Ch 5: Laying a Foundation

  • Author: Mark S. Mitchell

As Ray Stedman and Howard Hendricks hammered out their "nutty theology" under the pecan trees in Dallas, one of the things they often discussed was the church. Both men had a vision for what the church could be and how it should function, a vision that was very different from what they were seeing around them.

First and foremost, Ray believed that the blueprint for the proper functioning of the church was to be found in the New Testament. Based on this premise and his continued study of the Scriptures, Ray believed that the church was a living organism, not an organization or an institution. In keeping with this, he was convinced that the traditional division of clergy and laity, common in most churches, should be obliterated. Ministry should be carried out not by the so-called clergy, but by ordinary members of the body, because every member of the body of Christ was gifted by the Holy Spirit. The church's pastoral leadership was called and gifted to equip others to do the work of ministry. And at the very heart of this equipping ministry was the exposition of the Scriptures, which was necessary for the edification and maturing of the saints.(Howard Hendricks, interview by author, March 15,2001, Gleneden Beach, Ore., tape recording.)

A Vision Becomes Reality

IN 1948, WHILE RAY STEDMAN was at Dallas studying in seminary and hammering out his thinking on the church, a group of five businessmen from the San Francisco Peninsula began meeting together and sharing their vision for ministry on the peninsula, which encompasses the metropolitan area extending from San Francisco to San Jose. Most of these businessmen were from Palo Alto, home of the prestigious Stanford University. Gustaf Gustafen, Cecil Kettle, Harry Smith, Bob Smith, and Ed Stirm met weekly in the home of Pearl and Bob Smith to pray about the needs they saw around them in the peninsula area. Each of these men was already well-known for his commitment to national and overseas ministries, but now they were becoming particularly concerned about the local young people, many of whom attended nearby Stanford University. These men knew of no current gospel witness on the campus. Their 6:30 a.m. discussions soon led to prolonged times of Bible study, prayer, and fellowship. Before long these meetings proliferated into home Bible classes designed for outreach, and soon they needed a suitable Sunday night meeting place.

On September 12, 1948, the community calling itself "Peninsula Bible Fellowship" held its first meeting at the Palo Alto Community Center, with about thirty people present. Gustafen, Kettle, Stirm, and the Smiths defined the purpose of this group simply: "To know Christ and make Him known." It was not their intention to start a church, they said, but rather a cross-denominational movement in which people could experience warm fellowship and hear the Scriptures taught with accuracy and relevance. Friends of these five men were often invited to teach the group, and three of their favorite teachers were Drs. John Mitchell, J. Vernon McGee, and John Walvoord. As the fellowship grew, they obtained a post office box and incorporated the group in order to collect funds to pay for the rental of the community center.(Joanie Burnside, A Stone's Throw: Peninsula Bible Church 1948-1998, September 1998, written to commemorate Peninsula Bible Church's 50th anniversary (photocopy).)

Then, in the spring of 1950, Peninsula Bible Fellowship, now known as PBF, received letters from Drs. Mitchell, McGee, and Walvoord. Each of these men wrote to PBF without the knowledge of the others, and each recommended a young man named Ray Stedman, soon to graduate from Dallas Seminary, for ministry with PBF. Amazingly, these three letters arrived at PBF's post office box on the same day.(Ibid.)

The five leaders at PBF were not blind to the providential nature of such an occurrence. And since Bob Smith needed to make a business trip to Dallas, the group suggested he meet with Ray Stedman while he was there. So in April, Bob met with Ray and Elaine in their little trailer under the pecan trees on the Dallas Seminary campus.

"That meeting with Bob was pivotal to all that followed," Elaine recalls. "He was a prince of a man with whom we had immediate rapport. As he unfolded the vision for Peninsula Bible Fellowship, it was clear he and the men he represented had the same ministry perspectives that Ray had." (Elaine Stedman, interview by author, July 15, 2001, Grants Pass, Ore., tape recording.)

