On Pastoral Plagiarism

In Jeremiah 23:30, God spoke to Jeremiah strikingly about the false prophets who “ . . . steal from one another words supposedly from me . . .” Not only were the words that they were speaking delusions that claimed to be from God, they were copying each other’s words. With a closer look at the whole passage and chapter where Jeremiah prophesies about the false prophets, it is evident that God considered his Word not only to be his own possession, but to some extent the possession of the prophet to whom he had given his Word, and therefore, he termed taking the words of another man of God and presenting them as one’s own as an act of theft.

One of the biggest temptations to a pastor is that he may become a spiritual copycat and take what was presented in the preaching and teaching of other pastors and teachers of the Word as his own. There will always be an influence on the spiritual life and therefore the preaching and teaching of a pastor from the preaching and teaching of those he has heard and read. No pastor is a spiritual island, or the first one to whom the Word of God has come. Yet plagiarism is considered a form of academic dishonesty and theft, and throughout church history there have been those who have spoken out against it. It’s ironic that Charles Haddon Spurgeon, one of the most plagiarized preachers over the past century and a half, was one of the most outspoken critics of plagiarism in the pulpit himself.

The first guideline to avoid being a plagiarizing pastor is simply: acknowledge when you are citing the words of someone else as a corroborating, more experienced or more eloquent witness or authority with specialized knowledge in your preaching and teaching. If possible and appropriate, give the name of the source of a citation, either as as direct quote or paraphrase, and something about who that person is and why what that person said or wrote is relevant.

Even if it somehow does not seem to be appropriate to name a source directly, don’t try to give the impression that you are the real source if  you are in fact echoing the words of someone else. For instance, in my first church, one of the women recognized one of the stories which I used as an illustration was from a devotional booklet she had read. When she asked me, I acknowledged to her that it was the source, and that I took my sermon illustrations from many other sources as well, such as my personal experience and my personal reading of Christian and historical literature.

Of course, it’s hard to give footnotes when a person is preaching and teaching. It is a good idea, though, to indicate that the insight you may be sharing is not specific to you, that it may reflect universal Christian experience, that it may come from others with specialized knowledge in the Biblical languages, history or archaeology, or that it  may simply be stated in words more eloquent than you can formulate. No one expects a pastor to have all possible or available knowledge of the Biblical languages, history, background or theology, or to be the only one who can express something succinctly or aptly. Congregations do expect a pastor to do his preparation for preaching, and for it not to be merely a statement of a pastor’s personal opinions, notions and preferences, but to be based upon the scriptures, to be a reasonable explanation of what the scriptures mean, to reflect universal, realistic and attainable Christian belief and practice, and to be stated in an understandable and attractive way. Being able to point to these kinds of influences can be a tremendous bolster to the credibility of a pastor.

There are also times when a pastor can credibly preach the sermons of others, and if a pastor does this, he should acknowledge that he is using or adapting the sermons of someone else. For instance, Billy Graham preached the classic Jonathan Edwards sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” during the Los Angeles crusades, when he himself was running out of prepared sermons due to the crusade meetings being extended. A seminary professor of mine once memorized and preached the Sermon on the Mount from Matthew 5-7. Moreover, V. Raymond Edman preached some of the sermons of Charles Finney during the Wheaton Revival. They all acknowledged this publicly, though, and there is no indication that their ministries were ever strongly dependent on preaching what others had previously preached or written.

Certainly, then, pastors need to make sure that the majority of their preaching and teaching comes from personal study of the Word of God and preparation time. While others in the body of Christ, and others who have preached and taught the Word of God through the ages may have had a great influence on a pastor, seek to formulate your own sermons and lessons as much as you can from your own study of the Word, prayer and pastoral ministry. In the age of Google there is more material available than ever before. In the past sermon-stealers relied on collections of Charles Haddon Spurgeon’s sermons a lot, and I’ve seen some pastors who were sons of pastors preach their father’s sermons without any acknowledgment. But God  definitely holds the pastor responsible to receive the Word of God personally (James 1:22-25) and handle the Word of God accurately (II Timothy 2:15), and most congregations expect that as well.

