An interview with the SBC’s newly elected leader, taking charge at a time of turmoil.
NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE H ave you ever wanted to be a turtle on a fence post?
If you answered “No,” that’s because you didn’t hear Pastor Ed Litton’s sermon at Redemption Church in Saraland, Ala., on June 6.
Pastor Litton was elaborating the third point in his three-point sermon entitled “After God’s Own Heart.” He said that author Alex Haley had a picture of a turtle on a fence post in his office. He said there was an inscription at the bottom of that picture that said, “If you see a turtle on a fence post, you know he didn’t get up there by himself.”
Litton delivered that line in a soft voice and followed it with a pregnant pause. Then, with his finger pointed heavenward, he said, “Oh that God would put you [his finger now pointed at the congregation] on a fence post in this community! That people would look at your life and say, ‘How’s that possible?’” In typical Southern Baptist preaching style, he was winding up to exhort his flock with the Good News in parallel structure:
How’s joy possible in such grief? How’s love possible in a world of hate? How’s satisfaction possible when there’s so many needs? Man, I’m gonna tell you what I’ve learned: When I don’t have enough, He [pointing heavenward again] is enough. When I couldn’t go on, He goes on.
And in that moment, as his voice reaches your ears, and his impassioned hand gestures reach your eyes, even if you aren’t poetically inclined, you want to be a turtle on a fence post. You want what Pastor Litton has — and he wants you to have it.
Ed Litton was elected president of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) on June 15 in Nashville. He’s been the pastor at Redemption Church for 27 years, but he isn’t a household name nationally. He didn’t have a Wikipedia page until the morning after his election.
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His profile was boosted by support from Fred Luter, a past president of the SBC and the only African American to ever serve in that role. Widely respected as an elder statesman in the denomination, Luter formally nominated Litton on Tuesday in Nashville and concluded his nomination speech by saying, “Take it from Fred; vote for Ed.”
Luter’s support was crucial at a time when the SBC has been rocked by inner turmoil. Leaked letters suggest that some leaders within the denomination made racist remarks. One of the first things Litton will have to do as president is appoint a task force to oversee an investigation into the SBC Executive Committee’s handling of sexual-abuse allegations.
There’s a lot on 61-year-old Litton’s plate as he begins his two-year term as president, but no matter what happens, he has been through worse.
Born in Kingsport, Tenn., in 1959, Litton was part of a military family. As his family moved up and down the Eastern seaboard wherever the Navy took them, his father developed addictions to alcohol and drugs, and his parents’ marriage began to fall apart. Litton told National Review that, at that point in his life, “I knew who Jack Daniels was, I didn’t know who Jesus was.”
That would all change when Litton was about eight years old, and his father got a job bagging groceries in Virginia Beach. Alcohol and drugs are expensive, and he needed the money (“He was conscientious that way,” Litton said). A Southern Baptist pastor who frequented the store shared the Gospel with Litton’s father, who was not responsive to it the first time.
But after hitting rock bottom, Litton’s father went back to that pastor with his son. “I watched my dad get on his knees, ask Christ into his heart, and he stood up sober,” Litton said. “I went from never darkening the doors of a church . . . to having our lives turned totally right side up.”
Within a year, after a Sunday school teacher shared the Gospel with him, Litton himself accepted Christ. “You know, as a child would,” he said. But it wasn’t until much later and with initial hesitance that he realized his call to serve as a pastor.
After his father retired from the Navy, his family settled in Tucson, Ariz. Litton initially attended the University of Arizona but graduated from Grand Canyon University, a Christian school in Phoenix. He told me that, while in college, “I rebelled against the sense that God was calling me to preach, and I ran from it, like Jonah.” He didn’t believe he was qualified to be a pastor but eventually realized that “you can’t run if you’re God’s child.”
Litton surrendered to God’s calling and enrolled at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, one of the six seminaries associated with the SBC. He planted a church in Tucson, then moved to Mobile, Ala., where he became pastor of what was then called First Baptist North Mobile. He earned his doctor of ministry degree from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and six years ago, he led a transition to a multi-site strategy and renamed the new two-campus entity Redemption Church.
Redemption averages around 1,500 attendees every weekend, and the congregation is predominantly white. Litton is known in the Mobile area for his work with the Pledge Group, a multiracial group of pastors and other community leaders who first assembled after the turmoil in Ferguson, Mo. They believed Mobile bore some similarities to Ferguson, and they didn’t want what happened there to happen in their community.
“At first we all were just arrogant enough to think that we could solve the problem,” Litton told me. “We realized this thing is massive, it’s beyond us, so all of our expectations had to be laid down on the table. . . . We learned to love each other, to hear each other, and so for two years, every two weeks, we would meet in a conference room at a Cadillac dealership, have lunch together, and talk.
