On Plagiarism and Preachers: Why Plagiarizing Sermons is Popular, But Biblically Indefensible

nycholas-benaia-2wGjjX8Qb-g-unsplashIt seems, frankly, utterly unthinkable to me that authentic preaching would be the echo of another person’s encounter with God’s word rather than a trumpet blast of my own encounter with God’s word. Now to be sure, my sermon should be an echo. It should be an echo of the voice of God. But not an echo of an echo of the voice of God. So that is my conviction.
John Piper  —

When it comes to light that a pastor has been borrowing the work on another—what we might call plagiarism in the pulpit, sermon borrowing, retweeting, or any other euphemism for violating the seventh commandment—it is deeply troubling. But if that pastor has any influence on the life and ministry of other pastors, it is even worse, because it says to younger men, who are finding their way in the wilderness of pulpit ministry, that it is acceptable to use the work of others. 

To date, I can think of two pastors I knew personally who were fired for preaching someone else’s sermons. And I have heard many reports of the same. I can also think of many others whose ministries I have written off as unfaithful after learning that they were reheating the meals of others. And most recently, I have watched the unbelieving world make sport of God’s people because of plagiarism in the pulpit.

In recent days, it has come to light that the president of the SBC, Ed Litton, has been found retweeting sermon material from J.D. Greear. You can watch his expositions of Romans 1 and Romans 8, both of which demonstrate word-for-word dependence on Greear’s work. Both men have released statements explaining the matter (see here and here), but with 140+ sermons pulled from the Internet, more explanations are needed.

Without addressing the specifics of the Litton situation, I want to step back and ask the question: Is it wrong for a pastor to borrow material from another? What does it mean to plagiarize in the pulpit? Why is this such a common practice? And what does Scripture say?

To start with, I am not first to tackle this subject. Albert Mohler has discussed it, so have D.A. Carson, John Piper, and Justin Taylor and Andy Naselli (who lists many others). Letting Carson speak for the bunch, he expresses the severity of the problem.

Taking over another sermon and preaching it as if it were yours is always and unequivocally wrong, and if you do it you should resign or be fired immediately. The wickedness is along at least three axes: (1) You are stealing. (2) You are deceiving the people to whom you are preaching. (3) Perhaps worst, you are not devoting yourself to the study of the Bible to the end that God’s truth captures you, molds you, makes you a man of God and equips you to speak for him.

Carson’s words are severe. And they are matched by the severity of others listed above. Yet, the consensus of these evangelical leaders does not mean there is consensus on the issue. For on the trusty Internet, you will find James Merritt’s permission for plagiarism, websites selling pre-packaged sermons, and encouragement for pastors to partake in the practice of using the work of others.  Thus, in what follows, we need to answer three questions.

  1. What is Plagiarism? And does it apply to borrowing the work of another when permission is received and attribution given?
  2. Why is Plagiarism so prevalent today? Who is championing it?
  3. Is Plagiarism Biblically Defensible? (My answer: No, it is not!)

Answering these three questions, we can define our terms and evaluate from Scripture the practice of retweeting sermons. Continue reading

Entrusted with the Gospel, We Can Speak With Confidence of What We Know

matrixHow do you know what you know?

Few questions may be more important for standing firm in a world full of competing voices and conflicting views. Yet, the follower of Christ does not need to fear the truthfulness of his or her faith, when that faith has been grounded in God’s revealed Word.

In contrast to every other religion that derives its views from the perspective of man, the testimony of the Bible is one where God has revealed himself to his people through Spirit-inspired Prophets and Apostles. From Moses receiving God’s Law on Sinai to the Spirit bearing witness by means of signs and wonders to the Apostles’s teaching (Heb. 2:1–4), God has entrusted his Word to men who rightly communicated his message.

In the Pastoral Epistles, Paul speaks often about the truthfulness of his message and the error of false teachers. And in these letters, he speaks in two ways that highlight the way God has communicated himself to the Church. The first has to do with the agreed upon truth (i.e., the content of the gospel) that God gave his disciples; the second has to do with the way God entrusted (passive tense of “believe”) his people with his words.

In his commentary on The Letters to Timothy and Titus, Robert Yarbrough nicely organizes the  places where Paul speaks in this way. And he show how Paul’s language of knowing (“we what we know”) is a technical term for the revealed word of God. Likewise, Yarbrough lists the places Paul speaks of the gospel (or God’s Word) entrusted to his people. Consider the way Paul speaks and what this means for our confidence in Scripture. Continue reading

Why Non-Pastors Should Study the Pastoral Epistles

livingchurchThis Sunday our church begins a new series in the book of 1 Timothy. In six chapters, 1 Timothy contains a great deal of instruction about the gospel, false teaching, men and women, life together in the church, and how to recognize godly leaders.

1 Timothy is often grouped with two other Epistles– 2 Timothy and Titus. Together these three letters are known as the “Pastoral Epistles.” They are written to two of Paul’s sons in the faith (1 Tim 1:2; 2 Tim 1:2; Titus 1:4), ministers of the gospel sent by Paul to Ephesus and Crete for the purpose of building up those churches. As a matter of fact, Timothy and Titus are not so much pastors themselves but envoys sent out by Paul to confront error (1 Tim 1:3-7), preach sound doctrine (2 Tim 1:13; Titus 2:1, 15), further the faith of God’s elect (Titus 1:2), and give health and life to the household of God (1 Tim 3:14–16).

From this synopsis, one might get the impression the Pastoral Epistles are only for pastors, or at least for those working in the ministry. One might conclude they have little relevance for the stay-at-home mom or the data analyst. Such a conclusion would be premature, for they actually have great application for all Christians. And what follows are five reasons why every Christian should read them, study them, and apply them. Continue reading

Confronting Falsehood in the Church

falseIt is striking how often Jesus’ apostles warn the church about false teachers and divisive persons. In the Pastoral Epistles Paul calls Titus and Timothy to beware of false teachers in Crete and Ephesus, respectively. But it’s not just these two pastors who are to address falsehood, the entire New Testament calls out the darkness resident in the church. Because of the cosmic conflict between Christ’s church and Satan’s hordes, false doctrine and false living are regular threats to Christ’s kingdom.

Since many churches face such internal and internecine threats, we need to steel our minds with God’s Word so that we might boldly address the darkness around us. Continue reading

Why Non-Pastors Should Read the Pastoral Epistles

pastoralsNext week I will begin preaching the book of Titus on Sunday mornings. Although Titus is only three chapters and forty-six verses in length, it contains a great deal of instruction for the church.

Titus is often grouped with two other Pauline epistles—1 Timothy and 2 Timothy. Together these three letters are known as the “Pastoral Epistles.” They are written to two of Paul’s sons in the faith (1 Tim 1:2; 2 Tim 1:2; Titus 1:4), ministers of the gospel sent by Paul to Ephesus and Crete for the purpose of building up those churches. As a matter of fact, Timothy and Titus are not so much pastors themselves but apostolic delegates who are called to confront error (1 Tim 1:3-7), preach sound doctrine (2 Tim 1:13; Titus 2:1, 15), and further the faith of God’s elect (Titus 1:2).

From this little synopsis, one might get the impression that the Pastoral Epistles are strictly for pastors, or at least for those working in the ministry. One might conclude they only have tangential relevance for the stay-at-home mom or the factory worker. However, such a conclusion would be premature, for the Pastoral Epistles have great application for all Christians. What follows are five reasons why every Christian should read them, study them, and apply them. Continue reading