Whose line is it anyway?

Or, Why not simply point-click-preach?

A lament.

I’ve just gone fifteen rounds on the topic of internet sermon resources, and I’m just about shot. I’m done with it. But I’m not going to sleep tonight until I get this off my chest.

I say I’m done with it because the upshot of this final round had me “taking the stand,” as it were, in defense of a preacher doing his own exegesis and his own homiletical development (this after I’ve also lately been asked to defend the Lutheran position on the Office of the Public Ministry; the icing on the cake for me is that these are sticking points between me and another LCMS pastor). You know what the funny thing is? My arguments have been sound, Biblical, and Confessional. And I’m oh-for-two.

So I’m done with that discussion. I think the first place I went wrong was in thinking that the conversation were possible in the first place. That is, I failed to adequately appreciate the reach of post-modern thought’s tentacles. Post-modern thinking is the most illogical of systems. It reduces all contrary or contradictory viewpoints to differences of opinion or preference. No matter my argument, my stance was only considered as my “preferred method of sermon development.”

Preaching another’s sermon as if it were one’s own. I’ve posted on the subject before. I’ve read several stories about preachers whose ministries were terminated because of even one instance. Yet for some it is a regular practice. The arguments in defense of the practice are all similarly self-justifying: “I was running out of time and I needed something.” “They said it better than I would have. Why reinvent the wheel?” “Sure, it’s not technically ethical, but it’s all about proclaiming the Gospel, y’know?”

And behind each of those answers, my question begins somewhere in the neighborhood of, “Then why must it be such a secret?” If indeed there is nothing inappropriate or ignoble about the practice, then why is it not a matter of public knowledge?

Why the practice frankly sucks.

If I may, I’d first like to turn to the Small Catechism. The Eighth Commandment, as Lutherans number them, is, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.” The Catechism explains this commandment with these words:

We should fear and love God so that we do not tell lies about our neighbor, betray him, slander him, or hurt his reputation, but defend him, speak well of him, and explain everything in the kindest possible way.

The traditional handling of this commandment is to prevent behavior. It prevents us from speaking evil of our neighbor. It precludes our gossiping about another. It curbs our sinful desire to in any way damage our neighbor’s reputation.

Yet as with most of the Commandments, there is a “but.” After the “but” is an exhortation toward actively keeping the commandment. Here we are exhorted to “defend him, speak well of him, and explain everything in the kindest possible way.” The Large Catechism amplifies this. In short, your reputation is important to God.

To preach another’s sermon is to deprive him of his due honor. Indeed, imitation is the highest form of flattery. But imitation without citation is often prevarication. More concretely, if another “said it better than I would have,” is it not then appropriate to honor that one’s work as superior? This provides a wonderful opportunity to actually quote the other–to “speak well of him” and thereby build up his reputation.

I’m reminded of Letter XIV from Wormwood to Screwtape in C. S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters. The issue was humility:

The Enemy wants him, in the end, to be so free from any bias in his own favour [sic] that he can rejoice in his own talents as frankly and gratefully as in his neighbour’s [sic] talents—or in a sunrise, an elephant, or a waterfall. He wants each man, in the long run, to be able to recognise [sic] all creatures (even himself) as glorious and excellent things.

When one flagrantly preaches another’s work as his own it is the exact opposite of this humility. That preacher seeks the other’s talents for his own. This may further indicate a Ninth Commandment sin of covetousness–of another’s talent or reputation; a First Commandment transgression in the form of loving accolades more than God.

Secondly, as I’ve written before, it is inherently dishonest. Be it a lie of commission or a lie of omission, it remains a lie. To allow someone to continue believing that one wrote words that are not his own is the same as willfully misleading someone in believing those words are his.

Thirdly, as I’ve also written previously, it is at least a betrayal, if not an act of theft, against the congregation. They called one to serve as pastor/preacher with the understanding that he was trained to preach. It is not a giant leap on their part to assume that he is doing the work for which they have called him and likewise compensate him–preaching the Word and administering the Sacraments. That he is doing the work these tasks entail is generally understood. To knowingly and purposefully do otherwise is not just dishonest. It’s lazy.

Pastors are expected to be theologians. In this church body a four-year degree is a prerequisite to seminary admission, and the MDiv requires at least another four years of formation. Laziness leads to a disregard for that education and that formation. Laziness pushes us toward the path of least resistance. This laziness is unfortunately not new to the church. Hear Luther speak:

Some pastors and preachers are lazy and no good. They do not pray; they do not read; they do not search the Scripture … The call is: watch, study attend to reading. In truth you cannot read too much in Scripture; and what you read you cannot read too carefully, and what you read carefully you cannot understand too well, and what you understand well you cannot teach too well, and what you teach well you cannot live too well … The devil … the world … and our flesh are raging and raving against us. Therefore, dear sirs and brothers, pastors and preachers, pray, read, study, be diligent … This evil. shameful time is not the season for being lazy, for sleeping and snoring. (Meuser, Fred W., Luther the Preacher, pp. 40-41.)

