Hi and welcome back! Last week, we heard about a minor scandal brewing in evangelicalism (and for once, it’s not a sex scandal). Ed Litton, the newly-elected president of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), plagiarized a series of sermons from the previous SBC president, J.D. Greear. As one might expect, his faction’s enemies leaped upon this occasion to attack him for not Jesus-ing correctly. Today, let’s check out those attacks — and see what these attackers are missing about their own dirty cups.
OH NOES! Pastoral Plagiarism, Y’all!
When we talk about pastoral plagiarism, we mean pastors borrowing other pastors’ ideas for their sermons but not attributing those ideas properly. Instead, those pastors present these ideas as their very own. Unless their congregations search online for their phrasing and topics, they’ll never know that the pastor committed plagiarism at all.
And pastoral plagiarism has been a thing for way longer than I’ve been alive. For many, many years now, I’ve read pastors’ blog posts complaining about this exact practice — and also posts whose authors admit to doing it.
Opinions seem quite varied on this topic, as we’ll see in a moment. Some pastors come down hard against pastoral plagiarism. Others tacitly condone it. Still others encourage it.
By now, numerous websites and services exist to offer pastors canned sermons — complete with Bible verse studies and all.
As just one example, SermonCentral offers not only basic sermons for free, but even study tools and royalty-free background images, illustrations, and movies that pastors can use as backdrops for their sermons. Of course, pastors can opt for a “pro” paid membership option that provides extras like livestreaming. Their terms and conditions do require pastors to include SermonCentral’s copyright notice on electronic materials and they also forbid reproduction online, but I don’t see any requirements that members attribute them as a source while presenting their sermons live to audiences.
Pastoral Plagiarism In the Wild.
Here’s a selection of what pastors have to say about pastoral plagiarism:
“Scandal of Evangelical Dishonesty,” by Randy Alcorn (2002). A general catch-all listicle of various dishonest pastoral practices. He doesn’t touch pastoral plagiarism so much as pastors not admitting to having ghostwriters for their books — but the motivations and general practices are identical.
“6 Reasons You SHOULD Preach Other Pastor’s [sic] Sermons,” Brian Jones (probably 2015). He never gets around to attributing other pastors’ work. But he sure likes the general idea of copying other people’s work. Interestingly, he also claims that “normal preachers like you and me” do it constantly. Even more interestingly, he writes this of the rare ducks who don’t ever plagiarize other pastors’ sermons:
Gifted preachers who have never used another person’s sermon in their life and still have become incredible communicators. I have never met such a creature, but there has to be one or two out there.
“Why You Should Stop Ripping Off Other Preachers,” by Carey Nieuwhof (2016). He presents a hilarious listicle of his imagined reasons for pastoral plagiarism. None of those reasons sound like a serious lack of time for doing independent research — or pastors’ inability to add anything new at all to Christians’ body of accumulated faux-knowledge about the Bible.
“Pastor, Plagiarism is More Than Just Theft,” Hayden Hefner (2020). The post begins with “a young student pastor” who discovers that his church’s lead pastor plagiarized sermons constantly. OH NOES! We never learn what happened to that student pastor, but I’m willing to bet that the lad’s name probably matches that of the post writer. Hefner’s main issue with pastoral plagiarism appears to be that it’s Jesus-ing all wrong.
That last article contains the objection to pastoral plagiarism that I see most often these days. As evangelicals polarize more and more, they focus more and more intently on having the most correct and hardcore practices and beliefs.
(Such a hyper-focus makes a good substitute for being actual decent human beings, I suppose.)
Pastoral Plagiarism on the Grand Scale.
One particular sermon-selling group that’s somehow gotten caught up in the Ed Litton/J.D. Greear plagiarism scandal is Docent Research Group. They seem to be a lot more intense than the average canned-sermon site, billing themselves as a turnkey program producer for bigger-name, bigger-congregation churches.
Indeed, here are some of the pastors who made endorsement videos for Docent (see endnote):
- Tim Keller (yep)
- Jud Wilhite
- Tim Hawks
- John Ortberg (ohh boy)
- Mac Richard
- Joby Martin
- Jarrett Stephens
- Toby Slough
- A round-faced, gray-haired, thin-lipped older white dude in glasses whose video has, interestingly, been removed (see pic)
But those aren’t the only pastors singing Docent’s praises. We also find a very familiar name in their past testimonials.
