Greetings to you in the name of the Lord Jesus. We are writing to you today with a heavy heart about recent events in our convention but with a firm resolve to speak with truth, grace, and moral clarity about the pastoral calling and the task of preaching.
Over the summer, numerous news outlets reported that the newly elected President of the Southern Baptist Convention, Dr. Ed Litton, had plagiarized a number of sermons from J. D. Greear (NY Times, Newsweek, RNS). Other evidence subsequently came to light suggesting that he had plagiarized at least one other sermon from Tim Keller as well. It is difficult to say with precision how many other sermons may be implicated because Litton’s church removed scores of sermons from its website after the plagiarism was exposed. From what evidence we do have, it appears that the plagiarism has spanned over many sermons and years.
Dr. Litton has responded publicly to the plagiarism controversy on several occasions since it came to light in late June. His initial response on June 26 highlighted that Litton had permission from Greear to make free use of Greear’s sermon material. Litton also apologized saying, “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.”
After that admission, Litton came forth with a number of confusing statements, some of which denied that he had plagiarized but which said that he had been forgiven by God. This puzzling message raised the question of what he had been forgiven for if he had not plagiarized. In his most recent remarks at Southwestern Seminary, Litton clarifies that he believes his actions were not plagiarism because he had permission to use Greear’s sermons but that it was nevertheless sinful to use those sermons without crediting Greear as his source. He also says that he has confessed this failure as sin to the church that he pastors.
Many Southern Baptists (including many of you) have been perplexed by these admissions and the public scandal they occasioned. For that reason, we thought it might be helpful to explain how your elders are thinking on these matters.
First, in spite of the fact that Dr. Litton had permission to use Greear’s sermons, what he did still constitutes plagiarism. Here is the definition of plagiarize from the American Heritage Dictionary:
“To reproduce or otherwise use (the words, ideas, or other work of another) as one's own or without attribution.”
As you can see, plagiarism is not about permission but about attribution. One can still plagiarize works that he has permission to use. And that is in fact what Dr. Litton has done.
Second, we are grateful to hear that even though Dr. Litton has failed to define plagiarism correctly, he has acknowledged his failure to give proper attribution as sin. We are also thankful to hear that he has confessed this failure as sin to his church. However, we remain concerned that his public comments about the issue continue to be muddled at best and evasive at worst. We believe he still needs to express a humble, forthright confession of plagiarism without defensiveness or deflection. An SBC President must avoid setting an example that makes light of sin and that leads to heart-hardening and judgment (Heb. 3:12-19).
Third, forgiveness of sins is not the same thing as qualification for leadership. While the Lord freely offers forgiveness to any penitent sinner, we nevertheless believe that Dr. Litton has engaged in behavior that is disqualifying for an elder. The plagiarism scandal has raised questions whether he is apt to teach, above reproach, and of good reputation with those outside the church (1 Tim. 3:1-7). It raises questions whether he is “diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, handling accurately the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15). Preaching is the central task of the pastor. A consistent pattern of copying sermons and falsely passing them off as one’s own suggests not only a failure of truthfulness but also a failure of the central task of the pastor. It suggests a “neglect” of the pastoral calling:
“14 Do not neglect the spiritual gift within you, which was bestowed upon you through prophetic utterance with the laying on of hands by the presbytery. 15 Take pains with these things; be absorbed in them, so that your progress may be evident to all. 16 Pay close attention to yourself and to your teaching; persevere in these things; for as you do this you will insure salvation both for yourself and for those who hear you” (1 Tim. 4:14-16).
If an elder had plagiarized in this way in our church, the other elders would demand his immediate resignation. If he refused to resign, the elders would recommend that the church vote to remove him.
As convictional Baptists, we recognize that Dr. Litton’s status as pastor is between him and his congregation. Nevertheless, these revelations do impact his fitness for leadership among our convention of churches. He likely would not have been elected had these revelations been known prior to the annual meeting last June. And even now, they have caused a public scandal that has divided our convention and undermined his credibility as a leader.
Fourth, there is no mechanism in the SBC’s constitution or bylaws for removing a sitting president. The only way to remove a president is for messengers to elect a new president at the next annual meeting of the SBC. Nevertheless, we believe that Dr. Litton would do well to resign voluntarily. His credibility as a leader and a preacher has been too compromised for him to continue. He may choose to muddle through the next convention or two, but we believe that would be a mistake. He should resign.
We remain committed to the Southern Baptist Convention. For all of our imperfections in the SBC, we are grateful for the ministry that our cooperation enables to happen—especially the ministries that our church has longstanding ties to, Southern Seminary and the IMB. We wish to remain invested in this work and to do our part to contend for the theological integrity of SBC institutions. There is so much at stake, and we aim for our church to be faithful to the stewardship that has been entrusted to us.
We have no personal animosity toward Dr. Litton. Indeed, we hope and pray that he will prosper in gospel graces and in every good work. We hope and pray the same for the congregation that he serves. We love our brother and wish the very best for him, his family, and his church. We know that will be your heart as well. Please commit to pray for him and for our convention of churches.
May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all (2 Cor. 13:14).
The Elders of Kenwood Baptist Church