As a result of that meeting, it was decided that Ray and Elaine would drive to Palo Alto immediately after graduation in May for a closer look at PBF There they met with the five founders, who made it clear that they were not seeking to start a church. Their vision for ministry resonated with Ray, and the feeling was mutual. They offered Ray the position of Executive Secretary of the Peninsula Bible Fellowship without ever having heard him preach. He was not offered a salary but was promised that "all your needs will be met." (Burnside, A Stone's Throw.) This nontraditional agreement fit the "Wild Mustang from Montana" perfectly, and he agreed to return to Palo Alto after his summer work with Dr. Ironside.

Early Ministry at PBF

RAY, ELAINE, AND THEIR two daughters, Sheila and Susan, arrived in Palo Alto on September 2,1950. The next evening Ray preached his first message at PBF to about ninety men, women, and children. The text he chose was Ephesians 4:11-16:

And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fulness of Christ. As a result, we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves, and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming; but speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him, who is the head, even Christ, from whom the whole body, being fitted and held together by that which every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part, causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love (NASB).

In his opening message Ray laid the foundation for what would someday become known as "Body Life." The bedrock conviction upon which Body Life was founded was that Christ is the living head of His church, which is His body, and that there is no room for superstars among God's people. Each member of the body is to employ the gifts he or she has received from the Lord and is to grow in spiritual maturity through the teaching of God's Word.

Ironically, Ray's vision of an every-member ministry did not keep him from almost ceaseless work. In addition to preaching, he was involved in teaching home Bible classes that were effective in reaching out to unbelievers. As more and more families joined the fellowship, he also worked with youth. Although no one called him "Pastor," Ray actually functioned as youth pastor, pulpit pastor, and outreach pastor at the same time. As a result, he saw very little of his family in those early days.

While the ministry flourished, Ray's relationship with Elaine suffered.

Family Life

NEITHER RAY NOR ELAINE had entered marriage with a solid understanding of what a marriage should be. Elaine's parents were not compatible, and she had learned from an early age to play the role of peacemaker. Ray had been abandoned by his father and emotionally neglected by his mother. He had grown up primarily with men and simply never had learned to understand and communicate with/women. From the beginning of their marriage, therefore, he tended to bury himself in his work to the neglect of his wife.

"When I came out to the Islands, he was so busy, and I didn't have any friends," Elaine says, reflecting on their first months of married life in Hawaii. "I felt so lost. . . I remember crying all night long. It just wasn't what I thought it was going to be. It wasn't deliberate neglect on Ray's part; he just didn't know. He really didn't know what to do and how to be a friend." (Elaine Stedman.)

Ray and Elaine also had been taught that a biblical marriage was one in which the husband, as head of his wife, was superior to her and should control her in every way. Elaine recalls how early-on this thinking affected their ability to communicate.

"Ray had been trained that he was to tell me what to do that is what he had been told was the biblical role of the head of the house. If I didn't do it, then it was a disobedience problem. So you really can't communicate in that situation because all the guilt is one-sided. . . . It doesn't make for good communication. It doesn't train you how to exchange ideas and hear one another. . .. He thought he was doing the right thing; I couldn't convince him otherwise. I tried a few times and it didn't work, so I gave up and sulked." (Ibid.)

Ray and Elaine's struggle to communicate affected their spiritual lives as well. Ray believed that a husband was responsible for his wife's spiritual condition. Early in their marriage, he tried to lead the two of them in Bible study.

"We tried to study together when we were first married," Elaine recalls. "He didn't expect me to make any contributions. I was just supposed to be taught. I was not submissive enough for that. I wanted to be a part of it, and I have always been a pretty good thinker. . . . So after a few tries, we didn't study together. That didn't help our communication either." (Ibid.)

At this point in their relationship, Elaine's understanding of what it meant to be a good wife was to simply care for the children and be supportive of her husband's ministry, which was what many ministry wives did in the 1950s. This was not something she did reluctantly, for she believed they were a team when it came to ministry. When she felt the Lord speaking to her on her knees in Hawaii, saying, "And this is the way it's going to be," she understood that to mean that Ray did not belong to her; he belonged to the ministry God had for him and to whatever the Lord was doing in his life.(Ibid.) In later years, Ray and Elaine's view of marriage would mature and ultimately become more biblical, and Ray learned to insist that the young pastors who came to work at PBC put their families first.

