My Life with Theophilus
by Bob West

July 25, 1997.

It is impossible to tell my story without referring in some way to the others involved. However, I will avoid identifying some by name because they are ashamed of the recent changes they see in Theophilus and me, and I do not wish to embarrass them.

The Birth of Theophilus

I became a Christian at the age of 14 in the summer of 1946. During the years that followed, I became a workaholic. I earned my wages as a full-time employee elsewhere while I earned my salvation as a full-time volunteer.

I attended every church service, Bible class, vacation Bible school, and gospel meeting (our label for what other churches call revival). I attended men's training classes, singing schools, business meetings, and church work days. I took my turns cleaning the church building and mowing the church lawn. I taught Bible classes, preached from time to time, wrote religious articles for the church newsletter and brotherhood journals, prepared visual aids, signs and advertisements for church lecture series, served as a deacon and later as an elder. I was a faithful member of the church. But I did not have a personal relationship with Jesus until a few years ago.

I was careful not to call this church "my" church, because I believed it belonged to Christ. It was Christ's one true church. I believed that one must be a faithful member of this church in order to be saved and go to heaven. All other churches were "denominations" made by men and the people in them were deceived and lost. (I learned later that members of some of those denominations thought their's was the "one true church" and that we were the ones in error.)

It was in this church that Theophilus grew up.

During the early fifties, I was an Air Force illustrator. While stationed in Suwan, Korea, I began drawing a comic strip that was printed in base newspapers there and in Japan. When I returned to the states, some of my cartoons appeared in the local Altus, Oklahoma, newspaper, and others were distributed to Air Force newspapers by the Strategic Air Command Press Service. During this time I thought about doing a comic strip that would help spread the gospel. Ten years later it happened.

The preacher and I were sitting in the church office in Florida discussing the next issue of the church newsletter. I told him about Theophilus and showed him a few ideas and rough sketches. He was receptive to this method of teaching and agreed to try it as a regular feature.

So, on February 6, 1966, Theophilus was born. The illustrations wasted no time getting readers' attention -- and response! Most of it was favorable.

A Near Death Experience

In his editorial on February 5, 1967, our preacher wrote: "One year ago a new teaching feature, unique in its approach to setting forth the truth, began to appear in the (newsletter) -- Theophilus. And now as its second year begins, it is fitting to reaffirm the initial concept and purpose of pungently pointing the way to truth. Theophilus is an illustration of life, and the cross-currents of religious attitudes, contrasted with the simple truth of the Bible. It is our desire that it be instructive, illustrative, and illuminating."

Later that year the book, Theophilus Number One, containing a collection of the strips, was published. In the book I shared the following background information: "The principle character is an unassuming little man carrying a Bible. He is humble, warm, devoted to his Lord, and always searching for truth. Other characters in the strips personify attitudes that foment division, author preconceived ideas, prevent investigation of truth, or justify disobedience to God."

One of the most encouraging responses to the book was the following note: "I have just finished reading Theophilus for the third time and have been both humored and sobered by its message. I really appreciate the way truth is related and driven home. Some brethren may think you're being too entertaining and weakening the power of the gospel, but I think the opposite is true because where most people have trouble is not in seeing what the Bible says, but what should my response to it be. To avoid application of the Word, I have seen people deny all rules of logic, reason, and common sense. The purpose I see that Theophilus serves is that he enables people to go outside of themselves, helping them to realize their illogical behavior."

The strip continued as a weekly feature of the newsletter until December 17, 1967. In a monthly business meeting in which I was asked to leave while the discussion took place, a decision was made by the men to discontinue Theophilus. I was told that some people had said, "Theophilus hurts people's feelings."

To others Theophilus may have been just a cartoon, but I had put so much of myself into this character that he and I were one. When my brethren rejected Theophilus, they rejected me. A part of me was no longer welcome in this church. This news broke my heart. I wanted to cry, but that would not have been manly. And who could understand anyway? "Why are you taking this so personal, Bob?" one might ask.

