NASHVILLE, Tenn. (RNS) — In a hotly contested election decided by just over 500 votes, Alabama pastor Ed Litton was elected president of the Southern Baptist Convention.
Litton, the longtime pastor of Redemption Church in Saraland, Alabama, a congregation with 3,900 members, was considered a long shot in the presidential race. Two other candidates — Georgia pastor Mike Stone, a leader among critics of current SBC leaders, and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President Al Mohler — had been considered the favorites.
Mohler was knocked out during the first round of ballots, receiving about a quarter of votes. In a runoff, Litton got 52% of the vote, and Stone got close to 48%.
Litton told reporters he considered it an honor to serve as SBC president and would work to “iron out some of our difference.”
“I want to be clear that my goal is to build bridges and not walls,” he said.
During a session at SBC’s annual meeting Wednesday (June 16), Litton displayed that approach by paying tribute to Mohler, thanking him for his service to the denomination.
“The Scripture says give honor where honor is due. Sir, you are due great honor,” said Litton, standing at the microphone during Mohler’s report on the work of Southern seminary.
Mohler congratulated Litton in response, saying it was important for brothers in the church to speak well of one another.
Here are a few facts about the new SBC president.
Litton is conservative.
In his news conference, Litton described himself as both theologically and politically conservative. Like Stone, Mohler and other candidates, he is an inerrantist and a complementarian — believing the Bible is without error and that men and women have different roles in the church and family.
Some critics of Litton have referred to him as “moderate” or liberal. The term “moderate” was used during the Southern Baptist conflicts over the Bible and theology of the 1980s and 1990s to refer to those who opposed inerrantists and other conservatives. Many of the moderates formed the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, a more progressive denomination that ordains women as pastors.
The current debates among Southern Baptists are among varying conservative camps.
He is known for working on racial reconciliation.
Fred Luter, the pastor of Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans and the first Black president of the SBC, brought down the house at the denomination’s annual meeting with his nomination of Litton: “Take it from Fred, vote for Ed.”
“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,” Luter said.
Litton has been active in the Pledge Group, which works on racial reconciliation in Mobile, Alabama, where he has been pastor for 27 years. That work has taught him the need for humility, he said, something that has become a hallmark of his ministry.
Litton’s family was changed by a Southern Baptist pastor.
During his initial news conference, Litton talked about growing up in a family that did not go to church. His dad was an alcoholic, and the family was troubled. But a Southern Baptist pastor helped them in their hour of need.
“The day came where everything seemed to unravel like a cheap sweater and my dad cried out to God,” Litton said. “This pastor led him in a prayer to trust Christ as his savior. And we watched in my household a miracle take place.”
Seeing how God changed his father set the course for Litton’s life, leading him to eventually pursue a call to ministry.
Litton’s life has been marked by grace and tragedy.
In 2007, Litton’s first wife, Tammy, a musician and women’s ministry leader, was killed in a car accident. His second wife, Kathy, lost her first husband, Baptist pastor Rick Ferguson, in a car accident as well. That kind of profound loss and grief changed both of their lives.
“We love to tell people the story that there is a God who loves us,” he said. “And he doesn’t go distant in the most painful things in life. He actually does the opposite. The Bible says it this way, he draws near to the brokenhearted, and those that are crushed in spirit.”
Litton told reporters he and Kathy have been loved by people in the convention, who cared for them in their grief and sorrow, something they are grateful for.
Litton doesn’t like to talk about politics.
While a political conservative, Litton said he has avoided talking about politics in the pulpit or trying to persuade people to vote the way he does. Instead, he said he tries to teach them the Bible and what it says about being a good citizen. And Litton said he is open to working with political leaders of all parties if asked, saying he would treat political leaders with honor and kindness.
He is a Great Commission and Great Commandment Baptist.
Litton refers to himself as a “Great Commission Baptist,” an alternate title adopted by some Southern Baptists in recent years. He said he doesn’t want to change the name of the denomination but uses the Great Commission Baptist name because it reflects that the SBC has moved beyond its Southern roots.
He also has linked the Great Commission, Jesus’ call for his followers to evangelize the world, to the Great Commandment, Jesus’ command for his followers to love their neighbors as themselves.
Litton has preached with his wife.
Like other Southern Baptists, Litton affirms the denomination’s statement of faith, which declares “the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.” In the past, however, Litton’s wife, Kathy, has helped him preach about marriage during church services.
”My wife is a great teacher, and she helps me communicate to our people,” he said.
Some Baptists, including Mohler and Stone, believe only men can preach during worship services. Litton said there is room in the SBC’s statement of faith for local churches to make that decision for themselves.