Litton
The Rev. Ed Litton speaks during a news conference after his election as the next president of the Southern Baptist Convention, June 15, 2021, in Nashville, Tennessee. (RNS photo: Kit Doyle)

Ed Litton, Plagiarism, and Sermons for Sale

By Julie Roys

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.”

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.”

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.

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34 thoughts on “Ed Litton, Plagiarism, and Sermons for Sale”

  1. Litton did not just use “portions” of a sermon. He plagiarized the entire series right down to the personal illustrations!! Changing the names to protect the guilty! As well his associate Pastor who did the same!

    This is sin plain and simple. Thus far seminary presidents have not responded leading me to believe they now accept this despicable behavior! Students can fail classes and be expelled for plagiarism. So what has changed?

    There is nothing more beautiful than wrestling with God’s Holy Word and to hear what the Spirit says through it.

    I call for all to repent! Litton should resign as SBC President and from his pulpit for the deceit he has fostered to his congregation. He is a fraud.

    1. I commented down below. As an SBCer I am sick about this and it is much much bigger than others are trying to say.

  2. The backlash from this is almost laughable. Preachers do this all of the time. Now, the piece on “borrowing personal illustrations” and not giving credit to the original author is a bit concerning. However, the hypocrisy demonstrated in this is concerning even the more.

    1. There is a massive disconnect between Julie/readers and what a pastor does. It’s sad really. They’re saying a lot of tough things in harsh ways without having the slightest idea of what they’re dealing with. The spirit of divisiveness is disappointing.

  3. Some years ago I attended a church where, on occasion, the pastor told the congregation he was “preaching another pastor’s sermon.” He did this because he found the sermon message, illustrations, etc., excellent in conveying a message he, my pastor, thought important. He did this rarely and I thought, and still think, it was ok, because he was upfront about it.

    However, if this was his common approach I would have considered him lazy. And, if he hadn’t attributed the sermon to the author, it would have been unethical.

  4. Crystal L Brooks

    If Pastors are putting the sermons online for other pastors to use, then why is it an issue? They are really good. Sometimes it’s just great to read in order to get your own juices flowing. What I am not seeing is JD Greear having a heart attack over it. Ed Litton did get Greear’s permission to use it even though Litton failed to mention that fact to his congregation. Did he commit the unforgivable sin here? In light of everything going on in the world and church, is this really that important? He apologized. The sermons were removed. Can we move on from this?

    1. Cathie Boucher

      No, we should not move on from Litton’s plagiarism. He is a fraud. He is a hypocrite. The pastors selling and buying sermons are a disgrace to the name of our God who calls us to be holy as he is holy. The American church is corrupt and it’s phony “prophets and priests” are proof of it, and those of us who have approved and supported them need to repent.

      1. As a pastor, I am to be about the business of the Word and prayer according to Acts 6:4. If I went to a large church, or any church, I would expect sermons from that pastor’s personal, prayerful study. We are not paying you to be CEO’s.

      2. The real issue is the whole “sermon for hire” business that has arrived in the past couple of decades. With pastors seeing themselves as CEO’s instead of shepherds, it isn’t shocking to see them “outsource” this responsibility to a sub-assistant intern or now to a third party.

    2. A pastor should baptize himself in the Word in order to hear PERSONALLY what the Lord is telling him and the people he shepherds.

      Finding another’s sermon to preach does not accomplish the work God desires to do through the pastor to the church!

      He must “search the Scriptures…” in so doing his preaching is consistant, unwavering, and completely the Word for those he has been given charge over. Otherwise he is lying, stealing, cheating, and most of all dishonoring his calling.

      Sermons are shared on line for edification not for reproducing.

      Any seminary student would have been dismissed for such actions. Where is the outcry from our seminary presidents?

    3. Barbara Bates

      It doesn’t matter if the author of the original sermon gave permission. It doesn’t matter if “everyone” is doing it. Besides being unethical, it robs the pastor and the congregation of a true Holy Spirit inspired sermon. I say it robs the pastor because his growth will be stunted and it will be harder to get back to wrestling over scripture and praying through it.

      Did he commit the unforgivable sin? Of course not. Is this really “that important?” Yes. “Moving on” from sin is why repentance needs to begin in the church before it moves to the nation at large. Pastors and leaders are held to a higher standard. If he doesn’t resign, he should at least step back from preaching for a while. This will be good not only for the congregation, but for the pastor as well.

    4. Greg Brenneman

      We do not allow our students in schools to get their term papers this way, it is called cheating. We were on a call today with a provider of online curriculum for Christian schools, and they use a plagiarism checker (Turn It In) (also commonly used in PUBLIC schools) on work turned in to the online teacher.

