Ch 9: Contending for the Faith

  • Author: Mark S. Mitchell

Ray Stedman was not combative by nature. For years he tried to create an atmosphere of freedom and diversity at PBC, encouraging those around him to study the Scriptures and develop their own convictions about faith and practice. At the same time, he was passionate about the truth; and, when necessary, he was willing to fight for what he believed to be doctrinal and moral purity. This sometimes placed him at odds with fellow workers and beloved sons in the faith.

Church Discipline

ONE OF THE INDICATORS of Ray's commitment to the truth was his commitment to church discipline. At least four times over the course of Stedman's ministry, he was forced to lead the body at PBC in the process of disciplining one of its members according to the pattern prescribed in Matthew 18:15-18. Ray was convinced that, as painful as it was, church discipline performed in a humble spirit of love and concern was necessary to maintain a healthy body of believers, as he clearly indicated in the following words from his sermon on September 30, 1984.

"Today we must do what we have had to do only three previous times in the thirty-six-year history of Peninsula Bible Church. That is to obey the word of our Lord Jesus given in Matthew 18 concerning the handling of a serious moral failure in a member of this church. . . . As we go through these words together, let us remember that these are the words of Jesus, and, as such, they cannot be ignored. He is the Lord of the church, the Head of the body, and, as such, is dealing here with the procedure for handling unjudged sin in our midst." (See Ray's message Tell It to the Church, from September 30, 1984)

Ray also believed that lack of church discipline was at least part of the cause of the downfall of many televangelists in the 1980s. When commenting on Paul's commending of the Ephesian elders to the "word of God's grace," Ray said: "Last week I received a manuscript of a new book that will be published soon by Moody Press. It is a collection of articles written by some of the outstanding evangelical leaders of our day examining the teaching of certain televangelists who are occupying much time and space on our television sets these days. It is a searching, but objective, examination of whether such teaching is in line with the Scriptures.. . . What is the ground of testing? It is whether a teaching agrees with the Scriptures, with the 'word of God's grace,' as he calls it there. If this were more widely practiced today we would probably have been spared much of the terrible, shameful scandals that have occupied the front pages of our papers and other media. . . . Our Lord. . . does not charge [the Ephesians] with being judgmental, or say, as many do today, that churches have no right to judge. He points out that this was part of the teaching they had received, and He commends them for it." (See Ray's message The Church That Lost Its Love from November 12, 1989)

One of the joys of Ray's ministry was seeing this painful disciplinary process work redemptively in the lives of those who had been disciplined. After one leader had been gone from the church for several years as a result of being disciplined, Ray and his colleagues had the joy of seeing the man repent. In March 1980 he wrote a letter to the elders, confessing the depths of his sin and the depths of despair to which he had sunk. He spoke of his repentance and his desire for restoration and concluded with the following words:

It is impossible for me to retrace my footsteps and right every wrong; however I welcome the opportunity to meet and pray with any individuals who have something against me that needs resolution. I am looking and waiting for the further grace and mercy of God in this matter. What you have bound on earth has been bound in heaven, and I now know your actions were done in love for my own good and that of the Body of Christ. (See Ray's message The Signs of an Apostle from March 25, 1980)

Two weeks after the church received this letter, Ray read it to the congregation, with full permission from the writer. Ray then went on to describe the way in which he and his ministry colleagues had responded and welcomed the man back into the body.

''A few days ago a number of us who had been closely associated with him asked him to join us in a 'welcome home' dinner," Ray said. "We killed the fatted calf (We had barbecued veal. This was the first time veal steaks have ever been barbecued, I think.) Then we asked him to stand up, and we welcomed him back, as one who had been dead but was alive again. We called out to bring a gold ring to put upon his finger. We bought him a new sport coat and put it on his back, and welcomed him home as the prodigal son.

"He felt so welcomed, and forgiven, that he sat down afterward to tell us what God had taken him through in these intervening years, how God had dealt with him in ways that were ruthless and yet loving, and what a hell he had gone through. He said, 'I've come to know the full meaning of the words, "It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.'" But it was a joyful time of restoration and of renewing our love and fellowship.

"We rejoice, as I am sure the angels in heaven are rejoicing, that God has effected this discipline not by human pressures, but by the power of God at work in an individual heart in obedience to the word of the living God." (Ibid.)

