Earlier this year, Founders Press released my book Brothers, We Are Not Plagiarists. When it released Dave Jenkins at Servant of Grace asked me to write a related piece for his online theological magazine, Theology for Life. Here’s that piece, which likens plagiarism in the pulpit to a booby trap—an unseen explosive device that does untold damage to the un-expecting.
Let the reader understand, plagiarism in the pulpit is a big deal in the church. Since writing my book, I have received multiple emails reporting it, which only increases in my mind the need to address this subject. It is with sadness that I have received these reports. Yet, such incidents only reinforce the need for this book and for churches to dismantle the dangerous practice. May the Lord help pastors and churches do just that, and may this shorter article show why pulpit plagiarism matters so much.
Dad, what is a booby trap?
Recently, in conversation with one of my sons, the subject of guerilla warfare came up, which in turn led to explaining how booby traps have often been used in war. Because my son has not seen the classic primer on booby traps, the 1980s treasure-seeking adventure Goonies, I proceeded to explain some of the ways booby traps worked in during the Vietnam Conflict.
Speaking outside my area of expertise, I cobbled together some explanation that passed for the time. If I had to speak further on the subject, a quick Google search might lead me to a Field Army Manuel like this one. And in this case, I would share with my son the following facts that I learned from Chapter 13: Booby Traps and Expedient Devices. I’d also share the fact that I am quoting.
From the world wide web, we discover that booby traps
- Are usually explosive in nature.
- Are actuated when an unsuspecting person disturbs an apparently harmless object or performs a presumably safe act.
- Are designed to kill or incapacitate.
- Cause unexpected, random casualties and damage.
- Create an attitude of uncertainty and suspicion in the enemy’s mind, thereby, lowering his morale and inducing a degree of caution that restricts or slows his movement.
Now what do booby traps have to do with preaching?
The answer is that booby traps are an apt illustration for plagiarism in the pulpit. Indeed, preaching another pastor’s shiny sermon is an alluring temptation, and when set by the Enemy, this booby trap discredits pastors and disrupts churches. In other words, plagiarism in the pulpit “create[s] an attitude of uncertainty and suspicion in the enemy’s mind.” In this case, the “enemy,” as in The Screwtape Letters, is the Bride of Christ.
In battle, booby traps wage psychological war. By analogy, pulpit plagiarism does the same. When pastors take the bait and use the sermons of another, they invite the flock of God to question the pastor, his sermon, and the whole enterprise of preaching. To riff on C. S. Lewis, pulpit plagiarism when sprung from the darkness into the light, has all the makings of a Screwtape strategy to demoralize the people who previously trusted the pastor. Or worse, they go along with pastor, letting him feed them with meals prepared for someone else.
Anticipating an objection here, there will be some who do not care if a pastor uses the work of others. And there will be many who do not know. But just like booby traps that are yet un-sprung, their presence does not make the situation any less dangerous. And in the case of pastors grabbing for pre-packaged sermons, there is no telling how this booby trap will explode or who will be maimed. The only solution, therefore, is to avoid the booby trap altogether. So, in what follows, I want to offer three reasons for fleeing pulpit plagiarism. These three reasons are adapted from Brothers, We Are Not Plagiarists, a new book engaging the subject of pastoral plagiarism.
Three Reasons to Reject Pulpit Plagiarism
First, pulpit plagiarism threatens the credibility of a pastor.
In 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1, Paul begins his list of pastoral qualifications with this simple description: The elder must be “above reproach.” Paul even lists it twice in Titus 1:5, 7. In the second occurrence, Paul says, “For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach.” Stewardship for Paul relates to teaching God’s Word, and thus the one who brings God’s Word must not have any moral or character flaws that would threaten the communication of that message.
Unfortunately, this is exactly what plagiarism does. Undetected plagiarism may, for a time, not threaten the gospel’s content, but when it is discovered that a herald of the truth has not been truthful, all sorts of questions arise. These doubts are the psychological shrapnel of the booby trap.
If you haven’t noticed, the reputation of pastors is not doing well today, and incidents of plagiarism, whether we think they are justified or not, do not help. When an incident of pulpit plagiarism is revealed, the watching world writes articles exposing the removal of past sermons and laughs at the church. And more harmful, those who might come to church are less likely to listen to the preaching of God’s Word.
To avoid this kind of accusation, Paul says of the overseer, “He must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil” (1 Tim. 3:7). Indeed, God calls pastors to be above reproach so that we do not become a distraction to the truths of the gospel. And thus, the first reason pastor’s must refuse the bait of pulpit plagiarism is for the sake of their own credibility and the reliability of the Word they preach.
Second, pulpit plagiarism falsifies the gift of teaching.
As Paul stresses in his Pastoral Epistles, the pastor is a teacher (cf. 1 Tim. 1:3–11; 2:12–3:7; 5:17–18; 2 Tim. 2:1–7, 15; 22–26; Titus 1:5–9; 2:1; cf. Eph. 4:11). But plagiarism undermines this pastoral qualification and makes it impossible to tell if someone is gifted to teach or if he is simply skilled to speak. Worse, if a young preacher permits himself to use the work of others, he will never develop the gifts God has given him, which will lead to a perceived skill in preaching that does not match his actual gifting. To put it bluntly, plagiarism will inevitably misplace men in ministry.