Pray. Read. Study. Be diligent. Do the work of preaching.

In the fourth place, and related to the foregoing, preaching the Word of God is an event. It is dynamic. It’s an act through which God acts in the here and now. When the Word of God is preached, that Word acts upon the hearers. The sermon is not simply “filler material.” To simply point-click-preach is to treat casually the Word and work of God. It is a form of “despising preaching or God’s Word.” The Third Commandment directs us to “hold it sacred and gladly hear and learn it.”

Again, let Luther speak. He had an appreciation for the task, not only of speaking a sermon, but of preparing it:

Sure, it would be hard for me to sit “in the saddle.” But then again I would like to see the horseman who could sit still for a whole day and gaze at a book without worrying or dreaming or think about anything else. Ask … a preacher … how much work it is to speak and preach … The pen is very light, that is true … But in this work the best part of the human body (the head), the noblest member (the tongue), and the highest work (speech) bear the brunt of the load and work the hardest, while in other kinds of work either the hand, the foot, the back or other members do the work alone so such a person can sing happily or make jokes freely which a sermon writer cannot do. Three fingers do it all … but the whole body and soul have to work at it. (Ibid, pp. 44-45.)

The place of preaching is central to the Office of the Public Ministry. Hence the Confessions refer to it as the “Preaching Office” (“Predigtamt“). The preacher’s task is not merely in the delivery of the sermon. It is in the development as well.

A double standard.

Most preachers wouldn’t think about printing lyrics or music in a bulletin without that precious CCLI number right after it. They expect their children to produce their own research papers for school. They themselves would likely not have the nerve to submit another’s work as their own for print media. But as far as sermons go, nothing is out of bounds. Somehow the genre of the sermon transcends legality and plain old “right.”

Understand, there are literally thousands of online sermon resource sites. Many provide their sermons gratis. Add to these the various bound and print resources out there and you’ve got a veritable homiletical candy store from which to pick and choose. One need never produce another original sermon. It’s all been done and it’s all there for the taking. “All things are lawful for me,” cries the lazy preacher. “Good,” “right,” and “salutary” are then forgotten.

Just because they’re accessible does not mean that it’s OK to use them carte blanche (shall we also discuss the availability and propriety of internet pornography?). Availability and propriety are not necessarily equivalent terms.

If not him then who?

A real kicker is the less-oft-considered issue. Exactly whose sermon is it? Forget about the issues of intellectual property and ethics. Who’s really in the pulpit? Obviously it’s the preacher. But in the case of the borrowed sermon, the preacher is merely the vehicle for another’s preaching. Granted, he made the choice, such as it was, of a particular sermon to deliver. Yet the theology of that sermon is driven, not by the sermon-deliverer, but by the sermon writer. Practically speaking, for the Lutheran pastor to preach a Methodist’s sermon is tantamount to inviting that Methodist preacher to step into that Lutheran pulpit. And while I’m quite certain that most Lutheran preachers would not think of pulling a move like that, they functionally do just that on a regular basis.

One guy’s opinion?

I write this from a certain perspective. I am a pastor writing about pastoral practice. I know where I stand on this. (I write this entire post cautiously, as I am dangerously close to flogging a dead horse by broaching the subject again.) I’m honestly interested in hearing others’ opinions. I’ve obviously heard some–those of my opponents in this. What say you?

Clergy, have you encountered this? What has your response been? Were you to encounter this, either again or for the first time, how might you respond? Would you respond?

Lay persons, what say you? What might your reaction be were you to learn your pastor didn’t write his own sermons? Have you had such experiences? Care to share?

Is it a prevalent problem, or am I just that lucky to have stumbled upon it? Are we due for an American Visitation? Is it something that circuit counselors would be willing to address? Districts? Synod in Convention?

As always, thanks for your comments.


12 Responses to Whose line is it anyway?

  1. (FTR, I’m a lay person)

    I’ve seen a pastor reuse a sermon, but he gave full credit for it up front, and it was a better sermon than I’ve seen him do before. 🙂 Giving credit may be a good check; if a pastor is constantly using others’ material the congregation make ask him when he’s going to write his own. 🙂

    It seems you have really thought this out, and I agree with you on it.

    You know what the funny thing is? My arguments have been sound, Biblical, and Confessional. And I’m oh-for-two.

