Sunday, May 5, 2013

Preaching hollow words: when pastors plagiarize

Today, the deacons revealed to our congregation that our pastor was asked to resign for plagiarism.

I'm heartbroken.

But I am also joyful.

This is a story of the faithfulness of Jesus and His concern over His church, the ministry of the Holy Spirit in how He operates in giving gifts and working among the people. It is a praise to the Lord for the way He set up the church and the checks & balances that are in His word.

People, the process works.

So what happened? For many years, he had been downloading sermons from the internet, memorizing them, and passing them off as his own work. I'm not talking about plagiarizing an outline. I'm not talking some research lifted from one sermon and used in his own sermon. I am talking mirror image, page for page, word for word ripoff. For these last few years, his entire preaching ministry was an act.

IS PLAGIARISM A SIN? OR JUST A HELPFUL AID TO BUSY PASTORS?

Plagiarism is an act where a person takes credit for another person's work. It doesn't have to be illegally obtained, like stolen words or infringed copyright. It can be, but depressingly often these days, sermons are purchased from websites where the pastor or person who owns the website sells them, like Charles Stanley, for example. Rick Warren also offers sermons. There are sites like sermoncentral.com, pastors.com, sermonspice.com, and desperatepreacher.com where you buy them. The practice has become so widespread that 7 years ago, the Wall Street Journal wrote about sermon plagiarism, saying,
"That Sermon You Heard on Sunday May Be From the Web"
"The widespread buying of packaged wisdom has touched off a debate about ethics, especially after incidents in which pastors have resigned over plagiarism allegations. Some members of the clergy say sermon sales diminish religious oratory and undermine both scholarship and the trust between ministers and their flocks."

"Every minister owes his congregation a fresh act of interpretation," says Thomas G. Long, a preaching professor at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta. "To play easy with the truth, to be deceptive about where the ideas come from, is a lie."
Since 2006, plagiarism in the pulpit has exploded into something that is commonly done. It's become so ingrained in Christendom, particularly in western countries, that there are even discussions now as to whether plagiarism even IS a sin. We read of excuses like Rick Warren's, who said, "other pastors’ sermons fed my soul – and eased my preparation! we’re all on the same team. Let’s help each other out..."

Unequivocally, plagiarism, in any sphere or any form, academic, professional, or pastoral, is a sin. Period. Therefore, behold, I am against the prophets, declares the LORD, who steal my words from one another. Jer. 23:30

The fact that these websites flourish is an indicator of deep rottenness at the heart of our faith. To use sermons from Warren or Stanley or desperatepreacher.com is a sin of omission because your flock believes you have done the work of creating a unique message from the Spirit designed specifically to meet a local congregation's spiritual needs, when it is actually someone else's work, and you do not correct them. Whether the originating pastor gives you permission to use his work is beside the point, though it does add stealing to cheating when a pastor takes a sermon without paying for it or without the original pastor's permission.

Some pastors make the issue an even deeper sin by not just letting their flock believe he created the sermon, but purposely says that he created it. The first is a sin of omission, the latter is a sin of commission. He might say, "This week as I was preparing ..." or, "As I was researching for this message...".

It does get even worse. In the ugliest sin of all in the plagiarizing sphere, some pastors use the same anecdote as the original pastor did, but change all the pronouns to "I" and spoke it as if he has lived the anecdote himself.

As DA Carson says of this all too common practice, "re-telling personal experiences as if they were yours when they were not makes the offense all the uglier. Make no mistake, plagiarism in the pulpit is an offense, both to Jesus and to the sheep who are supposed to be feeding on His word."

How terrible to be following an under-shepherd who leads the Lord's sheep to green pastures, only for the sheep to discover that the grass he is feeding them is astroturf.

CON MEN

A confidence trick is an attempt to defraud a person or group after first gaining their confidence. The people who perform these scams are confidence men, or con men.

Though it pains me to say it, a pastor who is dwelling in a permanent pattern of plagiarism is a con man. They are in a position of trust with Jesus as the called under-shepherd, and in a position of trust with the members of their flock as an approved workman to feed them. The act of plagiarizing sermons is a trick, a sleight of hand that can only be called fraud. The bible calls men like these impostors and deceivers (2 Timothy 3:13). Trust is destroyed in an instant.

