Pastor’s Class at CBI
September 22nd, 1975
Dr. W. A. Criswell
I have a little rule in my life that if anyone asks me for a wedding, if anyone asks me for a funeral, I try to do it, period. No matter what, if it is humanly possible for me to do either one of those, I try do it. I have a funeral at 12:30 this morning. The people scheduled it at 11:30, but because of this class I could not do it at 11:30, so I asked them to change it to 12:30, and they were kind enough to do it. A precious and beautiful young woman, driving down the streets of the city—this could happen to any one of us—and a drunk got in the wrong lane, hit her head-on, and killed her. She is thirty years old, and she has a four-year-old boy, little four-year-old boy, and a dear husband. She is a teacher, a first grade school teacher here in the city of Dallas. The service will be held in the chapel of the Cliff Temple Baptist Church, where she was married. She and her husband belonged to our church, and have for the last three years.
Well, I do not want to bore you with details that you are not interested in, or would you like to know what I shall do at the funeral service? Of any interest to you? There are several things that I do at a funeral service. One is, they are all personal, every one of them. They all have to do with something that concerns that one who is deceased. They’re not stereotypes. I don’t have a rigmarole or a ritual that I go through; but each one of them has to do with that particular occasion of death. I always have the family write out for me something about the one who has died. This is what is written out for this young woman, Sally Ann Jack, Mrs. Sally Ann Jack. Sometimes you’ll be two pages, sometimes half a page; this is about a page. And I always have them write out something for me. And I explain to them the funeral director has only those specifics that they put in an obituary that they place in my hands. But I’d like to know, it gives me an opportunity to talk to the family about it, I like to know whether they were saved, and when they were baptized, and became members of the church, and the maiden name if it is a woman, and then something about her life. And that helps me to make it personal.
[Audience: I have a question.]
All right, yes.
[Audience: Probably due to your schedule, you wouldn’t be able to do it, but I have a practice of, when I have a funeral, I try to see the thing and gain information from the person. Do you see anything wrong with that or not?]
I do the same thing in many instances. I try to go to the home. But if I cannot go to the home, in this instance Dr. Freeman went for me. Now for you to write down the information is fine. For them to do it is better. They will say things that they would like to say; it gives them an opportunity to think about it, and put it all together and give it to you. But, you know, it’s immaterial. This is just the way that I do it. I have them write it out for me. And maybe because of the pressure of time that I have, but somebody ought to go to the home immediately; we ought to be the first ones there if it is possible. In a church like ours, why, if I cannot go, and many times I do go, if I cannot go, I see to it that a minister goes to the home to be with them. And for you to write out that information is just fine, just as good; no difference at all. This is just the way that I do it, and I have it there before me.
[Audience: In the circumstances where there are those at funeral who are, to your knowledge, not a Christian, would you just try to still present the gospel? How do you handle that situation? That’s a hard situation.]
Yes. If I bury someone who is not a Christian, I will take a text such as the ninetieth Psalm, “So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom” [Psalm 90:12]. And I speak to the people about the brevity of life, the certainty of death, and what it is to be wise, “So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.” And of course, what it is to be wise, first, God’s Book says it is the reverential awe of the Lord: that is the beginning of all wisdom [Proverbs 1:7, 9:10]. The first thing we ought to do in life is to make peace with God, give our hearts to the Lord. And just present the gospel message. I would not ever hesitate to do that.
You know, people out there who are lay people will find you a hypocrite, when you think that you’re actually palliating and extenuating: what they would call it is your being a hypocrite, you say this one time but here in this instance you won’t say the same truth. It’s very much better for the minister to be faithful and constant and consistent in his witness. Be the same all the way through. That does not mean you have to be harsh, or crude, or rude, because this man is dead and his family may be grieving there, and you want to be as helpful to them and as encouraging to them as you can. But you also ought to be honest with the Lord. So in a fine way, such as using a text like that, or make appeal to the people, and explain to them that we cannot change the status of these that die, the chapter is ended, the book is closed, he is now in the presence of the great Judge of all the earth; but our appeal is made to the people who are remaining. It is for us who are in this pilgrimage to remember these things that God has given us.
I tell you one thing that I went through in my first pastorate out of the seminary. I was in a county seat town of about fifteen thousand people, my first full-time church. And the town had a typical village character who was a drunk, and a sorry no-account, and very much known among the people. So in one of his inebriated spells, he wandered out in the highway and a car ran over him, and killed him. Now the people were there from miles around: they wanted to know what the young fellow would say about this village no-account and this proverbial drunk and this no-account character. There was a vast crowd there just to hear what I had to say. So, this is what I said: “All of you know this man, know him even better than I, because many of you have grown up with him. How many of you prayed with him, that he might know the Lord? How many of you went to see him and offer to bring him to church? How many of you read the Bible to him? Took time out to try to guide him into the way of light and life? How many of you loved him and had the burden of his soul upon your heart? How many of you tried to reach him for God and for better? How many of you?” Well by the time I got through, that was a sober and subdued throng of people. A funeral service gives you your best opportunity to say words for God.
Now I divide the funeral service, for me, always into two parts. One, I have a personal word, and that’s this here; some personal word, something from me. Could be a word of gratitude and appreciation if I know the one who is deceased; but always a personal word. And then second, a Word from God, and I read a text. Now today I’m going to use the text in Romans 8:28: “In all things God works together for good to them that love the Lord.” There are no surprises to God. He is never taken unawares or off-balance. He sees the end from the beginning: everything is present; not future or past, it’s always present. God looks upon it, and He sees it. There are some things that we will never understand till we get to heaven. But in all things God is working together for good: there are holy purposes in the providences that overtake us.