    Is your audience the type that appreciates “sound, Biblical, and Confessional?” Is this a return to basics that you can accomplish (with the help of God? 🙂 )

  2. Rev. Chryst says:

    I preached one of Luther’s sermons once. Not because I was lazy, but because it was so good and I thought the variety would be helpful. I totally explained what I was doing, though. (I did have to update some of the language, too…)

    Most often I will glean other sermons for ideas, illustrations, and sometimes a “structure”. But much like reading commentaries, this all goes into the big churning mess of study, exegesis, prayer, observation, and mulling that is my preparation process.

    Plagiarism is certainly an issue for some preachers, as you rightly point out. It’s a simple 7th commandment issue, IMO.

    One of my professors whose sermons were published somewhere was once on vacation with his family, when the preacher’s sermon sounded all too familiar. The prof’s daughter nudged her dad as the preacher told a “family story”, which was actually something from the prof’s family. But the preacher made it sound like it was his own story. If I remember clearly, he pretty much stole the whole sermon too. Funny. Sad, too.

  3. OSC says:

    Thanks for the comments, gents. And to be clear, the examples with which you both began your comments are clearly not those against which I write.


    In answer to your question, apparently not. I’d had hopes that such lines of reasoning might be beneficial. No luck.


    I recall the same anecdote from (I’m guessing) the same seminary professor. I remember being appalled at the time and, if we’re thinking of the same prof., marveling at the incredible restraint he displayed in not confronting the preacher immediately.


    In addition to the self-justifying mindsets that seem to prevail in such situations, there is a rather cavalier attitude that preaching just isn’t that important, or even worse, a lack of concern for the potential damage to ministry and faith that could occur were one to be “found out.” The flock would be scandalized–not unlike the sense of betrayal they might have in the wake of a sexual indiscretion that came to light.

  4. anokihaish says:

    If I may, as I’ve flogged this horse before, I would like to clarify my difficulty with this whole thing.

    Your issue is specifically plagiarism. It wouldn’t fly in any other profession. Doctors would not get up and present another’s research as their own. Scientists don’t give out other’s research as their own. It’s just not something that happens in “professional” jobs. Students who did that in school would be expelled. It’s not acceptable, you’re not a mutant for thinking it is.


    While your diagnosis spot on, what can you do about it? As a pastor who is occaisionally forced to listen to a sermon that is not written by the person preaching it (so painfully obvious to me, at least) all I can say is that there is a substantial difference in the quality of the preaching. The energetic enthusiastic dude gets more and more slothful in his presentation. Lack of proper work ends up in a crappy sermon. A sermon that leads nowhere. And guess what? It shows.

    Because we take congregational autonomy to mean once we’re out we’re not accountable to anyone for anything, which visitation will you get? Go visiting. See the response. Inquisition. Witch Hunt. Blah blah blah. Enough people dislike enough other people, no one trusts each other, few of us trust that God remains faithful even in our faithlessness. So what will we do? Ultimately, there is nothing to do but to be faithful to the whole word of God. Redemption. Justice. Mercy. Etc. And, of course, deal with the consequences. Which usually suck.

  5. OSC says:

    What to do? I don’t know. I agree that it’s a sick and dying system, and that take on autonomy is absolutely idolatrous. I’m not necessarily suggesting a Visitation as it were, but I’d give an awful lot for some real accountability structures that were taken seriously and implemented. Church discipline used to be exercised. In this enlightened day “gun shy” doesn’t even begin to describe us. We don’t take sin seriously. And it hamstrings our proclamation of the Gospel.

    What can I do about it? Well, maybe I can put it on the radar screen of more people out there. Maybe it can be a topic taken up for discussion by boards of elders; circuits; a local ministerium.

    Being faithful to the whole Word of God entails a lot. It includes calling a rose a rose. It means, as pastors in this here church, that when we become aware of particularly injurious sin we do our best to confront it, to speak the Law so that God might bring about contrition and the sinner might be made new again by the Gospel.

    To be clear, I’m not expecting that there will be any dramatic change here. As my wife put it, “it’s futile to get mad at a dog for pissing on trees; it’s just what dogs do.” I guess I just expected a little more out of people who should know better. My wife would say that I expected a dog to stop being a dog. Am I a closet idealist? No. I’m an open idealist. Ideally when a sinner is shown to be in the wrong he repents. Ideally when it’s a pastor it’s more likely to happen quickly. And ideals are just ideals.

    In my particular situation I’ve said all I can or care to say. I’m in a lonely place. I am, however, intensely interested in what comments may come, however. I don’t want to be told just what I want to hear. I want to really know about this issue elsewhere.

  6. OSC says:

    I want to come back to this for a sec. Yes, my American Visitation idea was submitted a bit tongue-in-cheek. But there is more that can be done. I get frustrated when Cross Theology becomes a convenient rationale for quietism. Yes, creation is corrupted. Yes, despite (and because of) all our best intentions, sin will continue to abound. Yes, no matter what we think, do, or say, we will still be left with the unfortunate resultant consequences of sin. And blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the reign of God.

