The SBC’s Secondhand Sermonizing Controversy

Written by Bud Ahlheim

Bud may be followed on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/gobudley or on Twitter @gobudley

June 28, 2021

Ed Litton, President of the Southern Baptist Convention, caught in plagiarism scandal, now seeks a way out claiming integrity. Litton

“Show yourself in all respects to be a model of good works, and in your teaching show integrity, dignity, and sound speech that cannot be condemned, so that an opponent may be put to shame, having nothing evil to say about us.” (Titus 2:7-8)

The official annual gathering of the Southern Baptist Convention concluded just two weeks ago.  From even before its grand finale, the jaw-dropping goings-on of the Convention, particularly those related to its newly elected President Ed Litton, has raised swells of concern within the SBC and across broader evangelicalism.  Many are being, and doubtlessly will be, tossed about by the faithless aftershocks produced by what Russell Fuller has bluntly called “an apostate convention.”   At the moment, the controversy known as “Sermongate” continues to receive attention.  It deserves much more. As of this writing, Litton, who apologized for what amounts to plagiarizing a significant portion of his 2020 Romans series from J.D. Greear, has removed videos from the series from his church website.  (goredemption.org).  As the SBC Convention platform so repeatedly stated during its meeting, “The world is watching,” it should come as no surprise that Newsweek Magazine on June 28 reports that Litton has scrubbed over 140 sermon videos from the church’s site. Is the massive deletion a tacit acknowledgment of his pulpiteering malfeasance?  Are the deletions merely to stave off further investigations into more potentially larcenous sermonizing?  While videos have been deleted, what has been added to the website is a “Pastor’s Statement By Ed Litton” which addresses the issue. If you are unfamiliar with this most recent SBC controversies, see the article Sex, Whispers, Sermon Swiping.  For an audio discussion of the topic, listen to this edition of The Rapp Report.

Everybody Does It

With regard to his secondhand sermonizing, Litton did in fact apologize for his failure to attribute the actual source of his sermon and even intimated that numerous other sermons he preached may also justly fall under the same scrutiny.  The response seems to almost emanate the textual aromatic rationale of “everybody does it.”  Though he says he utilized Greear’s material “with his permission,” Litton states, “But I am sorry for not mentioning J.D.’s generosity and ownership of these points.  I should have given him credit as I shared these insights.” Litton concludes his “Pastor’s Statement” by writing, “I am committed to being a man of integrity and humility.  I will not waver from that as I lead Redemption Church to be Christ followers and the SBC to unite around her mission.”

SBC Power Elite To The Rescue

The elite power structure of the SBC quickly came to Litton’s aid.  Linking Litton’s statement in a Tweet, Daniel Akin, President of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary added, “Thank you my friend.  I appreciate your humility, transparency, and integrity.  Grateful for you!”   SEBTS’ Provost, Keith Whitfield, similarly lauded Litton’s statement.  Tweeting on June 26, he said, “I’m thankful for this response from @edlitton.  He is a humble man with integrity and values transparency and truth.  It’s unfortunate that there are those in the SBC who spend their time spinning half truths to attack and tear down.”

“Ants At The Picnic”

A much bolder response came from James Merritt, most recently the petulant Chairman of the SBC’s 2021 Resolutions Committee.  Merritt tweeted that “@edlitton is a man of humility, honesty, and absolute integrity.  he is exactly God’s man for the hour to lead southern Baptists and thank God he is the one that was elected to lead us.  Ignore the ants at the picnic.”  Merritt, just after calling discerning Christians “ants at the picnic,” also links to Litton’s statement.  (One would think Merritt would frown at stealing sermons since he peddles his own sermons for profit from his website pastorsedge.com.)

The Past President Defends

In addition to the rapid deployment social media SBC elite team that bolted into supportive action for Litton, the previous president of the SBC also produced “A Statement about My Sermon On Romans 1.”  On his self-named blog site, J.D. Greear not only defended his successor but also answered the issue regarding the divergent sermonic tale of a visit to a pagan temple recounted in both sermons.  Litton had attributed it to Paul David Tripp.  Greear attributed it to himself.  Greear’s response was not unlike Litton’s: it happens to everybody on the mission field.  No big deal.

