Since newly elected Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) President Ed Litton apologized for using portions of a sermon by J.D. Greear without attribution, preachers and plagiarism have become a hot topic of conversation.
The controversy began about a week ago, when a video posted on YouTube showed Litton had preached a sermon on Romans that borrowed main points, and even personal illustrations, from a sermon by J.D. Greear, Litton’s predecessor as SBC president. Litton’s Redemption Church then removed all Litton’s sermons on Romans from its website, as well as more than 140 sermons from the church’s YouTube account.
The backlash was virulent, especially among supporters of Litton’s former challenger for SBC President—Pastor Mike Stone.
Tom Ascol, director of Founders Ministries, tweeted: “All you defenders of @EdLitton – if you truly love him, encourage him to get off this God-dishonoring road. May God have mercy on him & his church.”
— "Out of order" Tom @tomascol (@tomascol) June 29, 2021
Other Litton critics launched a petition, demanding that Litton resign. To date, that petition has about 550 signatures.
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Yet it appears Litton’s practice of using other people’s sermons is surprisingly common. So is the practice of offering one’s sermons for use—something both Mike Stone and J.D. Greear have done.
Stone’s and Greear’s sermons are available on SermonSearch.com, which says it offers 30,000+ outlines and 10,000+ free sermon illustrations from top Christian pastors and communicators. Other contributors at SermonSearch.com include Craig Groeschel, Rick Warren, Andy Stanley, and Wayne Cordeiro.
According to Outreach Media Group, SermonCentral.com has more than a million monthly visitors and more than ten million monthly pageviews. The site offers free resources, as well as a subscription plan that provides additional sermon illustrations and videos.
“You’ll write powerful and fresh messages every week with our preparation tools on a number of sermon topics, including expository preaching,” the site boasts.
SermonCentral.com says its site can help pastors research and write better sermons through “gleaning.” But it also warns that the practice can “lead to laziness” and “generic sermons”; “shortchange your personal conviction that comes with struggling over a passage”; and “tempt you to take false credit for a sermon.”
SermonCentral also has a “Statement On Plagiarism,” which the site says it adamantly opposes. But apparently some users overlook it.
The whole practice has proved a bit much for SBC pastor Joe Thorn, lead pastor of Redeemer Fellowship in St. Charles, Illinois. He tweeted, “So, some people share their sermons (like Greear) for others to use. Some people preach those sermons as their own (like Litton). And, am I reading this right— some sell their sermon series for $449.25 for you to use (like Mike Stone). It’s all madness.”
So, some people share their sermons (like Greear) for others to use. Some people preach those sermons as their own (like Litton). And, am I reading this right— some sell their sermon series for $449.25 for you to use (like Mike Stone). It's all madness. https://t.co/TkiJFE7cbv
— Joe Thorn (@joethorn) July 4, 2021
The brouhaha in the SBC isn’t the first time plagiarism and/or borrowed sermons has been an issue for well-known pastors. Other documented cases of plagiarism have involved disgraced celebrity preacher Mark Driscoll, Rev. Bill Shillady (Hillary Clinton’s longtime pastor), and Michigan pastor Zach Stewart. Some pastors even self-publish books that plagiarize the work of others.
Theologian Scot McKnight of Northern Baptist Theological Seminary identified sermon theft as “a pastoral issue” because “people listening think what you have to say is yours unless you tell them otherwise.”
McKnight says sermons should be more than mere content, writing: “It’s a whole life brought to bear on a text each week for a single 30 minute or so sermon before a specific congregation. It shames the preacher not to be who he or she is in the pulpit, and to pretend to be someone else.”
He added that when a pastor borrows another pastor’s sermon but doesn’t let the congregation know, he turns the sermon “into a canned, deceitful act of creating a false image in front of God’s people.”
Some SBC pastors agree with McKnight’s view on plagiarism, yet still believe Litton should remain in office.
Bart Barber, an SBC pastor from Texas and a member of the SBC Executive Committee, tweeted that he while he disagrees with Ed Litton’s “approach to preaching,” which he likens to “sermon-by-committee,” he doesn’t believe Litton should resign.
“Litton has not transgressed the Baptist Faith & Message, nor has he committed any malfeasance of his office,” Barber said. “If he were outside the boundaries of our statement of faith or if he were abusing the power of his office, I would call for him to resign. He is not.”
Michael Cox, senior pastor of First Baptist Church Pryor in Pryor, Oklahoma, disagreed. “It is phony, intellectually dishonest, and prideful, which all call into question the character of the perpetrator as being below reproach, not above it,” he tweeted.
And so, the debate continues. But at this point, Litton appears to be weathering the storm—as is SermonCentral.
Steve Rabey contributed to this report.