Plagiarism in the Pulpit

I wonder how pervasive an issue this is in the LCMS. Sadly, I am personally aware of it within our ranks. Sermons have been published for centuries, and sermons have been lifted and preached whole-cloth for just as long. The internet simply makes it easier. There are many websites that simply function as homiletical take-a-penny-leave-a-penny dishes, providing packaged preaching for anyone with a credit card and a mouse to take and use. Many are available at no cost. It’s a candy store out there.

As I see it, the concerns are multiple.

1. Plagiarism is claiming someone else’s work as one’s own. It is a matter of lying and stealing.

2. To preach another’s sermon is an abdication of the vocation to which the Lord has called a man. It is to act as the hired hand who cares nothing for the sheep, not as the undershepherd of the flock.

3. To preach another’s sermon necessarily stems from either laziness or spiritual poverty, or a mix of the two. Accountability is required.

4. Plagiarism does violence to the pastor/congregation relationship, as well as to the relationships between brother pastors.

5. Preaching another’s sermon throws wide the gate to whatever faulty theology/anthropology the author holds. It is theologically irresponsible.

6. Preaching a sermon written for God’s people in one place to hear does not take into consideration the unique situation of the hearers of the body of Christ in the second place.

7. Preaching a sermon written by another is to steal from one’s congregation. The offerings of the congregation go, in part, to pay the pastor to do the work for which he has been called. He is called to be pastor, not merely preacher (speaker of another’s homiletical work).

This list is not exhaustive.

It’s district convention season. My guess is that this, like internet pornography, is a bigger problem than we’d like to imagine or address, yet likewise dirty enough that we’d rather live in ignorance about it. Yet as I read through overtures and resolutions, I see none resolving that our pastors maintain integrity in the pulpit. Perhaps such measures are greatly needed.

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4 Responses to Plagiarism in the Pulpit

  1. Sean says:

    let a layman be brave enough to perhaps disagree with you.

    While I certainly think credit needs to be given where credit is due, and preaching another pastor’s sermon as your own would be wrong and plaigarism, I don’t think preaching a sermon written by another pastor would always be a bad thing. We have such a wealth of great sermons written by so many from the early church to now, and why not use them again? I know that my congregation has never heard an Augustine, Luther, or Walther sermon, and certainly they could benefit from it.

    I think your point that a pastor is called to preach to his specific flock is probably the most halting one for using the sermons of others, however a great many sermons are not preached so exclusively that they are only significant to one flock. As one who hears sermons, I don’t think the pastor necessarily needs to make it “relevant to where I’m at right now” on every occasion. I’m not really sure how a sermon would be crafted to be “relevant” to a particular congregation without speaking to specific issues. For that matter, if we ought not to hear specific preaching to another congregation’s specific issues, perhaps we can disregard the specific letters of Paul. Of course we won’t! 🙂

    The use of sermon material from other pastors is not necessarily evidence of laziness. If anything, I think it would be evidence of humility to say “this called and ordained servant has made this point or said this in such a clear way, I ought not to fumble around for something different that might not be as good.” We know that innovation is not important, and in fact there are a great many cases where something better has already been said or written. The liturgy and hymnody of the church is a fantastic example. We aren’t cheating or cutting corners by utilizing what the saints before us have found sufficient.

    In the daily offices it is recommended and prescribed that sermons and writings of the fathers may be read (by pastor or laypersons) for the edification of all. I should be careful to not equate the reading of a sermon by a layperson and the preaching of one by a pastor, but I think the reality that there is a great deal of benefit in what was written and taught by our fathers in the faith is evident yes?

    Well, let me know what you think. On the point that plaigarism (using others words/material without giving credit) is a problem and is deplorable, I agree wholeheartedly. On the grounds that using the sermons, points, and words of the fathers (with proper recognition) is a mistake, I would challenge that maybe.

    Though this might be an even more “old school” idea, I think it’s true that you don’t ALWAYS have to put things in your own words to make them effective or relevant or even your own.

