The Daniel Vestal present this week The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship gathering in Dallas is in some ways a very different Christian than it was the first – or even the most recent – time it attended a general meeting.
That’s because the Texas native who served as CBF’s executive coordinator from 1996 to 2012 said he had undergone many significant cycles of faith deconstruction and reconstruction throughout his life.
“Of course,” he added when asked if this process was continuing. “And I hope that will be the case until my death. I think you should always grow in your faith and you should always change and grow.
“I think you should always grow in your faith and you should always change and grow.”
Chapters of change
Vestal shares many of these pivotal experiences in his new book, This inner treasure: a memoir. Its 347 pages offer detailed stories and reflections on child evangelism, his theological training at Baylor University, lessons learned as a pastor and as the first leader of the moderate cause of the Southern Baptist Convention. and on the birth and early years of CBF.
Each of these and other chapters of his faith and life followed or preceded periods of deep spiritual introspection and new self-understandings of calling, scripture and the Church, Vestal said. . And they started early with doubts about his childhood conversion and his theology.
“What was missing from the theological ground of my childhood and adolescent faith were ingredients for critical reflection, serious study and honest doubt. These items were not seen as helpful to the central mission of the church, and many were convinced they could hinder it,” he wrote in a section on doubt and rebuilding faith. “There was an anti-intellectualism implicit in my heritage, as well as a fear of academic studies.”
Vestal writes that at Baylor he was not the first to struggle with doubt, and that doubt, though often painful, was part of spiritual growth. Meeting fellow travelers on this trip also helped, as did encounters with encouraging teachers and with charismatic and Pentecostal movements.
“I have always called on sinners to repent and be converted, but more and more I have called on converted sinners to live as saints and celebrate their salvation and their indwelling Spirit.”
“As I grew in confidence and consolation, the content and style of my preaching changed. I have always called on sinners to repent and be converted, but I have increasingly called on converted sinners to live as saints and to celebrate their salvation and the Spirit within them. My preaching was still evangelical, but it also became more pastoral. A theological transformation was taking place, even though I didn’t have the vocabulary to fully describe it.
Change in the understanding of the scriptures
Vestal also underwent a transformation in his view of Scripture. Namely, his understanding shifted from what he described as “simple biblicism” to viewing the Bible as a collection of ancient texts composed from different historical and theological perspectives.
“I never lost my faith in the divine inspiration of these documents, but I did lose faith in a simplistic way of reading and interpreting them,” he writes. “I also lost confidence, at least for a while, in many accepted interpretations I had received since childhood and became less sure that my own interpretations were correct. The loss of certainty is painful, everything how the loss of naivety makes one humble.
Influence of the civil rights movement
More deconstruction and religious reconstruction for Vestal took place in the 1960s, when the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement, and the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. threw the nation into turmoil.
“It was an awakening. It was a reconversion. It was a spiritual and social awakening for me that I had never experienced before.
King’s death in particular was a turning point, Vestal said as he reflected on the book. “It was an awakening. It was a reconversion. It was a spiritual and social awakening for me that I had never experienced before. It was then that I faced my own problems of racism and life in a bubble.
He further explains in his memoir, “The events that took place that year were analyzed and televised many times, but for me, they changed my life. I became awake and aware in a way that was hard to understand at the time.
Influence of SBC battles
Tough revivals for Vestal were to continue through the 1970s and 1980s as fundamentalists campaigned for absolute control of the Southern Baptist Convention. Although he has always been a self-proclaimed theological conservative, Vestal has expressed alarm at the heavy-handed tactics of fundamentalists around the issue of biblical inerrancy. Ultimately, he conceded to run as a moderate for president of the denomination twice, losing at the annual meetings in Las Vegas in 1989 and in New Orleans in 1990.
Participating in high-profile and resentful denominational politics ushered in another shift in self-understanding – as did subsequently leaving the SBC to help launch CBF in 1991. was a vocational deconstruction because I was no longer a congregation pastor. It was a major transformation.
Life in the fellowship has brought more challenges, he added. “I had to face my own view of women’s ordination because at the time I didn’t believe in women as deacons or pastors. It was a change.
“The very nature of the gospel itself”
Other transformations have occurred over the past 20 or so years, including Vestal’s understanding “of the very nature of the gospel itself. The gospel, as I understood it in my early years, was mainly about going to heaven after death. It was really about not going to hell. I still believe in heaven and hell, but now I see the gospel as speaking of the good news of Christ’s kingdom and that we are instruments of that kingdom. It is much grander, richer and fulfilling than going to heaven or not going to hell.
“Now I consider the gospel to be about the good news of the kingdom of Christ and that we are instruments of that kingdom. It is much grander, richer and fulfilling than going to heaven or not going to hell.
The more recent deconstruction and reconstruction was inspired during a stint as a bivocational pastor at Peachtree Baptist Church in Atlanta and currently as a professor of Baptist leadership at Mercer University in Macon, Georgia.
“Being the pastor of a multicultural congregation that is 40% non-white has given me a deeper understanding of the importance of racial justice,” he explained. “I’ve always felt a commitment to reconciliation, but the experience at Peachtree, teaching at Mercer, and the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement impacted me deeply and convinced me that I had to face racism. systemic in a much deeper way.”
A movement of renewal
Vestal added that he now sees the evolution of ministry and thought he experienced as part of his calling. His experience with CBF is an example.
“When I left (the SBC), I really left and believed and felt that CBF was a movement for renewal. It was God bringing good out of evil. I had the conviction that this was what God wanted me to do. And it gave me inner peace and strength. It is the conviction that anchored me.
There was also a sense of familiarity for Vestal in his new life and ministry with CBF, he explained, as it built on his formative experiences as an evangelist.
“When I was at CBF, I was in a lot of churches. I probably preached 30 weeks a year. And I’ve done a lot of international travel. In some ways, this early traveling preaching helped me. I was also a pastor for nearly 30 years and felt a pastoral impulse to lead (CBF) pastorally, to lead the organization in a pastoral spirit. The staff was important. Missionaries were important. It wasn’t just about a CEO of an organization. My experiences as an evangelist and as a pastor have been helpful.
Vestal said it was gratifying to see the Fellowship continue as a Baptist renewal movement.
“The CBF is a very important church body of Baptist Christians and for the Christian church, and I think it will have a very important role to play in terms of congregational healing and congregational connection and having a means to develop leaders, both lay and clergy,” he noted. “And he will continue to be a powerful voice in social justice, ecumenical endeavors and interfaith dialogue.”
Vestal said he wrote his memoir to give hope to individuals and families going through difficult times. “We are truly the treasure in earthen vessels that Second Corinthians chapter 4 describes. We are certainly troubled on all sides, but we need not be perplexed. We are persecuted, but we must not give up. My story is about an imperfect vessel, but the treasure is within me. It is the good news of the living Christ and the encouragement that I want to give.
A quarter of a century after the holy war SBC | Opinion of Marv Knox
As Vestal retires, CBF reflects on the future