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SBC President Ed Litton on Racial Reconciliation, SBC Decline and His Own Failings

By Bob Smietana
Ed Litton failings SBC
The Rev. Ed Litton, center, participates in a panel during the Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting June 15, 2021, in Nashville, Tennessee. (RNS photo: Kit Doyle)

On the first day of March, Ed Litton announced he will not run for a second term as president of the nation’s largest Protestant denomination.

Then he got back to work.

“I am definitely not quitting,” said Litton, an Alabama pastor who was elected for a one-year term as Southern Baptist Convention president in June 2021.

Litton plans to spend the next few months getting Southern Baptists ready for their next annual meeting, to be held June 14-15 in Anaheim, California.

At the meeting, Litton said, he will present what he calls a “gospel-centered” plan for racial reconciliation in the United States, based in part on work he has done in Mobile, Alabama, as pastor of Redemption Church.  

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Southern Baptists will also learn the results of an investigation into how denominational leaders have handled sexual abuse allegations over the past 20 years. Litton did not discuss any details of that report but believes it will be a “challenge for Southern Baptists” and reveal some hard truths about how the SBC responded to abuse allegations.

During the 2021 annual convention, Southern Baptist church representatives, known as messengers, authorized the investigation and requested a report during the 2022 meeting. As he travels the country, Litton has asked his fellow Southern Baptists to pray for the investigators working on the report and to be ready to act on the report’s recommendations. 

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A woman holds signs about abuse during a rally outside the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention on June 11, 2019, in Birmingham, Ala. (RNS photo by Butch Dill)

He worries that some Southern Baptists will see the report, say “that’s horrible,” and then move on rather than taking action to change how the SBC responds to abuse and abuse allegations.

“Don’t brace for impact,” Litton said. “Brace yourself for action. We need to be people who say, ‘Let’s do what is right.’”

Litton’s 2021 election came during a contentious SBC meeting that drew more than 20,000 people to Nashville, Tennessee, and featured four candidates for president. Litton prevailed in a runoff over Mike Stone, a Georgia pastor allied with the Conservative Baptist Network, which argues the SBC is becoming liberal.

Litton had hoped to rally Southern Baptists around the issues of racial reconciliation and church planting. However, those hopes were quickly dampened by continued divisions within the SBC and by “sermongate” — a controversy over sermons Litton gave that included material from another pastor without attribution.

Litton has apologized for failing to give attribution and said in a video interview that, in the end, the controversy turned out for the good.

“I consider it a blessing to have been exposed in a way that, even though it’s humiliating and shameful, I can repent,” he said. “I know who I am in Christ Jesus.”

Litton failings
The Rev. Ed Litton speaks during a news conference after his election as the next president of the Southern Baptist Convention, June 15, 2021, in Nashville, Tennessee. (RNS photo: Kit Doyle)

Litton’s announcement was met on social media with messages of thanks for his time as president and well wishes. 

“I love Ed Litton and thankful to call him a great friend,” tweeted Florida pastor Dean Inserra, a member of the SBC’s Executive Committee. “I’m also grateful for his service as President.”

Some Southern Baptists with ties to the Conservative Baptist Network — which has long been critical of Litton and other SBC leaders— wondered why Litton did not step down right away. Memphis theologian and professor Lee Brand, a member of the CBN’s steering council, is currently the denomination’s first vice president and would likely become president if Litton left office early. 

According to the SBC’s bylaws, the first vice president would become president in the “case of death or disability of the president.” No mention is made of what would happen if a president were to resign.  

The last SBC president to serve for one term was famed Memphis megachurch pastor and radio preacher Adrian Rogers.

One candidate to succeed Litton has already emerged. News broke after Litton’s announcement that Willy Rice, pastor of Calvary Church in Clearwater, Florida, will be nominated as a candidate for SBC president. More nominations will likely follow.

Litton said he felt a sense of freedom knowing he would not be running for president again.

Instead, as he noted in the video announcing the decision, Litton said he can now focus on the issue of racial reconciliation, which has long been close to his heart and an issue Southern Baptists have historically struggled with.

He said the SBC has made strides to deal with racism and racial divisions in the past but more work is needed. The strategy he will present in Anaheim is being fine-tuned with the help of experts and pastors who have been involved in the issue of reconciliation. Earlier this year, Litton said, Redemption Church hosted a summit on reconciliation that included leaders such as Dallas pastor Tony Evans, a leading Black evangelical radio preacher and author.

Litton said racial reconciliation is tied to the SBC’s larger mission of spreading the good news about Jesus. As the United States has become more diverse, he said, so has the SBC.  And the SBC will need Black leaders and Black churches to help reach the nation for Jesus, he said.

He pointed to Mobile, where his church is located and where half the population is Black.

“How do we strategically reach people with the gospel without our African American brothers and sisters?” he said. “This is something we want to do together.”

Still, Litton and other SBC leaders working on racial reconciliation face steep challenges. In recent years, critics have labeled any discussion of racism as a sign of liberalism and have claimed that critical race theory — a legal theory about institutional racism now commonly used in conservative circles as a rallying cry against liberals — is corrupting the SBC. 

Ed Litton SBC failings
The Rev. Ed Litton participates in a panel during the Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting, June 15, 2021, in Nashville, Tennessee. (RNS photo by Kit Doyle)

There’s also a wide gap in how white Christians and Black Christians see the issue of race in America, according to data from University of Chicago sociologist Michael Emerson, co-author of “Divided by Faith,” an influential book about race and religion in the United States. 