“We talked about the most gut-wrenching issues of race in our culture and individually. And I’ll tell you what, God knit our hearts together.” The Pledge Group was a sponsor of the “Deep South Joint Statement on the Gospel, Racial Reconciliation, and Justice” along with similar groups from the Charleston and Montgomery areas in October 2020. The statement says, in part, “We believe that the good news of Jesus mandates Christians to pursue a reconciliation that is centered on His redemptive work for humanity.” It ends with a call “to act locally in our own cities and region to sacrificially love our neighbors of all backgrounds, to lay down our lives for one another, to work for justice to right past wrongs.”
It seems that Litton’s involvement with racial reconciliation gets him called “moderate.” Two groups are responsible for labeling him that way. One is the mainstream media, and they mean it as a compliment. CBS News, CNN, the New York Times, Newsweek, and the Wall Street Journal all used the word “moderate” in their headlines about Litton’s election. The other group that calls him moderate is a minority group within the SBC, and they mean it as an insult.
I asked Litton about that label, and he was unequivocal. “I could never describe myself as a moderate,” he said. “I’m not moderate in my passion for Christ. I’m not moderate in my theology.”
He emphasized that despite all the controversies that arose at this year’s convention, the SBC did not budge on its doctrinal commitments. “This Southern Baptist Convention did not inch left. . . . My view of marriage, my view of gender identity, my view of homosexuality, all those things have not changed, nor are they going to change. They’re bound by the Scripture, and there I stand,” Litton said.
Litton was affirming the doctrines stated in the Baptist Faith and Message. It’s probably the most conservative theological statement of any American Protestant denomination. It upholds biblical inerrancy, saying the Bible “has God for its author, salvation for its end, and truth, without any mixture of error, for its matter.” It affirms that Jesus was God incarnate and that His death and resurrection were real historical events. It echoes Genesis by saying that God “created them male and female” and states that “the gift of gender is thus part of the goodness of God’s creation.” It says that “the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.” It says that Christians “should speak on behalf of the unborn and contend for the sanctity of all human life from conception to natural death.” And it defines marriage exclusively as “the uniting of one man and one woman in covenant commitment for a lifetime.”
Litton knows those last words about marriage, “for a lifetime,” all too well. His first wife, Tammy, was killed in a car accident in 2007. He told me he leaned on his congregation through the pain. “I really understood that the culture I was in was so helpful and healing for me and my family during that time, and we dearly love our church,” he said.
He believes that that rock-solid biblical foundation is what can allow Southern Baptists to love well. “We have strong theological muscles in Southern Baptist life due to our great education system, but where we need to exercise our muscle is in compassion,” he told me. Where Southern Baptists can get in trouble is when they “separate the Great Commandment from the Great Commission,” he said.
The Great Commission is Jesus’s last directive to His disciples before He ascended into heaven at the end of the Gospel of Matthew: “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” The Great Commandment is found a few chapters earlier in Matthew, and it has two parts: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” and “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
Southern Baptists love to talk about the Great Commission (in 2012, they adopted “Great Commission Baptists” as an alternate name for the denomination), but Litton believes, in view of the Great Commandment, “Our credibility as Gospel people is based on how we treat one another.”
It is in that spirit that Litton has pursued racial reconciliation, not to be seen as politically correct or trendy. “I believe in Gospel racial reconciliation,” he told me. “We don’t speak for ourselves, our politics, all that stuff is secondary. Our first commitment is to our King. And as an ambassador of the King, it is my mission to share His love with other people, that they might be reconciled to Him and reconciled to one another,” he said.
There’s a term to describe Litton’s efforts with the Pledge Group: strengthening civil society. It’s fundamentally conservative, and racial strife in this country has a much better chance of being ameliorated by local groups of pastors seeking to love each other and love their communities than it does by politicians seeking power and partisan triumph.
On Christian participation in politics, Litton reiterated the standard Baptist belief, which has stood since the 1600s, that religious liberty is the top priority. What he cautioned against was the SBC’s becoming “just another political action committee.” Political participation, according to Litton, can and should include the normal things such as voting and donating to candidates. But he told me it should also include service and loving one another.
“If you look throughout Scripture, whether it was Joseph or Esther or Nehemiah or Ezra or especially Daniel, God took every one of those people in as servants, and that’s the picture we need to get,” he told me. “It’s counterintuitive,” he said, but he believes that, “as we go into our cities and serve, God raises our influence so that we can speak truth to power at just the right moment.”
Has Ed Litton’s influence been raised at just the right moment? His margin of victory was slim, and the SBC is struggling with a massive trust deficit between its executive committee and its congregants. As Litton told NR, with respect to the presidency, “I didn’t run for this, but I didn’t run away from it either, and I think God, whatever He is doing, has the intention that I should be here to speak the truth in love.”
In other words, Ed Litton is a turtle on a fence post. One aspect of that image that he didn’t mention in his June 6 sermon is that that’s a precarious place to be. But he knows full well he didn’t get up there by himself — and he knows the One who put him there.