But here’s an observation about all that chatter of integrity and transparency.  Greear preached his message in January 2019.  Litton re-preached it, in some cases verbatim, one year later in January 2020.  According to his statement, Litton knowingly used Greear’s message but did not attribute it.  In case you’re wondering, using someone’s content as if it’s your own constitutes … wait for it … plagiarism.  And, not only that …wait for it again … plagiarism is stealing.  Not to inflate this to an undue extreme, but stealing is a direct violation of #8 on the 10 Commandment list.  And to conclude this simplistic, but necessary process of deduction, such a violation of a commandment is … sin, a matter which Paul – believe or don’t – actually and apostolically addresses in the very same book of Romans from which both these guys were preaching.   

Thus, we’re dealing with sin, sin which Litton apparently knew he was committing when he did it.  It remained sin when the eight-man sermon scripting, resource outlining, and preaching planning pastoral staff were working alongside him at Redemption Church.  From the first of however many sermons Litton swiped and left unattributed, he and they knew.  It was a series.  He alludes to numerous sermons that relied on Greear’s material.  It wasn’t just one sermon.  He and his staff knew about them all.  And, they did nothing to correct the impression that Litton, with them alongside, wasn’t actually the source.

“So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.”  James 4:17

January 2020 until now, nearly July 2021, constitutes some 18 months of concealment.  A year and a half has passed and only now has Litton come forth to confirm – along with the SBC elite – his integrity, humility, and transparency.  Oh, and it took the same amount of time for him to say “sorry.”  Hmm.  Rather reeks of integrity and transparency, huh? So why now?  Well, this is rather obvious.  Neither the members of Redemption Church, nor the SBC, nor evangelicalism at large would have any knowledge of this unless it had come to light by the actions of, not Litton, but others.  He was, in other words, found out.  When the public spotlight shone upon his apparent unscrupulousness, he had to react.

What Others Say About Secondhand Sermonizing

Let’s consider some non-Litton insight about sermon plagiarizing.  And, to begin with, let’s go back to a 2012 blog post by J.D. Greear himself.

“If I ever preach the gist of another person’s sermon, meaning that I used the lion’s share of their message’s organization, points, or applications, I give credit.  I don’t ever think it’s a good idea to preach someone else’s sermon … but in those rare times when you feel like you just can’t help it, you have to give credit.  A sermon is a major thought unit.  If it’s not yours, you have to acknowledge where it came from.”

(At this point, it would be entirely appropriate to say “Wow.”) In his blog article, Greear linked to a topically similar one from the Desiring God website.  That site’s article includes this assessment:

“The central problem with plagiarism is twofold: (1) it is stealing; and (2) it bears false witness. Obviously, both of these are unacceptable for Bible-believing Christians (see Exodus 20:15; Mark 10:19; Matthew 15:19, etc). Stealing and bearing false witness fail to love your neighbor as yourself (Romans 13:9). The words and ideas of another person are precisely that–their words or ideas. To fail to acknowledge their source is to give the false impression that they have originated with you. Hence, plagiarism steals from another and gives a false impression to your audience. Both of these factors should be of utmost concern to the Christian, and especially pastors and teachers whose should have the utmost respect for the sanctity of truth.”

So, stealing AND bearing false witness?  Add Commandment #9 to the list.  One more citation for perspective would be helpful.  This statement on sermon plagiarizing comes from D.A. Carson:

“First: Taking over another sermon and preaching it as if it were yours is always and unequivocally wrong, and if you do it you should resign or be fired immediately. The wickedness is along at least three axes: (1) You are stealing. (2) You are deceiving the people to whom you are preaching. (3) Perhaps worst, you are not devoting yourself to the study of the Bible to the end that God’s truth captures you, molds you, makes you a man of God and equips you to speak for him. If preaching is God’s truth through human personality …, then serving as nothing more than a kind of organic recording device in playback mode does not qualify. Incidentally, changing a few words here and there in someone else’s work does not let you off the hook; re-telling personal experiences as if they were yours when they were not makes the offense all the uglier. That this offense is easy to commit because of the availability of source material in the digital age does not lessen its wickedness, any more than the ready availability of porn in the digital age does not turn pornography into a virtue.”

We submit for your consideration the following:  This ain’t looking good.
“I Used To Lie” About Sermon Prep Time

In a November 2020 Sermonary podcast, Litton plainly states that “I used to lie” about his sermon prep time.  He states that he would tell people it was about 24 hours per sermon, but he concludes by saying it’s about “eight to ten hours.”  Don’t miss that.  “I USED TO LIE” to people about sermon preparation.  Another astounding comment made by Litton emphasizes the creativity he sees as necessary to the sermon process.  To add a creative flair to his sermon, Litton “makes up” a story about a Roman soldier and a young Jewish boy.  “I made up” the story, he says.  Below is a raw transcript of his story from this Youtube podcast.