Finally, don’t bad mouth someone personally, living or dead, in the pulpit, or through any kind of insinuations, to whom you are indebted for any part of your preaching and teaching. I frankly don’t know how anyone could ever expect God to bless his ministry with conviction and power who does this, but I’ve seen it happen. No one expects a pastor to agree with everything that someone else said and wrote who has been an influence on his preaching and teaching, but it seems that there is something dishonest, hypocritical and even malicious if a pastor takes insights and material from someone else and then disparages, demeans or disdains that person in any way. Scripture says, “Anyone who receives instruction in the word must share all good things with his instructor” (Galatians 6:6) and “Now we ask you, brothers, to respect those who work hard among you, who are over you in the Lord and who admonish you. Hold hem in the highest regard in love because of their work” (I Thessalonians 5:12-13). This would definitely apply to giving due respect to those whose preaching and teaching has been a positive influence on one’s own preaching and teaching.

So, if you are a pastor now, if you were to be in a secular job, would you present a report which someone else had written or to which someone else had contributed as your work alone? If you were to reply no, that that would be dishonest, it’s the same kind of matter with a sermon. To present something that another person has written or spoken, when that person has put in the time and effort to go into the Word and formulate its truth and has communicated it to others, as if it were your work alone is just as dishonest.

What’s In It For ME? Another Neglected Passage in Preaching and Teaching

“Gehazi, the servant of Elisha the man of God, said to himself, ‘My master was too easy on Naaman, this Aramean, by not accepting from him what he brought. As surely as the LORD lives, I will run after him as get something from him’” (II Kings 5:20).

As I was reading this passage yesterday morning, I realized that I had never heard any preaching or teaching on this passage, save possibly once about 22 years ago in a Sunday evening service. I don’t remember even hearing this passage referred to as a scriptural illustration, when another passage is the text of the sermon, though it could well be used as such, or any other passing allusion to it in any preaching and teaching. Yet in this passage there is an account of a man, the assistant to a great prophet, shaking down a new believer for an outrageous contribution to be diverted to his personal account. Is anything more relevant to today than this? Here are some ‘expository thoughts’ on how this passage could be used in preaching and teaching.

First, there is a great contrast of Gehazi the Israelite assistant of Elisha against Naaman the Aramean warrior general. It could well be said that Gehazi was the practical pagan in this situation, while Naaman was everything that Gehazi as an Israelite should have been. Gehazi was in this situation the man of unbelief and disobedience, though he had lived in proximity to Elisha the man of God. Though he saw the reality and power of the God of Israel through the ministry of Elisha, and probably through the ministry of Elisha’s mentor Elijah, little of their faith and obedience influenced his actions in this situation. Yet Naaman became the man of faith and obedience in this situation, though his pedigree as an Aramean and his background as a pagan would seem to have predicted differently. Naaman had been marked by his past as being distant from the things of God, but became someone who received the grace of God by the obedience of faith as demonstrated in this passage.

Second, this passage shows what really happens with what some may excuse as ‘white lies’ (who’s it really going to hurt?) and their consequences. Gehazi told a big lie to Naaman when he passed on a message purportedly from Elisha (II Kings 5:22). He then told a big lie to Elisha when he denied running after Naaman to shake him down for a contribution (II Kings 5:25). This passage shows a common pattern of lying, of telling a lie to defraud and another lie to cover the first lie. There are some passages in scripture where the lies of people of faith are simply reported without condemnation, though they are not held up as something for believers to imitate or to excuse the deliberate lies of believers. Another passage which shows the casual, sanctimonious lie and its consequence is the lie of the old prophet to the young prophet in I Kings 13:19, or the lies of Abraham, Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah (Genesis 12:13, 18, 20:2 and 26:7).

Third, this passage is an egregious example of someone trying to make a profit or get a commission from the grace of God – something Paul described as making merchandise of the gospel (II Corinthians 2:17). Here Gehazi is pursuing personal profit with a false religious veneer – the great temptation of those who handle material things and money in the church of Jesus Christ. Elisha rebuked this seeking after rich clothes to make himself look good and money to invest in real estate and in a good life for himself (II Kings 5:26). He seemed to have an underlying attitude of entitlement, that “I’m entitled to what was given to God.” This passage could therefore be brought in as a Biblical illustration for passages such as I Timothy 6:3-10, where Paul wrote about people who think that “ . . . godliness is a means to financial gain” (I Timothy 6:5).

