“But He Just Gets Me”: Three Responses to Pragmatic Arguments for Plagiarism (pt. 1)

freestocks-I_pOqP6kCOI-unsplashWhat do you say to the person who laments that the former pastor of the church, the one who was disqualified from ministry because of his verbal and physical abuse, is no longer preaching? Never mind the fact that this preacher held the Bible with violent hands and sealed his unrepentance with a divorce, this woman argued the merits of his preaching and said, “But he just gets me.”

In such an instance, personal sentiments have far eclipsed biblical standards. Ignoring whether this man was objectively qualified to preach, this woman’s subjective interest was in having someone who made her feel a certain way. Such is the case in many churches today.

Rather than upholding pastors to the biblical standards of leadership, many church-goers are looking for someone with a certain gift of communication, inspiration, or entertainment. Today, TED Talks have replaced Timothy and Titus as the standard for good preaching. And communication skills have exceeded a commitment to character.

To that point, I once talked with an elder from a large church who argued for their multi-campus model on the basis of the senior pastors extraordinary giftedness in preaching. More specifically, he said if this man doesn’t preach people will leave the church. He continued, so instead of trying to have different campus pastors, we record his sermons and replay them in our various campuses. This is pragmatism at its finest.

Addressing the Pragmatism of Pulpit Plagiarism

Today, I’m not here to talk about the demerits of multi-site churches or what makes for good preaching. Instead, I want to address the pragmatism that funds those churches and invites church-goers to value charisma over character. More specifically, I want to address the practice of using another man’s sermon and preaching it for themselves.[1]

Already, I’ve addressed this subject in two blog posts—On Plagiarism and Preachers: Why Plagiarizing Sermons is Popular, But Biblically Indefensible; The Sermon Begins in *Your* Study: Why ‘Apt to Teach’ Means More Than ‘Apt to Speak’—but now I want to respond to three pragmatic arguments that were raised against my first post.

To cite the full argument, here is what one commenter said. Questioning my charge against Ed Litton’s plagiarism in the pulpit, S. Myer responded

We’ve had this issue brought up in our church recently. I personally don’t feel as strongly against using another’s sermon or outlines because it can and will still be used by the Holy Spirit to save lost souls and minister to the hurting. The author seems to me to assume that God doesn’t have the power to use sermons, regardless of who wrote them, to be impactful and may that they may even be harmful….?! That “logic” makes little sense. The biggest issue I would have would be if a pastor claimed the upcoming series or that day’s message as something he had written himself, slaved over all week, etc. I am on the Worship Team at church. I, we, feel gifted with voice and called to use that gift to reach others week after week. However, we don’t acknowledge the Spirit filled lyric’s writers, the composers of those songs or hymns every week! No once. And yet… hearts are touched, tears of joy flow and lives can be impacted by a song of worship and praise. Preaching a sermon written by another man of God doesn’t mean it’s any less impactful or blessed! I have witnessed this myself. Heard a message preached that was written by another pastor. And souls were saved, congregants fell at the altar to repent, lives were truly touched that day and in the last few months after. How can that be bad?! Satan is, for sure, not the one seeing to it souls are saved! That’s God Almighty!

I truly feel it’s a large sect of pastors who say/think, “Well, I put in the study time and doggone it, so should they!” And while I sort of get that, you are all on the same team…. God’s Team, the Lord’s Army! This division is destructive and unhelpful.

To begin, it is certainly true that plagiarism in the pulpit, combined with a general defense of the practice, is divisive. But I do not believe the division comes from calling out the practice, but from Christians—both pastors and churches—permitting and supporting retweeted sermons.

As I have argued, the pastoral office is not for gifted speakers; it is for gifted teachers, for men formed by the Word who bring the food of God’s Word from text to table. In other words, just as God told Adam that he would make bread by the sweat of his brow, so pastor’s must do the same. We do not bring grain to the flock of God, but bread. And we do not deliver what someone else has prepared. Rather, we are the preparers of the meal—presenting the Bread of Life from the Words of Life that the Spirit of Life enabled us to prepare in our studies.

