By Elizabeth Prata
The Southern Baptist Convention is said to be the largest Protestant denomination in the world. As such, there is newsworthy interest in its doings, never more than when the annual Meeting is conducted and a new president is elected. This year it was held on June 15-16 in Nashville TN. The president is elected to a two-year term. However, due to COVID-19 last year, outgoing president JD Greear served for three, because the Annual Meeting was suspended due to no mass gathering restrictions in most states of the US, including Tennessee.
Emotions were already running high as the meeting time approached. A heavier attendance than usual was recorded, as “messengers” from member churches poured into Nashville from all quarters of the US. Many of these messengers from home churches were concerned with what they saw as a liberal drift in the denomination, and concerned with the embeddedness of liberal/Marxist philosophies such as Critical Race Theory, and concerned with a lax discipline concerning female preachers, and to address an alleged sexual abuse problem within its ranks, for example. These concerns more than rest within individual member churches, because through the churches’ giving to the Cooperative Program, Southern Baptists send their resources to support its six theological seminaries. Freshly minted pastors emerging from the SBC’s seminaries may carry the infectious liberal or Marxist ideas seen surfacing at the Annual SBC meetings as a symptom at the tip of the iceberg.
The Washington Post was only one of many news outlets, both religious and secular, that tracked the doings at the Annual Meeting with interest, even reporting that the influx of messengers wanting to “take the ship” (so as to correct its course) would result in “a great reckoning.” News of controversy always sparks journalistic interest, so during the heated meeting we often heard the mantra, “the world is watching.”
Out of this potboiling mass of activity and anticipation, four candidates were put forward for President. Randy Adams, Ed Litton, Mike Stone and the more well-known Albert Mohler were nominated. At first ballot, the less known Adams and more well known Mohler fell by the wayside quickly. It was a dead heat for Litton, seen as more liberal, and Stone, seen as more conservative. In the debate that ensued, some claimed that dirty tricks were played with the microphone, debate was suppressed, members ignored, and by-laws manipulated, all to put forth the liberals’ candidate, Litton.
Litton won by a slim margin of abour 500 votes of the 16,000 members attending. Out of that mess of alleged ethical/political dirty tricks, disheartening to many, the SBC elected its next president. With the stain of his election still hanging in the air like smog, the first news articles began coming out reporting on who Ed Litton is. Those news articles quickly changed from a ‘meet and greet’ news angle like the one below, to covering what is now known as The Plagiarism Scandal. The Plagiarism Scandal was only the third in a series of scandals surrounding Pastor Litton, however.
There were two scandals prior to the Plagiarism Scandal. As people naturally drifted over to Pastor Litton’s church website to see who their new President is, they noticed a heresy on the church’s doctrinal “What We Believe” page. People spotted the statement that Litton’s Redemption Church believe God the God, Spirit, and Son “are co-equal parts of one God”, not One Person. The original ‘what we believe’ is a heretical statement called Partialism. The news article below covers the story and has a screen shot of the original statement of belief, and its QUICKLY swapped change to reflect a more orthodox belief. Many who saw the original and the edit wondered how a church could change its belief statement so quickly without meeting, vetting, and voting.
Interest now running extra high, more scrutiny of Pastor Litton ensued. It had already been noted that Pastor Litton regularly co-preached with his wife, a scandalous activity some believe violates 1 Timothy 2:11-15. Female preaching was an ongoing issue that the ‘take the ship’ conservatives wanted to address and rectify, so it was disheartening that SBC members saw that it was an activity the new President endorsed and practiced, not rejected as scripture commands.
To sum up Pastor Litton’s tenure so far, within days, Pastor Litton’s nascent presidency was dogged by a claim of dirty tricks in the election process at the Annual Meeting, the Partialism question, the website scrubbing, and why he co-preaches with his wife when scripture forbids it.
Tom Ascol and Jared Longshore debrief from the Annual Meeting with what they termed election ‘shenanigans’, Ed Litton, and the SBC in general, in their Founders podcast, here.
More was to come. A week and a half into Litton’s tenure as President of the largest Protestant denomination in the world, with ‘the world watching’, a video began surfacing that appeared to depict outgoing SBC President JD Greear and incoming President Ed Litton essentially preaching the exact same sermon, a year apart. A curious phrase was used by both men, sparking curiosity in some, especially one anonymous person who had the wherewithal to be able to compare videos and then edit. The curiosity-evoking phrase was that both men had said was, “The Bible whispers about sexual sin.” The mashup video comparing both sermons where both men said (wrongly) that the Bible whispers about sexual sin appeared on The Puritan Board on June 25: New SBC President Litton’s Apparent Plagiarism along with the just-published video.
Here is the video on Youtube, the first video that came out which was June 25, “Litton and Greear: Borrowing or Plagiarism?” which consisted of edited clips of Greear in 2019 and Litton in 2020 essentially saying the same thing to their congregations through their Romans sermon.
There was an immediate firestorm. Now there is an apparent plagiarism issue AND an apparent doctrinal issue. Litton’s method of sermon prep and delivery is in question, as well as his beliefs about what he is preaching- the content. Many people weighed in, including this short clip of Dr. James White aghast that Litton would appear to use the same life story illustration Greear used, as if Litton had lived it himself.
Two events then occurred. Litton and Greear issue explanation statements almost in tandem. And Ed Litton scrubs the offending videos. Not just the one, but 140 of them.
Patheos mocks the situation for “not Jesus-ing correctly“. Yes, the world is watching.
