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Alan Atchison, editor of Capstone Report (www.capstonereport.com) joins the Big Brown Gadfly to talk about the scandals rocking the Southern Baptist Convention and launch Bobby’s series, “The Total Depravity of the Southern Baptist Convention.”
The Southern Baptist Convention, or SBC, has had a bad month of June. In a controversial annual meeting in Nashville, Tennessee, the messengers, or voting representatives of churches, elected as president Ed Litton of Alabama.
The election had many suspicious aspects, which this article will discuss momentarily and which should not be dismissed. But even if we take seriously Litton’s surge to the presidency, interceding events have turned his rise into a monumental embarrassment. After being paraded on MSNBC and CNN as the darling of mainstream liberal media, he ran afoul of his own constituency immediately.
Members of the SBC discovered a critical dishonesty problem in Litton’s recent service as a pastor. He had delivered multiple sermons that resembled so precisely earlier sermons by J.D. Greear that one cannot avoid the conclusion that Litton plagiarized. While some people may claim that “plagiarism” as a term does not refer to sermons the same way we would apply the word to student writing, such claims are spurious. Any respectable seminary will train pastors not to deliver sermons that other people wrote without acknowledging the source in the sermon itself.
To save himself from the worst-case scenario—being forced to resign the presidency in shame—Litton issued a carefully crafted statement that admitted he took Greear’s sermon. But Litton tried to downplay the seriousness of his plagiarism by making several claims, all of which brought him deeper into controversy.
He claimed that he was not entirely responsible for the unfortunate incident, because he has eight staff members who collaborate with him to write his weekly sermons, and they consult with other sources.
He claimed that he spoke to Greear personally and asked him permission to use his sermon, though he neglected to mention to his congregation that he was recycling someone else’s preaching.
He claimed that he used Greear’s material for over 45 sermons.
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He characterized it as normal to draw from sources in this way, because, “As any pastor who preaches regularly knows, we often rely on scholars and fellow pastors to help us think and communicate more clearly with the goal of faithfully preaching the truths of Scripture to our congregations.”
Here are the problems with the four assertions in Litton’s statement.
It takes nine people to write a sermon? Who’s running the nursery?
Writing the sermons is a pastor’s job. Other people on staff have things they need to do, like run the children’s services, balance the books, and plan out the music.
It is unethical for someone to hold the lead pastor position and then dump sermon prep on people who have these other things to do, especially since Litton does not credit these underlings for having written the sermon. This is like the behavior of an egotistical professor who insists on being listed as “first author” on a group research report even though he had grad students run the data and write up the text.
The main sermon in question was about Romans 1, one of the most important chapters of the Bible. The content that Litton lifted from Greear was bizarre, unbiblical, and confused. For example, in this bold proclamation Paul says that he has no shame in preaching the gospel and even heathens have no excuse to commit sins against natural design. Yet Greear had argued that the text only “whispered.” Nobody sane would draw that conclusion from the firm tone of Romans 1.
The overly used and fallacious claim that Jesus spoke mildly about sexual transgression and instead reserved his rage at powerful and rich church leaders is tiresome enough. But it is downright ridiculous coming from a well-off megapastor who chums around with the rich and powerful in a supposedly Christian denomination. That elite class forgets all about this claim of “the real sin being the rich and powerful” when they are challenged for their hypocrisy and bad stewardship. In the face of criticism they race for the escape route labeled “Romans 13.”
If we take Litton’s statement at face value, not only did he delegate sermon authorship to underlings; he also devoted so little oversight to the process that he showed up on a Sunday and preached this sermon without ever noticing how strained and absurd the whole sermon was.
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Greear cannot give permission to someone else to sin against God in the pulpit
Second, in admitting that he received permission from Greear to use the sermon, he admitted that his connection to Greear involved secret collusion. Rather than tell his congregation about the source of what he was preaching, he kept that hidden. Greear issued a statement soon after Litton’s, stating that he had given permission to Litton to use the sermon and took no offense from the borrowing. But these claims by Greear and Litton underscore the abusive nature in both men’s leadership styles.
