A deep, sinful pattern in SBC life has been exposed in recent weeks, but it’s not the one making headlines. If this issue is not addressed quickly and thoroughly, it will lead to the destruction of the convention. For years, the matter which has now been thrust to the forefront lurked just under the surface. Many of us knew it was there, but we weren’t sure how, when, or if we should address it. The time is now.
According to some, Ed Litton negated his role as shepherd of his church by spending no time in personal study and preparation and simply copying JD Greear’s sermons. At least that’s the narrative being pushed by Litton’s opponents.
Litton's process, however, is very different. Not only do we have his description of the process, but I have seen the room where it happens, and Litton has explained the process to me on several occasions. It included:
Serious study and exegesis in the passage including outlining the passage and its larger context
Consulting commentaries and other sermons
Consulting with other staff pastors in sermon preparation thereby sharpening, developing, and discipling all involved
With the Roman's series, the process also included:
Deciding that JD Greear’s outlines expressed the truths he also wanted to express
Contacting Greear and asking for permission to use his materials
Utilizing Greear’s outlines, some of his illustrations, and even some sections of his manuscripts
The longest clip of material borrowed from Greear that I’ve seen is 13:28 with roughly half of the clip from Greear and the other half showing the repetitive sections from Litton. That is approximately 6:45 minutes of a 40–45-minute sermon. How much is too much?
When Is It Plagiarism?
In my own preparation and preaching, I find that someone else’s words often express my own ideas so well that I choose to express some of my thoughts using someone else’s words or phrases. The often-quipped phrase, “If it’s new, it’s not true,” applies to the current situation for two reasons. First, it reminds us that in some ways, preachers of the gospel should repeat one another. Faithful biblical exposition in the 21st century should lead me to the same conclusions and many of the same statements as faithful biblical expositors in the 20 previous centuries of the church. If I find, in the course of the hard work of study and preparation, that some else has worded some of the biblical ideas better than I can, is it plagiarizing to pass on those time-tested truths in the words of others, or is it good stewardship, shepherding, and discipleship? How much is too much? How many of those being so critical of Litton have used outlines from John MacArthur’s New Testament commentaries or outlines they picked up from a seminary professor? Second, even though I’ve used the statement, “If it’s new, it’s not true” many times, I have no idea where I first heard it. Am I plagiarizing when I use that statement because it has so impacted me that it has become a part of my own thinking about hermeneutics and preaching?
To be clear, the type of sharing and repeating mentioned in the last paragraph is far from what Litton did with Greear’s material, but it illustrates the point that lines between faithful sharing among preachers and plagiarizing are not clear. Many of the thoughts and ideas from my most recent sermon have been shaped by dozens of voices throughout church history, but I did not quote any sources other than Scripture in that sermon. You can listen to it here and let me know if you think I committed plagiarism, but with the Lord as my witness, I do not believe I did.
Somewhere between the common practice of almost every preacher throughout history and what happened with Ed Litton’s series on Romans, a line was crossed, but what line? Did it disqualify him for ministry? It is difficult to say with any certainty that Litton committed any sin other than failing to give Greear credit for using significant portions of his material. Litton did not “steal” the material because Greear gave it to him. Litton should have given credit, and he has directly and sincerely apologized for not doing so. Failing to give credit where credit is due is problematic, but it is hardly disqualifying.
For an informative and nuanced discussion on plagiarism in sermons, listen to this helpful podcast from 9 Marks.
We Have Commands that Show us How to Deal with Sin
What, then, should be done? God has not left us without a procedure for such moments. According to Matthew 18:15-20, anyone Ed Litton has directly sinned against should go to him seeking repentance and restoration. Who did Litton sin against? The most exhaustive list imaginable could only include Greear and Redemption Church. Those of us who are not part of Redemption church can’t really claim to have been sinned against, and it is clear that both Greear and Redemption Church have accepted his apology as the only step needed in restoration.
But Ed Litton is the President of the SBC! Yes, he is. The guidelines we have from Scripture tell us that elders who sin should be rebuked publicly only with the evidence of two or three witnesses and only if they persist in sinning (1 Timothy 5:19-20). Although Litton is not the pastor of the SBC, these requirements can certainly be extended to denominational leadership. The first requirement for public rebuke has been met. More than two or three witnesses have spoken against Litton, and the evidence is clear—Litton did not give credit when using Greear’s material. The second requirement for public rebuke, however, has not been met. Litton apologized and has committed to be more careful in giving credit in the future. Subsequent accusations of plagiarism, such as the accusation that Litton plagiarized an author for comparing Jesus to an iron lung, hold about as much credibility as claiming one country singer plagiarized another by singing about dirt roads and trucks.
