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A new Southern Baptist leader in a contentious age

Ed Litton thinks his denomination has become culturally isolated, not mission-minded

Ed Litton Illustration by Thomas Fluharty

A new Southern Baptist leader in a contentious age

More than 15,000 Southern Baptists gathered in Nashville Tuesday to elect a new president of the Southern Baptist Convention. Ed Litton, a little-known pastor of Redemption Church in Saraland, Ala., was the surprise winner, edging prime contender and Georgia pastor Mike Stone by 556 votes in a runoff. Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President Albert Mohler Jr. (a WORLD board member), also considered a serious contender, got about a quarter of the votes in the first round. Randy Adams, a state convention leader who ran on reformist ideas, received under 5 percent of the votes.

WORLD got the first sit-down interview with Litton on Thursday.

Congratulations. How do you feel? I’m overwhelmed and quite humbled. We’re at a really important moment in our history. And I think this convention has moved in a very clear direction.

Which direction is that? We’re heading to the gospel, to the nations. In the beginning of World War II, the United States sent Navy destroyers to protect a massive armada of ships that were taking supplies to Great Britain. And I see those ships as an analogy to Southern Baptists. We’re not a denomination, we’re a convention of churches. Each “ship” is a different church, and the payload is the gospel. We’re getting the gospel to the nations. We are deciding that we’re going to stay on target, not be distracted by politics or saving the culture—not turning inward, not being self-protective.

Would the other candidates have gone in the wrong direction? Dr. Al Mohler is an amazing blessing to the Southern Baptists and would have been a good choice. My concern about other candidates is that they had issues that stopped everything and kind of went backwards.

Backwards? Based on what I’ve read and seen, they want to tighten and narrow certain interpretations of our Baptist Faith and Message (BFM 2000) and hold people accountable for things that the BFM 2000 is very broad on.

For example? Gender roles. We are a complementarian convention. I am complementarian. And yet there’s a broadness in our BFM 2000: We believe that a pastor should be a qualified and called-out male. That’s in line with Scripture. But women play a critical function in our churches, and some feel like they are being told what they can’t do instead of what women are called to do.

You received a fair amount of criticism for having your wife Kathy with you in the pulpit. We did at least two series of messages together: one on family, the other on marriage. It was very apropos, and I think a lot of pastors understand this. Kathy is not only my wife but under my authority as her pastor, and I was inviting her to speak into these issues. There are genuine brothers who have a different view who would never do that—and I respect that. But the BFM 2000 has a broadness in which we can both continue (using the WWII analogy) to get those ships to the nations together. All the captains don’t have to see eye to eye.

It seems all the presidential candidates agree on the mission of evangelism. But they differ on where they see attacks. For you, who is the enemy? Satan. Scripture says Satan prowls like a lion looking for someone to devour. If he can get believers to fight each other, he’s sitting back laughing, because we’re just destroying each other. Our neighbors see it and they see the unkindness.

How is he attacking believers? Satan’s fall is our fall: pride. Pride is a serious problem for us. The Bible tells us that our job is to humble ourselves. When we turn on each other, sometimes it’s because of envy. Sometimes pride. When we demonize each other, when we attack each other, it builds wounds and distrust. We’ve got to see Satan’s schemes in this.

What do you make of such a close vote? It’s humbling. Southern Baptists are always concerned about drifting. In some ways we should be, but I don’t think we’re drifting into liberalism. We’re drifting into fundamentalism. Out of fear, people want to tighten things down and make sure everybody’s lined up on all the tertiary issues. But our focus has got to be the gospel.

Southern Baptists are concerned about declining baptisms and declining Cooperative Program giving. I believe fear has driven us to live in a bubble in our churches, so that we don’t trust people who don’t look like us, think like us, or vote like us. We’re being isolated from the world, when Jesus said we’re to be in this world, not of this world. We need to love people and engage them with God’s love, which means we care when they are being treated unjustly. We care when they are hurting and struggling. Our churches have become our cultural bubble, where we protect ourselves, look out the windows, and say, “Look how bad things are out there.”

What about the almost 50 percent of people who are disappointed about the election result? I had multiple people come up to me and say, “I didn’t vote for you. But I love you. And I’m praying for you.” That’s overwhelming to me. It’s humbling to me. That’s who we are. We had people here who were angry, scared, worried, [starts tearing up], yet show that they see friends. This is a family whom you’ve gotta love.

What do you say to the people concerned about leftward drift? I believe in the inerrancy and infallibility and sufficiency of Scripture—always have, always will. I believe our confessional statement is absolutely true, and I live within the boundaries of that. I’m very conservative in my theology. I’m conservative in my politics. I have been on the board of the Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary for many years, and we are very stringent on hiring new professors. We ask them to sign all our statements on doctrines. And we say, “If you ever change your mind about this, would you be willing to resign? Because otherwise, we’ll fire you.” I know of no professor in any of our six seminaries who is anything less than fully committed to doctrinal truths.