    But honestly, can we also agree together to care enough for our brothers and sisters that we would confront sin? Can we do that? Can we try to approach something that looks like that? I’m tired of the old, “It’s not going to work, so don’t do it” attitude. If I read Matthew 18 right, showing a brother his sin was not predicated upon assurance of success. At every stage of the game Jesus gave a good scenario and a bad one. You’ve won your brother or you haven’t and need to go on to the next step. And at the end of it, if you haven’t won your brother, you consider him to be lost. In part he’s a mission focus, but in part he’s shown that being a part of the church is not something in which he’s interested. So you let him go.

    But I’m sorry. We’d rather let gross, blatant, injurious sin go unaddressed because we’d simply rather not be seen as unloving. And thanks to such enlightened thinking, we don’t need things like the DaVinci Code and the Gospels of Thomas and Judas to marginalize the Church’s message. We’re doing just fine on our own.

  7. anokihaish says:

    Idolatrous and a quietist, on the same day. It must be Christmas. Oh. It is.

    I wasn’t trying to tell you what you wanted to hear. I was saying that no one gives a shit. That’s life. How much do you hear comments about the length of your sermons? “That was pretty long…” “The service [meaning your sermon] lasted an hour and a half…” We believe that the word of God makes some kind of tremendous difference, and guess what? No one cares (or to make it less of a blanket statement, not a lot of people). Make the service short. Say something mildly interesting. Pithy. Something they can take home with them. “Merry CHRISTmas” or some crap like that because you can work people up into a lather over who wishes what holiday to them at which store. Let them have a small group to take care of their spiritual needs. Who needs you and your means of grace?

    In no small part, I think this is why people leave churches for places that have defined structures. Lutherans going Orthodox and all that. Join the military. There is an authority outside of me that “tells” me beyond my own (or our collective) interpretation what is proper or not. Our structure is FUBAR from top to bottom based on American idolatrous autonomy instead of collective accountability. And guess what? No one cares (or not a whole lot of people). You want accountability in a system that does not, institutionally, want it. Either relax, or pick/start a new system. Open idealism is great, just don’t think the dog won’t mistake you for the tree.

    Sorry, I’ll shut up. I think it would be great if elders, districts, circuit counselors, etc. took this up. I’ll tell you that mine probably won’t. We’re more concerned over where to go eat than anything remotely resembling sin, and I get ignored if I say anything anyway.

    I sound cynical. I don’t mean to. I do actually believe that the living word of God has great power.

  8. OSC says:

    You know what? You and I need to go drink. I don’t care where or when, just that it would be soon. We need to drink and talk and throw some darts or shoot some pool or something. But there needs to be a well-stocked drinks table. Gin, olives, a good single-malt scotch, a smoky room. That’s what I need. I’ll buy, I don’t care.

    The last thing that I want you to do is shut up. I understand the cynicism. I fight against that in myself all the time, but I’m guessing that like you there is a vast disconnect between what I know and what I see. And they’re both true: God’s Word has great power, and people don’t give a fiddler’s fart about it. Apparently this includes those who are in positions that would seem to suggest care for that Word.

    I don’t ordinarily get my shorts in a wad about things that happen on the Synodical level, or even on the District level. Things generally don’t happen at the circuit level. But when it hits on the congregational level, that’s when I get active.

    So I think what I was doing in having the conversation in the first place was to start a new system, or more correctly, start a new behavior within the old system that might somehow inform the system. I don’t fancy myself a great reformer or anything like that, just trying to be as faithful to the whole Word of God as I, with God’s help, can be.

    And to be heard properly, I’m not calling you idolatrous or quietist, but your comments did push those buttons. But even as I’m not a great reformer (he he he…just look at my following!) I am calling for a reformation. I don’t think it means overhauling our polity, but I do think it means repentance at many levels.

  9. SteveH says:

    I’m just a layman, back in the fold for a couple years after about a thirty year layoff and I desperately would like to join you for drink and darts despite the fact that I will only drink beer. I think there’s lots of us about, just widely scatered.

  10. OSC says:

    Thanks for stopping by. And welcome back to the fold. But, and I mean this from the bottom of my heart, please don’t ever refer to yourself again as just a layman. Without laymen there’d be no congregations. And laymen throughout history have done great things in the church. Among other things, it was a layman named Christian Beyer who read the Augsburg Confession to Emperor Charles V.

    And yes, beer is fine here. God’s blessings.

  11. SteveH says:

    Got it. Thanx.

  12. Matt says:

    Several of your comments in the original post really spoke to me.

    If you don’t mind, please send me an email. I would like to discuss a pastoral issue offline.


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