As John MacArthur said in his sermon "Should fallen pastors be restored?", "Trust forfeited is not so easily regained. Once purity is sacrificed, the ability to lead by example is lost forever. As my friend Chuck Swindoll once commented when referring to this issue--it takes only one pin to burst a balloon."

Often, a pastor who plagiarizes initially may have had a good intention, but as the Christian Index reported in 2006, one misstep can lead to disaster--
One misstep can be disastrous. Consider the case earlier this year of a mid-Georgia pastor who was struggling under stress of personal problems and had trouble focusing on weekly sermon preparation. Over a six-week period he preached several sermons verbatim without giving attribution. When confronted he confessed and shared his problems and asked forgiveness from the church. It was not an act of laziness but pure survival, he maintained, trying to hold his ministry together in the face of seemingly insurmountable difficulties. While the church apparently extended the forgiveness, the pastor did feel his ministry had been severely damaged and resigned from the church.
MacArthur concluded his sermon, he said, "What should you do in the current crisis? Pray for your church's leaders. Keep them accountable. Encourage them. Let them know you are following their godly example. Understand that they are not perfect, but continue nonetheless to call them to the highest level of godliness and purity. The church must have leaders who are genuinely above reproach."

WHAT DOES THE BIBLE SAY?

What is the biblical stance on plagiarizing?

The wonderful bible does cover this, directly and indirectly. In Jeremiah 23:30 we directly read of how the LORD feels about stolen words:

Therefore, behold, I am against the prophets, declares the LORD, 
who steal my words from one another.

Barnes Notes says of the verse, which is embedded in a longer treatise about how false prophets operate,
"Jeremiah gives in succession the main characteristics of the teaching of the false prophets. The first is that they steal God's words from one another. Having no message from God, they try to imitate the true prophets."

Clark's Exposition says, "Three cases are mentioned here which excited God's disapprobation:, first, The prophets who stole the word from their neighbor; who associated with the true prophets, got some intelligence from them, and then went and published it as a revelation which themselves had received, Jeremiah 23:30."
 
Though a modern day pastor is not a prophet of old who exhorted the Word of the LORD from direct revelation, he still is a type of prophet, because he is exhorting the word of the Lord delivered via the bible and understood via the Spirit.

The LORD is against this practice of stealing words from one another. AGAINST! Anything the Lord is against, I am against also. It is that simple.

In addition to the Jeremiah verse which speaks directly to stealing the Lord's words, we read a simple commandment in Exodus 20:15, Thou Shalt not steal. Taking someone else's words and using them as your own is stealing. A pastor doing this is also blasphemy. (Blasphemy: To blaspheme is to speak with contempt about God or to be defiantly irreverent.)

Further, the bible speaks to deceit. Purposely intimating or explicitly stating a sermon is your own when it is not, and pretending another person's life story is yours when it is not, is deceit. The bible speaks much to deceit and lies.
  • A false witness will not go unpunished, and he who breathes out lies will perish. (Proverbs 19:9)
  • You shall not steal, neither deal falsely, neither lie one to another. (Leviticus 19:11)
  • Let no corrupt communication proceed out of your mouth, but that which is good to the use of edifying, that it may minister grace to the hearers. (Ephesians 4:29)
  • Lie not one to another, seeing that you have put off the old man with his deeds; (Colossians 3:9)
And so on.

None of us who believe in the Lord want to sin. We know we are going to. The key is to repent immediately so that we can get back into right relationship with Him. However, the consequences are even higher for pastors/elders, (and deacons) because the bible endows them with special responsibility, and outlines explicit qualifications for their office. I refer to Titus 1:5-9 for pastors.
As John MacArthur summarized, "Its requirements are faultless character, spiritual maturity, a willingness to serve humbly and a skill in teaching." 1 Timothy 3:1-7 also lists qualifications for overseer/elder/pastor (terms used interchangeably) and again the first one is to be "above reproach". All other characteristics listed that go to qualifying a pastor for service to lead a flock stem from that overarching quality: faultless, above reproach."
Obviously any pastor who plagiarizes is no longer faultless nor above reproach. MacArthur continues,
"Pastors must take great care to remain above reproach for several reasons. First, they are the special targets of Satan, and he will assault them with more severe temptation than others. Those on the front lines of the spiritual battle will bear the brunt of satanic opposition."

