Ed Litton, Southern Baptist Leaders, and Judgment Day Honesty: A Call for Accountability and Action by Southern Baptist Churches

The eighteenth-century writer, Samuel Johnson, once quipped, “Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” Though, to my knowledge, I am not slated for such an end, I can testify to the sanctifying value of drawing near to death. It provides perspective and an opportunity to think simply, critically, and honestly, by reminding one of that unavoidable reality that Scripture announces unequivocally: “It is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment” (Hebrews 9:27).

On that day, when called to give an account for every idle word and the stewardship entrusted to us as those who have received the gospel of Jesus Christ, the kind of equivocation that often serves so well when we don’t want to make necessary judgments will be meaningless. As a Pastor, I have a double burden in this regard because I will “have to give an account” as one of those charged with keeping watch over the souls of the people I serve (Hebrews 13:17).

My late friend and mentor, Ernie Reisinger would occasionally exhort me when dealing with difficult, vitally important matters, to speak with “judgment day honesty.” He meant that I should evaluate the matter with the kind of seriousness that recognizes one day I will stand and give an account for what I say and do.

It is in that spirit that I have tried to evaluate the antics of many Southern Baptist leaders and pastors over the last seventeen months. An honest evaluation of several facts should convince Bible believing Southern Baptists who are interested in maintaining—or recovering—the integrity of the SBC that we are fast approaching DEFCON 1 in terms of how fast and far the convention has fallen.

The response to the Covid crisis, 2020 riots, BLM “protests,” governmental tyranny, and violation of religious liberties was in so many ways, abysmal. From Al Mohler’s “Covenant and Commitment” for Southern Seminary and Boyce College employees and students to Danny Akin’s disastrous “How to Shepherd Your Church through Racial Injustice” led by four Southeastern Baptist Seminary faculty to Kevin Ezell’s church planters’ similarly unbiblical assessment of the riots (though it seems NAMB may have removed their video from their website), Southern Baptists were served very poorly by those we employ to give leadership to key institutions and entities.

These are just a few highlights from the last seventeen months. Space does not allow me to elaborate on previous failures like the hiring of a faculty member who has endorsed the damnable Revoice conference or the elevating to seminary Provost of a self-described racist and white supremacist. Nor will I describe the cowardly smear campaign and admission of participation in sexual abuse coverup by Russell Moore (who stayed quiet for months if not years about what he callsa culture where countless children have been torn to shreds, where women have been raped and then “broken down”) formerly of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.

When questions were raised about these events by countless “SBC headquarters” (local churches), SBC elites dismissed or ignored their concerns altogether, scrubbed websites, and accused the pastors of those churches of being troublemakers or otherwise tried to gaslight them. It’s bad enough to be treated this way by those who are supposed to be our leaders. It’s doubly immoral to expect churches to continue to pay those leaders’ salaries as they do so.

Given the disconnect between the elites and rank-and-file Southern Baptists, I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised by the almost complete failure of leadership when Ed Litton’s dishonesty and pulpit plagiarism came to light.

To be sure, I did not vote for Ed Litton to be the SBC president in Nashville. I didn’t like the fact that he claimed that he did not allow women to preach in his church while videos of him and his wife preaching were circulating. I also didn’t like the fact that NAMB (and on at least one occasion, Southwestern Baptist Seminary) sponsored him speaking around the SBC on the campaign trail. For me, those are simple integrity issues.

On June 26, less than two weeks after Litton was elected President of the SBC on the second ballot, I was sent a video clip of Litton’s sermon on Romans 1, along with a sermon by JD Greear on Romans 1. The date on Greear’s sermon indicated that it was preached in January 2019, a year or so before Litton plagiarized it. A comparison of the two was (and still is) bad. Very bad. After watching the video that morning, I sent Ed a letter. I wrote it as a pastor to a pastor. I acknowledged that while there might be an explanation that I simply could not conceive, what he did “looks very bad.” I encouraged him to step away from the demands of ministry long enough to “seek help and encouragement from trusted counselors.”

Those were my thoughts after seeing just the initial plagiarized sermon by Litton. Since then at least half a dozen more have been documented, including one from several years ago where Ed and his wife stole from Tim Keller in one of their joint sermons. There may be many more, but we may never know since Ed removed over 140 of his sermons from the Internet once the scandal broke.

And make no mistake, it is a scandal—scandal of massive proportions. The emperor has no clothes, despite how much certain SBC elitists and those who want Ed to further a progressive agenda try to convince us that he is arrayed in the finest of fabric. Just ask any child. Or think about what answer you will give to the Lord were He to ask you about Ed’s plagiarism on the Day of Judgment.

