In 1 Timothy 6:13-15, the Apostle Paul said to his protege Timothy, “I charge you in the presence of God, who gives life to all things, and of Christ Jesus, who in His testimony befor Pontius Pilate made the good confession, to keep the commandment unstained and free from reproach until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ, which He will display at the proper time—He who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords.”
I have been asked to provide an orderly account of the sermon plagiarism scandal involving Dr. Ed Litton, pastor of Redemption Church in Saraland, AL, and the current president of the Southern Baptist Convention. I published a guest article in July from Tobby E. Smith, pastor of Memorial Baptist Church in New Castle, IN. You can still find that article here. But I had yet to chronicle my own account of these events in which I have been involved.
The student handbook of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary defines plagiarism as “the use or theft of intellectual property without attribution, both a moral and educational transgression” (pg. 8). Of this transgression Dr. Litton has yet to repent, and Southern Baptists have done little to hold him accountable. Will Southern Baptist churches, seminaries, and other ministries obey the call to keep the counsel of God “unstained and free from reproach”?
The following account contains links to all sources, including videos that demonstrate Litton’s plagiarism of the sermons he stole. If you listen to the audio of this article, you will hear more broad examples of Litton’s plagiarism and the dishonest ways he has attempted to cover himself. I have also included trustworthy words from other teachers commenting on the matter.
As an aside, lest anyone say that I have a responsibility to contact Dr. Litton first, I attempted to open a dialogue with him privately on July 8. There were two witnesses to this engagement. Dr. Litton did not respond.
I have no personal beef with Dr. Litton. This is not an act of rancor or spite. Rather, my commitment is to “the stewardship from God that is by faith. The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith” (1 Timothy 1:4-5).
The Birth of a Scandal
On June 15, 2021, Dr. Ed Litton was elected president of the Southern Baptist Convention at the annual meeting held in Nashville, TN. Leading up to the meeting, Litton received criticism for letting his wife preach at Redemption Church, where Litton is pastor.
I had written an article entitled “Women Pastors are a Fundamental Problem for Southern Baptists,” published on June 7 which mentioned that Litton has “had his wife preach sermons on Sunday morning.” This is contrary to what the Bible says and our statement of faith, the Baptist Faith and Message 2000. Article VI says, “While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastors is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.”
Upon being elected president of the SBC, it was soon discovered that Redemption Church had a heretical-sounding statement on their website concerning the Trinity. It was literally the first statement under “What We Believe.” Pastor Allen Nelson of Perryville, AR, highlighted the problem in a tweet shared on June 16, the day after Litton was elected president. The statement read:
“God is the Creator and Ruler of the universe. He has eternally existed in three persons: the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. These three are co-equal parts of one God.”
This is called partialism, which Athanasius wrote was condemned at the Council of Nicaea. God is “without parts,” he said, lest it be assumed that the Father, Son, and Spirit each make up a third of the Triune Godhead.
The error on Redemption Church’s website was likely a mistake—not that Litton actually believed something heretical about the Trinity. Nonetheless, it was still wrong, and when it was rightly criticized on social media, the church’s “What We Believe” page was scrubbed without explanation. This way of responding to criticism would come up again.
On June 21, a friend of mine had told me that Ed Litton preached a sermon Romans 1 at the start of 2020, and in the sermon he said that the Bible “whispers” about sexual sin. This is the same thing J.D. Greear had said to his church when he preached on Romans 1—a chapter of the Bible that very loudly condemns sexual immorality, especially homosexuality. The Bible says loud and clear: “Flee from sexual immorality” (1 Corinthians 6:18), “for God will judge the sexually immoral and adulterous” (Hebrews 13:4).
I shared a clip of Litton’s sermon on Twitter, and said, “Twice in a row, the Southern Baptist Convention has elected a president who teaches that the Bible ‘whispers’ about sexual sin. Wouldn’t you think that appointing leaders who preach that the Bible ‘whispers’ about sexual sin is the wrong way to fight sex abuse?”
That following Thursday evening, I received an e-mail from a listener of my podcast, sharing with me a video he made comparing Greear and Litton’s sermons on Romans 1. They were so alike, it looked like Litton had plagiarized Greear. I asked the creator if he was okay with me sharing the video on social media, and he said that was why he made it.