  2. OSC says:

    The comment is welcome, and you raise some interesting points. Yeah. I’m gonna have to go ahead and disagree with you. Mmm. Yeah. Ok, enough Office Space.

    Quote Luther? Quote Walther? Quote the odd Father? Sure. Go ahead. Quote them; cite them. But preach their sermons (or a contemporary preacher’s sermon) whole cloth to the body of Christ today? Not so much.

    Please don’t misread me (as I’m sure you don’t maliciously). I don’t go in for the “relevant preaching” as defined by the typical post-modern thinker. True relevance takes into account the sinful condition of the human person and their need for Law and Gospel. Responsible preaching is therefore generally universal. That is, to be human is to be sinful and all sinners are guilty of breaking the whole Law, must be destroyed by that Law and raised to new life by the Gospel.

    Yet it is not merely a formulaic (as scientific) application of this Law and Gospel. There is an art to it (Hear Walther: “Rightly distinguishing the Law and the Gospel is the most difficult and the highest art of Christians in general and of theologians in particular. It is taught only by the Holy Spirit in the school of experience.” Law and Gospel, Thesis III). A part of this art for the preacher is to read and understand the “Book of the Flock (see Fritz, Pastoral Theology),” to do thy exegesis of the text and of thy hearers.

    This does not preclude learning from, emulating, or quoting sources more learned than oneself. I agree that there are a great many things preached by others with which I would not dare tamper. It’s best to quote them. Hence I may quote Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. Yet where reading it whole-cloth, publicly in the DS is certainly proclamation, it is not preaching.

    Perhaps what you have missed in my post (perhaps because I treated it as read and did not actually say it!) is the fact that preaching, like Absolution, like Baptism, like the Lord’s Supper, is an event. It’s first-person discourse from God to His people. That event ought not to be taken any more lightly than the Sacraments.

    This is not to say that the preacher who makes use of others’ work necessarily treats the task/event lightly. Yet as I respond to you I wonder if he falls into the trap of believing that preaching is effective ex opere operato–by the mere performance of the act. I am not convinced that it is humility, and not laziness, that drives preachers to preach others’ sermons–especially those who do so on a regular basis.

    Luther took the preaching task seriously. In the Saxon Visitation he took lazy preachers to task. Elsewhere, “When I preach I adapt myself to the circumstances of the common people. I don’t look at the doctors and masters . . . but at the young people and children. It is to them that I devote myself. Take pains to be simple and direct (citation to follow–forgive me).”

    Read others’ sermons. Be edified by them. Learn the art of homiletics from “the Holy Spirit in the school of experience.” But the pastor ought to undertake the prophetic task of preaching that which the Lord gives him to preach.

  3. Sean says:

    yup. you’re right. as much as preaching is an “epic” event like the Lord’s Supper, baptism, and the rest of the divine service, it needs to be taken as such. And that’s what it is. reading a sermon of the fathers is much different, and should be done in addition, and absolutely not in substitution for fresh preaching from the pastor of the parish. Both are edifying, but in the context of the mass, the sermon is God’s Word in its most direct form: Christ speaking in person to us.

    sorry ’bout the office space. Usually I just spit it out, but I wanted to make sure that nothing was taken as malicious. you know how blog comment discussions get 😀 Satan has his way with all of us, especially me.

  4. OSC says:

    Actually, the Office Space was all me.

    The citation for the Luther Reference is LW 54: 235, Table Talk #3573, from 1537.

    Just for conversation’s sake, here also Luther said, “[H]e’s the best preacher who can teach in a plain, childlike, popular, and simple way. I prefer to preach in an easy and comprehensible fashion, but when it comes to academic disputations watch me in the university; there I’ll make it sharp enough for anybody and will reply, no matter how complicated he wants to be. Some day I’ll have to write a book against artful preachers.” (LW 54, 382)

    Blessings.

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