Some things that we can see and I try to say those things. This is a beautiful, beautiful Christian wife and mother who has gone home to be with the Lord. She’ll never know age and senility. She died in the very beauty and prime of her life.
On the right side of the British Museum, as I walked into that in 1947—isn’t it strange how I would remember this?—on the right side of the British Museum, inside, in the heavy stone wall, the curator had written a tribute to the employees of the British Museum who had lost their lives in the First World War in the trenches in France. Here are the words that he wrote: “They will grow not old, as we that remain grow old. Life will not weary them, nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them.” Isn’t that a beautiful thought? “They will grow not old, as we that are left grow old. Age will not weary them, nor the years condemn.” There are always things, that, even from a human point of view we can say at a funeral service; mostly, though, just to commend our souls to God. So much we do not understand.
I like to have—all these funeral directors call it—the “King James Version”—I always like to do this at a funeral service: start with a song, read a Scripture, and pray, have a second song, then my remarks. I always follow that pattern: a song, Scripture, prayer, a song, then the message that I bring. I usually speak about fifteen minutes. And it is always divided into those two parts: a personal word, and then a Word from God.
Audience: “Do you read do the obituary with the personal word?”
Ah ha, that’s the personal word. I start off reading the obituary. I rarely do it up there in the Scripture; I do it down there. When I read the Scripture, that’s all I do. I read the Scripture, I usually do it with a sentence: “In an hour like this, we find our hope, our strength, our refuge in the immutable and infallible Word of God” [Psalm 116:1-19]; and I read it.
Now that’s the funeral service.
Audience: “How many Scriptures do you use?”
Usually one. Now, when I, I had a minister here, he’s still here, when I first went with him, why, he read for fifteen minutes, one passage after another. There’s no point in that. You could read an hour, you could read all day long, you could read for a month, there’s just no point in it. So I told him, “Now don’t do that. You read a Scripture, you read a brief one from the Old Testament, and one from the New Testament; or just read the latter part of the fifteenth chapter of the Book of Corinthians; or read about the heavenly home in Revelation 21 and 22. But there’s no point just endlessly reading. Read a Scripture, and then pray.”
Used to be, when I was a boy, a funeral service was long, long. Well, that day is passed. Nor does anybody go to them now. When I was a boy, the whole town went to a funeral service. Now, why, just family and close friends even bother to attend. But you have an opportunity to do a funeral with them.
Now if there’s no other question about a funeral—
Audience: “This is about a wedding. Do you have a policy—if somebody wants you to marry them…is that regardless of their background?”
No, no. I’ve gone through a metamorphosis on that. For the first, I would say, thirty-five years of my pastorate, I refused to marry divorced people. That’s a long time, for thirty-five years. And, of course, I fell into all kinds of things when I’d adhere to that rule. I just made a blanket rule: I refused to marry people who were divorced. But it troubled me, and I thought about it, and agonized over it, and prayed about it. And I changed. I changed several years ago. And I’ll tell you a thing that brought it to a conclusion in my head. On an airplane, I’ll just read everything on the plane, you know, all those magazines that I can lay my hands on that are on the plane. And I read them. I don’t read them any other time, but I do on the plane. And on that plane was a magazine called Esquire. It’s very acceptable now; it used to be so off-color. But, the magazine named Esquire, and I read an article in it entitled “This Too is Infidelity.” That was the name of the article, “This Too is Infidelity.” So the article said if man is just an animal, that’s infidelity, that’s adultery: conjugal cohabitation with somebody who is not your wife. And if a man is just an animal, that is infidelity. But the article said man is more than an animal: he’s also soul, he’s also spirit. And you can violate your marriage, kick it in the teeth, hammer it, hurt it, be unfaithful to it spiritually as well as anatomically. And this too is infidelity: when you take your marriage and you violate its heart and its spirit. I put that article down and I said, “That’s exactly right.”
I think it is possible for a man to be unfaithful to his wife by going out here and having sexual intercourse with somebody else. I think he can also be unfaithful to his wife in his spirit. I feel when someone is not at fault, not unfaithful, they ought to have a break. A generalization on my part: the Lord is the Lord of the individual as well as the great mass of organized society, watching.
You know the Lord said there are eunuchs that are born eunuchs, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by the hand of man, and there are eunuchs who are eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of God [Matthew 19:12]. And for a woman who is a widow of twenty-one, give herself to the Lord and be a widow the rest of her life, fine. But if she would want a home, and would love to have a home, she…in my opinion has the privilege to marry.
Audience: “Under what circumstances do you not marry a couple?”
Oh, I would not want to marry a drunk. I would not want to marry a flagrant, vile sinner. There are a number of things I try to talk to them about. I try to marry them in the love of the Lord and the grace of the Lord. “Have you prayed about this? Have you sought the mind of God in this? Have you made a forever decision in this? Is this for you until death do you part?” You know, I talk to them.
Audience: “Does this mean—are you speaking of believers now or unbelievers, Dr. Criswell?”
Sure bothers me to marry a believer to an unbeliever. When I talk to them, it sure bothers me to do that. The girl who makes up her mind she’s going to marry a boy, or no matter what you say she’s going to do it, I see it with sadness in heart when I see a believer marry an unbeliever [2 Corinthians 6:14].