The Willis-Cayton Debate (1984)

THE WILLIS-CAYTON DEBATE

by Wayne S. Walker

     On Tuesday night, April 10, 1984, at the building of the Brown Street church of Christ in Akron, Ohio, brother Lewis Willis, preacher for the Brown Street church, and “Elder” Vernon Cayton of the Truth Tabernacle in Niles, Ohio, met to discuss the existence of miracles today. This exchange was brought about as a result of Brown Street’s “Bible Talk” call-in radio program on Sunday mornings. Someone, apparently a member of Truth Tabernacle, called to claim that Mr. Cayton had the power to perform a miracle and urged Lewis to contact him. After several attempts, brother Willis was able to talk with Mr. Cayton and made the arrangements for the discussion.

     After an opening prayer, brother George Lemasters, an elder for the Lord’s church in Barberton, Ohio, began the service and announced the mutually-agreed-upon ground rules. Each disputant was to have a 50-minute speech with brother Willis to go first. There were to be no audible or physical demonstrations from the audience. The proposition to be discussed had been dictated to brother Willis by Mr. Cayton over the phone. Mr. Cayton had told brother Willis, “God through Vernon Cayton is going to perform that miracle if Mr. Willis or any of his followers will hear the apostles’ doctrine.” An audience of 585 people were assembled to hear and see this question discussed.

     Brother Willis began by defining the proposition and its terms. He said that Cayton needed to perform “a notable miracle that cannot be denied to establish with infallible proof that he can do as he has claimed.” Then he identified the character of New Testament miracles as opposed to modern claims. In dealing with the part of the proposition which read “will hear the apostles’ doctrine,” Lewis predicted that Mr. Cayton would use this as his door of escape, demanding that his idea of “the apostles’ doctrine” be accepted. Of course, those of us in the audience would have been ready to believe Mr. Cayton’s preaching if he were to perform just one true miracle to confirm it.

     The next topic brother Willis introduced was Mr. Cayton’s view of one person in the Godhead. After pointing out from Ephesians 3:3-5 that the Bible is written in clear, understandable, definable language, he asked Mr. Cayton to define the meaning of Jesus’ words, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” and end up with just one person. He also cited John 17:20-21 to show that the oneness of God and Jesus is equivalent to the oneness of believers, that there can be oneness yet separate personalities.

     Following this, brother Willis told us several things that Mr. Cayton might do to dodge the issue. He might assert Lewis was blaspheming God. He might appeal to audience or human testimony, as does Ernest Angley, Rex Humbard, Oral Roberts, Jimmy Swaggart, and Jim Baker. He might resort to ridicule such as calling Lewis a liar or saying how dumb Willis is. He might assert that he, Cayton, is a miracle. He might question the faith of the Brown Street church. Or he might try to prove that Lewis is tempting God.

     In fact, brother Willis said that Mr. Cayton had several options. He could totally refuse to honor his promise. He could try to “hide in the woods.” He could blame the audience for his failure. He could admit he was a false teacher. Or he could perform a notable miracle. In closing, brother Willis challenged Mr. Cayton to produce the miracle he claimed he would perform. The ball was now in his court. He must either “put up or shut up.”

     When Mr. Cayton arose to speak he said that if we would let the word of God be the final court of authority beyond which there is no appeal, he could “prove in less than 45 minutes everything Mr. Willis said was nothing but a fabrication and a plot of hell.” However, he must not have been satisfied with that because he did just as brother Willis indicated he probably would do. He claimed that God’s promises have always been conditional saying, “You’ll never find one person in the word of God that ever received the Holy Ghost blaspheming it . . . . Not one person has ever been healed that rejected (they might not have had faith) but not one person like Mr. Willis and his condition with his thumb has ever experienced the touch of God standing up in God’s face, ‘God, you do not do this’ . . .”

     The only actual argument from scripture that Mr. Cayton made was taken from 1 Corinthians 13:8, upon which, he affirmed, brother Willis based his whole doctrine. Lewis had argued that the miracles were to be done away when that which is perfect, or the completed revelation of the New Testament, had come. Cayton answered that the book of Revelation was written in A.D. 96 while James 1:22-25, written in A.D. 60 says that “the perfect law of liberty” existed then even though there were still New Testament books to be written. Thus, he concluded that “that which is perfect” must refer to the second coming of Christ.

     Throughout his speech, Mr. Cayton accused brother Willis of mocking as did the scoffers on the day of Pentecost in Acts 2, of hypocrisy for expecting a miracle while ordering a “gag rule” on the audience, and of being a false prophet for telling such lies to the people. At one point he quoted Paul’s statement, “What concord hath Christ with Belial?” and said brother Willis was having fellowship with the atheist by asking for a miracle. He affirmed that if one doesn’t believe the “apostles’ doctrine,” he would not receive one thing from God.

     Following this, Mr. Cayton began appealing to the testimony of himself and others. He claimed to have experienced healing in his own life and to have seen people touched of God, healed, made whole. He later said that there was a woman present who had been raised in “this kind of church” but had come out from “all these lies and hypocrisy” to receive the Holy Ghost. In fact, he indicated he could speak with hours of testimony. However, he ignored the presence of several individuals with obvious physical handicaps by saying that the greatest miracle that could happen to anyone is to be baptized with the Spirit and speak in tongues.

     In an attempt to answer brother Willis’ question about the Godhead, Mr. Cayton cited John 1:1 and 14 and said that since Jesus was both God and man it was the flesh crying out. Unfortunately, he never did tell us to whom the flesh was crying out. He closed by trying to identify brother Willis with Satan who tempted the Lord to turn stones into bread when he challenged Cayton to “grow a leg on that man.” Evidently Mr. Cayton forgot about another situation in 1 Kings 18:20-40 where it was the miracle-working Elijah that issued the challenge and then performed the miracle to confirm his message.

     Mr. Cayton had ample opportunity to perform a miracle. Water was provided which he could turn into wine, blood, or Pepsi-Cola. There were two loaves of bread and a can of sardines with which he could feed the entire audience and a basket in which to collect the leftovers. He could walk on the water of the baptistry and, like Jesus did with Peter, invite Lewis to go with him. Brother Willis has a crooked thumb which he would like healed. Three men were sitting on the front row, George Baker and David Kiefer both with legs missing, and Russ Kegg with polio.

     For whatever reasons, Mr. Cayton declined to perform his miracle. The best he could do was to aver that miracles have not passed away and that there are no people like the so-called church of Christ that come any closer to blaspheming the Holy Ghost when they speak against the work of the Holy Ghost. There was no attempt at a rebuttal. The audience was left to weigh the evidence for themselves. The conclusion was obvious. It is clear to this reviewer that Mr. Cayton does not possess the powers that he claims. Thus, truth was vindicated by brother Lewis Willis.

     —Taken from Guardian of Truth; June 21, 1984; Vol. XXVIII, No. 12; pp. 364-365

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