. I don’t have any idea what the next issue will be, but seemingly for us to continue to thrive, we have to have a shot of adrenaline about every ten years. We have to have an issue! So there’ll be another issue in about ten years, because we’re issue oriented. We know its against the whole spirit of the Restoration movement, we know it’s anti-unity, we know it’s totally divisive, and yet we go ahead and do it anyway, don’t we? And I don’t see any trend among us to try to stop it. We just divide and subdivide more and more.
And so we are facing the 21st century in a world that is going to change more than you realize. I’ll tell you, it’s amazing how much change has taken place since the days of Alexander Campbell. It’s amazing how much change has taken place in the church since I began preaching. The Church today is no more the Church it was when I began preaching than night is daytime. We accept things that would have been intolerable fifty years ago. When the camel gets his nose under the tent there’s no limit. And so the Church is going to change. But I’m not so sure that some of that isn’t needed. I don’t want to go back to what we had fifty years ago. We had too many snuff dippers back then. We had a lot of things fifty years ago that I wouldn’t want to tolerate in the Church. I remember, Will Short came home from Africa one time, and he had a little square lantern box with glass on four sides of it and you lit the candle up under that box. You could put negatives up around the sides of it and it would show a blurry image up on the wall. So he was showing us some pictures of Africa in our church building, and one of our elders just literally went through the ceiling. There he was showing motion pictures in the church house! I tell you, somebody would have epilepsy if Paul Faulkner had shown up back then. The Church has definitely changed in the last fifty years. You know what Sunday School was back then. It really amounted to nothing. You’d get some little scared high school girl, shove her in under the stairway full of little bitty kids, and kick the door shut and wipe your brow and hope she could hold them down for an hour. And that was Sunday School. I helped to arrange in my lifetime the first teacher training workshop for Bible School teachers ever held by our brethren., at the old Sears and Summit church in Dallas in 1942. We’ve come a long way in Sunday School and I’m glad we’ve had those changes. I’m glad the Church does change. Now, there are some phases of the Church, I want to repeat, that do not change: the Gospel will never change, the regulation of the Church will never change, the Head of the Church will never abdicate.
But local congregations of the Church are a different thing altogether. I’m going to dare to say this (which you’re not going to dare to believe, but I dare you to at least consider it for just a few minutes): Jesus started the church. He didn’t start a single on e of these local congregations. The church at Hamby was not started by Jesus Christ; it was started by a bunch of old ranchers out here a hundred years ago. And it’s just as human as they were. It has all the problems they had plus all the problems that have come in since that haven’t been solved. And so all of these local congregations are human. That’s the reason elders are human, and that’s the reason it always worries me when somebody objects to an unqualified elder. What do you expect out of human beings? And that’s all you have in a local congregation is imperfect human beings. You have different sets of circumstances in different communities, and that’s the reason you can’t make the norm for one congregation the norm for another congregation. Over in Oklahoma, mixed swimming all my life was anathema, and I just simply swallowed my tongue when I went to Hawaii and found that whole church went to the beach as soon as they said, “Amen”. And I tried to apply Oklahoma law to Hawaiian churches, and it just didn’t work. I thought I was applying Bible law to both churches, and I found out I wasn’t. The humans in Oklahoma had set up one set of standards and the humans in Hawaii had set up another set of standards. And the two local congregations weren’t necessarily on the same wavelength at all, which makes me believe that there’s a lot more liberty in the Kingdom of Heaven than most of us will give credit for.
In our mission work I think we’ve failed a lot of the time in that we have tried to Americanize, rather than Christianize, the heathen. And we’ve tried to sell them the customs of American churches rather than the Law of Jesus Christ. I do not think we will do effective and efficient mission work until we get away from our American customs and begin to sell them Jesus Christ. This is one thing I like about World Bible School. You know you have to get a plug in somewhere, Willard. This is one thing I like about World Bible School: it is so simple that it will teach in any culture in the world, and it doesn’t teach local customs, and it doesn’t teach Americanism. It teaches pure, New Testament Christianity. We get letters every week from people who would like to teach the course so that it would fit the culture in their communities better than it does. And we spend a lot of time resisting that pressure, because if we made it to fit the culture in Argentina, it wouldn’t fit the culture in Iceland. And we’d be teaching a cultural brand of religion rather than teaching New Testament Christianity. And so, we keep it just as simple as we can, and plan to do that simply because that’s one way we have of avoiding the sectarian spirit and avoiding the denominational slant. It’s one of the greatest guarantees I know against developing a denominational Christianity.