"Second, their fall has a greater potential for harm. Satan knows that when a shepherd falls, the effect on the sheep is devastating."

"Third, leaders’ greater knowledge of the truth, and accountability to live it, brings greater chastening when they sin."

"Fourth, elders’ sins are more hypocritical than others’ because they preach against the very sins they commit."
What happens when a sin like that goes undetected, or unaddressed if detected? First, it gives the pulpit over to satan. Sin is his playground. If he has the pulpit he has a voice in the church. He will use that prime position to secretly introduce destructive doctrines. (2 Peter 2:1). What could be better than a sinning pastor to accomplish that?

Barnes explains how this secret introduction of false doctrines is accomplished-

"They would not at first make an open avowal of their doctrines, but would, in fact, while their teachings seemed to be in accordance with truth, covertly maintain opinions which would sap the very foundations of religion. The Greek word here used, and which is rendered "who privily shall bring in," (παρεισάγω pareisagō,) means properly "to lead in by the side of others; to lead in along with others." Nothing could better express the usual way in which error is introduced. It is "by the side," or "along with," other doctrines which are true; that is, while the mind is turned mainly to other subjects, and is off its guard, gently and silently to lay down some principle, which, being admitted, would lead to the error, or from which the error would follow as a natural consequence."

Left unaddressed, things will only get worse over time. The thief comes to steal, kill, destroy. (John 10:10a). Therefore any gross, disqualifying sin discovered in a pastor or leader must be addressed!

WHAT SHOULD BE DONE?

What should be done if plagiarism, or another ethical or a moral sin surfaces in your pastor?

The wonderful Lord put processes and standards and gifts in place. This is why it is so important to have been abiding by them all along, so when satan comes, and he will, (2 Peter 2:1, Matthew 7:15), your church will have a vigor that's inherent in your church already. To resist the devil, you need the Lord's strength, and that strength includes adherence to His statutes. In other words, obedience is your foundation.

Some of these standards include having men only as elders and pastors. Having deacons who fit the biblical qualifications of the office. Church discipline process is given importance and exercised when necessary. Overall, issues of church governance appear in Acts and pastoral instructions are given in the epistles to Timothy and Titus. Follow those!

If your church has strayed from the biblical polity as given, then start now in strengthening it. A bridge with foam buttresses will not stand. No matter how strong the bridge is, it needs that solid infrastructure to withstand the rushing flood of waters satan sends against it.

How about the people of the congregation? Does the church practice discipline? Bible.org states, "The discipline of the church is first patterned after the fact that the Lord Himself disciplines His children (Heb. 12:6) and, as a father delegates part of the discipline of the children to the mother, so the Lord has delegated the discipline of the church family to the church itself (1 Cor. 5:12-13; 2 Cor. 2:6)."

Church discipline nurtures all involved, whether to restoration or to discipline. (Hebrews 12:11).

In other words, does your church structure fit the outlines we're given in the bible? Having vigor in those areas is like an athlete who strengthens his muscles to prepare for the race. You cannot expect to run a marathon if you have not been preparing for it!

Next, does your church honor the gifts of the spirit? All of the gifts? The Spirit sends people to your church with certain gifts that will meld and coalesce in a way that He knows you need now and will need in the future. Often, the gift of discerning of spirits is misunderstood, ignored, or maligned. Sometimes justifiably so. There are nuts out there who believe there is a demon behind every tree and that you got that hangnail because you have a spirit of hairballs. Use your gift and honor the gifts of others. It is for the common good, after all! (1 Corinthians 12:4-7).
Plagiarism has been a problem in the world for centuries. It is defined as “to steal and pass off (the ideas or words of another) as one’s own.” A truly humble person with real integrity will avoid plagiarism, and that was true of Paul. He never displayed a willingness to take credit for others’ labors. ~John MacArthur.
WHAT HAPPENS IF PLAGIARISM IS ADDRESSED BADLY?