      The large state university I spent my career with termed plagiarism of research data and papers to be Academic Misconduct, which in extreme cases could lead to dismissal of the faculty member.

      I sure would like someone to explain to me why pastors find this cheating OK because it is a “ministry resource”.
      Why should our spiritual leaders have lower standards than public schools and state universities?

      Getting an idea for a fresh approach is one thing, using someone else’s sermon as your own is DISHONEST!
      This practice is way more common than many realize.

  5. This is a moral failure on Litton’s part. Certainly not anything close to resembling being above reproach. In addition, he admitted to publicly lying about how long he spends on his sermon prep. Disqualified.

  6. James Lutzweiler

    Dear Posters and all,

    It is mind-boggling that anyone academically trained and old enough to preach a sermon doesn’t know what plagiarism is. Lifter Litton has done well to apologize but has projected badly on his homiletics professor or whoever else trained him.

    For another fascinating story about plagiarism, see my open letter to pastor Brandon Ware (a/k/a “B. Ware” —and for good reason) of Green Street Baptist Church in High Point, North Carolina, about his theft of some Baptist blarney from Br’er John MacArthur. For a copy of the letter, simply send me an email request at [email protected] and it shall be done unto you.

    Or see my book entitled On Keeping My Mouth Shut in Sunday School (Wipf and Stock, 2020) about B. Ware’s fascinating theft of a story involving Tennessee Williams and Leo Tolstoy. However, Ware’s elders don’t seem to mind. I am not even sure they know what plagiarism is.

    As for J.D. Greear, for a marvelous belly laugh and then sorrow, chase down this stand-up comic’s passing as true an urban myth about some Russians pushing a live cow out of their airplane and its landing on and overturning a Japanese fishing boat! He peddled it one day in chapel at Southeastern Baptist Seminary where occasionally even it’s current president passes gaspel.

    For Christ and His Kingdom,

    James Lutzweiler
    Archivist (1999–2013), Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary

    1. Wait, do you think that Pastor Litton has truly apologized? What about the content of that load of junk? I heard Greear first say it in Oct. 2014 at an ERLC conference when I too wanted to “please the world.” There is no true brokenness or humbled spirit here. Kevin De Young and Robert Gagnon have done an excellent job in responding to the content while Dr. Mohler in 2006 on The Briefing, had an excellent interview on plagiarism and its seriousness. These men have no one, no one, holding them accountable to be truly God honoring. As an SBCer I am devastated. But shame on me that I had had these men on a pedestal for so long. God says , “you shall have no other Gods before me…”. I had made Greeear, Akin, the whole bunch my idols. Now, they all came tumbling down. God’s grace for my sin.

  7. Julie, this article is disappointing to say the least. So much more could have been covered here – like links to DA Carson’s article on this a few years ago, a link to a great article on plagiarism on the TGC this past Autumn, Tony Reinke as he summed up Dr. Piper’s thoughts on this and of course Dr. Mohler’s interview from 2006 on The Briefing with a prof from SBTS. All of these men do not mince words on the seriousness of this issue. Also, it is a use of a “logical fallacy” to say that most of us upset about this are Mike Stone supporters. Not true at all. We are SBC members who are shocked and sickened by the attitudes, words and behaviors of men throughout the SBC, including seminary presidents and former SBC presidents and others. Also, for many of us, it is not the plagiarism only – the content of what Greear preached (actually he first said this in Oct. of 2014 at a conference) and then used by Litton and others, is what has us blown away and angry. Kevin DeYoung and Professor Robert Gagnon focused on this – God does not whisper about sexual sin (see also Sodom and Gomorrah). I was hoping you would write about this as you have other things like Greear’s hiring of Bryan Loritts or Chandler and the Acts 29 mess as this told me you did not care if you pleased “the popular crowd” whom I used to follow weekly. What Litton did and now how he is handling it is exactly what you have been talking about for years – men not admitting to sin but trying to deflect. This is why we could follow you. Now you seem to have bought into a world view among churches that is man pleasing and not Biblical. Please write more on this – like the silence of the seminary presidents (Jason Allen just sort of kind of touched on this) and why would the SBC be afraid of the VP, Lee Brand, a man of color, stepping up to be president of the SBC?
    As I said, please reconsider doing this article without mentioning “outside” groups like Sermon Central or Mike Stone or anyone else. Stick to the issues like “wrong doing, the covering of sin, stretching the truth, logical fallacies and silence over sinful practices.” The SBC is in enough trouble. They need journalists to help them and not to continue walking in lies.

