Yesterday, I responded to two pragmatic arguments that are being offered in defense of preaching the sermons of another pastor. Today, I’m adding a third response to the pragmatic defense of ‘borrowing’ sermons.
3. The Spirit of holiness cannot bless lawbreaking
In the Ten Commandments, the final three are these (Exod. 20:15–17)
“You shall not steal.
“You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
“You shall not covet your neighbor’s [sermon]; . . . anything that is your neighbor’s.”
Okay, “sermon” is not in the original, but sermons would fit under the category of “anything that is your neighbors.” Written by Spirit-led men who study the Scriptures, the sermon is a gift that pastors give to their congregations. In this way, a sermon should not be understood as “his own.” Possessiveness is never a healthy habit for pastors.
That being said, sermons are the intellectual property of the preacher, and should be treated as such. Thus, to preach someone else’s sermon breaks either the eighth, ninth, or tenth commandments, if not all of them. To see this, let’s consider each in order.
First, any time someone uses the work of another without his permission, it is stealing. This is true whether the first person appears to have lost intellectual property or not. Stealing is not excused if someone says that the owner was not using the item in question. Nor is sermon stealing excused by some appeal to Philippians 1:17–18.
The former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment. What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice.
Okay, truth preached with bad motives could have a good effect. But let’s not pretend that stolen sermons taste sweet to God. Judges 17:1–6 tells us that when a thief deserves a curse, but receives a blessing instead, God’s judgment has fallen on his people because his people have fallen in to moral chaos.
Second, if a pastor receives permission to preach another’s work, but fails to give attribution, it may not be stealing (technically), but it is lying. When an agreement is made—with or without monetary payment—between two pastors to share their material, if either congregation is in the dark, a false witness has been born. And lest we think this is a small thing, consider the fact that the New York Times ran an article reporting on this story, calling it “Sermongate.” Again, the unbelieving world may be more honest about this matter than the pastors who swore a pact of secrecy that they would not tell others of the sermons they swapped.
Finally, preaching the work of another suggests that coveting stands somewhere behind the controversy. Without attempting to discern motives, the act of using another’s sermon raises the question: Why is it so inviting to preach another man’s sermon? I wouldn’t photoshop a picture of another man’s church and call it my own, so why would I preach his sermon? This video offered by Ministry Pass may give one answer: Busyness.
Because of busyness, a pastor may need help to stay at the top of his game. And so the argument goes: it is perfectly acceptable, in the name of expediency, to rely on the work of others. Unfortunately, such busyness is merely a symptom of laziness. As Eugene Peterson has stated, a busy pastor is a lazy pastor. Here’s his rationale
I am busy because I am lazy. I indolently let others decide what I will do instead of resolutely deciding myself. I let people who do not understand the work of the pastor write the agenda for my day’s work because I am too slipshod to write it myself. The pastor is a shadow figure in these people’s minds, a marginal person vaguely connected with matters of God and good will. Anything remotely religious or somehow well-intentioned can be properly assigned to the pastor. (The Contemplative Pastor, Loc. 60)
Do you see what he is saying? Pastors are busy because they are too lazy to lead the people God has entrusted to them in the way God has commanded. Instead, to please them or to make themselves look good, pastors do everything in the ministry—everything other than the most important thing. And what is the most important thing? It is feeding the flock with the Word of God and prayer!
As I observed in a previous post, pastors-as-speakers have already lost track of what a pastor is supposed to be. And so it would not be surprising that in the crush of doing dozens of things that pastors were never intended to do, they justify the need to borrow the work of others to do the one thing God calls pastors to do—to preach good sermons. Sadly, this is a pressure that a performance-mentality exacerbates (see #1 above), and it is one that pastor’s accept as a necessary evil in their line of work.
And this necessary evil is perpetuated not only because more than a few men have made the practice common, but also because men look at the ministries of others and think: That’s what I want. Such a desire for a flourishing ministry is not necessarily evil, as far as it goes, but it is a temptation that has led many to idolatrous practices in ministry. And remember Paul likens covetousness to idolatry (Col. 3:5).
Tragically, this kind of thinking is akin to the man who pursues pornography (or adultery) out of a spirit of covetousness. Remember, the tenth commandment specifically calls men to not covet another’s wife. Instead, when a married man sees a beautiful woman who is not his wife, it should spur him on to tend his own garden and love his own wife. Read Proverbs 5. It is unhealthy and unnecessary for a man to deny a woman’s beauty (cf. Gen. 29:17), but it is abominable for him to covet her for himself. Instead, beauty in general should lead him to delight in the beauty of his own wife.