Still, not supposing that such a vision of pastoral ministry is naturally accepted today and hearing too many instances of church-goers wanting a preacher who “gets them,” I want to answer three pragmatic arguments that defend pastors from using the material of others.

Three Responses to Pragmatic Arguments for Plagiarism

1. Pastors are shepherds and teachers, not performers

To go over ground I covered before, pastors must be defined by the word of God, not the preferences of modern church-goers. David Wells has been most emphatic on this point, as he has shown how the role of pastor has moved from the realm of teaching biblical theology to providing therapeutic counsel (see his No Place for Truth: Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology). In other instances, business models replace biblical models; the pastor is likened to the CEO instead of the shepherd.

While some may not appreciate the significance of metaphors, to frame the pastor as business leader or therapeutic sage is to change his role. Similarly, to liken the pastor to a musician who sings the songs of another is to confuse his vocation. Here’s how our friend makes the point.

I am on the Worship Team at church. I, we, feel gifted with voice and called to use that gift to reach others week after week. However, we don’t acknowledge the Spirit filled lyric’s writers, the composers of those songs or hymns every week! No[t] once. And yet… hearts are touched, tears of joy flow and lives can be impacted by a song of worship and praise. Preaching a sermon written by another man of God doesn’t mean it’s any less impactful or blessed!

I agree with this argument, as far as it goes. But where it goes too far is to apply the standards of a musician to the standards of a pastor. For starters, there are not biblical qualifications for singers or musicians in the New Testament. If there are worship leaders in the New Testament, it is the plurality of pastors that lead a church. In the Old Testament, the musicians and singers were the Levites, who were set apart for service in the temple (see 1 Chronicles 22–26).

Rightly understood, pastors are the ones who lead the church in congregational worship, and thus the biblical qualifications should apply to ones leading the church in song. Now, in most cases, those singing/playing are not upheld to the qualifications of a pastor. And I am not arguing they should be. But I am making the point that to compare the pastor feeding the flock with the sermons of Tim Keller, John Piper, or John MacArthur to the musician singing the songs of Fanny Crosby, Chris Tomlin, or CityAlight is a category mistake.

The closer comparison is between musicians and Sunday School teachers. I would not cry foul if a children’s teacher used The Gospel Project for their Sunday School lesson, even if they read the whole thing. Most teachers are not elders or elder qualified. And the expectation of such teachers is not that they would prepare their own materials. That might be something aspirational for the teacher, but not expectational.

For pastors, who are leading the flock, it is different. Pastors are not performers who play the chords that others compose; they are not Sunday School teachers who use the curriculum of another. Instead, they are both expected and employed, in the case of vocational elders, to study the Scriptures and teach the people from their own personal labors. But when they simply use the material of others, they are showing that they are not qualified to be a pastor. They might make a reliable Sunday School teacher, but they are not gifted to teach the whole congregation from God’s Word. Why? Because pastors are teachers, not performers.

2. Apparent fruit doesn’t justify immoral practices

When Jonathan Edwards witnessed the First Great Awakening, he offered a careful evaluation of true and false fruit in his work Religious Affections. In that volume, he remarked that one of the great signs of true salvation is the enduring effect of holiness, love, and humility in the life of Christian. By contrast, intense emotions, physical sensations, and immediate signs of the Spirit, subjectively perceived, do not guarantee the actual work of the Spirit.

With the rise of revivalism that came in the Second Great Awakening and the experience-oriented approach to ministry that followed, Edwards’ biblical and theological understanding of conversion was effectively lost. Today, it is not holiness by which a ministry is measured; it is the ability to affect happiness, healing, or some other emotional high. Accordingly, the measure of preacher’s effectiveness is not tested by his character or the enduring fruit of his ministry, it is measured by the way people feel in and after a service.