The next morning, June 25, I tweeted the following: “A viewer named Jacob saw my tweet where Ed Litton says God ‘whispers’ about sexual sin, just as JD Greear taught a year before. He edited both Greear and Litton’s sermons together, and they’re really, really close. Watch:” And I linked to the video entitled, “Litton and Greear: Borrowing or Plagiarism?”
The tweet and the video exploded and quickly exposed a scandal. That same day, more people started looking into Litton’s sermon archive, and it turned out he had plagiarized multiple sermons by Greear. The videos that came out revealed that Litton had done more than plagiarize Greear’s teaching—he was even making Greear’s personal experience stories his own personal experience stories.
Sometimes when Greear would quote someone like Charles Spurgeon, Litton would quote it, too, but he wouldn’t reference the quote as being from Spurgeon. So he was taking quotes from other preachers and repeating them as if they were his own words.
The Growth of a Scandal
Redemption Church responded the way they did to the faith statement controversy—they began scrubbing their website. Scores of sermons were either deleted or hidden from public access. On Saturday, June 26, the very next day after the plagiarism scandal broke, Litton released a 400-word statement explaining his actions. The statement was published on the church’s website.
“Yesterday, some questions arose about a sermon I delivered in January 2020 on Romans 1, addressing the sin of homosexuality,” Litton said. “Specifically, there were concerns about similarities with a sermon delivered by J.D. Greear a year earlier.”
Litton said he used Greear’s sermon “with his permission.” He went on to say, “Out of a commitment to full transparency, I have gone back through all the 46 sermons in this series. I have located in some places similar illustrations, quotes, or points of application. One shares the same title, and another has a similar outline.”
Attempting an apology, he said, “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. I felt it important to address this in order to provide the truth and to take responsibility for places where I should have been more careful.”
Greear received Litton’s statement as “gracious and humble words.” Danny Akin, president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, said to Litton, “Thank you, my friend. I appreciate your humility, transparency, and integrity.”
The scandal made Newsweek in a story they published the following Monday, June 28. I was quoted in the article saying, “Redemption Church has now deleted, hidden, or privatized over 100 videos on YouTube, much of them sermons. That’s full transparency?”
The following Thursday, July 1, The Washington Times reported that a new statement appeared on Redemption Church’s website. It said, “By the action of the leadership of Redemption Church, we have taken down sermon series prior to 2020 because people were going through sermons in an attempt to discredit and malign our pastor. It is our highest priority to care for and shepherd our church.”
However, when Litton was asked about this, Litton “told The Washington Times his congregation… had removed dozens of his old sermons from its website over issues of web hosting capacity and a hosting transition.”
Redemption’s attempt at covering for their pastor was all for naught. Most if not all of the sermons had already been downloaded, and more plagiarism videos were published in the coming weeks. Beyond plagiarizing one series of 46 sermons, which is bad enough, it turns out that Litton had been plagiarizing Greear since at least October 25, 2015. And Greear was not the only pastor Litton plagiarized. He and his wife Kathy preached a sermon together in May of 2012, plagiarizing a sermon that Tim Keller had preached on marriage back in 1991. Litton’s plagiarism goes back nearly a decade.
In November of 2020, Ed Litton did an interview with Sermonary about “Healthy Sermon Preparation” (you can’t make this stuff up). Litton said in the interview that he used to lie to people when he talked about his sermon prep time. “I used to lie,” he said. “I used to tell people 24 hours a sermon, but I would say 8-10 hours average.”
Later in the interview, he did a segment on storytelling and shared an example of a story he came up with for a sermon. He told a story about a Roman soldier who made a boy carry his bag, and the boy carried it for two miles, then three, then four. Years later, that soldier became a Centurion and he was instructed to oversee an execution. That man was Jesus, and the Centurion recognizes Him as the boy who carried his bag all those years earlier.
The host of the interview beamed, “It sounds like somebody needs to buy the movie rights to that.” If someone did make a movie out of that story, they might need to give credit to O.S. Hawkins, who imagined a similar story in chapter 34 of his book The Joshua Code.
You can still find the interview Litton did with Sermonary, but you cannot find those two portions of the interview—the part where Litton said he used to lie about his sermon prep time, and the part where he tells the story taken from Hawkins. Sermonary scrubbed them from the interview. I have an ear trained for audio editing, and I can tell you exactly where the edits are in the interview. Sermonary tried to hide these segments, but I still have them. (Props to Pastor Tom Buck for the reference to the Hawkins book.)