By analogy, when a pastor hears other faithful preachers, he should be spurred on to love God, study God’s Word, and preach excellent sermons for his church. If he wants to preach and doesn’t have a church, he shouldn’t seek a church by preaching the sermons of others. He should seek the Lord and fan into flame the gifts God has given him (cf. 2 Tim. 1:6). Becoming a preacher takes time, and every good preacher will be shaped by others, but to become the mouthpiece of another man—not God—is to invalidate that man’s ministry.
Whatever motivation leads to preaching another pastor’s work, there is a heart issue involved. This heart issue is related to the eighth and ninth commandments—do not steal and do not lie—but it is also related to the tenth—do not covet. Rightly understood, the Ten Commandments do not just deal with external actions, they address the heart. And when a man sees that another man’s sermon is delightful to the eyes, good for food, and that it will make him look wise before others, such a man is being led astray on the same path that took down Adam and Eve. This is how serious preaching someone else’s sermon is. It is not simply a matter of best practices in preaching, it stands at the heart of the gospel ministry, and the ongoing testimony of the church and her preachers.
Still, such an opinion is not shared by everyone. As our commenting friend argued,
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.
Here is the question: Can the Holy Spirit, i.e., the Spirit of truth and holiness, “use” a sermon that breaks the eighth, ninth, or tenth commandments? Sure. God has can “use” anything to accomplish his purposes. Just consider: he preached truth through a donkey’s mouth—and here I refer to Balaam, not his mule. God can work good from the evil actions of men—look at Joseph and his brothers (Gen. 50:20). God can even ordain the breaking of his law in order to fulfill his law—this is what Peter says of the cross in Acts 2:23. Yet, using something, in this case a sermon, is not the same thing as blessing a sermon. God does not bless those who serve him with immoral means, and ministries built with such wood, hay, and stubble will in time be proven fruitless.
Again, large numbers and big churches do not ultimately prove a man’s ministry. Nor should they protect him when questions of stealing, deceiving, and using other sermons surface. Truly, the pragmatic argument that God can use any man’s sermon as long as it has some modicum of truth is not a sufficient for permitting the practice of pastors preaching another’s work. If this is not obvious for the biblical reasons cited above, may the Lord have mercy. Perhaps, in his mercy, he is beginning to expose these faulty practices, so that others would be warned.
Returning to God’s Standards for Pastors and Preaching
To revisit an argument I made before, if a pastor cannot preach his own material and must depend upon preaching the work of another, that man should not a teaching pastor. Clearly, such a man is not gifted to teach, even if he is incredibly capable to speak. The gift Christ gave to the church was a battery of Spirit-filled pastor-teachers (Eph. 4:11). Shepherds who feed the flock are what Scripture intends for churches. And despite the many ways churches confuse the office of pastor and contort the contents of his job description, the Word of God remains.
In Scripture, it is the single-minded soldier, the honest athlete, and the hard-working farmer who should be leading God’s church. And more, churches should expect that their pastors put in the labor to preach the word. This after all is what pastors get paid to do. As 1 Timothy 5:17–18 state, “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching. For the Scripture says, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain,” and, “The laborer deserves his wages.”
Truly, if we let the inspired pragmatism of the Bible speak to the corrupting pragmatism of our day, then churches should be asking why they are supporting someone who is simply copy-and-pasting the work of others. Such a sermon thief should not be holding the office of pastor or holding out the Word of Truth. Just as importantly, churches should not be holding up such an imposter and should be holding up the standards of the pastoral office to evaluate the work their pastors is or is not doing.
In this way, churches should expect that the pastor(s) they are supporting is one who is laboring in the Word to preach and teach. Similarly, if a pastor has a church that has so shackled him with other non-pastoral responsibilities—i.e., changing the church sign, cleaning the building, printing the bulletins, etc.—he should be equipping the saints for their works of ministry (Eph. 4:12). This is what pastor-teachers do. And when they fulfill their calling, the church will grow in health. But when they don’t do the work of studying and teaching, the church will not grow in health, regardless the size.
For this reason, it is vital that we abandon the pragmatic arguments for plagiarism in the pulpit and all of us—pastors and congregations alike—must return to the biblical model of shepherd-teachers who feed the flock with God’s Word. For in fact, it doesn’t matter, if a pastor “gets you.” What we all need is to get Christ, and Christ will only be found when his church is ordered according to his revealed word. It was for that reason that Paul wrote his Pastoral Epistles (see 1 Tim. 3:15; Titus 1:5), and for us living in a day when people are defending sermon swapping and plagiarism in the pulpit, we need to repent and return to the way God ordered his church.
May God help us return to the biblical standards for pastors and preaching.
Soli Deo Gloria, ds