Elaine's family kept her busy. In 1953, her mother came to live with them. Then, while Sheila and Susan were in their preschool and elementary school years, another daughter, Linda, was born to Ray and Elaine on May 7,1954.

The man who had planned to have four sons was now living with five females! And despite his busy schedule, Ray did manage to spend time with his precious girls and sometimes found special ways of doing this. For example, he told his daughters that when they turned eight, they could have an airplane trip with him--a promise he kept to each one. He also made up a song for each of the girls and would sing it to them: "Sheila Rita, life is sweeta . . . ," "Susanvanduzen is the girl of my choosin' . . . ," "Linda, did y' hear those mockin' birds sing last night; they was singin' so sweet in the moonlight. .." And, later, after their daughter Laurie was born, "Little Annie Laurie is my sweetheart.. . ."

Sheila, the firstborn, remembers her dad being a firm disciplinarian, but with a very tender and sweet side as well. Born with an adventurous spirit like her father, Sheila recalls the special times they had together when she was a child. "Maybe during that time Dad saw in me the potential to be his companion in adventure, since I was always begging him to take me wherever he went. Soon I received my very first .22 rifle--a gift from Dad that I treasured like bags of gold! I was ten years old and felt very grown-up because my dad thought I was mature enough to handle a gun." Ray would take Sheila to the mud flats of the Bay for target practice on Saturdays, and before long he allowed her to hunt pheasant and rabbits with him.

"When I turned twelve," says Sheila, "Dad bestowed on me a .410 shotgun. Now I was really living! We would go duck hunting together now--hiding in the blinds--in our own adventure together! When I was fourteen, he took me on horseback up into the hills above Santa Rosa to hunt deer. I thought I had died and gone to heaven! Never once did Dad show any fear that I would mess up and shoot wrong. He was a very patient teacher and I felt so confident that I would always be safe beside my dad. To me, he was the great white hunter who could conquer any enemy of any size." (Sheila Brekke, e-mail to author, August 23, 2002.)

A Flourishing Ministry

THE POSTWAR YEARS BROUGHT tremendous spiritual hunger, and the ministry of PBF flourished. The home Bible studies proved to be a perfect way to meet this need. In his book, Body Life, Ray reflected on the effectiveness of these small groups.

"Typical of our early small groups were the Home Bible Classes. The primary goal of Home Bible Classes was not to teach Christians, but to attract non-Christians and interest them in the themes of the Bible and in spiritual truth. These groups were deliberately low-key and non-threatening in approach. There was a total absence of activities with a 'churchy' flavor, such as hymn-singing, opening prayer, chairs lined up in rows, or a speaker standing behind a lectern. Each group had a host and hostess who opened their home to friends and guests, giving the class the welcoming feel of a purely social occasion. A lay teacher taught from the Bible, seeking to capture the biblical concepts and express them in contemporary terms. Discussion was invited--freewheeling and no-holds-barred. Anyone was free to challenge what was presented if they cared to, and their challenges were listened to carefully and courteously. An answer was sought from the Scriptures themselves.

"These meetings were an instant success and became so popular that the discussion would sometimes involve scores and even hundreds of people (we had some very large homes available!) and would often continue until the wee hours of the morning. No mention was ever made of PBC at these home meetings, for they were regarded as the personal ministry of the Christians involved. There were soon many new converts coming from these classes, who were then urged to become active in a local church, preferably one close to them. Thus the whole body of Christ in our area began to profit from these classes, and many of the new converts naturally ended up at PBC." (See Ray's book Body Life Chapter 12: Impact!)