In their response, Greear and Litton see the ethical obligations here as between Greear and Litton, not between themselves individually and the congregations they serve. It would be dishonest if I had a classmate whom I wanted to help get ahead because he was part of my frat, and to do so, I wrote a paper for him and let him turn it in with his name on it. That would violate any college’s code of honesty. In a church such behavior is a sin againt God and God’s flock, not a matter of a gentleman’s agreement. Greear and Litton behaved dishonestly in one of their foremost obligations to the flock they pastor: the sharing of God’s word.
J.D. Greear is the outgoing president of the SBC and Litton is the incoming president of the SBC. The fact that these men colluded to pass Litton’s work off as original shows that they are comfortable with levels of manipulation and deceit vis-à-vis the fulfillment of their obligations to the Southern Baptist congregants. They were collaborating in dishonest projects and hiding their collusion. This throws the entire election of Litton in doubt.
There was supposed to have been an election in June 2020, which was the end of Greear’s term as president. Greear was elected president of the SBC at the stormy 2018 meeting in Dallas. The bylaws of the Southern Baptist Convention state that a president cannot serve more than two consecutive years. So why was Greear still president of the Southern Baptist Convention going into the June 2021 annual meeting?
Quite simply, the directors of the Southern Baptist Convention voted to cancel the June 2020 meeting, thereby making it impossible for Baptists to elect a new president (had the meeting taken place, it would have probably been between Randy Adams and Albert Mohler.) They claimed COVID as the reason for the cancellation. Rather than have safety protocols, reschedule the meeting promptly, or hold an emergency vote to conduct an online election, these directors simply voted to waive the rights of Southern Baptists to hold new elections. They then voted to give themselves another year of power, in violation of the bylaws.
When asked why they could not hold an emergency meeting and hammer out a plan for online voting, they said the bylaws did not allow for online voting. Which is funny, because the bylaws did not allow for directors and officers to unilaterally cancel elections and stay in power for a full year beyond their term of office. And the government would be in its rights to investigate and de-charter the SBC as a 501c-3 over such an impropriety, which goes against all accepted standards and practices for charitable organizations.
Rather than function on a highly restricted basis for his year as a dictator, Greear went ahead and made appointments, issued bold opinions, and even named the “callers” who would collect and report the votes in the election of president in June 2021 (this matters, as we will see.)
On Twitter, various defenders of the SBC establishment have defended Greear’s seizure of dictatorial powers, claiming that the same bylaws that forbid him to hold office for more than two years also state that the president will hold his office until the next elected president is sworn in. “Aha! The bylaws permit it!” “Since no meeting took place, they could not hold an election, so Greear had no choice.” Aren’t we clever? God will totally not notice what we’re doing here.
No, the bylaws do not permit what J.D. Greear did. The more responsible thing to do would have been simply to (1) implement health and safety protocols at the scheduled 2020 conference, (2) reschedule the 2020 conference for one to two months later, or (3) call for an emergency meeting to allow for online voting or voting by collection of ballots. They could have held a streamlined convention where people scheduled time to drop off ballots in a collection area at intervals that would allow social distancing. Anything was better than canceling the entire convention and then just staying in office illegitimately for a whole year.
This was, after all, the same year that many states declared an emergency and conducted mail balloting in the presidential election, not technically permitted under existing law.
Absent these commonsense measures, Greear should have, at the very least, frozen all appointments and any executive decisions until the next person could be sworn in. Since the bylaws state that the president shall not serve more than two years, there would be no plausible way to interpret them as allowing Greear to contrive an entire additional year as dictator of the Southern Baptist Convention.
The ethical problems in Litton’s plagiarism point to the sinful deficiencies in Greear’s leadership. He manipulated the bylaws and engaged in dishonesty by passing off Litton’s sermons as Litton’s own. Whatever the reason for doing so, Greear misled Southern Baptists by giving the impression that Litton was more capable and talented as an interpreter of scripture than Litton really was. This was, for all intents and purposes, as bad as lying. If Greear could mislead the people in this matter, why should we trust that he made all his other decisions in good faith?