I tried to smile and go on as if nothing had happened. My friend, our preacher, broke the news to me after the meeting as gently as anyone could. And his comments in the next issue of the newsletter, one week later, softened some of my pain.

The editor of a monthly journal with much wider circulation immediately requested that Theophilus appear in his paper. So, in January 1968, Theophilus became a regular feature of that publication. Just a few months later I discontinued the strip. My heart was no longer in it.

Theophilus Lives On!

Even though I was no longer producing new episodes, Theophilus did not die. The illustrations were already being reprinted in church bulletins and local newspapers across the United States. Requests for copies of the cartoons and permission to reproduce them continued to come in.

One church made 35mm slides of the cartoons to show in their booth at the South Texas State Fair. A publisher in Ft. Worth arranged the strips about creation and evolution in a tract called Theophilus and the Evolutionist. Later when I published two clip art books, Theophilus and Morality and Theophilus and the Philosopher, with the strips in a variety of sizes, preachers began making overhead transparencies of the cartoons to illustrate points in their sermons and Bible lessons.

I started receiving requests from ministers in foreign fields for permission to translate and use the comic strips in their countries. Soon Theophilus travelled around the world appearing in newspapers of many languages. In the southwest United States, Mexico, and South America, Theophilus was Teófilo. In France, he was Théophile. In any language people rapidly identified with his compassion, understanding, and love for God.

In addition to appearing in church publications, Theophilus became a regular feature in some secular newspapers. One editor introduced the series this way: "This week begins a new feature called Theophilus! Subject matter in these strips concern social, ethical and religious themes. People from various religious backgrounds, or none at all, may see themselves in the characters in Theophilus. While his comments are always interesting, usually amusing, they also sometimes carry a wallop, or a sharp point which may make some readers want to say 'ouch.' Always, they will make you think. We predict that this feature will be widely read and discussed."

Some college and University newspapers carried the feature as well.

Theophilus continued to be reprinted and circulated, reaching a new generation of readers, but it would be many years before I would be motivated to create new strips.

Under Attack!

In June 1988 my wife, Sylvia, and I attended the Truth and Freedom Forum in Memphis, Tennessee. During the forum I was asked to be on a panel of current and former elders to discuss "The Eldership." After the panel discussion, an editor asked if I would put what I had said in an article. I did and he published it on the front page of his journal. Here are some excerpts:

"Over the years we have fashioned elders into an eldership, a corporate body foreign to the Word of God. With this we have changed the structure of a group of Christians serving together from a functional organism, with each saint performing an equally vital role, to an organization consisting of sovereign rulers and submissive servants.

"One of the biggest problems I have with the eldership concept is found in Matthew 20:25-28, where the Lord addressed the apostles' misconception in their struggle for power and position in the kingdom. He said, 'You know that the rulers of this world lord it over their people. Important men use their authority over them, but you must not think that way. Instead, if one of you wants to be great, that person should be your servant. If one of you wants to be important, he should be your slave. I did not come to be served. Instead, I came to serve and to give my life to pay the price for many people's sins.'

"The kingdom of Christ is not like the kingdoms of this world. No positions of power or prestige. No rank. No authoritative officers. The human ego grasps for titles, place, power, and praise, but the way of Jesus is the path of service, the way of a servant. Christ surrendered his heavenly rights to become a human servant! The Son of God came to serve. To be a servant is to be Christ-like. Every place in the kingdom is a place of service, not a position with a title. Why is it that we seek something more for ourselves than Jesus assumed?"

(Let there be no misunderstanding: I did not say then, nor do I today, that there were no elders (seniors) to model, mentor, and advise the early disciples. Certainly there were shepherds to tend and feed the Lord's sheep. But, as the Lord himself insisted, true leaders would be the greatest servants, and as Peter stressed in 1 Peter 5:1-4, leadership does not mean authoritarian power.)

Immediately after this article appeared, I was branded as a false teacher in brotherhood journals. The articles did not attempt to use the Bible to explain where I was in error. Others wrote letters, urging me to repent. I exchanged a few letters with them, but it proved to be futile as our understanding of the scriptures differed so greatly.