These Home Bible Classes, coupled with Ray's hard work, soon resulted in a fellowship bursting at the seams, and PBF hired a staff member to minister to the youth. The small room they rented at the Community Center was no longer adequate. First they moved to Palo Alto's social hall and then to the city's theater. Finally, in February 1952, the group purchased a three-and-one-half acre lot in what seemed at the time to be the far fringes of Palo Alto.

On November 7, 1954, PBF had a groundbreaking ceremony, and on June 15, 1955, they held their first meeting in the new building. Four days later, Dr. J. Vernon McGee preached at the first Sunday service, held in the evening. Suddenly the fellowship that "didn't want to be a church" looked more and more like a church, and there was no question who the pastor was.

Fresh Thinking About the Church

SOME OF RAY'S EARLY preaching at PBF sounded typical of what he was--a young man fresh from seminary. His earliest sermon in print is an exposition of Hebrews 6:1-12, "The Supreme Need for Fruit Bearing." The sermon contains virtually no illustrations, little application, and dense exegesis replete with Greek verb tenses. In the latter half of the 1950s, however, Ray's style began to change. On April 29, 1956, he preached on "The Christian and Worldliness," a sermon full of practical applications, illustrations, and personal transparency. It also had a radical edge as Ray challenged the traditional understanding of worldliness: "The truth is that worldliness is not a matter of things, of doing this, or doing that. But worldliness is a matter of the attitude of the heart, the attitude of life in thinking and dealing with things."

Ray then went on to offer a radical challenge to the church to be distinct from the world but not separate from it. "We're not to be thinking like the world, you see; our attitude is different. Our thoughts are different. And yet we're to be with them.

"We're to be out-and-out Christians. Distinct but not distasteful. We're to be sheep among wolves, as our Lord says. That is, we're not to stay in the sheepfold. We're disobedient if we stay in the sheepfold. . . . He wants us out among the wolves, boldly out there.

"Well, you say, isn't that dangerous for sheep to go out in the midst of wolves? Yes, it is. Of course it is. But that's the thing that makes it gripping, vital, interesting, challenging, stimulating. It's this danger!

"The Lord wants us to live on a frontier where we're constantly under danger, and we'll be safe just as long as we're loyal to the Shepherd and never begin to think or act like a wolf When we do that, we're really in trouble. But as long as we think and act like a sheep, we're safe among the wolves." (See Ray's message The Christian and Worldliness, first published in The King's Business magazine in 1957)

In 1957, this sermon became an article published in The King's Business, the monthly magazine of Biola Bible College. When this appeared in print, one group at a well-known evangelical church in Los Angeles gathered all the copies they could find and held a book-burning ceremony! These Christians insisted on total separation and simply did not agree with Ray's emphasis on being "in the world but not of the world."

PBF was developing into a church, and as it did, Ray also needed to address issues such as church government in his preaching. Yet even in doing this, he continued to exhibit a fresh approach to church doctrine. In the late 1950s, Ray preached a sermon explaining and defending his conviction that Christ was the only head of the church, and that the church should not be governed by the people as a democracy, or even by the clergy. Instead, the Lord "chooses to make His will known through men whom He designates and equips to carry on the spiritual oversight of His work." He went on to explain how these men were sometimes called "elders" in the New Testament, and at other times were called "bishops" or "overseers." Ray was convinced, even at this early stage of his ministry, that together these men were to shepherd the flock of God, seeking the mind of the Lord for the church through unanimous agreement. Although Ray was not the first man to uphold such a model, what made his position unique was his absolute conviction that Christ was the living Head of the body.

"How comforting it is to know that we are not left to run things ourselves. . . . When problems come before the church, we do not need to stew and fret and attempt to solve them ourselves. We are, of course, to investigate and discuss and plan. The Lord wants us to know what is happening. We are to look into matters to see what the underlying principles affecting they may be. The Lord does not work apart from us, but through us. But in the final analysis, we are not to listen to the voice of the people; we are to listen only to the voice of the Lord. We can be sure that when He is in the midst of His church, direction will be given.