In the summer of 2020, Emerson and fellow researchers asked Americans if they thought the country had a race problem. Most practicing Black Christians (87%) said the country had a race problem, while a minority of practicing white Christians (30%) said the same.

During the interview, Litton also talked about the ongoing decline in the SBC — where membership has dropped by more than 2 million since 2006. Because of the nation’s ongoing polarization, he said, Southern Baptists have begun to see themselves as being at odds with people outside the church.

“For several year now, we have divorced ourselves from the lost culture,” he said. “We’ve seen them as the enemy instead of seeing them as people that Jesus Christ died for and dearly loves.”

Litton said he also worries the SBC has become too much of a middle- and upper-class church and is out of touch with those of lesser economic means. According to data from the General Social Survey, people who identify as lower and working class are more likely to say they never go to church than those who identify as upper or middle class. Litton worries the prosperity of Southern Baptist has resulted in church members’ being out of touch with people who are poorer than they are.

“Our success is ultimately what is killing us,” he said.

Litton returned again to racial reconciliation, insisting that work has to be a central part of the mission of the SBC, pointing to a set of verses in the New Testament about being “ambassadors for Christ.” Those verses, he said, talk about people being reconciled to God and to each other.

He also pointed to a saying of Jesus in the Gospel of John:  “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

“That means working out our issues in love — not the rancor that is so prevalent today,” he said.

Despite some of the challenges of the past eight months, Litton is grateful for his time as president. He said his love for Southern Baptists has been “renewed and refreshed” while traveling the country seeing SBC ministries in action.

“Most people are not sitting at a keyboard fighting battles,” he said. “I see people who are the doers — who are out doing disaster relief or feeding people at the border or rescuing kids from sex traffickers or planting churches.”

Bob SmietanaBob Smietana is a national reporter for Religion News Service.



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6 thoughts on “SBC President Ed Litton on Racial Reconciliation, SBC Decline and His Own Failings”

  1. These guys are so totally out of touch!

    A bunch of fakers and money preachers !

    If you are out of touch with the woman at the well, out of touch with the Mary magdelans, out of touch with the thief on the cross, out of touch with the Good Samaritan , out of touch with the lazuruze’s , the poor, out of touch with the rich being the most destitute then you are simply out of touch with the Bible and God!

    You are deceived and blind living a life void of the Will of God

  2. Cathie Boucher

    Do these elite, famous, privileged and deceptive, so called men and women of the most high God, have any idea of the damage they are doing to the the body of Jesus Christ? Are they aware of the grief so many suffer because of their fraudulent, money grubbing fake faith? How infinitely wicked and corrosive it is the way they love to call evil good and good evil! You have wearied God by saying, “All who do evil are good in the eyes of the Lord, and He is pleased with them”. The Almighty says, “return to me and I will return to you”, but whoa to those who, with their deceptive words and actions “cause many to stumble”. The Prophet Malachi says, “ cursed is the cheat”.
    Our God will not be mocked. “Woe to the worthless shepherd, who deserts the flock! May the sword strike his arm and his right eye! May his arm be completely withered, his right eye totally blinded!”
    All that being said, how hideous it is to believe the beloved within the African American community want to hear anything from a man who plagiarizes.

  3. Richard Stadter

    As a Southern Baptist, I fail to see the outrage. The Gospel is primary.My church is mixed. My family is mixed.

  4. In my humble opinion racial reconciliation is a straw-man. If we take a global perspective, there is more “slavery” now than at any other time in history. This time it targets children and young woman being trafficked and exploited!

    People want to blame others and point fingers. We never seem to talk about the phenomenon of culture and class. It is like the church is a ‘Johnny come lately’ and does a poor job at that. We all have the thin dark line through our hearts that manifests itself as hatred, filthiness’, racism, adultery and murder. “Racism” is not unique to any particular race, religion or ethnicity. Honestly, we have a lot more opportunities for all peoples of various colors than most nations-that is why people wish to come here. It is not the bogyman that separates us all. It is just one manifestation that haunts the human race. My immediate family is made up of white, Mexican, and Filipina, and we go to a church that is half African American. We worship together and try to love each other. We do not make a thing of “racial reconciliation” and that white people owe black people something. In my opinion, it is a condescending attitude. I come from a working class, broken family and never had the same opportunities as middle or upper class citizens. With that being said, if Mr. Litton believes racial reconciliation is where he can use his abilities, then that is wonderful.

    We are a post-Christian society and droves of people have left the church in the U.S. Just because you want to work things out with our black brethren does not make one a “liberal”. It is used as a pejorative term from our more ‘conservative’ brethren’.

    1. Marin Heiskell

      @Vance –
      If you believe that working on racial reconcilitation means talking about how “white people owe black people something”, then perhaps you need to check your own heart. That’s quite a condescending attitude towards those believers who DO want to “reconcile the races’ and truly bring us back together by laying our past and present hurts at the hands (and words) of one another at the foot of the cross.

  5. I find it very troubling that People who say they know and love Jesus, who supposedly are indwelt by the Holy Spirit, need a block of instruction on how to reconcile with other “Christians” who were created by the same God in the same image and likeness as any other human being. I am just amazed!

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