We should not accept Greear’s rationales for seizing a whole year of power impermissibly. Nor should Southern Baptists have allowed him to influence the 2021 meeting. He did so by wielding parliamentary power, appointing callers and other officers, and overseeing the organizers who made such questionable decisions as, for instance, holding the first round of voting and then holding the runoffs immediately after, rather than waiting a day for people to consider the final choice for president. He ruled out of order motions and pleas that Baptist messengers had a right to propose.
Only two weeks after the election, we now find out that the man who behaved so shamelessly as a dictator for a year also had an inappropriate collusion with Litton, a man whom he puffed up by secretly providing him with sermons. The latter is also the man who just so happened to get elected as the next president under Greear’s dictatorial election control.
Even before “Sermongate” broke out – the scandal over Litton’s copying of Greear’s sermons – there were already persuasive reasons to reject Litton’s election to the presidency based on Greear’s abuse of his powers. Had Greear acted with due haste and rescheduled the June 2020 meeting, Litton would not have emerged and would not have had the chance to mount a national campaign. The North American Mission Board would not have had the opportunity and time to recruit messengers who were pro-Litton, which it appears happened in Nashville. There was no way Litton could have become president without Greear’s law-breaking suppression of the June 2020 election.
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Much discussion has focused on the lamentation by conservatives that Mike Stone lost an upset victory to Ed Litton. As someone who supported Randy Adams, I simply do not have a dog in that fight. But I can say objectively that the passivity among conservatives was an unforced error.
Having seen how the 2020 US presidential election played out, conservatives should have insisted on the ballot-counters being appointed by someone other than J.D. Greear. They should have had observers watching the collection of ballots very closely. They also should have insisted that the runoffs be conducted with due time for voters to reflect on the final two choices. Their silence when these improprieties took place was equivalent to walking into a shootout with no weapons and then crying when they all got shot and the other side had no casualties.
Am I saying I think Greear’s appointees would fake the vote counts to make Litton president?
I can’t say they did. But I can say it’s completely possible given the fact that Greear helped Litton fake almost 50 sermons to help him get ahead in the SBC.
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Does the SBC have any sense of meritocracy at all? Or has it become a pay-to-pray scheme?
Back to the problems with Ed Litton’s statement about Sermongate. Thirdly, he stated that he needed to review over 45 sermons so he might establish where else he needed to give Greear due credit. This does not bode well for Litton. He is giving the obvious impression that he is simply not well prepared to serve as a pastor, which makes us question why he ran for the presidency of the Southern Baptist Convention.
Sermongate exposes the damage done by SBC nepotism. Litton has many people who want him to succeed – most notably Greear, who gave him whole sermons that Baptists had no idea were not Litton’s. But this could indicate that Litton is an ideal puppet (I hate to use the term “useful idiot”), chosen because of his mild avuncular mannerisms, his innocuous Alabama persona, and his willingness to do whatever his handlers ask him to do, because he is incapable of standing on his own intellect.
The number of problematic sermons points to an even greater moral crisis in the Southern Baptist Convention. Tom Littleton, Alan Atchison, J.D. Hall, Judd Saul, and many others have been called crackpot conspiracy theorists for talking about the undue influence outside political groups have had on the SBC. As long as people didn’t think about the process of composing sermons, all the complaints about Soros, Omidyar, Singer, and Riady flooding the denomination with money seemed abstract and irrelevant, the stuff of crazy people.
Yet the gritty and conspiratorial part of the SBC’s depravity is what many high-minded conservative critics miss. While outspoken critics like Tom Ascol, Tom Buck, and the Conservative Baptist Network have raised concerns about a leftward drift in the Southern Baptist Convention, there is also the more basic dilemma of people selling the denomination’s large demographic and lucrative social sway to the highest bidder—something of which liberals and conservatives could both potentially be guilty. If both sides are or have been engaged in pay-to-pray schemes, then this might explain why the SBC has gone into moral freefall with no checks against its increasing depravity.
But now Baptists have gotten a peek into the sausage machine of mass-produced popular theology. A sober analysis would lead most people to conclude that Litton didn’t really steal Greear’s sermons. Rather, both Litton and Greear may have gotten them from a third party who packages “instant sermons (just add water),” presumably as part of a compensation arrangement. It could be that Litton and Greear are subscribing to outside services that ghost-write sermons for them, or, even more ominously, some interest group with a specific agenda gives perks to churches whose pastors are willing to embed their propaganda into sermons.