“i preached a sermon recently where i opened up …  i opened it with a story of a roman soldier that i made up and uh what i took is some ideas that i know are true and he encounters this boy outside of nazareth and the boy uh he’s with a gaggle of jewish boys when they see that he’s a ramen [Roman] they start throwing rocks at him but not this kid and he wants to get one of them to carry his backpack one mile because he could do that that’s the rule of the roman road and this one kid volunteered he talks asked him questions about himself was interested in his life talked to him about god they’re on this trip and he goes to the first mile marker he thinks he’s going to drop his backpack and the kid doesn’t he keeps walking he goes the second mile third mile fourth when i fit my final guy stops and says go home anyway he it makes an impression on this young roman soldier 20 years later he’s a centurion and he gets he gets a note that he has to go do an execution goes up there and he’s and i talked about his eyes he sees something in his eyes and he sees a smile on his face believe it or not even while he’s being executed and it it it stirs that memory he begins consider him and then he says obviously this was the son of god so that was an introduction”

 

In addition to creatively adding this “made up” tale to open up a sermon, a simple observation would be this: does Litton not find Scripture itself compelling enough, powerful enough, or true enough to simply preach what the Lord has given in His Word without the need to embellish it with fiction?  Is Scripture actually not sufficient for how Litton chooses to preach and, if it is not, then would what Litton does rightly be called “preaching” in the biblical sense?

But for Litton to admit lying about his work effort in sermon preparation and then emphasize the importance of creativity in fictionalized stories to add to the drama, import, and power of Scripture sounds very little like integrity, and quite a bit more like pragmatic showmanship in the pulpit.

Imitation May Be Flattery, But It Isn’t Integrity

The problem, you see, is that while imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery – so that Greear might appropriately backslap himself for his pulpiteering ingenuity given Litton’s plunderous mimicry – integrity isn’t featured heavily, if at all, in flattery.    Integrity, as it’s been widely noted, is doing what’s right when nobody is looking.  The even bigger issue, as Puritan Matthew Henry has declared, is that “Though God is out of sight, we are never out of His sight.”  Christian integrity operates at this level.  In other words, integrity doesn’t mean engaging in spin control when you’ve illicitly spun yourself into a chasm of concealment.  Rather, integrity means acting so that spin control is never necessary.  God is watching.  Act like the lights are always on.

Remember, Strike One Was Doctrine

As it turns out, this reactionary “leadership” by Litton is the second episode of the exact same behavior exhibited by him since day one of the 2021 SBC Convention.  You may recall that on the very day when his name was being voted on for the Presidency of the SBC, Litton’s church website contained a heretical “We Believe” statement about the doctrine of the Trinity. (This is discussed in our article The Soft Baptist Convention.) When public questioning from the floor of the Convention came about the matter, Litton, in a papal-like act of pastoral fiat, had his church’s website altered to remove the heresy.  One minute his church professed to “We believe” this about God and, mere vote tabulating moments later, it believed something completely different. Now the removal of heresy is a good thing.  But here’s what it points out.  Litton isn’t attuned to matters of doctrine with his own flock.  Doctrine, even a doctrine as fundamental as who God is, is an afterthought.  Is there any reason to remotely presume that, if doctrine isn’t a big deal for him with his own church, it’s going to suddenly become important with him at the helm of the SBC?

“The health of the church depends on the health of the pulpit.”  Martyn Lloyd-Jones

With his unattributed re-preaching of another man’s sermon, Litton likewise isn’t attuned to what pastoral integrity actually involves.  As with doctrine and theology, it too is an afterthought.  Significantly, in both afterthoughts, Litton’s reaction was only given when light was brought to the problems.  It wasn’t a problem until faithful believers said, “Hey, this is a problem.”  So, is this Litton’s leadership style, to be reactive in spin-control?  It appears he certainly was not being proactive in integrity and transparency back in 2020 when he perpetrated his act of pulpiteering plagiarizing.  Here then are two occasions within two weeks where Litton has not been a proactive leader but rather has been a reactive spin-controller.  When the public stimulus brought light to heresy and when it brought light to sin, only then was a swift response proffered.  While his SBC elitist buddies may shush concerns among the plebeian laity of the pews, those pews seriously need to perk up and pay attention.  A grand SBC power play that disregards doctrine, ignores theology, redefines integrity, and calls obscurity transparency is being staged right in front of their eyes.

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