May the mind of Christ my Savior, live in me from day to day,
By his love and power controlling all I do and say. –Kate B. Wilkinson
It was in my middle teen years that a young couple with four little stair-step children happened into the life of Western Avenue Assembly of God in Los Angeles. My life would never be the same. Gordon and Maudine Fee gave me permission to think, to ask hard questions, to leave behind that from my faith tradition which was not worth carrying on, and to love God in all aspects of my life. It wasn’t an overnight transformation, but it first shook and then shaped my foundations.
As Maudine Fee was teaching me on Sunday mornings, Gordon Fee was teaching my mother. Coming to America as a child, my mother was never much of a student in the formal sense. But she was a fine student of life and faith. When young Gordon Fee entered her world, she couldn’t stop talking about him. He taught her as she hadn’t been taught before. Instead of telling tired old stories he opened the world of the scriptures for that adult class. And hardly a week went by that he wasn’t so touched by the truths he was teaching that tears flowed from his eyes and from those of his eager students.
Gordon Fee preached in a different way than I had known. To be sure, he was enthusiastic and emotional. He was, after all, a third-generation Pentecostal. The distinctives of this movement were stamped in his DNA. Yet he opened a passage of scripture in a different way. He had not only prayed over his message; he had studied it. He opened insights into local custom and culture. He sometimes offered options when one answer wasn’t obviously the only one available. And he brought a sense of humanity to his preaching. Toward the end of that sermon on Matthew 6:33 he spoke of how children are so excited about Christmas gifts they receive, but may rather quickly put them aside. He spoke specifically about how his oldest child, Mark, then a youngster and seated by himself in the front row, had outgrown a bike. He saw that Mark was embarrassed and had begun to cry. Gordon stopped mid-thought and apologized to his son in front of the entire congregation. He spoke tenderly to his son of what he had meant to illustrate and how sorry he was to embarrass him before us. I am writing this decades after it happened, yet I have never forgotten it.
In the fall of 1964 I began studying at Southern California College (now Vanguard University). Studying might be an exaggeration. My first year was given to fun: dorm pranks, dating, getting into and out of trouble, and thoroughly enjoying life at a little Pentecostal college. Gordon Fee, having finished his PhD in New Testament at USC, arrived for my second year. I had no idea what I wanted to study or what I wanted to be. Gordon Fee came to teach New Testament. I already had known some of his teaching, though not as much as my mother, so I signed up for New Testament Greek 1. And my life began to change again. I have never had great skills in learning languages, but this was different. We were soon reading 1 John in the Greek text. Gordon didn’t just teach the rudiments of an ancient language—he taught the New Testament. During any class there might come a moment when we were brushing back tears. Everything would stop and we were hushed in the presence of the Holy Spirit. He wasn’t just teaching us a language; he was teaching us to understand the Good News and to respond to the living Lord.
Gordon left SCC a year after I graduated. As I understand it, he was forced to leave by the Southern California District leaders of the Assemblies of God (the college was part of the district’s ministry and under its direct supervision). His teaching sometimes caused great consternation for the district officials because he wasn’t there to teach a party line, but to open his students to sound scholarship. Gordon was merely doing what a professor should do: pointing out the options available in any area of study and helping the students to think critically and carefully.
Pentecostalism wasn’t well positioned for what Fee and a few others brought to SCC. The Pentecostals were so intent on remaining a movement (not a bad thing at all), that there was little tolerance for nuance and intellectual inquiry. The party line had to be maintained. We must be a movement, not an institution or denomination. We knew what they were like! A number of us, in retrospect probably a small number, increasingly sensed that we couldn’t go back to being the good Pentecostal kids we once were. We questioned doctrines and practices like speaking in tongues as the initial (and virtually only) evidence of the infilling of the Holy Spirit, and the dispensational end-times framework in which everything hinged on a secret rapture of the Church. Most of us as very young adults had already outlived prophecies we heard in our home churches as children and teens about when Jesus would return. We began seeing Spirit-led worship and well-designed liturgy as mutually inclusive.
Gordon always landed on his feet. From his rude exit from SCC he ended up teaching New Testament at Wheaton College in Illinois, not a Pentecostal college but one of the nation’s most respected Christian colleges (the Harvard of Christian colleges, some called it). From Wheaton he went to Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, MA, in the fall of 1974. I graduated from Gordon-Conwell in the spring of 1974. Gordon and Maudine stayed with us in our trailer on one of his interviews there. At both those schools he influenced scores of students as he had at SCC. The man couldn’t teach New Testament without touching lives in profound ways. When I served at the Mockler Center at Gordon-Conwell in the late 1990s, Gordon had already left Gordon-Conwell for Regent College in Vancouver, BC, his last teaching post. When I asked students and former students what professors had made the greatest difference in their lives, two were mentioned more than any other: Gordon Fee and Christy Wilson. I was fortunate to know both before my years in seminary.
In that period at Gordon-Conwell there was something of a “purge.” Harold Lindsell, then known for his book “The Battle for the Bible,” (which I found to be mean-spirited) assumed a place of some power on the board of trustees. Since, in Lindsell’s thinking, Fuller Seminary had been lost to the moderate evangelicals, those uneasy with the way the word “inerrant” was being used to attack other evangelicals, Lindsell sought to save Gordon-Conwell from going the way Fuller had. And Gordon went to Regent College (a seminary) in Vancouver, BC, for some of the richest teaching of his long career.
When Rachel and I were preparing to be married, we dealt with the question of who would do the honors. Our home pastors were still alive and available, but there was no question in our minds about who really knew us and had been with us during our courtship: Gordon Fee did the honors on June 14, 1968. As in every other way he touched my life, he did a good job. Gordon first opened the world of New Testament scholarship to my mother as Maudine opened up the world of books and thought to me. My world has never been the same.
I will always remember Gordon as a deeply committed to women in church leadership, to intellectual and emotional integrity, to honest faith, willing to question and search, and to an infectious love of God, love of neighbor, and love of life. I am deeply grateful for the many ways Gordon Fee opened for me the world of God’s abundant grace. He helped me to read the New Testament as the dynamic witness to the Good News of Jesus. He urged me to see the Church, with all its struggles and flaws, as the Body of Christ. He did all this with good humor, humble humanity, and generous spirit.
Gordon was a peerless student of Paul’s letters, so I close with words from Paul’s magisterial letter to the Romans. This beautiful translation is from the New International Version, which Gordon helped to translate. “For none of us lives for ourselves alone, and none of us dies for ourselves alone. If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord. For this very reason, Christ died and returned to life so that he might be the Lord of both the dead and the living.”