J.D. Greear: Docent Makes Him Look Good!
- Mark Driscoll, then of Mars Hill: “Docent has been invaluable to me. I think I have had them do nearly everything but cut my grass.” (Interestingly, Mark Driscoll’s final disgrace came as a result of his book plagiarism.)
- Craig Groeschel, LifeChurch.tv: “Mark [Driscoll] was right.”
- J.D. Greear, Summit Church: “I often have people remark to me, ‘How many hours did you spend on that sermon? Where do you get time to do all that research?’ Ha. Thanks, guys for making me look so good!”
Gilbert claims to have seen testimonials from Matt Chandler as well, but I couldn’t verify that (his other link won’t load for me). Also, his link seems to have been created in 2012, which makes its names (and their placement in the endorsement roster) quite an interesting snapshot of the evangelical crony network of the time.
J.D. Greear’s comment, in particular, makes absolutely crystal-clear that he does not attribute Docent as the source of his information. However, to be fair, I’ve never heard of any pastors attributing sermons to anybody at all.
To me, Docent sounds like the evangelical crony network’s dirty little secret, or maybe more like Fight Sermon Club.
- RULE ONE: Nobody talks about Fight Sermon Club!
- RULE TWO: Nobody. Frickin’. Talks. About. FIGHT SERMON CLUB!
(Unsurprisingly, the entire “Pastor Stories” testimonial page has been removed from Docent’s site. Really, they’re probably wishing nobody outside the network had ever found out about them.)
The Current Plagiarism Scandal.
In the current scandal, Ed Litton had a bunch of sermons up on his church’s YouTube channel. Dozens of those sermons contained pastoral plagiarism from sermons given by J.D. Greear. He’s scrubbed those videos and non-apologized on his website, GoreDemption (oh, wait, that’s probably GoRedemption).
That’s how Docent got caught up in this whole thing — because if J.D. Greear still uses their services, and Ed Litton plagiarized his work, then y’all, who Jesus-ed the Jesus Jesus to get those sermons in the first place?
It is just so hilariously vitally important to evangelical hardliners that pastors Jesus properly to create their sermons. Indeed, Grayson Gilbert (who is clearly one such hardliner; he doesn’t let even this topic distract him from screeching about women pastors) describes what he perceives as the ideal imaginary struggle session that all pastors should undergo weekly:
The fundamental issue I take with this is that pastors who utilize these types of resources never wrestle with the text themselves. They never have to grapple with their own sin in the midst of that process—yet even worse than these former things, is the fact that they’ll never approach the text in a manner that shepherds their own flock. [. . .]
Additionally, [Litton] has functionally abandoned the vital role of shepherding that is inextricably bound up in the act of preaching itself. [. . .] The point being: one of the primary roles of the pastor is to shepherd the flock of Christ. If one so neglects this role in the pulpit, the question remains: where else may he be neglectful of such duties?
Oh, okay. Wow, that sounds just awful.
And obviously, Grayson Gilbert’s favorite pastors never, ever, ever do anything like this.
Yep. None of them.
The Big Problem Here With This Plagiarism Scandal.
It is so painfully obvious that The Big Problem Here isn’t that Ed Litton might not be Jesus-ing correctly to get his sermons, but that Ed Litton is the current figurehead leader of the Pretend Progressive faction of the SBC.
Gilbert seems to be a member of the other faction, the Old Guard. Looking across Gilbert’s other posts (like this one), he doesn’t seem to like the Pretend Progressives much at all. He’s just so hilariously convinced that his enemy faction is turning the SBC liberal and socialist and wrecking everything, y’all.
In this matter, Gilbert is joined by other Old Guard faction members making similar denunciations. Reformation Charlotte is busily demanding Ed Litton resign and go through that beloved farce of “restoration.” The extremist-Old Guard subfaction site Striving for Eternity is upset with Al Mohler for not condemning the plagiarism. Now, Mohler is an Old Guard to his fingertips, but he’s not as extremist as they are — so he’s the devil to them. They’re accusing Mohler of being all soft on seeeee-yinnnnn.
