NASHVILLE – Thousands of Southern Baptists have elected Pastor Ed Litton of Alabama – the only candidate some say can prevent an exodus of minority members from the denomination – to serve as the next president of their network of Conservative Evangelical Churches .
Litton won the top spot at the Southern Baptist Convention in a runoff election in Nashville on Tuesday. He defeated Georgia Pastor Mike Stone.
The convention, divided over the future direction of the convention, needs unity, said Fred Luter Jr., a Louisiana pastor who nominated the pastor of Redemption Church in Saraland, Alabama.
“Ed is uniquely qualified to do this,” said Luter, a former congressional president and the first black leader to assume the role.
“At a time when conservative African American leaders of the Southern Baptists are questioning their association with the Convention, Ed has shown his commitment to racial reconciliation in a unique way.”
Luter said Litton brings a compassionate and guardian heart to the church sexual abuse crisis and is the pastor the convention needs now.
“We are no longer shoulder to shoulder, but face to face and since we are so used to fighting, we no longer fight against an enemy on the battlefield, we now fight against our brothers in the barracks,” said Luter. “Southern Baptists, it’s time to get out of the barracks.”
Theological conservatives now control the convention.
However, some are concerned that there is a migration to the left within the evangelical church network. This group – some of which have raved about pirate images and the “take the ship” slogan – is calling for a change of course in line with the conservative takeover that began in 1979 when leaders ousted theologically liberal and moderate Southern Baptists from the convention leadership and seminars .
Others disagree and say this faction is pushing for fundamentalism and could drive minority pastors and churches out of the denomination. Several black pastors have already left the Congress since its last session in 2019.
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This disagreement played out in the election of the next president of the convention, a position with influence and appointment powers that can shape the future of the denomination – even if more than one election is required to change the direction of the convention.
Although membership has been falling for more than a decade, the Nashville-based Southern Baptist Convention is the largest Protestant denomination in the United States with more than 14 million members
Southern Baptists are influential within American Christianity and are often the focus of debate about beliefs, culture, and politics in public places.
As in the run-up to the annual meeting, the competition for the next president was controversial. The chairman of the Covenant Executive Committee, Rolland Slade, leader of the Southern Baptists, prayed that there would not be a major split, but concerned churches would leave regardless of the outcome of the election.
Litton has a message for conservative black pastors and other Southern Baptists of color who question their association with the convention.
“We want you here. We love you here. We cannot reach every man, every woman, every man, every boy, every girl in this nation without you,” Litton said in a press conference on Tuesday after his election. “I’m just so grateful to my brothers and sisters in Christ of Color … we can learn a lot from them.”
Overall, Litton said his leadership approach is bridging the gap.
“My goal is to build bridges, not walls, and help people connect, discuss things, have honest, open discussions,” he said. “Do not end these conversations, but that we all go back to the roots of what God has called us to do.”
Four men were nominated from the stage at the annual meeting on Tuesday: Litton, Stone, Northwest Baptist Convention executive director and treasurer Randy Adams, and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President R. Albert Mohler Jr.
At the time of the presidential election, more than 15,000 messengers, representing the more than 47,000 Southern Baptist Churches, were registered. More than 14,000 ballots were cast in the first four-way competition. None of the candidates received enough votes to win the top position at the Congress.
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Tennessee Pastor Dean Haun nominated Stone, pastor of the Emmanuel Baptist Church in Blackshear, Georgia.
Stone was the Conservative Baptist Network’s election as president. The new group, which perceives a left drift in the convention, was founded in February 2020. One of the group’s top priorities is to get the convention to reject critical racial theory.
“We need a champion who goes into battle and believes in the authority and appropriateness of Scripture. Pastor Mike serves a church that is unequivocally conservative, thoroughly complementary and unquestionably open to men and women of all ethnicities, ”said Haun.
“His message is based on the interpretative preaching of the Word of God and not on secular theories or analytical tools.”
Southern Baptists pushed for preferential choice
In the run-up to the annual meeting, several Southern Baptists confirmed their preferred candidate. In a way, it took on the feel of a political campaign. Some wanted the role of a pastor instead of a leader of an entity.
Ed Stetzer wrote a column in Christianity Today magazine saying the convention was at a fork in the road and Litton was the one it needed to lead. “I am choosing a pastor who can be shown to be committed to the hard work of racial reconciliation,” wrote Stetzer.
On Tuesday morning, the Conservative Baptist Network hosted breakfast at a hotel near the Music City Center. Many of the 1,200 seats in the hall were occupied.
Rod Martin, who is also a member of the network’s Steering Board and Executive Committee of Congress, urged those in attendance to attend the annual meeting today and stay all day as several key votes are expected throughout the time.
“You will be in this room all day. Did you hear me? All day, ”said Martin. “You have critical voices by the hammer today. Don’t go. Don’t go. Don’t go. We must have you. If you have friends who are not in this group, make sure they are there too. We can’t do without you. Period. You have to be there. You have to stand. “
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After the vote, Stone conveyed his congratulations to Litton.
“My prayers and congratulations are with Pastor Ed Litton as the Southern Baptists continue to serve our churches and our communities,” said Stone.
Racial and Sexual Abuse Convention
Typically, the President of Congress serves two one-year terms. But the youngest President, Pastor JD Greear of North Carolina, had an unexpected third year due to the pandemic, which led Southern Baptist leaders to cancel the 2020 meeting. Greear has spearheaded the convention amid a crisis of sexual abuse, racial accounting and political division.
Some of these concerns and more have dominated the discussion as Southern Baptists gather in Nashville this week. The official two-day denominational business meeting began on Tuesday, preceded by a mission conference and accompanying events.
In his farewell address, Greear delved directly into the tensions of the Convention, including the sexual abuse crisis, the role of women in the Church, and critical racial theory.
Southern Baptists have rejected liberalism, Greear said, but now they must not succumb to Phariseeism. The Pharisees in Jesus’ day were a Jewish group described in the Bible as being overly traditional.
“How does it look today? It happens when we consider a gospel insignificant, such as a cultural or stylistic preference … or our political calculation and we give it divine weight, “Greear said. “Believing in sufficient Scripture means in part not giving something divine authority unless there is a chapter and a verse.”
Greear repeated issues he had raised earlier, such as unity and focus on the core mission of Southern Baptists as Christians.
“Who are we? What’s the most important part of our name? South? Or Anabaptists? Who are we? Are we Southern Baptists or are we Baptists on a large scale?” Said Grear.
“May this be a defining moment that future generations will look back on and say that they have decided here that the gospel is too precious and the great commission too urgent to stand in the way,” he said. “When we make war, we are at war with the principalities and powers that are hindering the preaching of the gospel.”
Featuring: Katherine Burgess. Follow Holly Meyer on Twitter @HollyAMeyer.