Smaller profits, but with the same grasping tendency, come with the much underreported and much under-rebuked sins of church pilfering. It’s worth noting that Judas, as the treasurer of the disciples, was often dipping into the till (John 12:4-6), and got the other disciples worked up when his motive was to get some for himself.  While I don’t wish to dwell on the sins of my brothers and sisters, I do believe that many believers are spiritually stymied because they have allowed money and items given for the work of God to stick to their fingers when they passed through their stewardship; like Achan, they saw something that they felt that they needed or wanted and grabbed it out of what had been devoted to God (Joshua 5:20-21). For example, Jim Cymbala, in his book Fresh Wind, Fresh Fire reported that there were these kinds of problems in his small church, such as pilfering from the offering by church officers, before revival struck. I think that it does bear asking church leaders and church members whether there are things in their possession which were never given to them, such as church library books and hymnals, or which were given for other purposes, or whether they have misused finances for their own advantage, or even had done such things as use church telephones to make personal long distance calls. Certainly confession and financial restitution when this has happened has often been a mark of genuine revival. Even more, it’s a good reason to make sure that ushers and church treasurers are being honest with the offering, particularly where there are cash contributions, and that there is no pilfering or misdirection to personal needs money and items given to God.

Next, this passage shows someone who was close to a genuine man of God taking advantage of someone else because of prejudice against that person. Gehazi very definitely saw Naaman’s pedigree as an Aramean as the basis that he was someone whom he could rightly take advantage of. Apparently he thought that Naaman deserved to be taken advantage of because he was from a different nation and a pagan background. Yet Naaman became practically an Israelite in faith because of his newfound devotion to the God of Israel, and shaking him down for a contribution was at least as bad as defrauding a fellow Israelite.

This passage also shows an egregious example also of taking advantage of someone who has experienced the grace of God and whose generosity was motivated by love and gratitude to God. It’s hard to find any words to describe how reprehensible, wicked and hypocritical it is for anyone – especially someone who might be in church leadership and has to stand before others in the church in a position of preaching and teaching — to see someone else’s love to God as a an opportunity to manipulate and exploit that person. It’s hard to see how there can be any love to God in a heart which sees someone else who has come into a fresh and life changing experience of the grace of God as a chump and patsy, as someone who is gullible and exploitable upon any kind of false pretext.

Next, this passage also shows Gehazi taking advantage of someone else who had abundance by fraud. Of course Naaman had more than he needed because of his position and authority. Of course he would never miss what he actually gave to Gehazi. But these definitely did not excuse his spiritualized fraud. The law of Israel had forbidden theft by fraud, and this passage definitely contradicts any excuse that it might be justified because the person defrauded will never miss it. This shows another pattern of defrauding that happens among the people of God – seeking personal gain at someone else’s expense. In fact, a whole scriptural pattern of defrauding could be summed up in the phrase seeking personal gain – money, prestige and reputation primarily – at the expense of someone else – theft through lies rather than through force and intimidation. In contrast, for all his faults, Abraham would not allow himself to be prospered at someone else’s expense (Genesis 14:23).

Even more, this passage shows that Gehazi had been following not the standard not of godliness in all things, big and small. His position as the servant of Elijah may well have been as his apprentice for future ministry, as his possible successor, as Elisha had been to Elijah and Joshua had been to Moses. Yet this passage reveals that his standard of righteousness was anything that he thought that he could get away with was all right. This standard of unfaithfulness in matters of honesty and obedience in matters both large and small has doubtless been the beginning of the shipwreck of many ministers and many promising leaders in the church. It is in contradiction to the explicit expectations of Jesus himself: “Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with very much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with very much. So if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches? And if you have not been trustworthy with someone else’s property, who will give you property of your own? No servant can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money” (Luke 16:10-13 – when was the last time you heard this passage mentioned in preaching and teaching? ).

Finally, Gehazi was marked with the disease that Naaman had had previously. This was the mark of the disease of his soul and the discipline of God upon his life. While certainly many brothers and sisters in Christ have often jumped to harsh judgments about the causes of hardships in the lives of other believers, nevertheless hardship is a time to ask God to search one’s own heart and life (Psalm 19:14 and 139:23-24, Hebrews 12:7-11). This application of the passage is not intended to be the basis of a self righteous judgment that someone could stand up and thunder down on another believer, in contradiction to Matthew 7:1-10, but rather as an application of the passage that each believer should search out in his or her own heart and life when under hardship that could reasonably be the discipline of God.

