Dear <<First Name>> <<Last Name>>,  "Table and Towel" is a publication of the Eula Mae and John Baugh Center for Baptist Leadership of Mercer University.
3001 Mercer University Drive, AACC Bldg. Suite 435, Atlanta, GA 30341

Daniel Vestal, Director                             Libby Allen, Administrative Coordinator 
                                                                 Lauren Hooie, Student Assistant 


                                     by Daniel Vestal                                            

     When it became clear last year (2020) that COVID would change everything, I set myself on a routine and rhythm of writing my memoirs. It was a project I had intended for some time but had used every excuse possible not to begin. The arrival of a pandemic robbed me of all those excuses, so I have spent considerable time researching and writing during these past months. I have also reflected deeply, not only on historical events, but also on their meaning and influence for today.
     The events around the conclusion of the SBC controversy and the beginning of CBF mark the mid-point of my ministry to date. I have been in active Christian ministry for 60 years, beginning in adolescence and extending to the present. Clearly, I started early and have stayed late. My memoir is almost complete and will be published soon, so I will not repeat my account of how the dissolution of the SBC into a fundamentalist enclave and the birth of CBF as a renewal movement took place. Hopefully, my book “This Treasure Within: A Memoir” will do that.
     But I would like to offer a few thoughts on the relevance of what happened in the years preceding and following, 1991, to the present, because it seems that the more things change, the more they remain the same. The causes for the battle between fundamentalists and moderates in the SBC are complex, and the struggle had been raging for some time before 1991. But for me, the central issue in the conflict was one of freedom. Freedom from authoritarian control and freedom for being the presence of Christ.

     Let’s start with the notion of a free press. One of the greatest dangers of recent developments in American society is the assault on a free press and the widespread proliferation of conspiracy theories in order to frighten and control people. Through the years I have visited several countries where there is not a free press. Journalists are prohibited from writing openly about what is happening in government, society and culture. They cannot freely criticize public policy or critique false conspiracies. So entire populations are fed lies and make decisions on the basis of inaccurate information. I don’t want to live in that kind of society.
     Before, during and after 1991, the fundamentalists within the SBC objected violently to Baptist journalists who reported on their political takeover efforts. I had been chair of the Board for the Texas Baptist Standard, the official publication of the Baptist General Convention of Texas, with a circulation of almost 400,000. The architects of the takeover were furious with its honest reporting as well as its truthful editorials, and demanded “face to face” meetings. I sat in some of those meetings as they accused the reporters and editors of “fake news,” and “liberal bias.” I watched as they eventually took control of Baptist news organizations, firing editors, defunding others and circulating vicious rumors and crazy theories.
     There is, in my view, a clear correlation between what was happening then within a denomination to what is happening now within a society. Authoritarian control resists a free flow of honest and truthful information. It also creates and communicates notions that are false and fearful. It intimidates individuals and organizations that “speak the truth in love” seeking either to silence them or bully them with personal and public insults.
It should come as no surprise that with the beginning of CBF there was a renewal of commitment to a free press. All of our meetings were “open” to the press and public. We encouraged free discussion and debate. We welcomed disagreement and dissent recognizing that it is the sign of health. We made it our goal to appeal to one another’s conscience in persuasive conversation, not in violent rhetoric.

     Those of us who started CBF also believed in a “free church within a free state.” We were weary of what would become increasingly clear in the following years. Fundamentalists not only wanted authoritarian control over the SBC. They wanted similar control over the national political agenda, and eventually the country. Those most influential within the denominational shift would soon become most influential within national politics. There was a strong identification of the gospel of Jesus Christ with partisan politics, particularly the politics of “the religious right.”
     The Baptists who resisted a fundamentalist takeover also resisted the imposition of a partisan political agenda on the gospel mandate to make disciples of all people. This did not mean that we resisted using our influence within the political process, working for justice or being involved in influencing public policy. But we resisted the notions that are foundational to the claims of “Christian Nationalism” today. We believed that one of America’s greatest assets, enshrined in the first amendment to our Constitution, is religious liberty and separation of church and state. That asset is more important today than ever before, and it is one that must never be taken for granted. 
     It should come as no surprise that the wrath of the fundamentalists was directed at James Dunn and the Baptist Joint Committee on Religious Liberty. They not only defunded the BJC, but they assailed his character and the character of anyone who argued against state sponsored prayer in public schools or government vouchers for church schools. Anyone who didn’t agree with their agenda items (and those items were always changing), was labeled “secular humanist,” or “non-biblical” or something worse. It sounds amazingly familiar to today’s diatribes that are directed at those who believe in a free church within a free state.

