Wednesday, July 14, 2021

Plagiarizing sermons, using God’s material, or something else?

The election of Ed Litton to the presidency of the Southern Baptist Convention was controversial. On the heels of that controversy is a dust-up about his borrowing of sermon material. Boiled down to its simplest, the issue is that Ed Litton plagiarized sermons of former SBC President J. D. Greear.[i]
  • This news is out there and cannot be ignored. Even Ed Litton has responded with that understanding.
  • This is, at least to some degree, political. Many are responding pro or con in direct proportion to whether they were pro or con Ed Litton becoming President of the SBC.
Perhaps this controversy provides a good opportunity to reflect on how preachers use the material of other preachers.[ii] As mentioned above, some of the outrage is more about Litton’s SBC presidency than actually about borrowing or plagiarizing sermon material. It perhaps even adds a new element which previously was not a concern among preachers and churches generally. When I was a young preacher, I remember that it was common that many of the older and more experienced preachers compiled and printed their sermon outlines. They expected others to use this material as a resource. I do not recall that any were particularly concerned about getting credit. In fact, it seems they took it as a compliment when others used their outlines. I do not relate this to encourage preaching other preachers’ work. It is all too common for a preacher to pick out someone’s outline and use it with little or no study of his own. I relate this to say this is not something new. On one hand, learning from others is normal and to be expected. On the other hand, copying another person’s style and words to preach a sermon like that other preacher did crosses a line, whether it is with or without that person’s permission.

I tell people if they have learned anything from something God and other Christians taught me, feel free to pass it on. I do not need any credit. There is a problem, and no little amount of hypocrisy, when we claim a sermon is from God and then we try to copyright it!

I have written “commentaries” on several books of the Bible. I place footnotes in the books to credit material I immediately and consciously use. In them I also acknowledge the fact that I have learned so much over my ministry that there is no way I can remember who all to credit. I have included statements such as these below to stress that fact.[iii]
Over years of study, I have learned about Jonah from many sources. Many of these became a part of my own thinking and I no longer remember the specific sources. Therefore, this booklet includes thoughts of many of God’s people I can no longer directly credit. But here I credit generally all those whom the Lord used to teach me, and that own my work as built on their foundation.
Concerning acknowledgements, there are too many to name or even remember who have taught me concerning the epistle of Jude. Even many turns and phrases may reflect some long remembered thoughts whose originators are long forgotten.
In these comments on Philemon, I have tried to “give credit where credit is due” in the footnotes. Yet I am unable to satisfactorily credit the multitude of persons who have taught me over the past 35 years, as well as what my mind has retained from other unremembered sources. May God give them their credit that is due, and may the reader be well aware there are numerous sources that can no longer be remembered or named.
Now those statements are in print. It is a simple fact that we are not going to have footnotes in sermons like we have in written material. “I heard a story about” should be good enough, shouldn’t it, without going into detail as to its origin? Telling someone else’s story as if it were our own blatantly violates both truth and trust. Many years ago, I attended a ceremony with a motivational speaker who was a university professor and expert in communication. And he was a great speaker, as speaking goes. He opened with an extremely touching fishing story about him and his father. Later, I learned that the story was not true (at least it was not his story), and that this was apparently standard procedure. I lost much respect for him.
Or maybe we tell too many stories? God’s holy word has a plethora of illustrations we can use. Above all, we should stick with 2 Timothy 4:2, “Preach the word.”

[i] You can read more about this controversy HERE, HERE, HERE, and HERE.
[ii] Yes, even personal reflection! 
[iii] On the other hand, preaching to mostly the same people every Sunday, I do not make that kind of acknowledgement every time I preach. I may mention it from time to time.

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