Bill and Vonette Bright and the Early-Marriage Conflict that Changed Their Lives
Early in their marriage, Bill and Vonette Bright realized they needed an anchor for their relationship.
When future historians write the history of the Christian church in the 20th century, one couple they cannot ignore is Bill and Vonette Bright. God used this remarkable couple to found and lead a worldwide evangelism and discipleship movement that has, thus far, exposed more than one billion people to the gospel.
Today the influence of Campus Crusade for Christ can be seen in most countries of the world. From its beginning at the campus of UCLA, Campus Crusade has mushroomed into dozens of ministries reaching into different facets of American society. It has spread to more than 180 countries. More than 20,000 people serve as full-time or associate staff members. It is no exaggeration to say that billions of people have been exposed to the gospel through Campus Crusade since 1951.
Before his death in 2003, Bill spoke many times of the vision that God gave him to begin Campus Crusade. Many people, however, do not know the story of what happened just before Bill received that vision. It’s the story of a young married couple facing an early crisis in their relationship… and a decision that changed the course of their lives.
Moving into Bill’s world
Bill and Vonette faced some difficult adjustments after they married on December 30, 1948. At one point during their engagement he told her, “I’m so busy that I don’t know if I really have time for a wife.” Now she began to understand his comment. He was running his business, attending seminary, and volunteering countless hours at the church.
“The fact of the matter was that I was very selfish,” Bill recalled. “We seldom had an evening home. I just kind of worked her into my schedule and I wasn’t very sensitive about her thoughts. I find that a lot of businessmen and other laymen are guilty of the same. We take our wives for granted. So, she had to fit into my plans. It never occurred to me to fit into hers.”
On their honeymoon Bill had told her he wanted their marriage to be a true partnership. “I married you as Vonette Zachary,” he said. “You’re just adding Bright to your name. I want you to remain the person that I married. I don’t want you to try to fit what you think I want you to be, because I like you the way you are.”
But now it seemed to Vonette that she was somewhat of an unequal partner. Bill was more mature in his faith, and their conversations about decisions seemed one-sided.
Vonette’s frustrations smoldered for over a year…until one Sunday afternoon after church.
It began when Vonette couldn’t find her husband after Sunday school. Bill had been asked to help in an emergency counseling situation, but had neglected to tell Vonette what he was doing.
She decided to go on to the church service by herself. After that she walked out to their car, expecting to find him there. When Bill finally did show up two hours later, he found a frustrated and angry wife.
That conflict was settled fairly quickly, but it proved to be the catalyst for something much more significant. Later that afternoon Bill sensed God telling him, “I want you to make total, absolute surrender to My control.”
Bill and Vonette each took a sheet of paper and wrote a list of all the things they wanted out of life. Looking at their lists, they could see how materialistic their desires were. They had dreamed of owning beautiful cars, and a home in the upscale Bel-Air district of Los Angeles. Now they were convicted by Scriptures such as Mark 8:36: “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and forfeit his soul?”
‘The anchor of our marriage’
They decided to draft and sign a contract, turning their lives and their marriage over completely to the Lord Jesus Christ. It went something like this:
From this day, Lord, we surrender and relinquish all of our past, present, and future rights and material possessions to you. As an act of the will, by faith, we choose to become Your bondslaves and do whatever You want us to do, go wherever You want us to go, say whatever You want us to say, no matter what it costs, for the rest of our lives. With Your help, we will never again seek the praise or applause of men or the material wealth of the world.
Bill called that contract “the anchor of our marriage. It’s the greatest decision that we have ever made. It was a total, absolute, irrevocable commitment to the Lordship of Christ.”
It also prepared their hearts for something truly supernatural.
‘Lifted onto a spiritual plane…’
A few nights later, Bill was up late, studying for a Greek exam at Fuller Theological Seminary. Suddenly, Bill said, “God in a supernatural way seemed to open up my mind, to give me a vision which embraced the whole world. It was so intoxicating that I almost burst with joy. I wanted to shout the praises of God at the top of my voice.”
“I have at least a little appreciation for the experience of the apostle Paul who spoke of being lifted onto a spiritual plane which could not be described by mere human words…. God showed me the whole world and gave me the confidence that He would use me and others in this generation to reach the multitudes of the world for whom Christ died.”
In those few seconds, their lives changed forever. The next morning he told one of his seminary professors, Dr. Wilbur Smith, about the vision, and was amazed to see Smith pace back and forth excitedly. “This is of God, this is of God,” he said. A day later he handed Bill a piece of paper and said, “God gave me the name for your vision.” On the paper was written “CCC” and the name, “Campus Crusade for Christ.”
‘Give me a heart to respond’
Vonette did not initially react with quite the same enthusiasm. When Bill told her about his vision, he also said he had decided to drop out of seminary because he felt he could relate to students better as a lay person rather than as an ordained pastor. He also said he was going to sell his business and they would trust God to provide for their material needs.
Suddenly her world was turning upside down. Sell the business? Live by faith? “I began to realize that this was serious business with my husband,” Vonette said. “I was married to this man and I was totally committed to him and so I found myself on my knees praying, ‘God, give me a heart to respond to that which You have called him to do.'”
“Bill’s loving assurances and warmth made my struggle easier. I realized I would never be happy outside his dream, and as he described his strategy for evangelism, I sensed an invisible altar waiting for me somewhere ahead. Gradually, the Lord Jesus drew me toward it and answered my prayer for a ‘heart to respond.’ Bill’s dream had become my dream.”
‘The beginning of a happy marriage’
Vonette’s choice made possible an extraordinary partnership. When Campus Crusade began its ministry at UCLA, she began leading a ministry for women students. She helped Bill develop the organization–he usually sought her counsel on major decisions–as it added new staff and began expanding to other campuses and adding new outreaches to high school students, prisoners, executives, athletes, and other groups. Since 1951, Campus Crusade for Christ has grown a worldwide ministry that has reached well over a billion people with the gospel.
During nearly 55 years together, Bill and Vonette came rely on their faith as the spiritual bond for their marriage. As Bill said, “That total surrender to Christ is the beginning of a happy marriage.”
When Bill and Vonette Bright signed that contract with God more than 50 years ago, they had no idea what God had in mind for their lives. During their marriage they have learned to trade the security of the world for the riches of heaven. “I think the question we all have to ask is, what kind of legacy are we going to leave behind?” Bill said. “Do we want to build a vast fortune? What are we going to do with it? We can only eat one meal at a time, wear one suit or dress at a time. You can’t take anything with you when you die.”
“It just makes sense to me that seeking first the kingdom of God is the only way to go.”
Adapted from I Still Do: Stories of Lifelong Love and Marriage, by David Boehi. Copyright © 2000 by FamilyLife. Used by permission of Broadman & Holman Publishers.