Paul L. Caron

Sunday, July 25, 2021

NY Times: Should Pastors Borrow Words From One Another?

New York Times, ‘Sermongate’ Prompts a Quandary: Should Pastors Borrow Words From One Another?:

The similarities in the sermons are unmistakable.

“I don’t think I’ve given you this before,” the pastor in North Carolina tells his congregation. He goes on to list “five selfs” that signify hostility to God: self-will, self-glory, self-gratification, self-righteousness and self-sufficiency. Cut to an older pastor in Alabama, at a lectern a year later: “Let me give you five selfs,” he says. He rattles off the same list.

A video comparing the two sermons has racked up thousands of views online in recent days, partly because the two men are not just any church leaders: The first, who delivered his sermon in 2019, is J.D. Greear, the departing president of the Southern Baptist Convention. The other is Ed Litton, who was elected as Mr. Greear’s successor just a couple of weeks ago by a thin margin at an unusually contentious meeting. His sermon was delivered in 2020 and did not credit Mr. Greear.

Mr. Litton’s critics are calling it “sermongate.”

And the dust-up has revealed a dirty little secret of the preaching life: Many pastors borrow from one another in the pulpit, and the norms around the practice are fuzzy at best. ...

“This is an issue of morality, and it’s an issue of Christian virtue,” said Tom Ascol, a high-profile Florida pastor who has been critical of Mr. Litton and Mr. Greear. “It’s something that as recently as 10 years ago, everyone in conservative evangelical circles would say, ‘Of course pulpit plagiarism is wrong.’” ...

Among church leaders, attitudes toward the practice vary widely. Al Mohler Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, has called it “despicable”; the influential retired pastor John Piper has said it is “unthinkable.” But some prominent pastors have offered others carte blanche to borrow liberally from their work, saying personal glory should never be the point of preaching. Others encourage heavy inspiration but not wholesale copying. As the oft-cited — though not always attributed — line goes from the longtime Southern Baptist pastor Adrian Rogers, “If my bullet fits your gun, shoot it, but use your own powder.” ...

Some full-time pastors report spending up to 30 hours a week on the task; more common is devoting two full work days to it.

For many churchgoers, a sermon is not just a clever speech but proof of the pastor’s deep spiritual life. “A sermon is a person studying the Bible, encountering God in their own life and history, and then spewing it all out on Sunday morning for the good of the people of God,” said Scot McKnight, a professor of the New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lisle, Ill. “It’s a personal encounter.” ...

Some larger churches, including Mr. Litton’s, employ in-house “preaching teams” that collaborate on sermon production. ...

What is certain is that the temptation to crib on Sunday mornings is not new. In his autobiography, Benjamin Franklin wrote of his admiration of a young Presbyterian preacher much respected for his preaching, which was apparently delivered extemporaneously. When a doctrinal dispute erupted in the congregation, however, an adversary recognized that a passage delivered by the preacher had been lifted from an uncredited source.

Franklin stuck by the plagiarist. “I rather approved his giving us good sermons composed by others,” he wrote, “than bad ones of his own manufacture.”

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