I've spoken of what happens if a church addresses plagiarism correctly, and if a church fails to address it. The third possibility is it is ignored or addressed badly, it leaves the church vulnerable.

It leaves the church powerless and without the Spirit.

Samuel Chadwick (1860-1932) was a Wesleyan Methodist minister. ordained in 1890. Rev Chadwick said in a sermon called The Tragedy of a Powerless Church"
"The Holy Spirit is the active, administrative Agent of the glorified Son. He is the Paraclete, the Deputy, the acting Representative of the Ascended Christ. His mission is to glorify Christ by perpetuating His character, establishing His Kingdom and accomplishing His redeeming purpose in the world. The Church is the Body of Christ, and the Spirit is the Spirit of Christ. He fills the Body, directs its movements, controls its members, inspires its wisdom, supplies its strength. He guides into the truth, sanctifies its agents, and empowers for witnessing."

"It is possible to excel in mechanics and fail in dynamics. There is a superabundance of machinery. What is wanting is power. To run an organization needs no God. Man can supply the energy and enterprise for things human. The real work of a church depends upon the power of the Spirit."
If you are in a church where an ethical or moral failing has been uncovered in a pastor or elder, take heart. The loving Savior cares more for His church than all of us combined! He loves us and wants his trophies of grace to be strong and beautiful for His name. He is intimately involved in His church! We are His Bride. There's comfort in clinging to  that. Also, He sent His word via the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and His designated Apostles and writers. His word contained warnings and prophecies, including warnings that false pastors or leaders will come. How wonderful that He told us ahead of time so we can be prepared. Prophecy is a true word, so if it comes to pass we can praise the Lord who knows the end from the beginning. (2 Peter 1:19; Isaiah 46:10).

If you have elected Godly deacons, then how to address this issue will become known to them, no matter the specifics of your particular denomination's constitution or bylaws. Jesus is involved, and He sends His Spirit to endow these men with wisdom of what to do. Pray for them and trust them.

Jesus sends His Spirit to operate in and activate Christ's power! His gifts meld together in a beautiful way to ignite glory for the Father. To avoid a powerless church, then acknowledge who is the Head of it. (Revelation 3:20). We worship the risen Christ, not a man, no matter how loved or popular or how long his tenure has been in your church. Be a praying church, a submitting church, a gifted church, an obedient church. How wonderful and beautiful is the Holy Spirit who points to Jesus always, and who multiplies HIS church-

"Then had the churches rest throughout all Judaea and Galilee and Samaria, and were edified; and walking in the fear of the Lord, and in the comfort of the Holy Ghost, were multiplied." (Acts 9:31).

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Of Related Interest,

Discernment lesson: The Sin of Inaction

Where is the righteous indignation? The holy anger?

8 comments :

  1. so true. i have seen it here in Dubai - pastors take it word by word from the famous preachers and preach as their own. there is no time for them sit at the Master's feet and learn from Him. there was a rebuke given to youngsters recently in our congregation for not spending time alone with the Lord.

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  2. wow, Ethan -- that's rather hypocritical isn't it? I mean where you said that (from the pulpit of your church, I gather) that rebuke was recently given to youngsters for not spending time alone with the Lord..... **OUCH!!** "do as I say ~ not as I do" leaders, I'm guessing..??

    This essay reminds me SO MUCH of how students would buy the cheat notes to cop out of class study!~ and just use the cheat notes as something they themselves had come up with. My word, I learned way back in first grade to not be "copying" another student's work!

    I'm sorry your pastor did this, Elizabeth; I can understand your being stunned & heartbroken at first. Guess he's yet another one to pray for.

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    Replies
    1. you dont make a point Mr.anonymous. my concern is people dont spend time with the Lord. one of the brother gave a rebuke. I didnt say - i gave a rebuke.
      all today want to see how the televangelist speak and repeat the same word by word. there is no revelation. we dont practice what the Lord says. we practice what the pastor says. you are correct on hypocritical (as Jesus said). but the whole point is not hypocritical. it is a concern of an elder who saw the youngsters way of copying things from others without getting it from the Masters feet. God bless you.

