This Commission stands at the beginning of a new era.
We will build and reconstitute this team to meet the demands of the times we find ourselves in; fulfill the assignment given to us by our churches, initiated over a century ago; and do all we can to bring honor and glory to the name and saving grace of Jesus Christ by telling a dark public square of the “light of life” we read about in John 8.
Times of challenge
Yet, we must acknowledge the broader context we are operating in. Right now, an ideology of extreme individualism, coupled with a wave of loneliness and despair, is coursing through our society. We see this in the breakdown of institutional life, the atomization of culture, and the fact that not only are meaningful relationships being tested, but are even failing to be formed. Community life is eroding. Neighborliness is fading.
In Baptist life, cooperation is being strained. Each day seems to bring new events, legal matters, and moments that are conspiring against us.
While some of this may be naturally refining, in many instances, something far more devious is occurring. Figures and voices have emerged seeking to gain attention, followers, and influence. They would do this at the expense of cooperation on the essentials that have long been a hallmark of our churches.
A dark public square. A distressed convention. Division all around us.
An encouragement for dark and divided times
However, as a Christ follower, I am never without hope. And, as a Tennessean, I always believe something can be done. My state has produced a long line of heroes who sought to develop solutions, work with anyone of goodwill, and build bridges:
- From former Sen. Howard Baker, who rejected the notion that our adversaries on any given question must be our enemies;
- to Bob Corker, who became the leading voice in Washington against human trafficking and unjust systems when no one else would,
- and Lamar Alexander, who became governor at a unique moment of constitutional peril for our state.
All of these figures and others in Tennessee’s history often sought to overcome gaps and achieve consensus between people—all while adhering firmly to their own conservative principles. While I am a far cry from any of these noble statesmen, their body of work has had a profound effect on my vision of leadership. In fact, Alexander would often quote a friend from West Tennessee, author Alex Haley, who said “Find the good and praise it.”
My Baptist mind translates that like this: Be an encourager. Be a Barnabas. So allow me to do that briefly here.
While our convention is certainly being tested right now, both from within and without, my discussions with pastors over the last several months lead me to believe we can get through this hour––and be the better for it. There is an appetite for association, a real call for cooperation, and a renewed belief in the Baptist view of the world. And that is where this Commission has such a unique role to play:
- An agency that assists our churches and acts as an ambassador to the state.
- An entity that serves our pastors and engages the culture.
- A team that operates and speaks with both conviction and kindness.
What our name means for our churches
There’s a theme communicated by the very name of this organization: The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. While this entity is over 100 years old, that name is actually rather new. Given to us in 1997 and purposefully selected, every word is just as important now as it was then:
- Ethics: applying the moral demands of the gospel to the cultural questions and challenges of the day.
- Religious liberty: believing that a “free church in a free state is the ideal;” and that this principle is helpful for spreading the gospel because no one can be coerced into the Kingdom of God.
Without a doubt, these twin priorities are robust and challenging. Yet, as I consider how this entity may best fulfill our mission, I am increasingly convinced the most important word is “and.” And is the bridge that shows these two concepts are inextricably linked in our minds. We don’t sacrifice one for the other; they are of equal value.
I believe this framing is essential to the very work carried out by our team.
It means we operate at the intersection of both faith and culture.
It means we tell the state that it has a God-ordained responsibility to protect the most vulnerable, from the abortionist’s knife to the drugmaker’s chemicals.
It means we remind the Church she has always been a refuge for the abused and marginalized—for those preyed upon by the sexual revolution in culture and those preyed upon within our walls. In fact, we should rush to link arms with the foremost experts to rid us of the plague of abuse in our midst, to cast out those who would target the vulnerable in our pews and playrooms, and make our churches places of safety and sanctuary for everyone.
It means we hold the state accountable by reminding it of the proper limits of its authority. When it tramples the consciences of citizens or seeks to overturn the fundamental and biological truths of what it means to be a man, woman, or, very soon now, a human.
And it means we continue to walk alongside our churches as we pursue true racial unity. This convention has come so far, yet our work is far from finished. But I have hope because I know our churches possess a Revelation 7-heart that will not relent from this mission until every tribe, tongue, and nation is reflected in our convention.d
In all this, I speak clearly because our churches have done so.
We must always take care to listen to our churches and assist them. When we are aligned like this, it ensures this Commission will continue to bring a deep, abiding, consistent, and thoroughly Baptist voice to the public square. And that is our foremost aim: Render assistance to our churches and, from that service, speak to a watching world.
*This article is adapted from President Leatherwood’s address at his installation on March 20, 2023.