The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), the largest Protestant Christian church denomination in the United States, may pay a great price for its hesitance to address the spread of critical race theory even among conservative evangelicals.
In June, the SBC met for its annual convention, the largest deliberative body in the world. Turnout was high, with nearly 16,000 “messengers” or church representatives present. This happened for two reasons: first, the 2020 convention had been canceled due to coronavirus lockdowns, and second, churches within the coalition were increasingly noticing fractures over social issues — namely, a Christianized version of “antiracism” that, for better or worse, has been given the catch-all label “critical race theory” (CRT).
Critical Race Theory? In Church?
Even before CRT became a hot issue in public education and government training materials, several Christian voices had raised the alarm about their institutions being infiltrated by proponents of the far-left ideology. Specifically in the SBC, several independent bloggers, YouTubers, and pastors warned that professors in the denomination’s seminaries were sounding quite CRT-ish.
Of course, no one is openly announcing, “I believe in CRT and here’s why you should too,” but many sermons, panels, books, and small group curricula have subtly entrapped believers with extra-biblical commands about “whiteness,” “privilege,” and “allyship,” exploiting the feeling of words like “racism” and “white supremacy” while imbuing their meanings with what we should see as positive, Biblical things, like hard work or receiving advantages from one’s parents.
And this kind of theological drift was noticeably infecting the SBC at its highest levels. Russell Moore, then the head of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), put on a conference commemorating the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr’s assassination (MLK50). The presentations lionizing King (an important, positive figure in American history — who, by most accounts, did not affirm core tenets of Christianity, such as the literal resurrection of Jesus, and is reportedly on tape observing a literal rape and doing nothing to stop it) veered into extremely woke territory — generational “complicity” in MLK’s murder and denigrating black conservatives as “Angloid on the inside,” for example.
Former convention president J.D. Greear, the lead pastor of a North Carolina megachurch, ran into controversy when he preached that the Bible “whispers about sexual sin” like homosexuality (er, no), compared to how the text “shouts” about sins that, conveniently, secular culture also frowns upon. Around the same time, he boasted at a convention about practicing affirmative action in his appointments to the parachurch organizations funded by SBC — citing standpoint epistemology in all but name (“we need their wisdom”).
One of those appointments, for example, is the promotion of Dhati Lewis to VP of the North American Missions Board’s (NAMB) “SEND Network” — an organization that wields a lot of money and influence with church “plants,” or newly-formed congregations around the country. Recently, a pastor at an SBC church plant raised concerns that Lewis’s training materials pervert the central message of the gospel by saying forgiveness of sin and the promise of eternal life are not enough good news without “economic and social restoration” during our mortal lives. Sounds a lot like the prosperity gospel — a heresy associated with the likes of Joel Osteen and Benny Hinn.
And on the CRT side of things, Lewis asserted during a “racial reconciliation” panel last year that American society is “intentionally still trying to oppress” nonwhite peoples.
Oh, and at the 2019 convention, the SBC passed some resolution about the potential benefits of using critical race theory as an “analytical tool.” The discourse around that particular controversy is really boring, but it does prove Southern Baptists have been fighting over CRT by name for a while now, and they were deprived of a proper rematch for a whole year because of COVID.
Nice Guy Finishes First
So, with this background in mind, conservative Baptists (spearheaded by groups like the Conservative Baptist Network and Founders Ministries) coalesced around Mike Stone — an established member of the denomination’s “Executive Committee” who made fighting wokeness a major plank of his agenda — as their presidential candidate in Nashville. Stone actually came out on top in the first round of the vote, but he then went to a runoff with the second-biggest candidate, Ed Litton. In that next round of voting, Litton won by 556 votes.
This left many people wondering: who is Ed Litton?
Litton pastors Redemption, an Alabama megachurch, and was pitched as the “uniter” candidate — a soft-spoken, moderate, non-threatening, upscale-Glenn-Beck-looking Nice Guy, here to make sure everybody feels heard and understood. Fred Luter, a former SBC president, lauded Litton in his nomination speech:
Friends, we need a uniter, and Ed is uniquely that. In a time when conservative Southern Baptist African American leaders are questioning their connection to the convention, Ed has uniquely shown his commitment to racial reconciliation.
Watching from a distance, it seemed to me Litton’s election was a choice to kick the can down the road, hushing everyone instead of hashing out whether liberation theology (merely repackaged with a splash of postmodern sociology, but that’s an article for another day) belongs in the church. “Blessed are the peacemakers” won out over “They have misled My people, saying, ‘Peace!’ when there is no peace.”