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  3. Praise God for the courage and steadfastness in the truth of leadership in your assembly.

    1 Timothy 5
    19 Do not admit a charge against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses. 20 As for those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear. 21 In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus and of the elect angels I charge you to keep these rules without prejudging, doing nothing from partiality.

    I have witnessed personally many times where things are covered as a "protection" of the church. It does exactly the opposite.
    I had a group of "very qualified" Elders say to me when I confronted them on this very issue. "We did not do what 1 Timothy 5 say's to do, we were afraid of what would happen to the church and the pastor".

    When we do what Gods Word say's to do He is responsible for the outcome.

    When we do not do what God's Word say's to do, we are responsible for the outcome.

    As I read the part about the Wall street journal reporting,
    " The sermon you heard on Sunday may be from the web",
    It is from the web alright.

    http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Isaiah+59:5-7&version=ESV
    Say's,
    Isaiah 59:1 Behold, the Lord's hand is not shortened, that it cannot save,
    or his ear dull, that it cannot hear;
    2 but your iniquities have made a separation
    between you and your God,
    and your sins have hidden his face from you
    so that he does not hear.
    3 For your hands are defiled with blood
    and your fingers with iniquity;
    your lips have spoken lies;
    your tongue mutters wickedness.
    4 No one enters suit justly;
    no one goes to law honestly;
    they rely on empty pleas, they speak lies,
    they conceive mischief and give birth to iniquity.
    5 They hatch adders' eggs;
    they weave the spider's web;
    he who eats their eggs dies,
    and from one that is crushed a viper is hatched.
    6 Their webs will not serve as clothing;
    men will not cover themselves with what they make.
    Their works are works of iniquity,
    and deeds of violence are in their hands.
    7 Their feet run to evil,
    and they are swift to shed innocent blood;
    their thoughts are thoughts of iniquity;
    desolation and destruction are in their highways.

    The web surely catches it's prey. I am sickened by the thought.

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    Replies
    1. Hi Jeff,

      Thanks for the verses and the thoughts. I am extremely grateful for our leaders who are Godly, praying, and courageous, as well as loving and caring to the congregation as well as the sinning pastor. They followed the bible's precepts and honored God in all ways.

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  4. To Ethan: just in case you ever come back here to read this.

    I'm truly sorry you took my words personally ~ for they were not directed AT YOU ..... at all!! But upon re-reading them, I can see how that could have been perceived. I was merely IN AGREEMENT with you was all!!

    I did not mean that YOU gave the rebuke. Merely saying it was hypocritical for the elders to do it -- when they themselves are not taking their own words to heart.

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  5. Oh no...My pastor is stealing sermon series and passing it all off as his own work. I am too embarrassed for him to confront him!!!! Please pray for my strength! I feel like, " who am I to rebuke him?" I know I sin more than he does. I do not want to be used by satan to bring division in his life and church!!

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    Replies
    1. Anonymous, I'm sorry to hear this. However, it is not a matter of ambarrassment, like he has toilet paper stuck to his shoe. It is a matter of blasphemy.

      Satan has already brought division. He has the pulpit! We're all sinners, that does not mean we overlook it when it appears. In addition, pastors have a higher standard. (James 3:1)

      His plagiarism breaks the 9th commandment,
      “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. Exodus 20:16

      And the LORD specifically declared He is against plagiarism-
      "Therefore, behold, I am against the prophets, declares the Lord, who steal my words from one another." Jeremiah 23:30.

      What you can do is-

      1. Pray
      2. Gather evidence about the plagiarism
      3. Seek the scriptures that address this issue, I listed a few in this comment and others in the body of the post,
      4. Go to a trusted deacon or leader with your information.

      This is not a Matthew 18 moment where you confront him personally with his sin. Plagiarism is a disqualifying offense, because he is no longer above reproach (1 Tim 3:2). It is a church problem and we go to Titus and Timothy for direction.

      Do not hide behind the "bring division" chestnut. The church obviously needs division because he is dividing the brethren with his lies, and this will also bring more goats to your church. Satan is seeking to divide YOU from your church and perhaps the faith. Don't let him.

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