But in our culture, here in America, we have the greatest opportunity we’ve ever had. These staid old denominations are as dead as a hammer, most of them, and people are leaving them by the scores. Everybody is dissatisfied with religion that has degenerated into a country club with a social flavor rather than a church with a God-worshipping flavor. And so, in nearly all the denominations, you have a group of people who are attempting to get away from the denominational slant and back to the Bible. There are six synods of the Lutheran Church, and five and a half of them have gone totally liberal. And only half of the Missouri synod is conservative any more. And they have a restoration movement going on among themselves that is beautiful to behold. They’re saying some things that Alexander Campbell would have been happy to have said. And I think an element might come out of the Missouri Synod Lutheran Church that will be bigger than anything that we’ve ever known as a restoration movement.
The Baptists are doing the same thing. I attend the Governor’s prayer breakfast sometimes in Austin and have made the acquaintance of the Baptist preacher who preaches for the biggest Baptist church in the world. The reason I attend the Governor’s prayer breakfast is not because I feel like he’s got an inside track on God; it’s just the fact that I don’t have to ask anybody whether I can go or not. I just go. And so I was sitting by him not long ago, and he said to me, “The time will come in the next two or three years when the Southern Baptist Convention will go liberal.” He said, ” I am now training 300 Baptist preachers.” He said, “J. Frank Norris was ahead of his times. And when the Southern Baptist Convention goes liberal, I plan to break away from it and start a new fundamental Baptist Church, a Baptist church loyal to the Scriptures, a Baptist church that teaches the Scriptures.” We’ve had some pretty good conversations on that. And I rode on an airplane by the side of the president of the Southern Baptist Seminary in New Orleans not long ago, and I was telling him about this conversation. And he said to me, “I want you to know that at the New Orleans Seminary we teach baptism for remission of sins.” He said, “We let you fellows run us off of baptism for the remission of sins a hundred years ago when the truth was with you and not with us.” And he said, “We have a challenge out to all the rest of the Baptist seminaries on the subject of baptism, its mode and its purpose, and we’ll meet them any time and debate on that.” I think that’s great. When fellows like Beasley -Murray and some of their best scholars are beginning to turn that way, I think there’s hope that this Restoration Movement might spread.
I’ve been getting some news out of China, and got some of it here today that’s just simply breath-taking almost. They’re saying to the Chinese people: “Now, if you want Christianity, that’s all right with us. We’ve tried Shintoism and Buddhism for 4000 years and it got us 4000 years behind the times.” And they’re saying, “If you want Christianity, that’s all right, but its going to have to be Chinese Christianity, It’s not going to be imported Christianity from the West. And you’re going to have to grow your own people, teach your own Bible, develop your own seminaries, and it will be a Bible-based Christianity in China.” Well, what better could you want than that? We’ve always said that the power was in the Word and that a person could go to the Bible and get it. Well, let them go to the Bible and get it. It may not favor your brand of it very much, but I tell you, if they get it out of the same book there’ll be enough of it like yours till you can find kinship in it. Just think what might happen in China if they got a good, clean, fresh start on Restorationism and did it themselves.
