Who’s Robbing Whom? Some Thoughts on Pulpit Plagiarism

by Doug Smith

Is it wrong to preach another pastor’s sermon?  Pulpit plagiarism can be a hot topic.  To commit plagiarism, according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, is “to use the words or ideas of another person as if they were your own words or ideas.”  This issue is certainly not new, but there has been a good bit of discussion in the last few years concerning possible answers to this question, some of which are quite disturbing.

Some prominent pastors, such as Rick Warren and James Merritt, openly encourage other pastors to take their sermons and preach them – even without giving proper credit.  However, others disagree. On December 7, 2006, the Albert Mohler Program featured a radio interview between Dr. Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (SBTS), and Hershael York, a pastor as well as a professor of preaching at SBTS.  They are in agreement about this issue, and the title of the program reveals their perspective: “Plagiarism in the Pulpit: Stealing the Material We Preach.”  They believe a pastor should actually take the time to study and prepare messages suited for his own congregation instead of using something prepackaged and pre-processed.  Shocking, isn’t it?

For years, in addition to full-time teaching, I have preached in a supply capacity, filling in for pastors or serving churches that do not have a pastor.  Study time is a premium amidst family and work responsibilities. It could be tempting to steal others’ sermons.

However, I believe Mohler and York are exactly right about this issue.   I realize there are variations on pulpit plagiarism, ranging from preaching another’s sermon verbatim to extensively modifying it.  Regardless of the extent, when credit is not given where credit is due, people are being robbed.  And the interesting thing is that the ones who suffer the most are not the people whose material is being used, but the people who are stealing it and the people who are having it fed to them.  Pulpit plagiarism robs pastors and congregations in at least five ways.

  1. Pulpit plagiarism robs pastors and congregations of spiritual nourishment they can only get from someone who lives among them and labors in the text of Scripture.

The pastor who is content to steal others’ sermons robs himself of the valuable discipline of study and its benefits for himself. He has less reason to devote hours throughout the week to the Word than he would if he were preparing the sermon himself. The plagiarizer deprives himself of a great blessing that God would freely give to him and the congregation if he would devote himself to the Word.

The congregation also gets the short end of the stick. Just as the milk from a mother’s breast contains nutrients specially and uniquely suited for her child, a pastor who studies the Word and knows his congregation will be able to feed Christ’s sheep with a diet suited to their needs better than any prepackaged sermon can. Phillips Brooks said that a true preacher is one who utters “truth through his own personality,” and this is what every congregation needs. There are particular applications of the text that may be irrelevant to a congregation if taken from a “canned” sermon, and there are particular applications they need that cannot be gained except from their own pastor’s labors in the Word. This is especially true in foreign countries where the people may have no clue as to the point of certain illustrations from American culture and have certain needs that preachers from other backgrounds might not touch upon.

2. Pulpit plagiarism robs pastors and congregations by discouraging consecutive exposition.

Many pastors have found that the best way to feed Christ’s sheep is through expounding the Scripture book by book. This enables the preachers to share passages with the big picture of its context in mind. When done correctly, expositional preaching lets God set the agenda and makes His Word the authority, rather than the preacher. There are variations on this method.  One can, like John MacArthur, preach dozens of sermons from one Bible book.  On the other hand, one can preach overview sermons which cover an entire book in one sermon, in addition to covering smaller units of Scripture.  Faithful expositors, no matter how large a preaching unit they use, agree with what Mark Dever has said: “An expositional sermon is one in which the point of the passage is the point of the message.” And the best way to ensure that you are preaching the point of the passage in each message is to preach consecutively through a book of the Bible.

A plagiarizing pastor may preach expositionally if he steals material from someone who preaches through books. But I would imagine the tendency for many would be to preach whatever sermon strikes them for the week or whatever the latest topical offering is from the mailing list they are on or the magazine to which they subscribe.

3. Pulpit plagiarism robs pastors and congregations by encouraging laziness.

A pastor is called to be diligent (2 Timothy 2:15). He is called to take time to think in order to gain understanding: “Consider what I say; and the Lord give thee understanding in all things” (2 Timothy 2:7). He must get the knowledge he needs and take time to process that knowledge through meditation and research and study. He must pray and labor. Preaching another man’s sermon requires none of this. One could certainly modify it, but the temptation to carry over as much as possible to prevent as much work as possible will be there.

4. Pulpit plagiarism robs pastors and congregations of a safeguard against false teaching.

If a pastor is too lazy to study for his own sermons, he will probably be too lazy to check out the exegesis and application of another’s sermon to make sure that it is legitimate. He may begin teaching all sorts of false doctrine without even realizing that he is promoting unbiblical ideas. How can he guard the flock if he only takes for granted that he is feeding them healthy food?

5. Pulpit plagiarism robs pastors and congregations by rendering thieving preachers obsolete.

If a pastor simply preaches a sermon from another preacher, why couldn’t someone else from the congregation preach? Why not simply have the person with the most pleasant voice preach? Why not have the person majoring in drama preach a stolen sermon? Better yet, why not show a video every week of a favorite celebrity preacher?

If a pastor simply steals sermons from someone else, why go through all the trouble? Why not fire the pastor or free him up to do the other things he needs to do and let someone else preach a “canned” sermon or show a video?

In his book, Walking with the Giants, Warren Wiersbe gives a relevant warning:

Two dangers we must avoid as we read the sermonic literature of the past: imitation and plagiarism.Imitation robs me of my individuality, and plagiarism robs me of my character; both are insidious. One young preacher was so taken with the sermons in a certain book that he decided to preach them as a series. What he did not know was that one of his members owned the same book and had read it. As the member left the service one Sunday, he said to his pastor, “That was a fine sermon this morning!” Then he added with a smile, “Next week’s is good, too!” The problem, of course, lies not with the character of the printed sermon but with the character of the preacher reading it. Blackwood was rather blunt in his counsel: “If one is tempted to steal the fruits of other men’s labors, one ought to let such books severely alone. . . ”

Francis Bacon, in one of his essays, compared students to spiders, ants, and bees, and we may justly apply the illustration to preachers. Some preachers never study but, like the spider, spin everything out from within, beautiful webs that never last. Some are like ants that steal whatever they find, store it away, and use it later. But the bee sets the example for us all: he takes from many flowers, but he makes his own honey.

So, let us neither spin sermons without study, nor be thieves like the ant. Let us be like the bee. As we benefit from a multitude of sources, we must make the final product our own. We need to be, as Dr. Erwin Lutzer said, those who milk many cows but make our own butter. Let’s learn from many sources.  Let’s assimilate what we have learned and produce our own sermons. If we fail to churn our own butter and merely lift our messages from other men, we do not merely rob them (even if they say it is okay), but we rob ourselves and the people of God of a rich spiritual feast.

 

A version of this article was originally posted at SharperIron.

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