The Real Issue
The real issue that has been exposed is not plagiarism. The real issue at hand is the infiltration of gloves off, below the belt, cancel culture politics that has entered SBC life. For the past several years, I have personally chased down rumors, propaganda, and intentional misinformation intended to discredit or destroy leaders within our convention, and the truth is ugly. A network exists of loosely affiliated news outlets, pastors, and social media personalities whose actions mimic those of the best political spin doctors in the business.
From Secular Politics to Convention Life
We all know what some media outlets do to conservative politicians, and it sickens us. They watch every speech, read every document, and dig through every video and social media account looking for anything they can use as ammunition against any politician or leader who opposes their progressive agenda. We’ve all seen clips and quotes taken out of context, carefully edited, and twisted to make a conservative politician appear in the worst light possible. When those conservative politicians offer explanations or apologies, those explanations and apologies are viewed from the worst possible perspective, and every negative assumption that can be made about those apologies and explanations is made. They use deceitful and ungodly tactics to destroy good men and women, and they don’t care. The only thing that matters is their agenda. The progressive cause is too important; they must win at all costs.
The truth is, there are other media outlets that do the same thing to progressive politicians. That’s harder for most of us to see and admit because we want their progressive agendas to fail. In fact, we have all too often been willing participants in conservative media campaigns of misinformation and character assassination. That is a tragedy. We are to be men and women of truth regardless of what it costs us politically.
The greater tragedy, however, is that these tactics have found their way into convention life. Three incidences prove the point:
The release of statements and recordings targeting Mike Stone two weeks before the convention
The ridiculous accusation that Ed Litton was a heretic (partialism), which originated moments after his election
All three of these incidences exposed real issues that needed to be addressed. The statements and recordings raised serious concerns about the Executive Committee’s actions, but they were timed weeks before the convention in order to advance an agenda. Redemption Church had a statement in their belief section that needed to be edited, but it’s laughable to say Litton is a partialist. Ed Litton should have given Greear credit for use of his sermon material, but that is an issue that, on its own, is easy to address. The biggest problem in our SBC family is not these or other issues—the problem is the way in which these real concerns are weaponized and deployed to destroy our brothers and sisters in Christ. It seems that the growing network of news outlets, pastors, and social media personalities will do anything to advance their agenda.
We are in a crucial time when those from every tribe of SBC life must reject misleading and ungodly tactics which have seeped in from the political world. If we do not, we will not survive. The polarization will continue as we all sink deeper into our tribes and watch fringe elements from every corner of the convention lob grenades at other factions. The factions will fortify, and the attacks will intensify. Eventually, the SBC will be as divided as our nation, and a divided convention is an oxymoron.
Secret “Woke” Leaders
The 21st-century American culture has presented the church with unique challenges. Our minds are bombarded with buzzwords and acronyms like CRT, democratic socialism, LGBTQ+, privilege, Christian nationalism, Q-Anon, Antifa, Proud Boys, and on and on. What are we to do with such inundations? We are to open our Bibles, open our hearts to our brothers and sisters in Christ, and address these as they arise with the power of the gospel. What have we done, in many cases? We have assumed the worst of one another and created a culture of suspicion and fear.
Ed Litton is being attacked, not because he failed to give credit to JD Greear for using some of his sermon material, but because he is assumed by some to be a “woke” secret agent of progressive Christianity working to infiltrate the SBC and lead us down the LGBTQ+ affirming, social justice warrior, biblical doctrine denying path. And by the way, he’s not alone. If you listen to rumors, Litton is part of some type of progressive secret society which includes many of our seminary presidents and entity leaders. These SBC elites, according to the theory, are hiding their true intentions from normal pastors and the people in the pews.
Are Litton and other leaders within the SBC liberals who support Marxism, the LGBTQ+ agenda, the social gospel, etc.? Why doesn’t someone just ask them? They have been asked. Repeatedly. And each time, our SBC leaders have given biblically faithful responses in line with the Baptist Faith and Message. “But,” some will say, “I’ve heard/read Litton and other SBC leaders make statements that seem like they support liberal agendas.” Further investigation reveals that what we’ve seen, heard, and read are carefully selected quotes, clips, and sound bites chosen specifically to make these leaders look as liberal as possible. In other words, we’ve been subjected to the same tactics Democrats use to attack Republicans and vice versa.
This must stop, and it must stop now. Those behind such attacks will not police themselves. We must recognize these tactics for what they are and drown out their shouts with 10,000 conversations between brothers and sisters in Christ around open Bibles and with open hearts.