For the sake of preachers and their churches, we cannot permit pastors to “retweet” sermons. (Retweeting is a specific kind of plagiarism defined here). Such a practice is a recipe for long term disaster—for the preacher and the church, both local and universal. Focusing on pastors for a moment: One way men are sustained in ministry is by studying the Word, nourishing their own souls and bringing to their congregations the bread of life they have already eaten. Plagiarism short-circuits this weekly rhythm—hindering the soul of the preacher, threatening the pastoral office, and changing the nature of gospel ministry. For this reason, pastors and their churches, must refuse the bait of pulpit plagiarism.
Third, pulpit plagiarism changes the pastoral office from Bible teacher to Christian performer.
For those familiar with trends in ministry over the last century, you will not be surprised by the popularity of preachers borrowing sermon material or relying on teams for their sermon preparation. As theologian David Wells demonstrated in his many books, pastors have become ministry managers, therapeutic counselors, and church-growth professionals. This is a far cry from the biblical pattern of pastors as stewards of the Word and heralds of the truth. The current tendency to encourage borrowing sermon material, instead of repudiate it, is the sad but unsurprising fruit of losing a biblical approach to the pastorate.
When we go back to the Pastoral Epistles, however, we find something else entirely. We don’t find teams collaborating to create sermons; we find gifted men who studied the Scripture and labored hard to feed the flock with the Word.
Most explicitly, Paul says in 2 Timothy 2:15, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.” This verse, which addresses the individual preacher, single-handedly denies the place for borrowing material. Why? Because it is impossible to be approved as a faithful handler of God’s Word if you are using someone else’s best material.
Certainly, we could get into all the ways that pastors rightly lean on others in the process of sermon-writing, and in my book I spend an entire chapter outlining this very thing. Every preacher depends on those who have gone before him. Commentaries and those who write them are gifts to the church. Any pastor who refuses to use them is fooling himself. Even Paul, in 2 Timothy 2:1–2, encourages Timothy to remember what Paul has said, so that he can teach faithful men who will then teach others. Moreover, at the end of his life, Paul is still learning, as he requests his parchments (2 Tim. 4:13). So, there is a place for learning from others, but plagiarism sours the goodness of this fraternity of preachers (cf. Acts 13:1–3).
Because teachers will be judged more severely (James 3:1), they must give an account for what they teach and how they teach it. In the Pastoral Epistles, the elders who are gifted to teach are called to be stewards of the Word, faithful servants who teach sound doctrine from the Scriptures. Unfortunately, a culture of plagiarism changes the nature of this ministry. Pastors are led away from being prayerful disciples of God’s Word to being skillful distributors of man’s sermons. Such a change impairs the ability of the preacher to give an account for his words. And it denies the preacher the need to be skilled in biblical knowledge, languages, doctrine, or the wiles of the human heart. Freedom from doing the work of preparing sermons each week may open up times to do other ministry (counseling, discipling, etc.), but in the long run, the church is impoverished when its primary teacher is not steeped in the Bible.
For this reason, pastors must reject the bait of pulpit plagiarism, and churches must too. Healthy churches need healthy pastors, and such requisite health only comes by laboring in the Word and delivering in the pulpit what was discovered in the study.
Don’t Take the Bait
In the end, the message is simple: Don’t take the bait!
Pulpit plagiarism is a booby trap, spring-loaded to “create an attitude of uncertainty and suspicion, in the enemy’s mind, thereby, lowering his morale and inducing a degree of caution that restricts or slows his movement.”
In the church, for those willing to listen, this is exactly what has happened and is happening. Instead, of gaining confidence for the people of God by expecting pastors to preach their own work, associations of churches, like the Southern Baptist Convention, have been stymied by the presence of pulpit plagiarism. And more, the problem has been magnified by the empathetic allowance of these practices.
Most recently, the resolution committee of the Southern Baptist Convention declined three resolutions calling for a rejection plagiarism in the pulpit. They wrote in response to each,
While the Committee affirms the thesis that preaching is a sacred trust from God for which preachers are accountable to Him, we do not believe that the Convention has yet reached any informed consensus on the many specific burdens placed upon pastors within the text of this proposed resolution.
Dismissing these resolutions may have prevented a heated debate in Anaheim, but it did so with a flimsy appeal to pastoral “burdens” based upon a lack of “informed consent.” What this shows is not a compassion for pastors and churches, but an unwillingness to let the Word of God speak. Remember, the Pastoral Epistles were written by someone whose ministerial burdens far exceeded anything we know today (see 2 Corinthians passim). From Paul’s hand we have received the divinely inspired qualifications for preaching in the household of faith. And only a willful redefinition of the pastoral office can escape God’s expectation for pastors, which centers on two things: (1) integrity in life and (2) industry in the study of God’s Word. Burdens or not, God’s qualifications remain the same.
To this end, I have sought in this article and in my book, Brothers, We Are Not Plagiarists, to issue a biblical call for pastors and churches to trust the Word of God and to require pastors to preach their own material. This is not an undue burden, but the ethical standard set forth by God’s Word itself. Of course, every pastor’s gifting, context, and congregation is different, but it is not extreme to require pastors to preach the sermon that they themselves have prepared.
The alternative is to let pastors do the work of Christ’s Enemy and to promote with every plagiarized sermon a spirit of uncertainty and suspicion. This is the booby trap. And today more than ever, we need pastors to refuse to take the bait and churches who will reject the bait too.
Soli Deo Gloria, ds