NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Thousands of Southern Baptists elected Alabama pastor Ed Litton – the only candidate some say can prevent an exodus of minority members from the denomination – the next president of their network of conservative evangelical churches.
Litton won the top Southern Baptist Convention role in a runoff vote on Tuesday in Nashville. He defeated Georgia pastor Mike Stone.
The convention, which is divided over the future direction of the convention, needs a uniter, said Louisiana pastor Fred Luter Jr., who nominated the pastor of Redemption Church in Saraland, Alabama.
"Ed is uniquely qualified to do that," said Luter, a former convention president and the first Black leader to serve in the role.
"At 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 brings a compassionate and shepherding heart to the sexual abuse crisis in the church and is the pastor the convention needs now.
"We’re no longer shoulder to shoulder but face to face, and since we’re so used to fighting, we’re no longer fighting an enemy on the battlefield, we’re now fighting our brothers in the barracks," Luter said. "Southern Baptists, it is time to get out of the barracks."
Theological conservatives control the convention today.
But some are concerned there is a leftward drift within the evangelical network of churches. This group – some of whom are rallying around pirate imagery and a “take the ship” slogan – is calling for a course correction in keeping with the conservative takeover that began in 1979, when leaders ousted theologically liberal and moderate Southern Baptists from convention leadership and seminaries.
Others disagree, saying the faction is pushing for a fundamentalism, and it could chase minority pastors and churches out of the denomination. Several Black pastors have already left the convention since it met last in 2019.
This disagreement played out in the election of the convention’s next president, a position with influence and appointment powers capable of shaping the denomination's future – even as it takes more than one election to shift the convention's direction.
Although membership has steadily dropped for more than a decade, the Nashville-based Southern Baptist Convention's more than 14 million members make it the largest Protestant denomination in the U.S.
Southern Baptists are influential within American Christianity and often are at the center of the debate over faith, culture and politics in the public square.
Like the run-up to the annual meeting, the contest for the next president was contentious. So much so, Southern Baptist leader Rolland Slade, chairman of the convention’s executive committee, prayed there would not be a big split but worried churches would leave regardless of the outcome of the election.
Litton has a message for conservative Black pastors and other Southern Baptists of color questioning their connection to the convention.
"We want you here. We love you here. We can't reach every man woman, man, boy, girl in this nation without you," Litton said in a news conference after his election. "I'm just so grateful for my brothers and sisters in Christ of color ... we have much to learn from them."
Overall, Litton said his approach to leadership is one of bridge building.
"My goal is to build bridges and not walls and to help people connect, talk through things, have honest, open discussions," he said. "Not shut down those conversations, but for all us to again return to the roots of what God calls us to do."
Four men were nominated Tuesday from the stage of the annual meeting: Litton, Stone, Northwest Baptist Convention executive director and treasurer Randy Adams and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President R. Albert Mohler Jr.
More than 15,000 messengers, representatives from the 47,000-plus Southern Baptist churches, were registered at the time of the election of president. More than 14,000 ballots were cast in the first four-way contest. None of the candidates received enough votes to win the top convention post outright.
Tennessee pastor Dean Haun nominated Stone, pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church in Blackshear, Georgia.
Stone was the Conservative Baptist Network's pick for president. The new group, which perceives a leftward drift in the convention, launched in February 2020. One of the group's main priorities is pushing the convention to reject critical race theory.
"We need a champion who will go into battle believing in the authority and sufficiency of scripture. Pastor Mike serves a church that is unapologetically conservative, thoroughly complementarian and unquestionably open to men and women of every ethnicity," Haun said.
"His message is based on the expository preaching of God's word and not on secular theories or analytical tools."
Southern Baptists pushed for preferred pick
Ahead of the annual meeting, several Southern Baptists endorsed their preferred candidate. It some ways, it took on the feel at times of a political campaign. Some wanted the role to go to a pastor instead of an entity head.
Ed Stetzer wrote a column in Christianity Today saying the convention is at a fork in the road, and Litton is needed in the leadership role. "I’m choosing a pastor with a proven track record of committing to the hard work of racial reconciliation," Stetzer wrote.
On Tuesday morning, the Conservative Baptist Network held a breakfast in a hotel nearby Music City Center. Many of the 1,200 seats in the room were filled.
Rod Martin, who also is on the network’s steering council and the convention's executive committee, urged those in the room to show up at the annual meeting and stay the whole day because several key votes are expected throughout.
"You're going to be in that room all day. Did you hear me? All day," Martin said. "You have critical votes until the closing gavel today. Don't leave. Don't leave. Don’t leave. We have to have you. If you have friends who are not in this group, you make sure they're there too. We cannot do without you. Full stop. You have to be there. You have to stand."
After the vote, Stone offered his congratulations to Litton.
"My prayers and congratulations are with Pastor Ed Litton as Southern Baptists continue to serve our churches and our communities," Stone said.
Convention faces questions of race, sex abuse
Typically, the convention’s president serves two one-year terms. But the most recent president, North Carolina Pastor J.D. Greear, served an unexpected third year because of the coronavirus pandemic, which prompted Southern Baptist leaders to cancel the 2020 gathering. Greear has led the convention amid a sexual abuse crisis, racial reckoning and political division.
Some of those concerns and more have dominated discussions as Southern Baptists gather in Nashville this week. The official two-day denominational business meeting started Tuesday and was preceded by a missions conference and ancillary events.
In his parting address, Greear dived straight into the heart of the tensions in the convention, including the sexual abuse crisis, women's roles in the church and critical race theory.
Southern Baptists have repudiated liberalism, Greear said, but now they must not fall to Phariseeism. The Pharisees were a Jewish group at the time of Jesus described in the Bible as holding overly to tradition.
"What does that look like today? It happens when we take a gospel nonessential like a cultural or stylistic preference … or our political calculus and we give it divine weight," Greear said. "Believing in the sufficiency of Scripture means in part not attaching a divine authority to something unless it has a chapter and verse."
Greear repeated themes he had addressed before, such as unity and focusing on the core mission of Southern Baptists as Christians.
“Who are we? What's the most important part of our name? Southern? Or Baptist? Who are we? Are we Southern Baptists or are we great commission Baptists?” Greear said.
“May this be a defining moment that future generations will look back upon and say, 'This is where they determined that the gospel was too precious and the great commission too urgent to let anything stand in its way,'” he said. “If we're going to be at war, let us be at war with the principalities and the powers that impede gospel proclamation."
Contributing: Katherine Burgess. Follow Holly Meyer on Twitter @HollyAMeyer.
This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: Southern Baptists elect Alabama pastor Ed Litton as president