The Response to the Scandal
While Litton’s friends were willing to help him hide his offenses, his tactics turned to deflection and blame. On July 6, WKRG, a CBS affiliate in Alabama, did a feature on Litton as the new president of the Southern Baptist Convention. The plagiarism scandal was brought up in the interview. “Where do those charges come from?” the interviewer asked Litton. “Do you know?”
“No, they’re unnamed,” Litton replied. “That’s part of the problem. So unnamed sources have presented these things, which should make everybody take a pause.”
That is just a lie. Those sources are not unnamed, and they never have been. My name has been on those charges from the very first video. My friend, Justin Peters, did a video which has been viewed nearly 100,000 times. Tom Ascol, James White, Jim Osman, Josh Buice, Phil Johnson—dozens of others have tested and reproved Litton over plagiarism.
That aside, even if the sources were anonymous, why should that matter? Is a liar not a liar until someone calls him a liar to his face? No, he’s a liar because he tells lies. This is nothing but a deceptive deflection. Litton is attempting to say that he’s not the dishonest one—his examiners are.
In a September episode of Mortification of Spin, Dr. Carl Trueman, professor of biblical and religious studies at Grove City College, said that Ed Litton has become a laughing stock. He and his co-host, Pastor Todd Pruitt, talked about why plagiarizing sermons, even entire series as Litton had done, is dishonest and sinful.
“It’s straight-up sermon stealing,” Pruitt said. Of course, we don’t want to be saying something that’s never been said before. As Jude 3 says, a pastor is “to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.”
However, Trueman added, “If you’re knocking off someone else’s sermons and you’re presenting it as your own, that’s dishonest.” Pulling no punches, Trueman also said it’s lazy and stupid. “If you’re going to plagiarize a sermon, why plagiarize from someone who’s online and high profile?”
Dr. John MacArthur agreed. A pastor who steals someone else’s sermons is “lazy and incompetent. I’m going to go a third point—and unsanctified. I think you become a showman at that point. You’re an actor.”
A commitment to expository preaching “sanctifies the pastor. Relentless study of the word of God is how God sanctifies and protects the pastor,” MacArthur said. He called sermon stealing “ministerial fraud,” and said, “For many men in ministry, there’s an unwillingness to be disciplined.”
Not only is there reluctance to be disciplined, there’s reluctance to do any disciplining. Most of the rebukes have come from outside Southern Baptist leadership. But those outside the SBC can’t do anything to discipline Litton. It has to come from inside the SBC. More to the point, it should come from his own church. Where is the discipline?
No Southern Baptist seminary would ever allow a student to commit even a fraction of what Litton has done. According to SBTS’s student handbook, it doesn’t matter whether a student has permission to use someone else’s work or they steal it—without proper attribution, plagiarism is “both a moral and educational transgression.” (pg. 8). If it amounts to theft, the handbook calls this breaking the eighth commandment—you shall not steal (Appendix B, pg. 21). Discipline for plagiarism includes reprimand or probation for a first offense, or getting expelled for repeat offenses.
Yet the Southern Baptist seminaries have done little to call the president of the SBC to correction. On June 26, Danny Akin expressed his unconditional support of Litton. On July 5, Jason K. Allen, president of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, denounced pastors who preach other pastors’ sermons, though he didn’t say anything about Ed Litton by name.
It took until September 1 for Dr. Albert Mohler, president of SBTS, to address the scandal directly, and it was in response to a question a student had during a live president’s forum. A preacher should not be preaching manufactured sermons or someone else’s sermons, Dr. Mohler said. “This is a grave issue” and a “frontline issue,” he said. A doctorate was once rescinded by SBTS when an offense of plagiarism was uncovered.
With regards to Litton specifically, Dr. Mohler said, “We were in an election together, and he won. The Southern Baptist Convention elected Dr. Litton as president, and no doubt because of his many gifts. This is an issue that I have to leave between the Southern Baptist Convention and its president.”
Two weeks after Dr. Mohler’s comments, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary hosted Litton in a chapel service for a live conversation with president Adam Greenway. About 7 minutes of the one hour discussion focused on “the sermon plagiarism controversy.” Leading into that part of the interview, Greenway said “there was a lot of snark that came back, particularly from the anonymous social media accounts that proliferate these days.”