To my knowledge, only one SBC leader spoke directly against pulpit plagiarism in the immediate aftermath of Litton’s dishonesty being made public. Jason Allen, President of Midwestern Baptist Seminary tweeted this on July 5, 2021.

 

This is hardly profound but in the presence of the deafening silence of his fellow SBC elites, pastors and churches welcomed it. Al Mohler, who was in an admittedly awkward spot having come in third in the race for the SBC presidency behind Litton and Mike Stone in Nashville, did recently speak on the matter in response to a student question about it. He put it in the context of the widespread practice of pastors using “manufactured sermons.”

There simply is no doubt that this conversation we’re having right now is occasioned by the fact that the president of the Southern Baptist Convention, Dr. Ed Litton, has been involved to some degree in preaching someone else’s sermon. Beyond that we can see the whole issue of the kind of manufacture of sermons that is now widespread. I would simply have to say that that is precisely not what we are trying to teach or to hold up as an example here.

Again, true enough. But Southern Baptist churches and pastors could wish for the full-throated renunciation of this kind of dishonesty that a younger Mohler gave in 2006. Then, he called pulpit plagiarism “theft” and used unequivocal language to renounce it.

Words are our business, I cannot imagine using someone else’s as my own. It [Plagiarism] is one of the most despicable practices I can imagine… I cannot imagine sitting in the congregation knowing that this guy is simply parroting something he has read, borrowed, or stolen from someone else….He’s not [a preacher] if he is preaching somebody else’s stuff….It is never right to steal [a sermon] and it’s never right to suggest that it’s yours if it’s not….If a comedian stole another comedian’s material he would end up in court.

A simple google search reveals that this kind of plain-spoken assessment of pulpit plagiarism used to be common fare among Bible believing evangelical leaders, including Southern Baptists. Now, however, that we have a serial plagiarist as President of the SBC, our leaders have lost their voices. Or maybe it’s their spines. My guess is that it’s the latter.

So here is where we find ourselves. Southern Baptist Churches are being led by a President who is a confirmed pulpit plagiarist. As I see it, he should resign immediately and seek help from men of integrity who will deal honestly with him in caring for his soul. Ed Litton lacks integrity. He has forfeited any opportunity to lead the SBC effectively.

None of the SBC leaders have issued any kind of direct, public rebuke. None have called for him to resign, though several pastors have done so. Southern Baptists deserve better.

What should such leaders do when confronted with their failure to lead? They should repent and start doing what their constituents rightfully expect them to do. Or, if they refuse, they should resign.

What should churches do when the leaders whose salaries they pay fail to lead? They should call for their leaders to repent or resign. If such leaders are unwilling to respond to these kinds of admonitions from their congregational “headquarters,” then the churches should defund their institutions. If I pay you to guard my house and you stand by while enemies infiltrate at will, don’t expect me to keep you in my employ.

It is a matter of stewardship. I cannot keep count of the SBC churches who have contacted me out of a deep concern over the lack of integrity right now in their convention. Many of them have left or are in the process of leaving the SBC. Some are looking for an alternative—a way to stay Southern Baptist while demanding that the SBC elites quit ignoring simple facts and the expressed concerns of churches.

Here is what needs to happen—and in many places already is happening in churches of all sizes. Churches need to vote to stop sending financial support to those institutions and entities in the SBC whose leaders refuse to lead. Since each agency and institution gets a slice of the money given through the Cooperative Program (CP), this will inevitably mean working around the CP. I take no pleasure in that thought because the CP is an ingenuous mechanism for funding ministries around the world. Churches should determine which SBC entities—if any—they are willing to continue supporting financially. They can then decide to designate to those entities.

From my vantage point, the two entities that I am happy to support are the International Mission Board and the Disaster Relief work through our state convention. I don’t want our international missionaries to suffer for the leadership failures of SBC elites. And Southern Baptist Disaster Relief is second to none. If only half of the 47,000 SBC churches were to escrow or designate their financial gifts in this fashion, the elites would finally be forced to listen. If they are unwilling to confront Ed Litton over his lack of integrity as matter of principle, perhaps they will be motivated to do so as a matter of principal—especially if that principal begins to dry up because they have lost the confidence of the churches whom they serve.

Will this work? Absolutely. Have we reached the point where this course of action is advisable? Sadly, I believe we have. The facts of Ed Litton’s plagiarism are not in dispute. Neither is the God-honoring course of action open to him.

It is foolish to continue financing failed leadership. As long as Ed Litton remains president of the SBC, Southern Baptist leaders are failing. It is past time to hold them accountable.

It’s not complicated. It’s just hard.


Follow Tom Ascol: