Recently, there has been much talk about the SBC President Ed Litton plagiarizing sermons. What’s the big deal? It wasn’t long ago that I was made aware of many pastors that were caught doing the same, many of whom did not lose their jobs. It seems Big Eva is at odds with the gravity of plagiarism. But why? Pastors and denominations are losing credibility left and right. Have we learned our lesson and considered the gravity of preaching for Christ? What can we spiritually learn from their mistakes? Here are 5 lessons:
1- Plagiarism is Defrauding Your Church – Plagiarism is a serious sin against God and your fellow brethren (Mark 10:19; 1 Thess. 4:6-8). Plagiarism is proof of that fraud by taking someone else’s work and benefiting from their labor, without giving credit to the original laborer. Preaching with defraud is also evidence of not abiding in the Holy Spirit. I would go as far to say that someone preaching a plagiarized sermon could not have been praying earnestly while knowing they were sinning. This is a form of premeditated sin. Psalm 19 makes it clear that we are to avoid presumptuous sins, or they will rule us and our speech will not be acceptable in God’s eyes (Ps. 19:13-14).
2- Plagiarizing is Below Reproach – Plagiarism goes against at least 2 qualifications of an elder: 1) “able to teach” (1Tim 3:2), and 2)“he must have a good reputation with those outside the church, so that he will not fall into reproach and the snare of the devil” (1 Timothy 3:7). Sadly, many seminaries and Churches don’t emphasize these qualifications enough and instead look to personality and following. Being able to teach implies good and consistent hermeneutic practices. Also, the academic world would not put up with plagiarism at prestigious institutions, so why should we in the places we most intimately worship God? Paul warned us of being disqualified in His illustration of the Olympic athlete, which he says “does not win the prize unless he competes according to the rules” (2 Tim. 2:5). Being honest and having integrity is a part of the expectation of an elder and pastor. Christians need to stop waiting for Big Eva to decide the rules; instead we should see the behavior clearly against the rules of Scripture.
3- Referencing Commentaries and Others Sermons Isn’t Exegesis – Pastors should never consult commentaries or other sermons until after their own exegesis. Exegesis is a word for the art of explaining Scripture through the intense process of historical and grammatical research. I know a lot of people who gain crowds and preach, only to find out that their study practices are quite weak. They rush to the best commentaries as soon as they can, add a few illustrations, make applications, and a catchy title, and 3 hours later they’re all set for Sunday. This is the kind of behavior amateurs do when they haven’t been trained. If you went to a good Seminary, or have the work ethic without seminary (i.e. John Calvin, Charles Spurgeon, and Martin Lloyd Jones are great examples), then you will get your own commentary long before you consult another person. Imagine going to a doctor who only brought other doctors in for your consultations. I don’t imagine you would stay for long.
4- Don’t be too Busy for Your Primary Job – If you’re too busy, preaching is the last thing you should rush. The truth is, preaching is not easy…it is a discipline that takes hours. When I began preaching it took over 25 hours for just one sermon. As time goes, you get better at the Greek (NT) and Hebrew (OT) grammar and it may get easier, but not necessarily. As preachers, we have to remember that the labor is worth the reward, even if it is just for your alone time with God. Also, laboring in sermon preparation is an act of love for the members of the Church who trust you to do the work while they have other jobs. Acts 6:4 makes it clear that we are to “devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” When you plagiarize sermons, you are outsourcing your primary job duty. Paul’s words to Timothy are clear:
“Until I come, give attention to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation and teaching. Do not neglect the spiritual gift within you, which was bestowed on you through prophetic utterance with the laying on of hands by the presbytery. Take pains with these things; be absorbed in them, so that your progress will be evident to all. Pay close attention to yourself and to your teaching; persevere in these things, for as you do this you will ensure salvation both for yourself and for those who hear you.” (1 Tim. 4:13-16)
5- Being Famous Isn’t an Excuse to Not Discipline a Pastor – Just because you’re a famous theologian and pastor, doesn’t mean you are faithful. All Pastors and leaders in the Church are under the expectation of faithfulness. Having a crowd necessitates growing character. We also have to remember that just because you have a crowd, doesn’t mean you are preaching faithfully. Being faithful to the Lord and your job duty is what makes you “fight the good fight of faith” (1 Tim. 6:12). This involves laboring hard, not entangling in worldly affairs like plagiarizing (2 Tim 2:1-4). This happened in the early Church with Paul and others in Corinth over popularity with baptism. Paul said, “For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel, not in cleverness of speech, so that the cross of Christ would not be made void” (1 Cor. 1:17). Paul made it clear that being famous and well-liked can be a deterrent from unity and preaching for Christ. If you are plagiarizing sermons, the primary responsibility ministry, you better believe that is the tip of the iceberg into the person’s life. What a pastor does behind the pulpit should be the most sacred act, not a display of scandal.
In conclusion, we should be careful in our sermon preparation. Preaching is the most important part of ministry. The workload is not easy, but that is why few are called to the front lines of duty. If you struggle with the extra work to cite your sources and avoid plagiarism, consider software like Zotero. Zotero is a software that you install on your internet browser and Word in order to cite your sermons, books, and articles with a couple clicks.
David J. Lupinetti is the Associate Pastor at San Tan Bible Church in Arizona. He has a passion for Expository Preaching, Biblical Counseling, Discipleship, and Evangelism.