You know, we ought to be playing Restorationism for all its worth. We’ve got 150 years of experience in restoring the New Testament Church, and now everybody wants to go that way. Denominationalism is dead and they’re wanting to go back to the Bible. We ought to be saying to them, “We can offer you some advice on some pitfalls to miss and some things to do to help restore New Testament Christianity. This ought to be an area in which we are the engine ahead of the caboose on this train. I believe we can do it. It’s going to be an area in which we are the engine instead of the caboose on this train. I believe we can do it. It’s going to take a Herculean effort that will involve every educational institution we have, that will involve every local congregation we have. Bet we’ve a good thing going for us in this restoration ideal or principle, and I hope we take advantage of it. As we reach into the 21st century, we’re going to have opportunities that we never dreamed of before. We actually have the knowledge and the technology and the instrumentation to preach the Gospel in every man’s tongue wherein he was born simultaneously and cover the face of the earth with the Gospel at one time. I would that we would put up our own satellites to do it, with brother Scott. I believe that communication is the greatest medium under Heaven, and I’m in favor of using it, radio, newspaper, Gospel preaching, whatever. But the future in communication in some of the technical fields, like electronics and computerism and satellite technology, is going to provide the Church with opportunities we’ve never dreamed of. And we’re going to have to get away from this idea that you’re going to have to gather a community in a little building over on one corner of a lot and preach to them eyeball to eyeball in order to get this message over. They’ll be born faster than we can reach them, and our percentage of the people we reach is going to continue to shrink up, until we learn ways and means of reaching them on the mass scale. And we need to put the best brains and the best minds of our whole brotherhood to the task of preaching the Gospel to every creature.
I’ll tell you, the great commission is not optional. We call it the “Great Commission”, but it’s really not; it’s the divine commission. It’s the commission that you can’t go to Heaven without. I wish that we could somehow get it to sink in on people that there’s no way in the world for you to go to Heaven without taking somebody with you, that the command to go preach the Gospel to every creature is just as authoritative as the command to be baptized for the remission of sins. We’ve been the people who’ve said there were no non-essential commands. And if that’s right, this is the command that is not non-essential, in other words, you’ve got to do it if you’re going to go to Heaven. And we’ve got to put the Church back in the Gospel-preaching business.
One thing that bothers me about the Church and the direction it’s going right now is the fact that it has become a self-serving institution. We came out of the World War wanting everything and needed everything. Everybody built a new building, and we paved the parking lot (you couldn’t think about driving in on an unpaved parking lot anymore, could you?). We have to have these “posturepedic” pews to make the sermons bearable, and we just have to have these creature comforts. Who are those things for? They’re for us aren’t they? We are a “for us”-oriented society and we’re developing a “for us” oriented church. And we’re doing it to the extent that we just about take the windows out of our church building and shut the world out. The only other thing I know of without any windows in it besides the church of Christ is a honkey-tonk, where they can hide from the people. I don’t understand the psychology that’s behind that instead of opening up ourselves to the world and becoming vulnerable if we have to in order that the Gospel be preached. We need to be in the arena where the people are, thrashing it out with them and standing toe-to-toe with the opposition and preaching the Gospel to every creature as hard as we can do it. And if the Church will do that, we’ll go into the 21st century with the wind behind us.
I remember one time, I was a guest on the private yacht of the president of Panama, President Ayres. And we had gotten becalmed 30 or 40 miles from the shore, and we sat out there for four hours on the glassy sea that didn’t have a ripple on it. I tell you, that’s the most boring thing in the world. I don’t believe we moved four feet in four hours. And finally the skipper jumped down off of the poop deck and began to squall orders to all of us. He said, “I see a wind coming out of the southeast.” And he pointed, and you could see a little thin, blue line along the horizon. And he said, “You help me set the sails, and you do this, and you do that, and when that little breeze strikes us, let’s go as far toward the port as we can possibly go while the wind is in our favor.” And we did. We set to work. We swung up the mainsail and the gib. We would have hung our coats on the yard arm if it would have done any good. We’d been out there long enough. And finally, as he barked his orders, that little blue line got closer to us, and the wind began to rustle the top of the water. He kept screaming his orders at us: do this, do that. He said, “Let’s go as far as we can while the wind is in our favor.” Well brethren, we’ve fought for every inch of ground we occupy in an uphill battle till now, but the wind is turned in our favor. And if there ever was an opportunity to do what we’ve never had an opportunity to do, we’ve got it now, because people are beginning to realize that if there is a hope at all, it comes to us through the revelation of a God who is in control. And they want to get their revelation direct from Headquarters. They don’t want to strain it through anyone’s church organization. And instead of preaching organization, we need to be preaching Christ and the Gospel of Christ, and keeping this undenominational and nonsectarian, united to the core, and bent for the task that God has given us of preaching the Gospel to every creature. That’s about all I know to say to you. I appreciate the chance to be with you today and to bring these lessons, and I hope that in some way they have been of benefit to you. Thank you very much.