Last Friday, I attended the quietly glorious memorial service of Bruce Stewart. Dr. Stewart served faithfully and well at the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary as Professor of Pastoral Theology and also as President (you can see an article about his life here). One of the remaining living professors from my years at RPTS, Dr. Wayne Spear, preached with his customary dignity and insight from the words of Simeon on seeing the Savior in Luke 2, highlighting in his message qualities Dr. Stewart had embodied. As Dr. Spear spoke, memories of his ministry and influence on me swirled together with the phrases I was hearing. Here are a few of my reflections.
“Compassionate and gracious like his Savior.” When the Lord called me into the ministry and I knew I was heading toward seminary, everything in my life already felt new at that time. Miriam and I were newly married, living in a new city, had just become parents, were brand new to the church and the Reformed faith, and were now scheduled to head away from our first home after less then three years of being there. Moving to Pittsburgh and entering into a whole new field of study seemed daunting to us. To help us, our pastor Dave Long and his wife Jenny took us out for a visit to see RPTS, assuring us we would love being there because of the men whom would teach and love us through this experience.
As we walked into the old Horne Mansion that is the home of RPTS, and came into the beautiful foyer with its wooden-banister staircase, we were met by the smiling face seen in this portrait that captures Dr. Stewart so well. He immediately set us at ease as he welcomed us and shepherded me through the process of becoming a student. He continued to do that through helping us find a place to live and through our years at RPTS. He was always smiling, always asking questions about my well-being, always encouraging me in my calling and developing of gifts.
“He preached the gospel with simplicity and clarity.” Being so new to the denomination, I had no real knowledge of Dr. Stewart’s ministry before he came to RPTS. Yet in each of his three pastorates, I learned from others that he had been blessed with gospel fruit. At the seminary, it was clear why.
Whenever he lectured or preached in the chapel or a nearby church, the exaltation of Christ in plain language and ready illustrations was preeminent. You never questioned what the point of his message was. You never doubted his sincerity in communicating Christ to you. You never wondered if he cared about the subject or the congregation he was addressing. He was always direct, brought insight from the text to bear upon you, and, often with that warm smile of his, pressed even hard truths on your heart with persuasion and winsomeness. He left you wanting to believe like he did.
“He was organized and a hard worker.” Dr. Stewart seemed to be non-stop in his work and involvements in the greater church. Not only did he teach classes, administrate the seminary, and serve on the session of his local church, but he was a go-to man in our denomination. At Synod, whenever there was a need for study or reasonableness or knowledge of the church’s history, Dr. Stewart was often the one called upon. He also was ecumenical in the right sense of that word. From my vantage point, he was one of the major vessels whose humility the Lord used to lead our denomination away from an isolating, sectarian tendency into healthy relationships with other Reformed bodies. He worked diligently in inter-church matters and building friendships with others.
During my time as a student at RPTS, I remember Dr. Stewart leading us through the multitude of steps toward becoming accredited. I recall at the time many, including myself, questioned the necessity of going in this direction, wondering why we could not just train pastors and not worry about jumping through these academic hoops. Yet now, years later, being a professor here and having just gone through the accreditation process in preparation for a visitation team this year, I now see Dr. Stewart’s brilliance. Accreditation has helped RPTS become a far better institution in accomplishing, by God’s grace, its mission, and also allows it to be in relationship with other seminaries and graduate programs. We attract far more students now also as a result of his vision many years ago.
“He sincerely loved the people of God, and especially his family.” I often witnessed in the classroom as a student Dr. Stewart showing that being loving and being reformed are not diametrically opposed, as some would have you believe. He would defend truth and distinctives with true conviction, but in a way that did not demean others. When a student would raise another viewpoint or objections, even in a disrespectful way, Dr. Stewart would not be defensive or vindictive. He would always thank the student for sharing his thoughts and, again smiling, just move on without feeling the need to rebut. Without words, everyone received an even greater lesson than the one being discussed.
As our current president, Jerry O’Neill, has pointed out, Dr. Stewart was always encouraging people to the point that he always found a good word to say, even for the poorest of student preachers. I also recall his practice of grading papers, to which my files still bear witness. He would put a check by each paragraph, give a “Amen!” or “Yes!” near thoughts he appreciated, and always ended with a few sentences of a heartening nature.
Yet it was with his family that his love shone most deeply. It was clear that he and his wife, Rosalyn, of 61 years were a ministry team and that he adored her. His son, Brad, testified at the memorial service how his father always made time to be with his children and grandchildren, and loved especially attending their sporting events. I recalled how often in his pastoral classes Dr. Stewart had emphasized that as ministers it was important to first shepherd and love our own families, being sure to reserve time in our daily, weekly, and annual calendars for them. Even now, I have structured a course on the pastorate with this lesson in mind, emphasizing first to the men they need to shepherd their own souls and that of their families first (see Acts 20:28; I Tim. 3:4) before they can be of good use to the church.
“He was ready to depart in peace.” Dr. Spear used these words of Simeon upon seeing the Savior to recount that, during recent visits with Dr. Stewart, he had indicated he was ready to go and be with Christ. That is not surprising. Another memory I recall is that his lectures and sermons consistently contained a heaven-leaning nature to them. He kept our eyes not only on the Savior but his and our ultimate dwelling place.
Dr. Spear preached the gospel last Friday simply and clearly to all gathered “as Bruce would have wanted.” We were exhorted to say with Simeon “my eyes have seen your salvation” in Christ and look forward to the heavenly city where Dr. Stewart now resides. As I have been called to follow in his earthly footsteps in a certain measure, I am so thankful for the faith this father in the faith exhibited to me and the much greater calling to walk as he did toward our heavenly destination.