A side issue stemming from Litton’s Statement on the situation muddies the waters, that is, if a pastor has permission to use another pastor’s sermon is it still plagiarizing? (yes). But far too many people believe the issue was settled if permission was given, but attribution wasn’t. It’s all OK. Danny Akin, president of the Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary praised Litton for his ‘transparency’. Dr. James Merritt called Pastor Litton a ‘man of integrity‘.
Pastor Gabe Hughes questioned whether transparency included scrubbing 140 videos and hiding them behind a ‘private’ button.
But it wasn’t over. Not by a long shot. Now begins an offshoot issue of defining plagiarism and many discussions and essays and news articles ensured. Add scrubbing to the list of integrity infractions Pastor Litton has committed in his short tenure as SBC President.
Newsweek: Pastor Ed Litton removes over 140 videos
Well the world is definitely watching now. With popcorn.
Litton’s elders at his church explain to Baptist Press that the videos were removed because people were attempting to use them to malign and discredit their pastor.
Litton’s explanation was different. He assured The Washington Times that it was just normal clean-up of the website as they transition to a new website in July.
In Ed Litton’s explanation-statement he revealed that he employs a team of 8 men to prepare his sermons, which really, did not help matters.
The anonymous person comparing Litton’s and Greear’s sermons finds more, many more plagiarizing incidents and publishes them as mashups where both men say the same thing, offer the same life experiences, and even do the same gestures.
Justin Peters publishes a very good video which is part sermon review, part addressing plagiarism, and part Gospel presentation. The focus now becomes not only the plagiarism, but the content of these sermons. Mr Peters’ review is excellent addressing both issues. Indeed, the Bible does NOT whisper about sexual sin.
More muddying the waters ensues. The silence from SBC leaders even into July is still deafening, despite high profile railing against the practice years ago, as here from Al Mohler in 2006. Even JD Greear himself wrote against plagiarism in 2007. Both men knew what plagiarism was and defined it clearly in their pieces. Neither they, not any other SBC leader decried Pastor Litton’s activity or his 8-man sermon preparation team, for ripping off, stealing, and deceiving the people with his plagiarism.
Weirdly, some try to muddy the waters more by claiming that the renowned Prince of Preachers Charles Spurgeon plagiarized sermons.
The SBC President’s short tenure is looking no like the tail end of Nixon’s tenure as President of the US, so plagued by scandal was Nixon with constant calls for his resignation. People are clamoring for Litton’s resignation too. Newsweek: Pastor Ed Litton Compared to Nixon as Plagiarism Battle Rages in Southern Baptist Convention
Washington Newsday says that the battle still “rages” and more comparisons to Nixon emerge.
In Justin Peters’ video he revealed that JD Greear uses a sermon creation service called Docent Research Group. Their employees, for a fee, send to the pastor any sermon on any topic, complete with illustrations, interpretations, and outlines that the pastor wants. Any slant on any verse can be given. It is farming out the hard job of sermon prep, and JD Greear is on record for having used the “service.” He boasted that Docent “makes me look good.”
Immediately after this became known, Greear’s endorsement of Docent’s sermon services disappeared from Docent’s website. This link is to a screenshot someone had taken before it was scrubbed.
THAT information sparked another news article as to whether it was legitimate to use fee-based sermon preparation services, and a side discussion as to whether Ed Litton plagiarized from Greear or if they both use the same service that had yielded such similar-to-exact content between the two men.
The Baptist News wonders if Litton will be “forced to resign.”
And just today, another video emerged showing that “It isn’t just Litton. Litton’s Co-Pastor plagiarizes JD Greear too“
And that is where we are today- Pastor Litton, President of the Southern Baptist Convention is still President and still pastor of his church. He has not resigned. Plagiarized sermons are still bubbling up. People are still confused as to what a pastor’s job is and how he is supposed to put together a sermon. People are still talking about plagiarism and whether it is a sin for a pastor to use another pastor’s sermon with or without attribution, or if use a fee-based production organization crosses the line.
RESOURCES & OPINION
Here are some helpful pieces defining plagiarism. Sermon preparation is the primary job of a pastor, to wrestle with the text, to pray, seek the Holy Spirit’s guidance into meaning and interpretation. Consulting commentaries or resource texts is fine, but the primary responsibility and first action should be the pastor delving into the text itself. Sadly, apparently ghostwriting another pastor’s sermons and plagiarizing is “common” as this young man discovered.
Here are some podcasts addressing the issue:
SBC This Week: Interview with Ed Litton
A culture of acceptance of these activities, once immediately considered outright sin, is happening. A shift in what a pastor’s priorities should be, is happening. It’s all before our eyes. It should not be accepted. Dr. Owen Strachan said,
Pastor Don Green of Truth Community Church wrote a heartfelt short essay on plagiarism and sermon preparation as a duty by the Pastor. I recommend it to you.
Below is a helpful essay on what plagiarism is and why it’s wrong, from a biblical standpoint-
Pastor Gabe Hughes hosted a quest writer who offered this essay The Biggest Scandal in the Ed Litton Plagiarism Scandal
Here are verses stating God’s opposition to plagiarism, deception, and lying. Also verses on a pastor’s job.
Therefore behold, I am against the prophets,” declares the LORD, “who steal My words from each other. Jeremiah 23:30
Bible verses on deceit. Yes, it is deceitful to pretend to have written a sermon but actually be repeating it from another man and not attributing his work to him.
If a pastor does attribute the sermon to another, then he is admitting his laziness. Here are Bible verses on laziness.
Here are verses on a pastor’s qualifications. Preaching and teaching are two important ones. Litton and Greear use the word “communicator” to term their sermon delivery. They are not communicators, though communicating is part of teaching. No, they are to teach and preach.
I’ll end with an opinion piece from The Week. The say that in the internet era where “Google exists”, plagiarizing is either stupid or evil.