NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Shortly after Ed Litton was elected as the new president of the Southern Baptist Convention, the Alabama pastor vowed to “build bridges, not walls” during his tenure as head of the denomination.
Litton, the senior pastor of Redemption Church (formerly First Baptist North Mobile), won the election in a runoff vote on Tuesday, defeating Georgia Pastor Mike Stone. Litton was nominated by SBC's first and only black president, Fred Luter, and has a long history of promoting racial reconciliation.
Litton received 52% of the vote in a runoff election against Stone, the former president of the SBC's Executive Committee, who has been in the news recently over accusations he and other members of the committee mishandled sex abuse allegations. Litton received 6,834 votes in the runoff, while Stone received 6,278 votes.
The election comes at a contentious time for America's largest Protestant denomination amid differing opinions on how it should handle sexual abuse and racial issues.
During a press conference following the election, Litton told reporters that moving forward, he hopes the Gospel can establish “unity” among a largely divided SBC, which is comprised of nearly 50,000 churches.
The pastor said he believes God has called him to “help us remember again why we’re a family and what the focus and objective of our family is, which is to get the good news of the Gospel of Jesus … to as many people as can hear it.”
In the days ahead, Southern Baptists will have to “work out and iron out some of our differences,” Litton said, adding that he hopes to “build bridges and not walls” and help the denomination “return to the roots of what God has called us to do.”
Under his leadership, Litton said he hopes the SBC will focus on showing love to the hurting and poor. He highlighted the need for “humility” among SBC leaders to work out their differences.
Four men were nominated for the role of president from the stage of the annual meeting: Litton, Stone, the Northwest Baptist Convention Executive Director and Treasurer Randy Adams and the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President R. Albert Mohler Jr.
More than 15,600 messengers were registered at the time of the election, and 14,300 ballots were cast in the first four-way contest.
Mohler received 3,764 votes and Adams received 673 votes. Neither advanced to the runoff.
Litton, who has led his Alabama church since 1994, called pastoring the local church the “highest honor of his life.” Still, the pastor said he wants to do whatever he can to pull the SBC together.
“I think we can find that common ground [in Jesus],” he said.
Litton went on to address hot-button issues in the SBC, including critical race theory, the sexual abuse crisis and the role of women in the church.
"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.
When it comes to the issue of sexual abuse within the SBC, Litton said he hopes to “bring all of this out and expose it to the light.” He said the denomination needs to “work hard” to ensure all their churches are “safe places for people to be protected … and not victimized.”
He called the recent reports of abuse “eye-opening” and said he believes Southern Baptists are “concerned” about the issue. Luter commended Litton for his handling of the issue of sexual abuse within SBC churches.
Luter is confident that Litton can build the bridges and keep each other from fighting “in the barracks.” The former president said that Litton has a "compassionate and shepherding heart" who is "uniquely gifted for this role."
"[W]e need him now," Luter said in his nomination speech.
Though he is “personally extremely conservative in his politics,” Litton said he does not address political issues from the pulpit.
“I am to be a Gospel-centered person,” he explained. When dealing with a largely Democratic administration, Litton said he will treat politicians who differ from him with “dignity and respect.”
“My job is to represent Jesus Christ wherever I go,” he said, adding he represents Jesus Christ “first and foremost.”
Just weeks removed from the resignation of former SBC Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission President Russell Moore following accusations from the Executive Committee that some of the political stances taken by SBC's public policy arm could hurt SBC giving, Litton called the ERLC “critical” to the SBC. He called on the denomination to “support” — and not defund — the agency.
When asked if SBC-affiliated churches that ordain women should be “kicked out” of the denomination, Litton, a self-professed complementarian, simply said: “That’s something we’re going to have to work out.”
Litton, a father of three, has a Bachelor of Arts degree in religion and theatre from Grand Canyon University, a Master of Divinity from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and a Doctorate of Ministry from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Earlier in the press conference, Litton shared how he grew up in an abusive home — but it was thanks to the witness of a Southern Baptist that his father converted to Christianity and turned his life around.
“I had a front-row seat to a miracle … there’s nothing God cannot do,” he said.
The pastor reflected on the death of his first wife, Tammy, who died in a car accident. He revealed that his second wife, Kathy, also lost her late husband in the same way.
“It alters the course of your life,” he shared. “We both have a profound sense of pain, suffering in our life that has changed us.”
Litton referred to himself and his wife, who is director of planter spouse development for the North American Mission Board, as “Great Commission Baptists.”
“We … felt so loved by the people of this convention. ... We felt their compassion. We felt their prayers. We still do, we felt their love," he said. "We will leave this place focused, we will leave this place with a direction, and I believe a better direction, for the future.”
Conference attendee Steve McKinion, professor of Theology at Southeastern Seminary, told The Christian Post he’s “delighted” by Litton’s election. He described the pastor as a “man of deep integrity.”
“I think he represents what, as a convention, we clearly want to be and what we want to do,” McKinion said. “[Litton’s] church has exemplified what Southern Baptists are always about, which is reconciliation with God through Christ and reconciliation with other people. He's faithful in helping people to know the Gospel and respond to it.”
McKinion added that he believes Southern Baptists are “more unified than they may appear.”
“Even where we have differences of opinion in applying certain things, we still believe the same Gospel and are committed to the same mission,” he said. “Even though it may appear that there are divisions among Southern Baptists. I think we're much more unified than other people may think, so I think we'll continue down the same path that we're on right now.”