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

sean-foster-jrazH5W7niA-unsplashYesterday, 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. Continue reading

“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. Continue reading

The Sermon Begins in *Your* Study: Why ‘Apt to Teach’ Means More Than ‘Apt to Speak’

alexander-michl-g8PFVtzzkYA-unsplashFor Ezra had set his heart to study the Law of the Lord,
and to do it and to teach his statutes and rules in Israel.
— Ezra 7:10 —

Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife,
sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, . . .
— 1 Timothy 3:2 —

Earlier this week, I sat in a room full of pastors talking about preaching, plagiarism, and what it means to be “apt to teach,” the qualification for elders in 1 Timothy 3:2. And I made the point that being “apt to teach” and “apt to speak” are not the same thing. And I made the point because it seems as though there is a great confusion about what it takes to be a pastor today.

Can someone be a pastor if they are a good communicator? Or should someone be a pastor because they are biblically qualified? And what do the biblical qualifications entail, anyways? 

In some circles, being a good communicator seems to be the sine qua non of the pastoral office. If someone can communicate well, then they have what it takes to be a preacher. Never mind their other weaknesses, if they can communicate in a way that really connects, then they are a great cornerstone to building a vibrant church. (Please compare Ephesians 2:20 and note the irony!)

By contrast, Scripture gives a different and more complete picture. For instance, when defending his apostolic ministry, Paul testifies to his weakness in preaching. Addressing the super-apostles, whose speaking may have exceeded his own, Paul says of his critics, “For they say [of Paul], ‘His letters are weighty and strong, but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech of no account’ (2 Cor. 10:10). Aware of his weakness(es), Paul defended his qualifications not by his charisma, but by his faithfulness to the truth and his suffering for that truth.

Today, such a perspective is under threat. For since the news broke concerning J.D. Greear and Ed Litton, I have heard much anecdotal testimony from various pastors that many large church leaders see themselves as communicators of the truth, more than shepherds of the flock or students of the Book. That’s my way of phrasing it, and it certainly doesn’t fit everyone. But with the popularity of groups like the Docent Research Group and Ministry Pass, as well as LifeWay’s large selection of manuscripts free for the taking, it seems that one reason why so little concern has been raised by Ed Litton’s use of J.D. Greear’s sermons is that pastors preaching the work of others is something of an evangelical cottage industry. (If I’m wrong, please show me).

For me, I’m not interested in doing the investigative reporting on this subject. I’ll leave that up to the Julie Roys and Warren Throckmorton’s of the evangelical world. What I am interested in is asking is this: Is it ever appropriate for a pastor to preach someone else’s sermon? Or, biblically speaking, is it a requisite qualification  to preach what one has learned from the personal study of his Word. Such a personal study of the Word,  where the minister of the Word encounters the God of the Word, is my personal conviction, and it was the conviction of all the pastors with whom I spoke this week.

But what does Scripture say? What does it mean to be “apt to teach”? And does teaching necessarily require the personal study of the Bible? Thankfully, Scripture is not silent about these questions, and by returning to the Pastoral Epistles we can find a solid answers to these questions.

Continue reading

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