There was leftward drift in the SBC in the ’70s. Southern Baptists should be very thankful for the conservative resurgence that brought us out of that. But now we’re facing a whole new battle: a culture that’s rapidly secularizing our country. How do we communicate the gospel of God’s love to those people? It should make all of us sober up about how we present ourselves and one another to the world. Scripture tells us if you and I have a theological difference, we are to talk it out. But we have people who castigate by name people whom they don’t even know. That really needs to stop. We need to repent of that.

Some issues have become very political. I think we’ve been distracted by politics. I dearly love my country. My father was a veteran of World War II, Korean War, Vietnam War. I grew up in a Navy home. I love my nation, love my flag, and I’m very patriotic. But I have changed my attitude about how, as a believer, I talk about those things. The best way to make good citizens is for people to come to know Christ and grow as disciples. And let them figure out what and whom they should vote for.

Incoming Southern Baptist Convention President Ed Litton, left, and outgoing President J. D. Greear, kneeling, talk with denomination members following the conclusion of the annual Southern Baptist Convention meeting Wednesday.

Incoming Southern Baptist Convention President Ed Litton, left, and outgoing President J. D. Greear, kneeling, talk with denomination members following the conclusion of the annual Southern Baptist Convention meeting Wednesday. AP Photo/Mark Humphrey

Tell me about your views on racial issues in the SBC and in our country. I live in Mobile, Ala., which has a very scarred and painful past. The last slave ship to offload in North America was in our city. The last lynching in our country was in our city (in 1981).

That wasn’t so long ago. After Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, Mo., a group of pastors, civic leaders, judges, attorneys, and business leaders started meeting. We became known as the Pledge group, and we sponsored something called Shrink the Divide. We thought, We’re gonna try to solve this problem of race. God humbled us. We learned that what we need to do first is get to know each other and start to learn to love each other. And we did. It was all based on the gospel.

Almost none of us, until six months ago, had ever heard of critical race theory. What we were doing was obeying Scripture. We worked through two years of painful conversations every two weeks. Listening to the reality of racism began to break and change my heart. I had to deal with a lot of my own attitudes. I assumed so many things about my African American brothers and sisters—about their theology, lifestyle, politics. A lot of us can’t understand why our politics are so divergent, but that’s because we don’t know the history. But politics is not the reason we’re together. It’s Jesus. When you do that, you will find unbelievable kinship and friendship. There will be no dominant race in this country in just a few years. And the Lord’s preparing us for this.

I don’t think a single Southern Baptist would say, “I’m for racism.” But there are different approaches to race. John Perkins once told me, “I don’t call a white man a racist. It’s the same as calling an African American the N-word.” John’s purpose is reconciliation, and I would put myself in the same vein. I don’t think Southern Baptists are racists. I don’t think Southern Baptists want to be known as racists. But I think there’s a fear and timidity about crossing that line to your neighbor who doesn’t look like you, think like you, or vote like you. I think there is a cultural fear within a lot of people of my color, that they’re losing.

Losing what? They feel like they’re losing their position, their status, their country, their history. There’s nothing being lost. We don’t need to fear that. I want to see Southern Baptists in every church have a missiological point of view, where we see the town God has placed us in as where He wants us to represent Him.

Some say the more we talk about race, the more divided we get. We’re divided because we’re not talking about it. We’re not listening to each other. The whole conversation has been defused. When I started this racial reconciliation group, I was scared. I didn’t want to be called a bigot. I was also afraid my peers would call me “woke”—which is exactly what some are doing. People in the church had never once called me a “liberal” until I started working in this area. So I had to die to it: Call me whatever you want, but this is a command in Scripture, and the spirit of God is leading me to do this. I never dreamed of making racial reconciliation the centerpiece, and it’s not. But it’s an important part of my life, and I’m not going to back down.

Sexual abuse was an important topic during this year’s meeting. I’m glad. I think with COVID-19, there was a pause. And when we pause, people can forget. And we can’t forget. This is something that is with us. It’s not going away. And we need to address it the way Jesus would address it.

Messengers overwhelmingly passed a motion asking the president to create a task force to oversee a third-party investigation into the executive committee’s alleged mishandling of sexual abuse cases. How are you going to do that? I have some ideas, but it’s probably not a good time for me to share them. I ask people to pray. I am committed to greater transparency—not less. We are not going to cover things up. We’re going to do everything we can to find out the truth, then proceed. We have to make our churches a safe place. There have to be standardized practices. We’re not going to forget the people who have been abused. They need to know that we’re walking with them the best we can.

One executive committee member told me he’s against an investigation because he doesn’t want to divert money from missions and seminaries. I would agree. I don’t want to divert our funds, but we don’t have an option. We have an issue we must deal with. Let’s say I’m driving down the highway and my tire blows out. What am I gonna do? Fix the tire. This is a corrective action that has been long due. And I pray it will be handled well, and I ask others to pray for that too.

A version of this article appears in the July 17, 2021, print edition with a headline “A New Leader in a Contentious Age.”

Ed Litton

Ed Litton AP Photo/Mark Humphrey

Sophia Lee

Sophia is a former senior reporter for WORLD Magazine. She is a World Journalism Institute and University of Southern California graduate. Sophia resides in Los Angeles, Calif., with her husband.



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