(That Striving link, BTW, was white text on a white background for me. If it loads that way for you too, then you’ll have to highlight it to see it.)
And this plagiarism scandal gives the Old Guard faction members a great opportunity to release their more-hardcore-than-thou, way-more-Jesus-y hounds.
They’re trying so, so hard to give the impression that their preferred way of Jesus-ing would never allow for pastoral plagiarism. Their faction would NEVER, y’all. EVER.
But I bet every one of them does much the same thing. They might not be deep-pocketed enough to afford something like Docent, but I’ve no doubt in the world that they’ve done plenty of similar stuff in their careers as pastors.
The Dirty Cups of Evangelical Leadership.
If I had a nickel for every story like the ones I’m about to tell, I’d be able to afford that high-school fantasy of a medieval-style castle commune for me and all my friends.
1) I’m sitting there with my family, listening to the Sunday morning sermon, and I suddenly realize the pastor is retelling an urban legend like it happened to him. He’s not presenting it as an urban legend. For all anybody knows, this story really happened to him personally.
Or this one:
2) A guest preacher just told us about an archaeological find I know was debunked. I heard about it in archaeology class. It’s pure pseudoarchaeology, like on par with that “ancient astronauts” tripe.
How about this one?
3) We transferred to this big church in town and the first Sunday we attended, we heard our new pastor give a sermon that sounded exactly like one our old pastor preached just a few months ago.
4) My pastor gave a sermon that’s still famous. It was about a serious argument he had with a specific person, but he recast that person as Satan himself trying to tempt him to lose faith in Jesus. He presented this very earthly argument as a demonic fight he’d won through Jesus Power.
#2 happened to me. #4 came from my first pastor; he and Biff had a big fight the night Pastor Daniel died. I found out about the fight some time after the death, and then I caught the writeup of the sermon many years after deconversion. The other two came from ex-Christian friends.
As you might have guessed, too, the extremist Old Guard would have fully approved of all three churches in question. They can try to act oh so much more Jesus-y than their enemies, but they’ll never be able to hide their dirty cups from view.
The Plagiarism Tempest in a Teapot.
Pastoral plagiarism and all kinds of other sermon sins occur all across evangelicalism. It’s nice to imagine that evangelical pew-warmers will start looking this stuff up on their phones, now that they know for sure that a lot of their loftiest names use sermon-writing services. Nothing would tickle me more than seeing them do exactly that.
But I doubt they will.
If a sermon makes them feel good and affirms their beliefs, evangelicals don’t ask a lot of questions about how it came into existence. If someone even tries to tell them that a well-received sermon contained actual objective misstatements and false statements, they will go on the attack to silence that person. They’re not only incapable of asking critical questions of anything their leaders assert, but also of discernment and self-correction.
So pardon me, please, if I don’t believe a single word any evangelical says about how much more honest and Jesus-y they are regarding any aspect of Christian practice. As far as I can tell, this current scandal is just a political football — a way for one faction in evangelicalism to attack their enemy faction.
As long as evangelicals never mention Sermon Fight Club, it can remain bubbling away in the background for them to use next Sunday as they hypocritically condemn each other for doing what they all do.
NEXT UP: Off-topic holiday super special, then LSP (and this Friday’s reading selection), and then we’ll be looking at sermon fatigue. Later this week, look for a Journey Into Hell with Paradise Lost (we’ll eventually conclude the series with The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis). It’s going to be busy! Enjoy your weekend and we’ll see you tomorrow.
Regarding those endorsement videos: I wonder if these pastors got paid for helping Docent advertise like this, or if they maybe got a cut price in return? It’d be very evangelical for such an arrangement to exist, and evangelicals never, ever feel the need to disclose such payback. I wish we could hold them to the same rules we have for social-media influencers and their #spon posts. (Back to the post!)
Last Thoughts: So in a lot of ways, yeah, this entire kerfuffle reminds me of that “It’s Toasted!” scene in Mad Men, just in reverse. They’re all selling identical products, these evangelicals, but they’re trying to tear down their competitors rather than build up their own brand.
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