The following is a guest post from Tobby E. Smith, pastor of Memorial Baptist Church in New Castle, IN. My appreciation to him for taking the time to write this article and tackle the recent sermon plagiarism controversy.
Sermon plagiarism is a hot button issue right now, especially in the wake of the Ed Litton sermon scandal. Though I haven’t done exhaustive research into data regarding sermon “borrowing,” I imagine that it happens on a massive scale, not only in megachurches but probably in pulpits in medium-sized cities, small towns, backwoods across the United States.
Let’s face it—we have instant access to sermons from John Piper, John MacArthur, and Kevin DeYoung. We can get their full transcripts right off YouTube with a quick copy and paste. We reason, “Why serve our bologna when we could serve Alistair Begg’s steak?” The benefits are manifold: we can amplify the ministries of the most gifted among us while making our ministry easier, giving us time to concentrate on other important areas of service.
Of course, using material from someone else and passing it off as your own is always plagiarism, and plagiarism is always theft.
In 2006, Dr. Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (SBTS), expressed that sermon plagiarism was just that—”theft.” He added further, “Words are our business, I cannot imagine using someone else’s as my own. It [Plagiarism] is one of the most despicable practices I can imagine… I cannot imagine sitting in the congregation knowing that this guy is simply parroting something he has read, borrowed, or stolen from someone else.”
Litton getting caught is a scandal, but not the biggest one. The fact that not one of the six Southern Baptist Seminaries had a homeletician among them go on the record to call what Litton did disgraceful is a scandal, but still not the biggest one.
The biggest scandal is the widest one. Maybe the reason Litton’s sermon plagiarism gets a pass is that a lot of preaching that happens in Southern Baptist pulpits is a result of using “borrowed” material from other pastors, sermon manufacturing teams, or a combination of the two. There is a whole industry that sells commentaries with convenient outlines preachers could “borrow.”
As a young preacher, I remember being tempted with expository outlines of Stephen Olford—thinking, “This will make my life and ministry so much easier while I try to figure out preaching.” I would like to say that the Holy Spirit brought conviction, but the truth was I couldn’t afford the outlines, which turned out to be a grace of God in my life.
Instead, I implemented the hermeneutical and homiletical principles I learned in Bible college and seminary from Charles Draper, Jonathan Akin, and Robert Vogel; from books I read by Edmund Clowney, Bryan Chapel, Hershel York, and Haddon Robinson. I listened to countless hours of preaching—studying the Kingdom preaching of Russell Moore, the Christian Hedonism of John Piper, and the heady intellectual preaching of R. Albert Mohler. I sat under the best—Adrian Rogers, R.C. Sproul, and Sinclair Ferguson—taking in not only what they had to teach from the text but how they taught from the text.
In other words, I had to swim upstream to build the necessary muscles to preach in season and out of season (2 Timothy 4:2) for the last 16 years of my preaching ministry. Excellence in expository preaching doesn’t happen overnight—it takes years to cultivate. Some are willing to take the short path and may even be encouraged in some circles to do so. For some, perhaps many, it seems like sermon plagiarism is an acceptable sin in the evangelical world. However, I would like to point out three reasons why sermon plagiarism is always wrong.
1. Sermon Plagiarism is Deceptive.
Pawning off someone else’s work as your own is rooted in theft, lies, and deception. It does not matter if someone gave you permission to use their sermons or material to “preach” on a given Sunday. If you didn’t disclose it to your church before you preached it to them, then you lied to them. Lying is a sin, so is theft (Exodus 20:15-16; Proverbs 12:22; Colossians 3:9). Does it disqualify you from ministry? In the short term, it does. Long-term, it depends on whether or not you intend on repenting from lying or you insist on continuing in this pattern of deception.
2. Sermon Plagiarism is Lazy.
Some tend to think that sermon preparation is not as enjoyable as sermon delivery. That most likely depends on personality. Regardless, sermon preparation is obligatory to the pastoral task, filled with sanctifying sweat and righteous diligence. Consider what the Apostle Paul said about the preaching elder in 1 Timothy 5:17-18:
“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.'”
Preaching and teaching is meant to be a joyful burden and a labor of love. Exegetical effort is the narrow path that leads to fruitfulness for the Kingdom. At the same time, sermon plagiarism is the wide path that leads to both pastoral malpractice and public scandal.
3. Sermon Plagiarism “Short-Circuits God’s Process.”
Hershel York, the Dean of the School of Theology at SBTS, said of sermon plagiarism that it “short-circuits God’s process.” Spirit-anointed preaching not only occurs in the moment of proclamation but also throughout the process of preparation.
Sermon preparation includes reading the text, exegeting the text, and praying over the text—many times over. A process that includes consulting the best of both pastoral and technical commentaries, having conversations about it with your wife (something I do every week), and the internal dialogue that happens in the preacher’s conscience. During preparation, the Spirit of God is working the text into the preacher’s heart, while during proclamation, the Spirit of God is working the text out of the heart of the preacher and into the hearts of the congregation.
However, sermon plagiarism makes the preacher essentially a non-player character (NPC). If being a preacher is just repeating someone else’s script, then churches find incentive not to call godly preachers to their pulpits but instead to hire convincing actors.
Once, John Piper talked about preachers who tend to rely on commentaries too much without really digging into the scriptures themselves. Piper called those preachers second-handers. Second-handers, according to Piper, “don’t make great preachers… second-handers are inauthentic, and people feel it.”
If second-handers are those who lean on commentaries too much, then I wonder what it makes sermon plagiarists? Third-handers? Actors on a stage? An NPC?
A pastor’s calling is directly tied to his responsibility to preach God’s Word to God’s people (2 Timothy 4:13). A pastor may have hospital visits, counseling sessions, and leadership meetings but all other responsibilities are subordinate to his responsibility to proclaim “the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27), being devoted “to prayer and to the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:4).
Sermon plagiarism is always wrong and never right. Pastors who rely on the stale bread of another pastor to get them through one Sunday after the next should realize that they are being deceptive, lazy, or both. Taking shortcuts will cost them in the long run. If we want revival in the pew, we ought to start with repentance from the pulpit.
Dear brothers, we are preachers of the Word of God—not plagiarists.
Tobby E. Smith has served as the Senior Pastor of Memorial Baptist Church since 2009, and he is a PhD student at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is married to his wife, Rachel, and they have one son, Piper. Tobby is the author of “Wolfology: A Look at Heresies, Old and New” (Kress, 2021) and a booklet entitled “The Rise of Woke Christianity: An Introduction” (Kress, 2021). You can follow Tobby on Twitter @TobbyESmith.