Southern Baptist president, Ed Litton’s sermongate has brought to the attention of many the industry behind pastor messages. In addition to companies like Docent Research Group, there are websites you can go to to buy and sell sermons. Plagiarism is an academic term used to describe a specific kind of theft. But theft is only an issue if the material was stolen as opposed to purchased. So what moral issues are there for pastors who sell there sermons?
Among the pastors who sell there sermons include Mike Stone, the pastor who Ed Litton defeated in the Southern Baptist president race. I have seen tweets that tried to draw a sort of moral equivalency between the two as though this is a drug dealer and junkie relationship. But such an analogy does not hold up.
A drug dealer knows that the heroin they are dealing is going to be used to feed an addiction. A pastor does not necessarily know that the person buying their manuscript is going to preach it verbatim. A pastor does not necessarily know that the buyer is even a pastor, as a laymen could purchase a sermon manuscript if they wanted to. While sermons are archived in video format on platforms such as YouTube and Sermon Audio, perhaps buying a manuscript is akin to buying a vinyl record of a contemporary band to go alongside your collection of classics like Charles Spurgeon or Jonathan Edwards.
So because their are benign uses for buying sermons, there must also be benign motives for selling them. A pastor could have really appreciated a sermon that another gave on a particularly difficult passage of Scripture. Are they in sin for purchasing a manuscript for their own sermon preparation process?
We must be careful not to be too dogmatic about the issue of this industry. The issue is not the existence of a cottage industry of buying and selling sermons. The issue is that this industry is a response to prevalent sins in our pulpits. Theft is one issue that this industry actually aims to resolve. But there is still the false witness of passing off other’s ideas and work as your own. Perhaps most importantly is how this calls into question a pastor’s ability to teach. The ability to teach is one of the most important and most obvious qualifications for being a pastor (1 Timothy 3:1-7).
We must keep the main issues the main issue when we address this issue, rather than getting bogged down in terms, like plagiarism, that distract from the core and other logical red herrings that call out “sin” where it does not exist.