"This church is not ours, it is His church. It was bought with His blood. He cleansed it and purified it by His Word. He appointed its ordinances. He is the one who has chosen those to guide in spiritual matters and has equipped them with the necessary qualifications to do the work. It is the Lord who has distributed the talents of gifts and ministry among the whole congregation so that each one has a special talent, a special gift to be exercised in the ministry of the church." (Ray Stedman, The Lord and His Church from the 1950s)

The New Covenant

IN THE LATE 1950s Ray also began to develop his thinking about what he later called "The New Covenant." The basic premise of the New Covenant is that the believer is indwelt with the living presence of Jesus Christ and that the ability to live the Christian life comes not through self-effort but through the sufficiency of Christ. Bob Roe, a long-time associate of Ray's, summed up the New Covenant this way: "Christ died that I might live. I must die that Christ might live in me."

Actually, Ray had begun thinking about this subject during his years in Hawaii. "I will never forget how, as a young man in the service during World War II, I was on a watch one night, reading the book of Romans," he said, in commenting on Paul's statement in Romans 6:14: "Sin shall not have dominion over you, for you are not under law but under grace" (NKJV). This verse leaped out at him, and the Spirit made it come alive. "And I saw the great promise that all the things I was struggling with as a young man would ultimately He mastered not because I was so smart, but because God was teaching me and leading me into victory. I remember walking the floor, my heart just boiling over with praise and thanksgiving to God. I walked in a cloud of glory, rejoicing in this great promise: 'Sin shall not have dominion over you, for you are not under law but under grace.'" (See Ray's message The True Baptism of the Spirit from June 20, 1976)

At Dallas Seminary, Ray had the opportunity to refine his understanding of the New Covenant under the tutelage of men like Lewis Sperry Chafer, who wrote in his book Grace: "They [the fruit of the Spirit] are never gained by struggle, long or short; they are the immediate experience of every believer who comes into right adjustment with the Spirit. Therefore the way to a victorious life is not by self-development; it is through a 'walk in the Spirit."'(Lewis Sperry Chafer, Grace (Findley, Ohio: Dunham Publishing, 1947),336.)

During his first decade at PBF, Ray's understanding of the New Covenant was also sharpened by others. In 1957, he began a correspondence with Miles Stanford on the subject of what Stanford called "the Deeper Life." Stanford was a well-known dispensationalist teacher and author, his best-known book being The Green Letters, published in 1963. The correspondence between Ray and Miles Stanford reveals that there were many things about the Deeper Life movement with which Ray agreed. He concurred with the need to deal with the roots of sin and not just the symptoms, the need to appropriate the indwelling life of Christ, and the inability of the human will to obey the Word of God by itself He confessed to Stanford, "I learned the truth of these realities years ago and have lived in the light and blessing of them for a long time. I do not say I have yet attained, but I press on to the mark." (Ray Stedman, letter to Miles Stanford, September 26, 1957.)

But Ray also took issue with some aspects of the Deeper Life movement and was straightforward regarding these matters, though remaining warm and cordial. For one thing, he did not like the designation "Deeper Life" because it implied a superior sanctity, and he disagreed with the notion that the believer was passive in the process of sanctification.

"For years that kind of definition kept me from realizing the values of Christ's work for me because it implies that the will is to be somehow disconnected and God is going to come in and work apart from the believer's own desire or will," he wrote to Stanford. "However, when I learned that faith is not getting out of the way but getting right into the very purpose of God and willing to do the thing He says to do because He says it, then I achieved the victory I long sought." (Ray Stedman, letter to Miles Stanford, August 5, 1957.)

Ray also took issue with Stanford's emphasis on the need for a human teacher in learning the truths of the Deeper Life, believing that the Word of God was sufficient means for the Spirit to use in leading a person in understanding these truths.

"I am also surprised to see that you seem to feel that these truths which you call deeper truths cannot be known apart from personal teaching (by writings or otherwise) by someone who had already learned these," he wrote to Stanford.". My own experience has been that after years of nominal Christianity it was when I first began to honestly face the word of God and walk in its light that I began to experience victory in the things of the flesh. When you quote believers as asking, 'Why have I had to struggle and fail against sin and self all these years?' I would say the simple answer is because they have not read nor heeded their Bibles. . . . I am confident that an honest hunger for the Word of God will result in giving the Holy Spirit all He needs to be able to lead that person into a full and complete experience of a life of victory." (Ray Stedman, letter to Miles Stanford, September 12, 1957.)