  8. You can get 180 of Dwight L. Moody’s sermons on kindle for $1.99. Martin Lloyd Jones’ has several sermons available for free. Charles Spurgeon’s multiple volumes of sermons are available for free. There is a caveat though. Proper attribution is required.

    I understand that pastors have too much to do, and the pressure to come up with something engaging, funny and therapeutic every week has to be an onerous burden. Since it’s now common practice to purchase Spirit filled messages from God’s Word, boom…solved it! Just start out with, hey brothers and sisters in Christ, I didn’t write this, but it’s so good I’m going to read it to you today. You should also know that we might go a little long. I promise it’ll be worth it. I would be willing to bet that the worst from any of the preachers above is better than the best a sermon vending machine has to offer.

    1. Who says pastors are to be “funny and therapeutic”? They are neither stand-up comedians nor therapists! They are to preach the Word in season and out.

      1. I agree with you 100 percent. I was being facetious as it seems so many sermons today are a hybrid between stand-up and therapy sessions. Actual preaching of the Word doesn’t seem to be the norm in many churches. And apparently thousands of pastors are acting like Simon the sorcerer did in Acts and trying to buy the Holy Spirit.

  9. Its quite clear, plagiarism is stealing. Sin is sin. Lets have the courage to call a spade a spade.

  10. James 4:17 (ESV): “So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.”

  11. Simple plagiarism is not the only issue here. One should notice whom Ed Litton used as his source, the outgoing president of the SBC. Ed Litton is a puppet.

    Pastors with concerning behavior frequently are cowardly people pleasers, refraining from saying or doing unpopular things from the Word that might negatively impact their position or book sales. Have they no fear of the Lord?

    To those who serve God first despite the consequences, this promise applies: The angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear him, and delivers them. (Ps 34:7)

  12. What happened to “Thou shall not steal?” Making an idol out of passively listening to sermons that tickle our ears has made the whole of the body lazy. We have replaced discipleship and service that is primarily outside of the church we attend with paying someone to entertain us. This is what we get. The whole of the body of Christ needs to repent. This is a symptom of us wanting to hire someone else to do what we ourselves should be doing. Doing good deeds have been replaced by throwing money at problems hoping they go away. In doing so we are elevating narcissists who appeal to our own flesh. The early Christians paid a high cost personally with actually following Christ. We have no interest in that kind of personal sacrifice so we have replaced real Christianity with something that is light, easy and ever so extremely fake! And we act shocked whenever we get a glimpse of what the reality actually is?

  13. George Arthur

    Isn’t using other pastor’s sermons just plain old laziness? Is that what they go to seminary for?

  14. While I do not believe Mr. Litton should resign, plagiarism is a serious issue amongst evangelicals. I am sure if you were found out plagiarizing sermons in seminary training, at the very least, you would get an F and a good talking to. Our standards are lower than the secular world and it is a shame to the Church. It is a sign of laziness. The Sunday Sermon is supposed to be the crowning jewel of the week. Maybe I am just used to solid, insightful, meaningful local sermons for the local congregation. Not to be mean spirited, but even the borrowing is not well thought out. There seems to be a large segment of the Evangelical church that believes it is OK to plagiarize, keep abuse hidden, use fake credentials, and build ones own brand. God help us.

    1. Vance, “The Sunday Sermon is supposed to be the crowning jewel of the week.” You have surely spoken the truth of how we have turned this thing into the Great Idol. Worshiping a risen Jesus Christ is supposed to be the crowning jewel of every week, not getting entertained by speeches that are often either stolen or just plain bad. So this is what Jesus died for, so we could be entertained by good sermons?

  15. Why the uproar about this now? The timing seems very suspicious. This stuff has been going on forever. Seems to me a plan to oust him and put someone in from the side that lost the recent election.

  16. These guys are frauds and the content of their messages are grossly deficient. Where is the sense of the Holiness of God.? Where is the Christ centeredness.? Where the majesty of Christ that causes hearts to respond in adoration and worship.? Where is the proclaimation of the thrice Holy God , that causes sinners to confess _ I am undone.?

  17. Larry Statten

    I would rather have 52 lay church members each take a turn to preach their personal sermon once on a Sunday than ever hear a paid, professional pastor plagiarize any sermon ever.

    Because pastors who act like busy CEO’s who are called to give a paid presentation on a Sunday are not acting biblically.

    1. There are churches that do just that, among them the branch of the Churches of Christ who do not believe in a “located pastor” but instead rotate the duties among multiple elders.

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