     The freedom that CBF championed from its beginning is a freedom whose origin is in the nature and character of God. The God revealed in Scripture is free. We cannot control or coerce God. We cannot contain God in our systems, creeds or plans. So as long as there is a God who is free, there will be those who love that God and therefore love freedom. They will recognize tyranny, in whatever form it takes, as unacceptable to the human condition.
     Tyranny is called by different names in different contexts. In government, it is called dictatorship or autocracy. In civil society, it is called oppression. In religion, it is called fundamentalism. But whatever the context, the characteristics are similar. A tyrannical world view operates by “command and control,” because human beings are not valued. They are to be are ruled by dictate and decree without room for compromise and cooperation. Tyranny’s methods are forced conformity with no place for dissent. Its mantras are “might makes right,” and “my way or the highway.” Tyranny, no matter how popular or pious it may look on the outside, destroys human dignity and human community.
     I have lived long enough to see individuals, churches and denominations lose their freedom. I believe we as a nation came dangerously close to losing our freedom in the last few months because of a tyrannical mentality, efforts to muzzle a free press and mob violence. We continue to live in a society where millions remain oppressed by systemic sin and corporate evil. And fundamentalist religion remains a grave threat to intellectual freedom and academic freedom, as well as to the priesthood of all believers, who are free to interpret Scripture and follow the Spirit.  
     Until all of God’s children are free, none of us can be truly free. Even when we enjoy a measure of personal freedom, we cannot be satisfied with tyranny anywhere or the conditions that cause it. Rather in our freedom, we must choose to struggle, and even suffer, on behalf of one another. For this, we need courage and wisdom, because the love of freedom requires unending diligence.
     I believe there is evidence among us of a renewed love and appreciation for freedom. I see signs of awakenings to insure freedom’s future, particularly in the passion of non-violent protesters for racial justice.  I also believe that as long as there is a God who is free, there will be those who will resist tyranny and treasure freedom. As long as there is a God who is free, there will be those who love freedom so much that they cannot but sing its sweet song and breathe its fresh air.
     The love of freedom that birthed CBF still lives. I see it in the lives of Baptists, laity and clergy, who work and pray for freedom from injustices. I see it in churches who value their freedom to work across denominational lines and serve God’s Kingdom. I see this love of freedom in a host of individual Christians, serving the most vulnerable among us who are captive to various forms of oppression.
     One of those courageous and wise individuals who helped birth CBF 30 years ago was a pastor and educator, Vernon Davis. He composed both text and music to the hymn, “Lord, Who Across the Ages,” in 1991.

Lord who across the ages, Called Thy people to be free,
That with a faith unfettered, They might fear no one but Thee,
Lord of all freedom, From our earthly fear
By thy presence now release us, Unto us draw near.   

                                               Rev. Harrison Litzell
                                               Leadership Associate                  
                                           Children and Family Ministries     


Harrison Litzell is a graduate of Carson-Newman University and McAfee School of Theology. He served Providence Church in Jefferson City, TN and was responsible for scheduling, planning, and teaching the children’s ministry. Harrison presently works for Smoke Rise Baptist in Stone Mountain, GA as co-director of the Weekday School, coordinates the Language Arts curriculum, plans and leads weekly chapel for all classes, and helps oversee all aspects of the school throughout the year.                                                         



        In order to develop Christ-like Baptist leaders for church and society, the Baugh Center will provide training opportunities and resources to the volunteers, lay leaders, and ministers engaged in ministry with children and their families. These opportunities and resources will assist leaders in their ministry by providing basic theological training, resources regarding tenets of ministry to families with children, and assessment of available curricula.                    Following in the success of the Baugh Center’s Christian Leadership Formation classes, the Center will offer in-person workshop for either a church wishing to provide training for its leaders, or for leaders from several churches in a region who come together for the course. This workshop will last 6-10 hours over the course of two days. It would feature four primary modules focusing on the theology for children, resources for families, safe environment, and worshipping with children. These modules will feature training on these topics by discussing theology, faith development, pedagogy, and pastoral care while also providing resources and specific practices related to these ideas for the local church.
        Second, the Baugh Center will produce a workbook for lay leaders in
children’s ministry specifically addressing theological foundations and teaching
with children. This workbook will serve as a resource for church volunteers to
complete independently or in community with other people working in children’s
ministry. The text will focus on theology not only for children but for the leaders and teachers themselves. Furthermore, it will discuss common practices for settings such as Sunday School, Wednesday night programming and ministry in other settings. This workbook will serve churches regardless of location and with the flexibility of participants completing the work on their own time.
        Third, the Baugh Center will produce pamphlets and electronic documents on specific practices and issues involving ministry with children and their families. These topics will include: worshipping with children, faith development in children, scope and sequence for children’s ministry, safety policies, mandatory reporting, children in the pulpit, missions with children, music ministry, etc. These documents will be written by staff of the Baugh Center, or in partnership with experts and practitioners in the field. The specificity of these documents will allow for specialization and featuring of a variety of ministers and leaders on the topics and practices in which they show excellence.
        Finally, the Baugh Center will provide assessment of available curricula and publishers for those engaged in ministry with families. There is an abundance of resources available to those who serve with children and their families for the variety of settings and media in which their ministry takes place. The Baugh Center will assist in this assessment by reviewing available curricula and gathering information on publishers in order to assist leaders as they navigate these curricula and make choices for their congregations.
These training opportunities and resources will provide a network of
support for ministers and lay leaders engaged in this vital ministry. The variety of media and methods will serve leaders by offering what is needed while not
requiring an exhaustive time or financial commitment. And the proliferation of these resources within Baptist life will provide a shared understanding and vocabulary of ministry leading to greater cooperation and collaboration among congregation as they seek to follow Christ.
Learn More about the Baugh Center

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BAUGH CENTER FOR BAPTIST LEADERSHIP · 3001 Mercer University Dr Ste 435 · Atlanta, GA 30341-4115 · USA

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