Like Litton had done, Dr. Greenway belittled the integrity of Litton’s examiners. It became evident from the start that Dr. Greenway’s objective was not to test Litton and certainly not admonish him. Litton would also say in this interview that his examiners have been saying “all manner of evil against” him.
Greenway said to Litton, “Do you accept the term plagiarism to describe your actions in terms of your preaching ministry, yes or no, why? Just help us understand for the benefit of our seminary community the issue here.”
Litton explained his commitment to preaching and his interaction with Greear. Regarding the charge of plagiarism, he said, “There are a couple of particular cases, times where I made statements where others have been able to line up with statements from the same text and the same passage that J.D. used. So to answer your question, I don’t consider that plagiarism.”
Well, if that’s all that Litton had done, I probably wouldn’t consider that plagiarism either. This was not “a couple of particular cases” merely lining up “statements from the same text and the same passage,” as if Greear and Litton came to the same conclusions about a Bible verse. This was a years-long pattern of ripping off other preacher’s sermons word for word, even making their personal experience stories his own stories.
Litton went on to say, “Let me tell you where my sin was. My sin was I did not credit him to my church.” What? If Litton says he did not plagiarize, then how can it be a sin to not give Greear credit?
“The problem was I did not credit him,” Litton said again. “And I have repented of that to my church. I have repented of that to our leadership. And quite frankly we’re in a process of changing some things. I’m fasting from listening to preaching right now, because it turns out I have a capacity to remember statements that are made in an audible sermon that I hear that’s a little too good, and sometimes it gets mixed up.”
Really? So mixed up that Litton remembers others’ personal experiences as if they were his own? The other absurd thing about this explanation is that if you’ve ever seen a sermon from Ed Litton, he preaches from a manuscript. If his memory is so good, why is he reading his sermon word for word?
This interview was on September 14, almost three months into this scandal. It is inexcusable of Greenway to be so ignorant of Litton’s offenses and allow him to use Southwestern Seminary’s platform to downplay and deflect. What an embarrassment.
While the seminary presidents would not call Litton to resign, two seminary professors did. About a week after Litton’s appearance with Greenway, the leadership of Kenwood Baptist Church in Louisville, KY, wrote a letter for their congregation summarizing the plagiarism scandal. Kenwood’s elders include Denny Burk and Jim Hamilton, who teach at SBTS. The elders said that Litton was unfit for the office of pastor and called for Litton’s resignation as convention president.
“We believe that Dr. Litton would do well to resign voluntarily,” they said. “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.”
The Reflection to the Scandal
I agree with the elders of Kenwood, who have done more than most in calling Dr. Litton to account. Not only should Litton resign his appointment as president of the Southern Baptist Convention, he should resign from his position as pastor or be disciplined by his church. Among the qualifications of a pastor, he is to be “above reproach,” “self-controlled, respectable,” and “able to teach.” Dr. Litton does not meet these qualifications.
“Moreover,” it says in 1 Timothy 3:7, “he must be well though of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil.” Dr. Litton is not well thought of by outsiders. Secular publications have reported on this scandal. He is, as Dr. Trueman said, a laughing stock, and he has made the seminaries that cover for him a laughing stock. He has fallen into disgrace. And because of the men who have not held him accountable but have helped him cover his lies, Litton has become ensnared by the devil. He will continue lying. He will not stop.
That’s the worst part of this scandal. It’s not the plagiarism itself. It’s the lying. The church is “the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15). But how much of the SBC has become a pillar and buttress of lies? With scandal after scandal shrouded in lies, when we tell the world the truth, will they believe us?
Along with the lies is the false teaching. The sermons that Litton swiped weren’t even good sermons. Again, we’ve had two consecutive SBC presidents say from their pulpits that God “whispers” about sexual sin. Secular news outlets have reported that these men have preached this, that God “whispers” about sexual sin. It is an egregious lie—just ask Sodom and Gomorrah. It is to call sexual sin “sin,” and then say, “but it’s really not that big a deal.”
My heart is broken for my fellow Southern Baptists. May God grant us repentance, that Southern Baptist churches would once again “guard the deposit” that has been entrusted to us—the gospel of Jesus Christ. “Avoid the irreverent babble and contradictions of what is falsely called ‘knowledge,’ for by professing it some have swerved from the faith” (1 Timothy 6:20-21).