Battles Fought Close to Home

SOME CONFLICT THAT Ray was forced to manage came from within his own staff and was more directly centered on him and his teaching. In 1980, two members of the Scribe School staff began to express reservations about Ray's teaching on the New Covenant. Ray taught that the life of Christ dwelling in the believer provided all the resources one needed to overcome sin, and that it is the believer's responsibility to appropriate the power available to him in Christ in order to overcome sin.

Fundamental to Ray's teaching on sanctification was his view of man as a threefold being: body, soul, and spirit. Ray taught that upon conversion, God implants His Spirit within man's spirit and gives him a righteous standing, called justification, which is permanent and unchangeable. But salvation does not stop there. God's plan provides for the transformation of body and soul as well. The former will be transformed when believers are ushered into the presence of Christ, but the soul is transformed now as the believer learns to appropriate the life of Christ within.

As Ray stated in his comments on the book of Romans, "The soul of man, as he is born of Adam, is under the reign of sin. The flesh (if you want to use the biblical term for it) rules us. The life of Adam possesses us, with all its self-centered characteristics. Even though our spirit has been justified, it is quite possible to go on with " the soul still under the bondage and reign of sin. So, though our destiny is settled in Christ, our experience is still as much under the control of evil as before we were Christians. That is the cause of the miserable experience of being up-and-down, sometimes reckoning on the promises of God for justification, then experiencing again the implacable bondage of sin ruling in the life, causing selfishness and self-centeredness.

"Well, what is God's program for this? To sum it up in one word: sanctification. God intends us to see that in Jesus Christ this whole thing has been taken care of, even as our destiny was, so that we can be as free from the reign of sin as we are from the penalty of sin. . . .

"When we finally learn that there is nothing we can do for God, but that He intends to do everything through us, then we come into deliverance. That is when we begin fully to realize the experience of mind, emotion, and will brought under the control of Jesus Christ and the fulfilling in glorious, triumphant power all that He has in mind for us. That is the sanctifying of the soul." (See Ray's message The Message of Romans from January 22, 1967)

Another way of stating this principle is to say that in conversion, righteousness is imputed to the believer's spirit, and in sanctification, righteousness is imparted to the believer's soul.

Those who were critical of Ray's view of sanctification had adopted what they believed to be a Reformed view of sanctification, in which sanctification was not dependent on the believer's appropriation of what was already provided for in Christ, but rather on the sovereign grace that God provides in gradual portions throughout one's lifetime. In short, Ray believed everything was already provided to live a life free from sin, while those who disagreed with him were teaching that freedom from sin came only in gradual allotments according to divine sovereignty. Furthermore, unlike Stedman, they taught that there are no means (i.e. faith, Bible study, prayer, or church attendance) by which a believer can promote the sanctification process. Although a believer should strive to live a righteous life, freedom from sin is impossible unless God chooses to dispense the grace to overcome it.

His critics were quick to point out that in Ray's ideological framework, so popular among evangelicals, a sinless life was at least a theoretical possibility. Although Ray did not teach perfectionism, at times his teaching did sound as if full deliverance from sin was available now by allowing the triumphant power of Christ to rule in the soul. His critics placed far more emphasis on the future hope of the gospel to bring complete sanctification upon the believer's death.

As time went on, it became increasingly apparent to all parties involved that these differences were significant enough to cause a parting of the ways, since they struck at the very core of Ray's New Covenant teaching. Eventually, those who disagreed with him left the PBC staff, and one of the effects of their departure was the demise of Scribe School. By this time, Ray was convinced that the program had become too academic and needed to return to its practical roots. Eventually, the internship program at PBC was reshaped to be more practical and less academic, but it no longer existed as a viable option to seminary for most young pastors in training.