I think that too often believers themselves do not consider that the source of their hardships may be the discipline of God. In my personal reading, I’ve started back in with The Gulag Archipelago, and it’s noteworthy how Alexsandr Solzhenitsyn wrote about how he came to this practice in his own life, on the advice of a fellow convict in the Soviet gulags. He noted with apparent deep regret how the conduct of the backstabber that led to his own imprisonment was not that different than his own exploitation of his position as an officer before he was arrested. He noted how many times afflictions do seem to replicate the sins that we ourselves have committed. “You know what commands we gave you through the Lord Jesus. This is the will of God, your sanctification . . . not to transgress and act out of greed in a practical matter toward one’s brother, because the Lord is the avenger of all these things . . . “ (I Thessalonians 4:2-3, 6 – Dale’s sight translation). It’s worth consideration, then, how many of the hardships we may have may come from incidents where we might have acted like Gehazi, with lies, greed, self aggrandizement and self indulgence, and God is allowing us to experience the consequences of our own sins. Many times our disappointments are well deserved, if we look at our own conduct first. Our own confession and restitution is the scriptural response when we realize this.

A pastor who preaches on this passage and applies it might reasonably expect to step on some toes in some congregations. It’s therefore reasonable for the pastor to draw the application but do it in a way that avoids pointing a finger at someone, especially if you know of real life cases of people in the congregation who have acted like Gehazi in one way or another. This realization should then drive the pastor to prayer so that he may be bathed in the love, wisdom and power of the Holy Spirit, so he would preach and teach on this passage as if he were Jesus Christ himself opening up this passage to his congregation.

All scripture references taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION, copyright 1973, 1978 by the International Bible Society and used by permission of Zondervan Bible Publishers.

Neglected Passages in Preaching and Teaching: Philippians 1:27-30

There was a time when I heard yet one more preacher on the radio bring up the case of the woman at the well from John 4, and I groaned inwardly when I heard him start yet another take on this incident. It seems to me like many pastors nowadays overuse this passage to make some point. Shortly thereafter I came up with a list of passages that I think would wake many congregations up with a start, as they would say to themselves, “I’ve never heard anyone preach on that before!”

One of those passages is Philippians 1:27-30: “Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. Then, whether I come and se you or only hear about you in my absence, I will know that you stand firm, in one spirit, contending as one man for the faith of the gospel without being frightened in any way by those who oppose you. This is a sign to them that they will be destroyed, but that you will be saved – and that by God. For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him, since you are now going through the same struggle that you saw I had, and now hear that I still have.”

I’ve only heard a pastor preach on this passage once in my life, and it was at my explicit suggestion. Yet it is very germane to the current situation in which believers find themselves in a postmodern, often explicitly anti-Christian culture nowadays. It’s more important to believers to stand together for the gospel now than ever before in my lifetime. Intimidation, marginalization and vilification are the tactics more than logical argument than ever before. And it’s about time that Christians stood together for the truth of the gospel more than ever before.

This passage also brings to light the reality that suffering for Christ, in terms of suffering rejection, legal harassment, injustice and even martyrdom, is part and parcel of following Christ. One of the extraordinarily strange things, in light of all that the New Testament says about persecution by rejection, slander, ostracism and rejection by multiple authors, is that believers in our day seem to think that any believer who is being given a hard time by unbelievers has something wrong which they are responsible to fix – in other words, the believer who does not fit in with the world without Christ is a fix-it project for other believers. The New Testament is firm that the opposite is true – that it is the world without Christ which is wrong in the first place. And the believer who is being given a hard time by the non-believers in his or her life is more likely doing something right – following Christ — than something wrong.

All scripture references taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION, copyright 1973, 1978 by the International Bible Society and used by permission of Zondervan Bible Publishers.

Three Questions for Each Sermon

In listening to a number of sermons from other preachers over the years, I think that many of them could be improved markedly by asking three questions during preparation. Most certainly these questions are the kinds of inquiries that are going through the minds of the congregation as they listen. Many listeners are more sophisticated about the preaching that they hear and the interpretation of the passage than many pastors understand, and they are more sensitive to when a passage is being misinterpreted or misapplied than many pastors realize. Many are also left feeling empty when the sermon is overly academic, more in the manner of a Bible school lecture.

“So what?”

