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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 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.

@SophiaLeeHyun

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Tom Hanrahan

The interview was very helpful, I agree. As one who is not SBC but has many SBC friends, I don't have detailed background info on the candidates.
To those who are critiquing Ed Litton's responses, I ask if we should at least see where there are truths he stated which need to be considered; and perhaps why he was voted in. His answers on gospel over politics, "drifting", and Christians going into their bubbles were clear and pointed; many believers these days get their information from only a scant few "trusted" sources, which turn out not to be very objective.

MSMI4089

I wish Sophia had asked Ed Litton to define "fundamentalist". It is just too easy to use that word to scare people. That section of the interview was a weak moment. I would also say that CRT creeping into our churches is a danger to the gospel, as much as politics (whatever he means by that). I was very disappointed in Litton's responses.

DCal3000

I appreciate that Ed Litton says he is committed to the inerrancy of Scripture and the Gospel. I also appreciate his efforts to address the evils of racism and to make sure that churches don't isolate themselves too much from the culture. At the same time, he speaks with an air of disingenuousness or naivety here that is off-putting. For one, he needs to do more to address the concerns of those he would label "fundamentalists" who he says simply live in fear of others. The SBC is not simply becoming culturally isolated of its own free will; the SBC is becoming culturally isolated because the culture is changing in major ways. It is right for churches to be concerned that culturally popular, un-Christian ideas may be infiltrating their congregations. Furthermore, his statement that "[a]lmost none of us, until six months ago, had ever heard of critical race theory" is a little jaw-dropping if he intends to help lead the SBC. Debates over critical race theory (or similar ideas) in the SBC have been occurring since at least 2019. Ed Litton should know this; if he does - don't feign ignorance. If he doesn't - Why on earth does he think he is qualified to be SBC President if he doesn't know what's going on in his own denomination? People like me who believe that certain applications of critical race theory are unbiblical get very, very discouraged when church leaders send mixed messages along the lines of - "CRT doesn't motivate us and we don't subscribe to it at all, but it's kind of good, and you really shouldn't criticize it, and if you do, you're just living in fear." Please, please, please have the decency to treat us with more respect than that, even if you disagree with us. Finally, he emphasizes that the SBC should be focused on the Gospel. I agree, but, in practice, that statement has to be fleshed out. My guess is that almost any denomination, liberal or conservative, would say they are focused on the gospel in some way or another. The question is - What is the Gospel, and how do we share it and live it out? All in all, though, I wish Ed Litton the best insofar as he tries to uphold the SBC's commitment to Christ, and I also commend Sophia Lee on an excellent interview. Very well done!

SSIL5939

As a messenger to the convention who did not vote for Litton, I will pray for him. The fact that the very controversial resolution 9 was not rescinded, indeed, declared "out of order" despite the fact that it wasn't, shows the direction this denomination is headed in. I might add, I am a person of color. If pastor Litton holds to the sufficiency and inerrancy of scripture, then he should understand that we are to be ministers of reconciliation (not racial reconciliation) , i.e., reconciling people to God by sharing the gospel. Racism is sin and we are all one in Christ, as the scriptures tell us. Man-made ideology (CRT/I) is not redemptive nor does it solve the problem of sin; only Jesus can. We all have "lived experiences" that impact us, whether for good or not. We should be listening to one another regardless of ethnicity, economics, etc. But the fact that Litton will not denounce CRT/I for the false teaching that it is , is a cause for grave consternation - at least for me. Millions of parents are fighting CRT in the schools and people are fighting against it in every aspect of our culture. Yet the SBC has embraced it as a "tool"! So why not embrace mormonism as a tool - they have great family values - or any other false teaching as a "tool"? If even non-believers see the inherent danger of CRT and it's marxist roots, why is the church accepting it? Basically because the SBC is more concerned with how social media and the media in general perceive the denomination than how God does. Since I was present at this convention, I actually heard leadership talk about how important that perception is in order to pass a particular motion. The SBC is worried about falling membership, baptisms and church plants so image and branding is more important than proclaiming the gospel. I for one am in no "bubble"; if your church members are, it's because you have allowed them to be ingrown oriented rather than outreach oriented. You don't have to have a Las Vegas style show to attract unbelievers as some churches within the SBC are doing and calling it worship. Go back to the basics of prayer, evangelism training and Biblical literacy. Stop trying to guilt trip churches that are located in demographics that don't lend themselves to multi-ethnic congregations; let the Holy Spirit be the one to determine the complexion of your church. Or have we forgotten the sovereignty of God in ALL things - including slavery? Or the fact that throughout the Bible, God uses EVERYTHING, including our sinful choices, for our good and His glory? Is the Bible sufficient or do we need man-made solutions to solve our sin issues? Racism to fight racism makes no sense at all and THAT is what CRT/I promotes. I have experienced racism first hand and it has shaped me; it has made me more concerned with pleasing God than pleasing man. Stop being men pleasers. If you want to do that, sell ice cream.