On a personal level, however, Ray was deeply hurt by the disagreement, even experiencing a period of uncharacteristic depression. In the midst of the conflict he was accused of being a poor exegete and expositor, and he felt betrayed by young men into whom he had poured his life.(Elaine Stedman, interview by author, July 15,2001, Grants Pass, Ore., tape recording.) At the same time, some of Ray's own personal weaknesses were also exposed. It had always been difficult for him to admit when he was wrong, and he had a tendency to emotionally cut off those who disagreed with him and/or disappointed him. Because of this, it could be difficult for him to process and work through such disagreements in a way that was redemptive in the lives of those at odds with him, as well as his own life. This left some feeling that although PBC was a very accepting place on the surface, Ray himself had too easily written them off. For example, when one staff member was asked to leave the staff over the sanctification debate, the phone call was made not by Ray himself but by one of the elders. In an indirect way, however, Ray did address the issue from the pulpit as he taught from 1 Timothy 1:1-7: "It is essential that there be unity in the teaching of a church. There are differences of style that are quite permissible; there are different gifts (they are expected to vary) among teachers; there are different choices of subjects of the revelation of God. The heart of truth, however, must remain unsullied, because the Scripture is the most powerful weapon the church has to correct error and to deliver people from bondage into freedom. The teaching of the truth, therefore, must be central in the ministry. . . . We must be careful to return to the biblical and apostolic witness of the truth as it is in Jesus. Anything that takes away from our understanding of the totality of the end of the old life--or from the fullness of supply of a totally new life available to us now--is a weakening of the apostolic witness and promotes speculations and vain discussions which go nowhere in a church." (See Ray's message Guard the Teaching from 1981)

Several years later, shortly before Ray's retirement, another difficult doctrinal disagreement arose with another young staff member. This particular young man was one of Ray's most cherished sons in the faith; but when he began to reveal a tendency toward non-dispensational eschatology, Ray became very upset. When it came to eschatology, Ray was an ardent premillennialist. He believed in a clear distinction between Israel and the church, the Rapture of the church prior to the Great Tribulation, and the second coming of Christ to establish His millennial kingdom on earth. When this staff member preached a sermon in which he used what Ray believed to be amillennial terminology, Ray responded by writing him a letter from his summer home in Grants, Pass Oregon:

There is another matter which I feel increasingly concerned about and wish to bring up to you with this letter. I have been reading through your recent messages. . . and have been troubled by the increasing allusions to amillennial concepts which I see in them.

You may recall that last year I talked with you about this same matter and pointed out that nowhere does the New Testament ever refer to the Church as Israel, let alone "the new Israel" or "spiritual Israel." To use such terms is to substitute theological interpretation for biblical terms. Furthermore, it is a direct challenge to the doctrinal statement of PBC which espouses a premillennial view and which was recently reviewed by the elders and unanimously reapproved. This means that whether you intend to do so or not, you are teaching what is contrary to the beliefs of the elders, and using the platform of PBC to do so. This is highly unethical, not to say, naï!

It grieves me greatly to have to say all this to you. . . but I fear the enemy is using you. . . to lay the groundwork for division in PBC. . . . No one is saying you do not have the right to adopt a different doctrinal position from the elders if you think it is true. What you don't have the right to do is to use PBC as a platform to teach it. . . .(Ray Stedman, letter to colleague, August 30,1989.)

Ray's own affinity for this young man no doubt deepened the sense of betrayal he felt as another young son in the faith departed from his own theological convictions. But Ray viewed this and other such battles as spiritual in nature, and ones in which the truth was at stake. As much as he disliked the conflict, he was willing to sacrifice relationships to defend what he believed was the truth.

Prior to this time, PBC never had a formal doctrinal statement beyond stating that the sixty-six books of the Bible were God's inspired Word. Now, Ray and the elders created a full doctrinal statement, partially in response to this particular crisis. A few months later, Ray asked the elders to insist that the young man either align himself with the PBC doctrinal statement or leave the pastoral staff Ray also reinforced PBC's commitment to a literal millennium as he preached through the book of Revelation.

But the elders did not accede to Ray's wishes. Instead, they agreed to continue to study God's Word, dialogue with the staff member, and remain prayerful before the Lord. In essence, they were saying that despite their great love and admiration for Ray, they did not agree with him that this was an issue over which the pastoral staff and elders should divide.

The entire episode was just as much about Ray's sons in the faith growing up and thinking for themselves, as Ray had taught them to do, as it was about a doctrinal issue. But for one who saw these matters in such black-and-white terms, as Ray did, this must have been a difficult pill to swallow. Yet, in the end, he was willing to let go of his own desires and trust the Holy Spirit to direct the elders in leading the church he so dearly loved. And later, with encouragement from a trusted mediator, Ray sought the young man's forgiveness for some of the hurtful things he had said.

Throughout his ministry, Ray Stedman contended for the faith as he understood it. While at times his commitment to what he believed to be the truth placed him at odds with those he loved, he never stopped loving them and the church in which they served. In this manner, Ray remained a faithful steward of both the Word and the ministry entrusted to him for fifty years.

Title: Ch 9: Contending for the Faith Author: Mark S. Mitchell
   Date:2004
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