An elder of a church in another state, whom I had never met, wrote to me in defense of authoritarian elders and we exchanged a few letters, but it got to be very time-consuming and appeared to be helping neither of us. Some of his letters were over 100 pages long. His practice was to cut up my letter into pieces with a single sentence or an incomplete sentence on each strip. He would paste one of these into his letter, respond to it, paste another, respond to it, and so on. I guess he never noticed that he had taken much of what I had said out of its context, and made his reply to something I never intended to say. As I saw how he had butchered my letter and the message it contained, I realized that this was a graphic demonstration of how I, and so many others, have treated the Bible. His treatment of my letter saddened and frustrated me, and made me realize how God must feel as he sees how we sometimes treat his scriptures.

Some preachers began to talk about my cartoon character and argue with him as if he were a real person. One editor used a Theophilus strip he liked and which made a point he wanted to make in his publication with this disclaimer printed below: "Theophilus--before he departed the faith."

Inspiration for Brother Fairasee

In a national brotherhood publication a preacher friend reported that I had fallen prey to the ideas of a notorious false prophet. He was disappointed in me for allowing myself to be duped by such a man. And he predicted that Theophilus would start spouting venom and rancor. It had been years since I had drawn any Theophilus cartoons, and I had only written one article. This attack hurt me deeply, and made me angry.

On October 28, 1988, I wrote my friend a letter in response to his article and answered him in very strong language. I said, "Pharisees have always attacked the messenger when they didn't like the message. They nailed Jesus to the cross, stoned Stephen to death, and plotted to kill Paul. During the centuries that followed, others who challenged the traditions of 'the church' suffered their wrath as well. It seems that in the hard-line approach of Pharisees, there are no honestly mistaken brethren. In their view there are only two classes: (1) themselves and (2) false teachers. A false teacher in their opinion is anyone who is not aligned with them on 'the current issues,' the doctrines or positions which have been exalted into a divisive standard for acceptance or rejection. Therefore, anyone who voices 'the other side' to their belief or practice is to be publicly branded as a 'false teacher' and is to be avoided. This appears to be your approach. It has been at least 12 years, maybe longer, since I have drawn Theophilus. Your article provided the inspiration I needed to put him back on the drawing board. I have just finished a new illustration, the first of a series, featuring a new character."

Consequently, a new character was born. Brother Fairasee made his debut with the return of Theophilus in January, 1989.

The Conflict

I read my mail and brotherhood journals with apprehension as the conflict continued. In May, 1989, one of my closest friends surprised me with an item in his periodical titled, "The Subversion of Theophilus."

In November I responded to my publishing brethren with an essay called "Has Theophilus Really Changed?" This is part of the article: "While I agreed with them, I was their 'beloved brother,' 'honest,' 'well informed,' 'deeply committed to truth,' and was 'presenting pungent truths.' They had 'much respect' for me. That is, until I began to question some of our doctrines. Suddenly they seem to think of me differently. Now they say that I have 'fallen prey to false ideas'; have been 'duped,' 'deceived,' 'led astray by drivel,' 'subverted'; am 'naive,' 'gullible,' 'a malcontent,' 'spouting the party line,' 'a false prophet,' 'a ravenous wolf in sheep's clothing'; and they're 'disappointed in me.' My first reaction was to feel misunderstood. Then I realized that I was being insulted and belittled by those who said they loved me, and it hurt.

"When a person changes, is it a reflection on that person's integrity, intelligence, or character? Consider Paul. He was a 'Pharisee of the Pharisees.' He changed. The Pharisees didn't like it. They plotted to kill him when he 'left the faith' (their one true church) to follow Jesus. Had Paul lived today, he would have faced another peril--the poison pen.

"In the book, Theophilus Number One, I wrote this description of Theophilus: 'He is an honest soul and uses the same sense of reason in religion that we use in every other realm. He inquires after all the facts and allows them to speak for themselves. He forms convictions based on current evidence and takes a stand for what he believes to be the truth. But he doesn't prevent further investigation. He keeps an open mind and examines new evidence as it is reported.' That was written in 1968. It is still true today. It is his 'open mind' and 'honesty of purpose' that has allowed him to grow spiritually. His integrity, intelligence, and character (not the lack of it) has helped him in his struggle to find freedom in Christ.