The Public Spotlight
Clearly, Litton hadn’t been vetted much before the vote. Someone pointed out that he had “co-preached” on stage with his wife, which is a no-no for Southern Baptists (the convention famously fought over, and decided against, ordinating women as preachers in prior decades). He said he just wanted her womanly insight for a series on marriage.
There wasn’t much oppo research on Stone, either — just some “leaked” over-dramatic “personal correspondence” from the aforementioned Russell Moore, grousing to Greear about Stone, and then some exvangelical cried in front of him on the convention floor. Point is, whoever won in this runoff would be mostly unknown to the wider SBC, so of course their detractors would dig into all their public teachings to get an idea who was steering the ship.
Soon, a blogger named Jeff Maples found a Sunday-morning message from Litton that echoed the aforementioned “Bible whispers about sexual sin” talking point from Greear. Maples quipped, “Should we really be surprised that the Southern Baptist Convention elected another J.D. Greear clone as president?”
In retrospect, it may have been a prophecy.
Turns out, it wasn’t just the one line that sounded exactly like Greear. A YouTuber put up a video comparing Greear’s infamous sermon (delivered January 2019) and Litton covering the same Bible passage (delivered January 2020). Whole sections were virtually identical; so were several outline points; Greear gave an illustration as though it was his first-person experience, while Litton attributed it to another popular evangelical author. Quite a mess!
Was it copied work? Was it a ghostwriter passing out the same content in two different places? Litton and Greear swiftly assured us it was the former — that Greear gave Litton “permission” to use his words, though they did not disclose whether that agreement included an exemption on attribution.
Unfortunately for Litton, the scandal snowballed. Other messages from his recent series on the book of Romans contained many identical phrases, illustrations, and even an error from Greear.
Litton plagiarizes Greear’s errors. Referring to the parable of the unforgiving servant, Greear says the king’s servant’s servant owed a single denarius (5m15s). Matt 18:28 has 100 denarii. Litton repeats the error (5m40s) b/c he’s plagiarizing Greear. https://t.co/ofhHBZtGp3
— Robert A. J. Gagnon (@RobertAJGagnon1) July 7, 2021
He delivered a sermon in 2015 with multiple passages that sounded exactly like a 2013 Greear sermon. One of Litton’s staff members delivered a message with multiple passages that sounded exactly a sermon from Greear. And that marriage sermon where he needed his wife’s special insight? It turns out she (and he) delivered a sermon with multiple passages that sounded exactly like a 1991 message by popular New York pastor Tim Keller — down to the term “Oriental” to describe certain cultures, which was not so controversial 30 years ago.
Many of the comparison videos can be seen cut together in a mini-documentary from Maples’ website Reformation Charlotte:
And Litton seems to have told a whopper along the way. He told a local TV news station the allegations were suspect because they came from “unnamed sources.” However, one of the videos that had brought attention to the controversy (with tens of thousands of views) came from Justin Peters, a reformed preacher featured in the documentary American Gospel. And the identity of who edited together clips from two sermons doesn’t have any bearing on the facts of whether one sermon was copied from another.
The 11th Commandment
For his part, Litton shows no signs that he’ll drop his new gig. And it doesn’t look like the blowback will spread much farther than Stone’s supporters. Influencers and high-level officials in the convention have been eerily silent, including the seminary where Litton earned his doctorate of divinity. One SBC pastor and professor notably called out the org’s network of schools, saying he “cannot recommend that a student preparing for ministry attend an SBC institution” because of their refusal to address the controversy.
This phenomenon is affectionately known in SBC circles as “The 11th Commandment” — an unwritten rule never to speak ill of another Southern Baptist leader. Of course, that rule doesn’t apply to any “far-right” Deplorables. One SBC pastor shockingly admitted that he “disagree[s] with Ed’s approach to preaching,” but if he resigned, the wrong people would wield authority (translation: a Conservative Baptist Network official would take over the aforementioned committee appointments), which would obviously be far worse than, say, having an unrepentant alleged serial plagiarist as the face of the denomination.
The Baptists’ 11th Commandment is emblematic of a wider phenomenon in the Christian world. Wokeness, CRT, whatever you want to call it — it’s clearly gained a foothold in many, many institutions, and the men who are in positions to oppose it are staying silent, fearing that if they “stir up division” by correcting false teaching, they might look too mean, and looking mean would hurt their “public witness.”
Meanwhile, parents and teachers around the country are setting an example of how to fight this corrupt ideology as though their children’s futures depend on it. It is to our shepherds’ shame that they cannot muster the same passion to fight for their sheep, and they would rather excuse the inexcusable than give any legitimacy to the brothers who have been taking it seriously.