If Litton and Greear are paying ghost writers to compose their sermons, then they are perpetrating a fraud. They are also criminally misusing funds that come from charitable giving if that’s the case.
If Litton and Greear are being paid by outside groups to slip talking points into their sermons, then they are Judas figures, selling their flock for pieces of silver.
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In the best-case scenario, we do an investigation and find out that Greear and Litton were neither paying an outside group to ghost-write their preaching, nor receiving any benefits for selling some group’s agenda from the pulpit. The best finding would be that Greear simply wrote these sermons and then let his friend use them.
But we have to do an investigation to find out. Because it looks unlikely that Greear would come up with the strange interpretation of Romans 1 on his own, with nobody pressuring him to move the congregation in an improperly pro-gay direction.
On its face Romans 1 does not present the basis for an argument that the Bible is only whispering about sexual sin. It is untenable to argue that Romans 1 is “not singling out homosexuality” as any worse than other sins when in fact it singles out homosexuality explicitly and prominently. Nor can one draw from Romans 1 the conclusion that God shows no favor to heterosexuality when the text clearly states that God made plain his intent by how He designed the natural creatures He created. Homosexuality is certainly put forward as an example of what happens when people are so flippant toward God that they disregard His design, something for which, the text says, even the Gentiles have no excuse.
The Romans 1 sermon stands out because the bizarre arguments Greear and Litton express seem to reflect some person’s powerful motive to soften Baptist convictions against homosexuality. The theological proofs rest on the same kind of strained logic that became famous with Matthew Vines’ work about eight years ago.
We know from organizations such as Revoice, Faith in America, LoveBoldly, Center for Faith Sexuality & Gender, and the Reformation Project that well-funded non-profit groups have been seeking to change Christian denominations’ positions on homosexuality. Matthew Vines’ Reformation Project is an excellent example; workshop leaders go into churches teaching churchgoers how to massage Biblical language so that things sound scriptural while advancing a pro-gay agenda. For years Tom Littleton has warned about this but many Christians simply could not imagine what sinister activities lay inside such projects.
Now we see a glimpse. Employing seminary grads and liberal theologians, these groups spend years workshopping and finessing language so that pro-gay propaganda gets into sermons in soundbytes like the ones peppering both Greear and Litton’s preaching. “We do not need more heterosexuality or less homosexuality, but more holiness.” “It is not going from gay to straight, but going from dead to saved.” And so on and so on. These clichés are canned.
Whichever way the money flows – whether Baptist pastors are paying for the ready-made script or they are getting paid to propagandize from the pulpit – this is a demonic thing to see happen in Baptist churches.
It takes a whole Baptist culture to create this level of depravity
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Lastly, Litton claimed in his statement that what he did in his Romans 1 sermon was par for the course, just something that everyone in the pastorate does. For too long Southern Baptists have avoided facing the reality that the denomination’s entities are rotten. Litton received a Master of Divinity from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and a doctorate from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Litton has a point, sadly, when he says that his conduct is typical of the SBC. Faculty from Southwestern were all over Twitter defending Litton’s plagiarism as some kind of non-Western collective power-sharing.
Who made it typical?
The missions boards, which send out church planters who think these practices are normal?
The seminaries, which teach their graduates that these practices are normal?
Lifeway and the conference circuit, which exalt Christian celebrity culture and grand personalities, creating an incentive for promoters to platform photogenic and attractive speakers who have ugly and unstylish ghost writers?
The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, which has romanticized worldly political concerns and appeal to media elites even when such appeals clash with the beliefs of the people in the pews and, of course, with the gospel?
The answer to all these questions is, yes. It took a village to ruin the pastorate. Every participant in Baptist life bears guilt for allowing the rot to spread or not strategizing enough about how to stop it.
God gave us a chance to reverse course by exposing the plagiarism scandal. The question now is whether we will take the chance and follow through on full reform. Ed Litton must go. J.D. Greear must go. But that would be just the beginning.
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