I was listening to a message not long ago and was amazed at the quality of the organized outline and presentation. It was way better than anything I’d heard the man preach before. I had a small suspicion growing in my mind. So, I wrote down a few key phrases from the outline and later entered them in the magic machine called Google. Lo and behold, the original author of the message was a man named Criswell – I think there is a college somewhere named after him. Basically, he read the sermon word for word. It was not a case of using someone else’s outline and “making it his own.” Nope. It was a man standing in the pulpit reading almost verbatim a sermon posted to the internets by a man who got it from WA himself.
Is this ethical?
Let me point out for the record that I have never borrowed another man’s toothbrush, his underwear, or in 30+ years of preaching, used another man’s sermon. I’ve not used another preacher’s sermon outline. Never. It’s just not something I’ve done. I have used snippets, quotes, phrases, etc, but never a sermon or outline. For good or ill, I preach like Dave Miller, no one else. Since it is never something I have done or would consider doing, I found it really strange when I realized what had been done. But, just because I wouldn’t do it, does that mean no one should? Is it wrong?
1) Sermon websites exist for this purpose, don’t they? People put sermons up there to be shared, do they not? It wasn’t like he stole the sermon. He received a gift shared by another pastor.
I did my first wedding about 30 years ago. After the wedding, a young man who was getting married a few months later came to me and said he liked the wedding and wondered if he could get the notes to have the pastor use some of the ideas in his upcoming nuptials. I was cool with it. A while later, I attended the wedding, and as it happened, I was there with the newlyweds whose service I had done. About half way through the service, I leaned over to Steve and said, “Does this sound familiar to you?” The pastor was reading my sermon word for word, only (and fortunately) changing the names. (Note: Steve and his wife had no clue – don’t kid yourselves, guys, they never hear your wedding sermons!).
I have to admit I was a little bit annoyed. I wanted to ask for half of the honorarium since I did the bulk of the work.
But the pastor I heard recently didn’t steal anyone’s message. He took one that was shared on a website. Is there a difference?
2) The people listening to that message heard a much better message than they’d have heard if the speaker had done it all himself.
If the speaker happens to read this, I hope he will not be offended if I say that WA Criswell is a much better preacher than he is. WA’s sermon was a better sermon than this guy could have come up with on his own. Our goal as pastors is to communicate truth. This man was more effective communicating truth that day by using a pre-prepared sermon than he would have been had he done it on his own.
So, do the ends justify the means here?
3) Absolutely no word was given by the speaker giving credit to anyone else for the message.
That would seem to be the key issue to me. I’m never going to use a sermon off the internet, a borrowed sermon, but I think that if you do, you ought to give credit where credit is due. The word plagiarism comes to mind here. If it hadn’t been for Google, I’d have never known.
4) No dollars were lost in the performance of this message.
I am a preacher of God’s Word – it is his, not mine. I’ve had people ask to use things I’ve written and I’ve always (happily) said yes. With a couple of guys, knowing their line of work, I reminded them that they could not copyright those materials and that if they were going to profit from them, they probably ought to remember ol’ Dave. (One guy ran a sort of online Bible school). But if I am preaching the Word of God, do I really own my material? That’s a tough issue for me. If I ever manage to get a publisher to read one of my books and publish it, I’d want copyright laws to be obeyed. I’d be a little ticked if someone took one of my books and published it under his name (especially if it actually sold a few copies!).
But this is an old sermon from a pastor from long ago who has been with Jesus since some of the whippersnappers who blog out there were still in diapers (well, close anyway). It’s been passed around like the flu in February.
Does that make a difference?
Here’s my point. I witnessed something that I have never done and would never do. That’s just not how I preach. But this pastor did it. Was it wrong? Was it unethical? Are there hard and fast rules here?