What is the significance of the passage for a modern day believer? Why should I care here in the twenty first century what was being said or done in this Biblical passage which is the subject of the sermon?

The sermon needs to go beyond any academic background on the passage and deal with its timeless theological significance and its current application. Too many preachers get stuck in the background and do not go on to tell what the passage teaches us about the God of the Bible, the salvation he has provided, and what it means to me today. The impression that this gives is that the preacher has spent more time in learning about the Bible and too little time in learning how to live the Bible. The sermon comes off more as an academic lecture than a heart felt exhortation to trust and obey God and follow his Word.

This problem tends to happen more with pastors who preach through a whole book at a time. What comes up on the preaching schedule for next week’s sermon is the next passage in order in the book. The problem with this approach comes when the passage does not enter into the pastor’s life significantly enough to be able to bring out much more than an academic lecture. In this case the pastor would do best to do a lot of praying over the passage and seek to get what God is saying through the passage much more beyond the background and interpretation. It’s a good rule of thumb that each sermon needs to be preached by the preacher to himself and through himself before he preaches it to the congregation.

It needs to be said that preaching through a whole book at a time is a comparatively recent practice in preaching. As far as I can tell, it was practically unknown in evangelical circles until the 1950’s. It does leave the preacher and the congregation with a definite expectation of what will be the subject of the sermon from one week to the next. It does leave a sense of continuity between one sermon and the next. I don’t think that it necessarily tends to build a more Biblically literate congregation, though. What would tend to build a more Biblically literate congregation from the pulpit tends to be a greater demonstration of accurate interpretation and reasonable and workable application of the Bible during the sermon. But a stronger Sunday School for adults and children and small group Bible studies in conjunction with Biblical preaching from the pulpit tend to build a Biblically literate congregation.

“How can you say that?”

What is the basis for your interpretation and application of the passage that you’re preaching on? How did you come to that conclusion?

The more sophisticated listeners, especially those with a modern study Bible, are sensitive to when a sermon takes a passage out of its immediate context, its context in the Bible as a whole and its context in terms of its linguistic and historical background. Many can pick up on the non-sequiturs of misinterpretation of a passage. The problem with this approach is that the hearers understand instinctively that a misinterpreted passage of scripture does not command their belief, trust and obedience. Misinterpretations from the pulpit leave them with little profit from the sermon and a diminished view of the scholarship, if not the character, of the preacher.

I would encourage pastors to read or re-read a work on interpreting scripture at least once per year. One which I recommend is D. A. Carson’s Exegetical Fallacies. James Sire’s Scripture Twisting is another which I would recommend. It’s directed against the cults but there are a number of their methods that evangelicals fall into when they misinterpret scripture. For example, one of the most common ways in which pastors misinterpret scripture in the pulpit is overspecification. This is where a passage is made to say much more than it actually says. The cults do this very often to support their doctrines, and congregations instinctively understand when this overreaching of the passage takes place.

It’s a good idea to give sufficient basis for the interpretation of the passage in the sermon. Make your case for why you believe it means what you say it means. This does not have to be long, but it can be made brief and accurate. I personally avoid going into Greek and Hebrew beyond saying things like that the passage can be better translated in such and such a way, or that the original language has such and such an implication. That way, the congregation can understand the scriptural basis for living out the application of the passage that the pastor gives.

“Who are you talking about?”

One of the difficulties in applying the scripture is that it can become the pastor taking surreptitious potshots at individuals within the congregation. There are times that I could tell by the descriptions given which individuals the pastor was addressing. Sometimes when congregations see this tendency in the pastor they can tell who has irritated the pastor in the past week or so, or they can tell which individual or individual the pastor is addressing. This in turn grieves the people in the congregation that see this happening, and diminishes their opinion of the character of the pastor who does this. C.H. Spurgeon once mentioned that the pulpit in his day for pastors who did this was called the “Coward’s Castle.”

The best way to address this is to write out the application of a scripture beforehand and avoid trying to improvise it from the pulpit. This will avoid this kind of ‘emotional leakage’ of personal irritations during the sermon. Also be sure to address individual problems with individuals in the congregation outside the pulpit. Use the time in the sermon to feed, correct, and instruct the whole flock and not to go after one individual sheep. Usually, when a pastor does this, the application of a passage will apply to other believers and other churches, and the pastor can preach the same sermon in other churches with the same blessing without having to rewrite the application for each congregation.