SBC president Ed Litton discusses the SBC’s challenges, suffering, and how to return to Jesus

October 5, 2021

Jill Waggoner: You’ve mentioned your vision for next year’s annual meeting as “Jesus is the Center of it All.” What does this mean for us as believers and for the SBC as a whole?

Ed Litton: I loved J.D. Greer’s theme: “The gospel above all.” The Lord made it very plain to me that it is one thing to say the gospel is above all, but what really makes the gospel above all? Jesus has to be at the center of it all. We can assume that is the case for people, but I think it is a false assumption. It is a constant [work] in my life to make sure Jesus is the center of it all. I think the struggles we’re facing as a convention are going to be helped when we return to our first love.

JW: What do you see as the greatest challenges facing the SBC?

EL: I think unity is key, and it’s what I hear the most from people. I’m teaching right now in the book of Philippians. The very text I’m going to be approaching this Sunday, chapter 2:1-11, tells us what unity is, what destroys unity, and ultimately, our example of unity is Christ. We have to become self-forgetful and Christ-centered. Unity is something we all have a choice in — how we’re going to live and participate, how we’re going to disagree with one another. The toxic nature of the public discourse within the SBC should be alarming to all of us. 

I hear people say [things] about one person versus another person in our convention. I hear all the time: “He hates this other person.” That’s unbecoming a child of God. That is so elementary and so clear. One might say, “Well, that’s not his problem. That’s what people are saying.” We need to clean up our public discourse. We need to go back to the basics of the gospel, and with Jesus as the center of it all.  We must say, how does that mean I treat my neighbor? 

Obviously, we’re having issues with sexual abuse, and the convention in Nashville was very clear they want that addressed. I think, also, that racial reconciliation is huge. Southern Baptists said, as they added to the 2025 vision, those two things. One of our greatest leaders of my lifetime, Fred Luter, said, “Southern Baptists just don’t do racial reconciliation well.” That’s wrong [of us] because the Scripture is very clear. This is not a theory. This is biblical, gospel reconciliation. 

JW: What does the SBC need to do to make our churches safe for survivors and safe from abuse? 

EL: Some of our state conventions have really led the way in this. They have taught pastors, and they hold seminars for pastors. But we need this in every state. We need a national convention focused on how we prepare pastors in seminary to know how to report and what to report, so that is the first line of defense. Then there are other things we can do to make our churches safer for children and safer for the vulnerable. We also have to be safe for those who have been abused. They need to know that they will be heard, that they will be seen, and that we care about their suffering. All of those things are important. 

The convention made it powerfully clear that we’re to have an investigation of our own Executive Committee. It’s always a painful thing to be investigated, but the truth is what sets us free, and we need to know the truth. 

JW: How can God redeem times of suffering? What have you learned about God and his work in your own life? 

EL: One of the first questions I was asked after my wife, Tammy, died was, did your view of God’s sovereignty help you or hurt you? I said yes. 

It was utterly devastating that God would let me hurt that bad. But at the same time, it was the most comforting thing that this wasn’t an accident. I’m still a part of a divine plan, and God is moving through that suffering. Now, it’s not automatic because you have a choice as to what attitude and mind you will have toward suffering. 

We often, as Baptists, are critical of the health-and-wealth gospel, but I think we have our own form of health-and-wealth gospel — that everything’s going to work out great. My kids are going to be good and not embarrass me too much. But the reality is that is a false gospel. Our salvation came through suffering. And Jesus [said] to take up your cross and follow me. He didn’t say, take up your Lexus and follow me. We’re on a mission with him into a world of suffering. 

By the way, our credibility for the gospel hinges on how well we suffer. We have the resources for suffering. We have a presence of the powerful Holy Spirit of God. Jesus walks with us. He draws near to the broken-hearted and those who are crushed in spirit. We cling to his Word. We comfort one another. We pray for people that suffer. My church was the most amazing ministry to me in my times of suffering. Ultimately [suffering] is the platform for the gospel. 

One of the reasons our churches are not as effective as we could be or should be is because we have gotten distanced from the world that’s hurting. People don’t think of us when they’re hurting. They think of a bar. They think of drugs. They think of maybe a counselor or a therapy or another religion. But they need to think of us as people who know what suffering is about. Our best, and most effective, evangelism is when we’re not separated from the world, but we are actually showing them the love of Jesus Christ in the midst of their suffering. 

JW: What encourages you the most about the SBC?

EL: The thing that encourages me the most right now is that Southern Baptists are a praying people. The people who came to the convention [in Nashville], or didn’t come to the convention, pray. Other presidents have told me that there is a unique power in this role that comes from the fact that Baptists pray. 

The other thing is watching our SBC Disaster Relief work. Kathy and I stumbled onto Disaster Relief workers in Grand Lake, Colorado, nine months after a tremendous fire had swept through that region, hit the Rocky Mountain National Park, and destroyed homes. They are still out there ashing out homes, and most of them are in their 70s!  Man, what a great way to spend your retirement. I encourage [your readers]: Don’t think about sitting on a beach the rest of your life. These people are out there doing hard work, loading heavy equipment, but with smiles on their faces, sharing the gospel with people and the love of Jesus. That, along with what’s happening with hurricane relief and what’s happening on the border with different associations and churches that are feeding the hungry and helping, is one of the greatest testimonies of what we really believe.

JW: How should we be praying for the SBC and Christians, particularly in America?

EL: Pray that we will return to our first love, that Jesus will be the center of it all. That we will renew our focus on sending missionaries and planting churches, revitalizing churches and making your own church revitalized. We’re in a terrible time coming out of COVID. We keep using that terminology. I’m not sure we’re out of this time, but wherever we’re at right now, we have to be there, and we have to say, “All right, what’s God’s plan?” I don’t know of any pastor whose church has grown during the COVID times. I’m sure there are some. Most of us, however, have suffered profoundly. I have buried more people that I love in the last two years than I want to ever think about. 

It’s important that we ask the Lord, what are we doing here? What would you have us do differently? We can’t hold on to things that we’ve always done. We’ve got to say, “Lord, what are you doing,” and follow him. That’s one of the greatest challenges for any pastor. 

Pastors are exhausted. This is a good time for us to put ourselves before the Lord. One of the best and most dangerous verses in the Bible is in Psalms: “Search me, O God, and know my heart. Test me and know my anxious thoughts” (Psa. 139:23). God wants us to enter into a time of not just renewal and refreshing, but a time of really searching out our motives, and, ultimately, getting back to the simplicity of the gospel. 

Photo Attribution:


Jill Waggoner

Jill Waggoner serves as a communications and PR strategist, writing and developing content for the organization’s online and print resources. She has served the ERLC since 2005, including as brand manager for Global Hunger Relief from 2014-2018. A graduate of Union University, she and her family reside in Lebanon, Tennessee. Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24