Despite these convictions, Ray's understanding of the New Covenant was still a work-in-progress. Then, after a four-year hiatus in their correspondence, Ray wrote Stanford in August of 1961, telling him that through his own study of Paul in the Corinthian letters he had come to see "the very truths which you labored to acquaint me with." Although he still did not like the term Deeper Life, Ray admitted that he "could not help but rejoice at the very way God has taught me the very truths which you graciously set before me. . . .I do know what you mean now." (Ray Stedman, letter to Miles Stanford, August 25,1961.)

Ray's thinking in this area developed further as the result of an Overseas Crusades missionary conference in Taiwan at which he spoke in the summer of 1960. Arranged by Dick Hillis, whom Ray had met through the Navigators while in Hawaii, this was Ray's first major speaking engagement outside the United States. Major W. Ian Thomas, founder of the Torchbearers, was scheduled to speak with Ray, and the two men developed a close relationship. Ray found in Thomas's teaching on The Saving Life of Christ the right balance of biblical and experiential truth.

"It was the way Ian Thomas framed it; it just fell in place for Ray," Elaine recalls. "When he came back, I could hear the difference in his preaching right away." (Elaine Stedman.)

Ray later invited Thomas to come to PBF as a visiting speaker and often quoted him in reference to his New Covenant teaching. "Major Ian Thomas has written some excellent summaries of the Christian's relationship to Jesus Christ," Ray said in a sermon in November of 1963. "He wrote this about Christ: 'He had to be what he was to do what he did. . . And he had to do what he did that we might have what he is.' There is the glory--the good news--of the gospel. It is not particularly good news to be told our sins were forgiven by the shed blood of Jesus Christ if we must then struggle on through this life doing the best we can, falling and failing, struggling and slipping, going through periods of doubt, despair, discouragement, and defeat, until at last we get over on the other side and find the releases we crave. That is not very good news, is it? But that was never intended to be the gospel. The good news is that not only does final fulfillment await us over there, but that right now we may have what he is." (See Ray's message The Goal of Revelation from November 24,1963)

While in Taiwan, Ray had an opportunity to learn from experience the truths he was hearing. He was to teach six hundred Chinese pastors through two interpreters, and he took comfort in the fact that a veteran missionary like Dick Hillis would be there to help him along. But the Lord had other plans. Dick was forced to return to the States when his mother became ill, and Ray, was left alone to handle the conference.

"I have never forgotten the depression and loneliness that came over me," Ray later reflected. "I am sure that is how Paul must have felt as he was left alone in Corinth." (See Ray's message A Father's Joy from December 27, 1987) And like Paul, Ray learned through experiences like this one that his adequacy did not come from himself or from any man, but from God.

With the foundations of the New Covenant in place, Ray took some time to reflect on his first ten years of ministry at PBF. He had every reason to believe that the people he shepherded were learning that they "might have what He is." In a 1960 sermon entitled "Ten Remarkable Years," Ray commented on two signs of health in the body. The first sign was unity: "Ten happy, healthy years. Mutual concern, quick response to needs, frank discussion, forgiving attitudes." The second sign was influence, which he attributed to a Bible-centered ministry, adherence to the ministry of the saints, and seeking the mind of the Lord with unanimity.

He also issued a statement of vision for, the next ten years. Instead of growing to over a thousand people, he wanted PBF to reproduce new church bodies and train young men for missions and pastorates. (See Elaine Stedman's message Body Language from March 8, 1998)

What Ray could not have anticipated is the way God would use the tumultuous sixties to change PBF and to deepen his own understanding and experience of the New Covenant.

Title: Ch 5: Laying a Foundation Author: Mark S. Mitchell
   Date:2004
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