"Has Theophilus been subverted? No. Has he changed? Yes. And, as we learn better, so should we."

The letter and article above are examples of my response to criticism while I was trying to handle everything on my own--without a personal relationship with Jesus. At the time I easily took offense and impulsively offered my own defense. I paid little attention to the instructions Paul gave Christians in the first century: "If someone does wrong to you, don't pay him back with another wrong. ...Don't avenge yourselves. Instead, give room for God to punish. ...The Lord says, 'Revenge belongs to me--I will pay it back! ...Don't let evil defeat you. Instead, use good to defeat evil" (Romans 12:14-21).

Our Lord did not retaliate when he was personally attacked, and I should not have either. During the next six years the Lord would soften my heart and lead me to write entirely different letters--letters of apology--to these same brothers. And they responded in kind.

The Fresh Air of Freedom

"It could only be compared to stepping out of dense fog into beautiful sunshine," is the way one Christian described his own experience of freedom in Christ after years of legalistic bondage. I was beginning to see some sunshine myself.

For the first time in my life I read the Bible to see what it taught rather than to prove what I already believed. I learned that one must put himself mentally into the shoes of the first century authors and stand where they stood and look through their eyes and see things as they saw them, rather than transfer the writers of the first century to the twentieth century and then interpret their words in the light of our present day traditions.

As I took a fresh look at our proof-texts, I saw that they did not support the church organization concept so prevalent today. There were various terms used to refer to the community of believers, but none were exclusive. I began to realize that the only difference between the church I belonged to and other denominations was purely in my own mind. The only contrasts were in the peculiar doctrines we believed and taught. While condemning those who were members of denominations, for all of these years I had been a member of a denomination myself.

As I came to know more Christians around the country, I began to learn that my experience with the church system was more typical than unique. Others coming from many places were reporting the same kind of treatment. They searched for a deeper relationship with the Lord and with other Christians, but could not find it "at church."

Not all of my mail was negative. Now and then a letter would arrive to touch my heart and bless me by letting me know that something I was doing was helping someone else to focus on Jesus. For example: "Bob, I was greatly moved both by your article 'Has Theophilus Really Changed?' and your Theophilus cartoon. The grip on my stomach returned as I was reminded of some of the same treatment. I have said the same prayer that my little friend Theophilus prayed, and I have to continually ask my wonderful Father for the same uncondemning spirit of my Lord. ...Isn't it wonderful to be able to stretch, think, and change without fear of the self-appointed keepers of the gate. The Elders in this area hold absolute control over God's people and even forbid reading certain publications and books. There are so many sheep who need to be freed to know the Lord better. To be Christ centered and not church centered."

Theophilus and the One True Church

While at the Truth and Freedom Forum in July, 1990, Art Thompson and I talked about doing a book together called Theophilus and the One True Church. It would be a compilation of most of my Theophilus comic strips, beginning with the first one and continuing through the most recent ones. Art would write a commentary that would be interspersed with the cartoons. We decided later to organize the story in three chapters: 1) Building the One True Church, 2) Serving the One True Church, and 3) Leaving the One True Church.

I remember it being my idea to do the book. Art thought it was his idea. Later, we would both conclude that it was Jesus' idea. Art says, "Only the Lord could have accomplished this through a couple of country boys like us. He had to be directing us." I agree.

Theophilus and the One True Church was released on July 1, 1991. Neither Art nor I expected it to be a "best-seller." We speculated that it may never break even financially. But both of us felt "compelled" to do the book. The making of the book may have been for the sole benefit of one or two people. If so, the effort would have been worthwhile.

The first response was one Art received from Oklahoma City. It took us by surprise. This is a portion of the letter: "I had your book only about half read when a missionary couple visited me. In hearing a little about their struggle, I decided to loan it to them. The intent of these people was to go from place to place to start yet another 'One True Church.' After reading Theophilus and the One True Church, their mission is now changed. These people want more copies of the book."

