Starting a new job can be nerve-wracking for anyone, but for Rev. Ed Litton, just elected president of the 14 million-member Southern Baptist Convention, his first two weeks on the job could perhaps best be described as a baptism by fire.
Mr. Litton, 61, was elected at a contentious session at which critical race theory, clergy sexual abuse and a decline in membership were hot topics. Dubbed a moderate in press reports, he narrowly edged conservative pastor Mike Stone of Georgia in a run-off. The Rev. Al Mohler, Jr., dean of the movement’s Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, left after the first round of voting saw him win 26% of votes cast.
But since the election, the new leader of the nation’s largest Protestant denomination has faced charges of plagiarizing material for his sermons and of suggesting the Bible only “whispers” about matters such as homosexuality — the kind of contention that — if true — is certain to cause conservative tempers to flare.
“I can’t say I expected all of it,” Mr. Litton said in a videoconference from his church office in Mobile, Alabama on Tuesday. “I did expect some things to happen. But yes, it’s been more than I expected.”
He added, “There are moments, you know, you entertain [the question], ‘Why did I do this?’ And when people come up to you and say, ‘I don’t know whether to give you congratulations or condolences,’ I understand that now.”
Unlike most American churches, the Southern Baptist Convention is not a denomination with a top-down hierarchy. Mr. Litton is the president of the convention, an annual meeting of 15,000 delegates (called “messengers”) who vote on a range of issues — “It’s the largest deliberative body in the world,” he said — any of whom can get to a microphone and speak to a given question.
Much of the disagreement at the group’s annual meeting in Nashville two weeks ago centered on “critical race theory,” CRT for short, an academic discipline attacked by conservatives as undermining the foundations of American society and democracy by arguing that the nation and its institutions are all racist at their core.
While the Southern Baptist Convention was formed in response to northern Baptists opposition to slavery, the SBC repudiated racism 26 years ago, calling for reconciliation. In that 1995 statement, the group voted to “lament and repudiate historic acts of evil such as slavery,” and to “ask forgiveness from our African-American brothers and sisters” for past misdeeds.
“When I think about CRT, I understand the theory of it,” Mr. Litton said. “… I often tell people, the color of my skin does not determine if I’m a bigot or not. What determines if I’m a bigot is my heart.”
Mr. Litton also came under fire for a sermon in which he quoted his immediate predecessor as Southern Baptist president, Rev. J.D. Greear, speaking about the Bible “whispering” about sexual sins and homosexuality in comparison to areas where the Scripture supposedly “shouts.”
A video documenting the similarities in Mr. Litton’s and Mr. Greear’s sermons went viral earlier this week, sparking concerns in some quarters over the new Baptist leader.
“The context of the message as a whole was not saying that sexual sin is something that the Bible whispers about,” Mr. Litton said. “I was saying in comparison to how much many of us shout about sexual sin as opposed to greed and avarice and jealousy and envy. So compared to those two, the Bible is almost a whisper compared to how much [it] shouts with these things.”
He added, “For years as a pastor, I talked so much about [sexual sins] that I didn’t talk enough about deeper sins of the heart. … The other thing too, is every sin has a source. That source sin for all of us is idolatry. It’s where we want something other than God calling the shots in our life.”
Mr. Litton said Redemption Church had removed dozens of his old sermons from its website because of a transition in web hosting and to conserve disk space, stating the older messages remain available on YouTube.
While the Southern Baptists have lost 2.3 million members in the past 15 years, including some 435,000 in the past year alone according to the group’s research arm, Mr. Litton contends the church is growing in more diverse congregations.
“In all of our ethnic work, whether it’s Asian Americans, Hispanic Americans, or African Americans, we’re growing at over 200%,” he said. “While our Anglo churches are declining [at] a 2% rate per annum. I think that reflects that as our culture becomes diversified, where we’re making headway is where we reach into communities that are diversified communities.”
Mr. Litton added that “where churches tend to get stuck in their traditions and just kind of sit there” is where the Baptists see declines.
He displayed some additional humility when told about recent comments from Dr. Robert Jeffress, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Dallas, Texas, one of the convention’s larger and more prominent congregations.
Asked about the impact of the Southern Baptist Convention’s actions on the average “person-in-the-pew,” Mr. Jeffress replied, “I think Shakespeare had the best description of the Southern Baptist Convention, when he wrote it was ‘full of sound and fury, signifying nothing,’” adding that the group’s voted actions in Nashville “mean absolutely nothing to most local churches.”
Mr. Litton’s response: “Well, there’s probably some truth in Robert’s words. I think the average person probably doesn’t give a lot of thought to it,” adding that convention actions “don’t resonate with them unless they intentionally search out what we’ve done there.”
• Mark A. Kellner can be reached at email@example.com.
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