Ed Litton says he won’t seek reelection as SBC president, prompts mixed reactions
Southern Baptist Convention President Ed Litton departed from decades of tradition Tuesday to announce he will not seek reelection this summer, prompting reactions ranging from relief to disappointment eight months into his one-year term.
Litton, who is also the senior pastor of Redemption Church in Alabama, said in a short video posted on YouTube that he felt God was calling him to continue his work in racial reconciliation, which he started in the days after a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, shot dead Michael Brown, an 18-year-old African American youth, in August 2014.
“For me, this is bittersweet news,” he said. “The truth is that I believe this work is something that God is calling me to do and to devote myself to for the next five to 10 years of my life. But I also believe that [at] this important moment in the life of our convention, it is best for me to do so as a pastor and not from the office of President of the Southern Baptist Convention.”
Litton was elected SBC president last June after narrowly defeating Georgia Pastor Mike Stone in a testy runoff vote. He vowed to “build bridges, not walls.” Since his election, however, America’s largest Protestant denomination has continued to battle over issues of race, sexual abuse and accusations of plagiarism.
Less than two weeks into his presidency, Litton was forced to apologize after a video posted on YouTube highlighted similarities between separate sermons delivered by the SBC leader and his predecessor, J.D. Greear of The Summit Church in Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina.
Both men suggested in the video that God appears to “whisper” about sexual sin in the Bible, but Litton did not give credit to Greear, from whom he borrowed the idea.
“It’s no secret that this has been a difficult year as we fought to emerge from two years of pandemic, many of our pastors and churches are struggling. We’ve also navigated some painful conflicts and intense discussions right now,” he said.
“I want to speak as plainly as I can. As I’ve previously stated, I take responsibility for my own failures and shortcomings for mistakes I’ve made in the preparation and delivery of particular sermons. But we are in a critical moment, and I believe that nothing should distract us from what lies ahead.”
Litton, who recently called on the SBC to remove the “stains” of racism and sexual abuse from the denomination, also noted that he will present his grassroots plan to promote racial reconciliation in Southern Baptist churches across the country at the annual SBC meeting and pastors’ conference scheduled for Anaheim, California, in June.
A report on sexual abuse in the denomination will also be presented by a sexual abuse task force appointed by Litton.
“The messengers from our churches must be prepared to act upon the recommendations they bring forth. We are also at a time of increased division and polarization, and I earnestly believe that we must be united in our pursuit of that one sacred effort to reach the nations for Christ,” Litton said. “We must keep working to eradicate the stains of sexual abuse and racism from our convention. We must not fail to reckon with our past mistakes, but we must commit to seeking for a better future where racism and prejudice are relics of the past.”
His resignation comes as critics called on Litton to resign after being accused of plagiarizing Greear’s sermon on Romans last summer. At the time, Greear said that Litton had asked for permission to use some of the content from the popular sermon series at his own preaching at Redemption Church.
Some Southern Baptists stated on social media after Litton’s announcement that they believe the SBC president should have resigned immediately after the video surfaced.
“I’m thankful Ed Litton will not be running for office again,” Tom Buck, the senior pastor of First Baptist Church in Lindale, Texas, said on Twitter.
“As I listened to Litton’s video, I immediately thought that stepping down now and letting the 1st VP, Lee Brand, assume the role of President would be a great first gesture toward his own stated goal, would it not?”
Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary Ph.D. student Corey Smith agreed.
“Sermon plagiarism is not a mistake, shortcoming, or failure. It is a sin. We must call sin what it is, sin. Ed Litton should have repented publicly of sin and resigned immediately as a result. However, I am glad he will not be the SBC president next year,” he said.
Others were more supportive of Litton.
Adam W. Greenway, president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and one of six members of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Council of Seminary Presidents, insisted in a statement that Litton deserves the prayerful support of the convention as he finishes his term.
“Whatever one may think about the circumstances surrounding @EdLitton’s election and tenure as SBC president, and regardless of one’s thoughts about whether or not he should have run for reelection, he deserves our continued prayers as he finishes his term and fulfills his duties,” Greenway wrote.
Former Southern Baptist Convention President James Merritt, the senior pastor of Cross Pointe Church in Georgia, said he has the “deepest love and respect” for Litton. Merritt said, “regardless of any other narrative,” Litton is “a true man of God who loves his Lord, his church and his denomination.”
“This was a selfless decision that God will honor and I commend and admire and thank him for his service to the SBC,” Merritt tweeted.
Dwight McKissic Sr., leader of Cornerstone Baptist Church in Arlington, Texas, and one of the Southern Baptist Convention’s most outspoken black pastors, praised Litton’s commitment to racial reconciliation.
“Ed Litton has the track record, trust, & set forth the trajectory to address race issues in the SBC & America in a constructive & redeeming manner,” he tweeted. “Grateful for his leadership as president. Praying & believing God will bless this well timed & needed initiative to heal the land.”
Dan Darling, the director of the Land Center for Cultural Engagement at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and former vice president of communications for the SBC's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, called Litton “a good man and a great pastor.”