Another encouragement for us were the orders for cases of the books from people who wanted to give them to other Christians.

I was surprised at how well members of various denominations related to Theophilus' message. Some said that they recognized the One True Church as one they had been a member of at one time and others said it was the one they were in at that moment. Some of the labels and terminology were different in their denomination, but the system was the same. Apparently all denominations have a Brother Fairasee here and there.

I was beginning to realize that they might have a Theophilus, too.

I realize now that it was Jesus who gave me the idea to begin drawing Theophilus. And it was Jesus who gave Theophilus purpose and a mission. I praise the Lord for that. And I thank him for allowing me to participate in what he is doing to bring his people closer to him and to each other. I also thank all of those whom the Lord has used to encourage and support me in this work. My brother, Gaylon, gave Theophilus his name. Others have given me good ideas and constructive criticism through the years. And Vic Phares helped Theophilus start around the world on the internet. But my precious wife, Sylvia, had the greater part. Jesus may have given Theophilus life through me, but he used Sylvia to give Theophilus his loving heart. Hallelujah!

Photo: Sylvia and Bob West
Sylvia and Bob West
50th Wedding Anniversary, 2003

There is More

During the late eighties, I was painfully humbled to learn that some of my favorite doctrines were not in the Bible, and my journey to freedom in Christ began. Then in July, 1991, the Spirit of God began to wake me up to his presence and power.

There was the voice that spoke from inside my head. The instant healing in answer to prayer. An inspired dream. The interpretation through another believer. A "bear hug" from the Lord. More dreams. More interpretations. Visions. More instant healings. Spiritual warfare. A word of knowledge. Speaking in tongues. Prophetic messages. Their fulfillment. And other manifestations of God's love and grace.

In view of these happenings and the personal relationship I now had with my Creator, I began searching the scriptures to find a verse which said that miracles would cease after the first century. It wasn't there. I learned that the Holy Spirit was promised to all who obey God. And I found evidence that the laying on of the apostles' hands was not the only way disciples received spiritual gifts.

I had come out of organized religion into a deeper fellowship with God, and I found myself in Spirit school daily. He helped me overcome a secret addiction. My spiritual life was turned right side up as I surrendered myself to Jesus and began experiencing his unconditional love. He is teaching me to love my wife like he loves his church, and to be her servant leader. He has called me to manhood. To be a man of God!

What about you, my friend? Do you know Jesus? Do you know him personally? Or do you just know a bunch of facts about Jesus? If so, you're missing so much! And you may even miss heaven.

If you are an adulterer, or a thief, or a drunkard, or a homosexual, or a pervert, or a greedy person, or one who commits sexual sins or worships false gods, you need Jesus. He will wash away those sins and make you holy (1 Corinthians 6:9-11).

Not guilty of those sins? You're a dedicated church member instead? Well, you need Jesus, too.

If you're someone who doesn't struggle with pornography like I did for over 45 years, you may not be aware of more subtle addictions. You may indulge in a different passion: workaholism, materialism, smoking, overeating, the need for control... The list is endless, but the struggle is the same. All men fight against overwhelming desires that defy restraint. Women indulge in many of these same passions as well.

But for men and women alike, there is freedom in Christ! Freedom from those addictions. Freedom from the shackles of religion. Freedom from the powers of darkness. Freedom to personally know the love and friendship of your Creator on a daily basis.

If you haven't already, won't you give your life to Jesus? He wants it all! Hold nothing back. Absolute surrender. Total commitment. Tell him that he can have all of you, and in return you want all of him. It'll be the best deal you ever made!

"Change your hearts and each of you must be immersed by the authority of Jesus the Messiah, so that your sins may be forgiven. Then you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. This promise is for you and for your children. It is also for people who are far away, for everyone whom the Lord may call" (Acts 2:38-39).

God will bless you as you respond to that call!

Guests comment on this and Bob responds here, here and here.

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