Because of this commitment to pragmatism, it doesn’t matter if the preacher has labored in the study to bring a message to the people or if he is using someone else’s material. To those who are simply at church to have a good time or feel the Spirit, it matters little if the performer is a cover band instead of the genuine article. The experience is the thing. As our friend remarks,

Preaching a sermon written by another man of God doesn’t mean it’s any less impactful or blessed! I have witnessed this myself. [I] Heard a message preached that was written by another pastor. And souls were saved, congregants fell at the altar to repent, lives were truly touched that day and in the last few months after. How can that be bad?!

Yes, how bad can it be?

That question is worth considering. And Christianity Today’s exposé on Mars Hill helps answer it. In this serial podcast, Mike Cosper tells the history of the church that rose and fell with the ministry of Mark Driscoll. And in the series trailer, one of the pragmatic arguments for letting Driscoll’s giftedness outrun his godliness went like this: “The prevailing justification for pretty much all the carnage that happened within Mars Hill was, ‘Hey, look at the fruit.’” This sentiment is pure, undiluted pragmatism. And it applies to sermon plagiarism, just as it does to church growth.

Indeed, until it collapsed, Mark Driscoll’s preaching ministry and Mars Hill’s church planting model were judged wildly successful because of their numeric results. But counting numbers to justify a ministry demonstrates a commitment to pragmatism, not Christ. While size is the measure of success in America, the Bible has a different metric. And that metric relates to Christlikeness and spiritual fruit—not the ever-increasing expansion of bodies, budgets, buildings. Sadly, too many Christians confuse these.

Returning to Scripture, the pastoral qualifications are always measurements of holiness, as given by the Spirit of holiness. Only men whose lives are marked by the Spirit and his gift of teaching should stand before the congregation and proclaim God’s Word. Mars Hill is not the only church that has blown up—in both senses of the word—because of pragmatism. Often, pragmatic methods of ministry do work, but only for a season. And this is the problem with preaching the sermons of another.

While such sermons may draw a crowd or build a church, such a practice is not good for the soul of the preacher. Nor is it good for the health of the church. Even more, as it becomes known that a pastor is using the work of others, the reputation of the church is compromised and the truth of the gospel is questioned.

So, how bad is it, when “fruit” is born with bad seed? It’s really bad, because it provides cover for immoral practices in the pulpit—namely, stealing, lying, and coveting.

**********

Tomorrow, we will pick up this theme and consider how plagiarism in the pulpit breaks the eighth, ninth, and ten commandments and why those who make this a habit should not be preachers. For now, let us pray for God to have mercy on his church and to lead us into truth and trustworthiness.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds

Photo by freestocks on Unsplash

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[1] Again, I am not talking about the appropriate use of an illustration, a biblical insight, or a turn of phrase found in someone else’s written or spoken words. Every faithful preacher will fill his sermon with quotations, arguments, and ideas he finds in the work of others. The key word here is “his.” In his sermon, he selects a quote or an idea to decorate the craftmanship of his work.  If you are not sure what the standards are for properly citing the work of others, listen to this 9Marks podcast. https://www.9marks.org/pastors-talk/episode-175-on-plagiarism-in-the-pulpit-with-ben-lacey/

By contrast, there is a way of preaching that simply uses the material of others. And as more and more (and more and more) of Ed Litton’s sermons are revealed to be retweets, we have a growing body of sermons—from the sitting SBC president!!—that illustrate the very worst of sermon stealing—preaching the work of others and presenting it as one’s own. This would be tragic if it happened once, but when a ministry is built on this kind of chicanery, it is one that the Spirit and the Bride cannot bless.

One thought on ““But He Just Gets Me”: Three Responses to Pragmatic Arguments for Plagiarism (pt. 1)

  1. Pingback: “But He Just Gets Me”: Three Responses to Pragmatic Arguments for Plagiarism (pt. 2) | Via Emmaus

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