Salty1SSIL5939

Amen my brother in Christ!

HHIL1424

I completely agree with Teame, that this was a great interview, Sophia. Great follow-up questions for clarification! Thank you!

RozeGroz

Incredible! I heard excerpts from the convention, very disturbing that a resolution regarding calling abortion “sin” was resoundingly rejected, as barely 10 people clapped for it, while feminist intersectionality “..don’t tell a woman about abortion being a sin, you’re a man” got roaring applause!???? Critical race theory is a Trojan horse that seeks to make us define one another by race!! I’m black and I was NEVER raised to perceive myself as a victim, nor to seek retributive acts against white people. This is a lie from the pit of hell. His answers are Luke warm. I look forward to SBC splitting, the wheat are being separated from the tares , the tares will follow after the culture, be cut down by the angels and be cast into the fire. There is neither Jew, nor Greek, rich nor poor, male nor female in Christ Jesus. Slaves have ALWAYS existed. It is a sin issue, not an oppressed vs oppressor issue which is Marxism!! It has FINALLY infiltrated the west through race and fools follow the prompting of the devil. Christ is returning, He will decide. Men’s theory’s should not be added to the gospel. As for female pastors, the Bible is clear, but baptists have been doing this for years. SBC is dead.

Andy KnudsenRozeGroz

I am interested to see the excerpts you mention concerning abortion; do you have a link to them?

Salty1RozeGroz

Amen my sister in Christ!

AlanE

This sounds like positive news for which we can be thankful.

RSTA8431

That was a good interview. The proof will be in the pudding in due time if he is "woke" as some claim.

TEAME

Thank you, Sophia, for asking short, clear questions and letting the interviewee do the talking. Well done.

Joel

I’d never heard of Ed Litton, but as a pastor in fellowship with the SBC, I’ve been concerned about the direction of the convention, and Rev. Litton expressed my concern in this excellent interview. Like him, I’m conservative, complementarian, an inerrantist regarding Scripture and have a heart for racial reconciliation (like him, heavily influenced in that regard by John Perkins). I do not see a concern for racial reconciliation as “liberal”, and, like him, have a wife whose grasp of the Word of God is excellent, & am secure enough in my manhood to, as a pastor and elder, ask her to share something she’s learned with our church family.

DCal3000Joel

As far as critics of Ed Litton go, it is important to distinguish between those who simply believe racial reconciliation of any sort is liberal, and those who, like me, believe that certain applications of critical race theory (CRT) are un-biblical and racist. I really and sincerely wish that leaders like Ed Litton would do more to alleviate my concerns about these matters and would not lump those concerned about CRT as being all in one group - fearful fundamentalists. I absolutely want the SBC to strive for healing and repentance for the evils of racism. And John Perkins, in particular, has spoken very wisely on such subjects (though, by endorsing Joe Biden as the best allegedly pro-life candidate in the last election, Perkins has been a little more openly political than Litton seems to prefer). I do not, however, believe that CRT, as popularly applied, is the way to fight racism and have been concerned that so many SBC leaders act like CRT is an imaginary concern but also don't want to criticize it. That leaves me feeling very much toyed with (I would note in full disclosure that I am currently PCA but grew up in the SBC).