“Therefore, behold, I am against the prophets, declares the Lord, who steal my words from one another. ” Jer. 23:30
I have said it before (over and over and over), but I’ll say it again.
Plagiarism is a moral and ethical scourge. It’s lying, it’s stealing, and it’s a lowbrow act of unnecessary deception. Plagiarists shred their own reputations for life and destroy the trust of others. Plagiarists rightly have lost their jobs in academia and journalism. And given the stricter judgment of God incurred by ministers of the gospel, how much more should plagiarizing pastors lose their jobs?
Unfortunately, evangelicals have a terrible recent history of tolerating plagiarizing pastors. For example, you can click here to read how much this frustrated me back in 2014, just before plagiarizing Pastor Mark Driscoll finally was forced out of Mars Hill Church — for other sins.
I always thought, and still think, Driscoll should have lost his job for his plagiarizing. That’s why I also think Southern Baptist Convention president Ed Litton and immediate past president J.D. Greear should resign from the ministry, and Litton from his post as SBC president, over their recent plagiarism scandal.
A hearty bravo to the compiler of this YouTube video that’s been making the rounds, in which clips of Greear’s January 2019 sermon on Romans are juxtaposed with clips of Litton delivering his sermon on Romans in January 2020. Not only does Litton lift Greear’s main points verbatim, along with some of his terribly unbiblical theology referencing homosexuality, but he inexplicably plagiarizes some of Greear’s lighthearted banter, as well. (I’ve never seen such pastoral laziness in all my life. Litton can’t even come up with his own filler comments?)
But Greear, it should be noted, also lifted someone else’s line when he said this in his sermon (which Litton then plagiarized): “Homosexuality does not send you to hell. You know how I know that? Because heterosexuality does not send you to heaven.” Set aside for a moment the theological train wreckiness and utter asininity of that statement. The point is that Tim Keller, co-founder of The Gospel Coalition, essentially uttered that same statement at a forum recorded in a 2011 YouTube video called, “What do Christians Have Against Homosexuality? Tim Keller at Veritas [8 of 11]. As pointed out by Dr. Robert Gagnon, considered the premier expert on the Bible and homosexuality, Keller said: “Heterosexuality does not get you to heaven. I happen to know this, so how in the world can homosexuality send you to hell?”
In addition, Greear told a story in his sermon about going into a temple in Asia that was built to worship a false god. He remarked that seeing people worshiping the idol there made him realize he’s just like them. The way Litton tells the story, though, Christian pastor Paul David Tripp was the one who actually had the experience. So why didn’t Greear cite Tripp in his anecdote?
In his statement posted on Saturday, Greear tries to cover this discrepancy by saying that he’s had similar experiences to Tripp at temples in Asia, and so he didn’t believe it was necessary to cite Tripp. What I find interesting is that not only did Greear have the same experience in a temple as Tripp, but it turns out he had the exact same response to it, as well. He recounted, in a way eerily similar to the way Tripp recounted his tale, to “thanking God that I wasn’t like them” and then realizing that his own experience with idolatry was no different than that of the idol worshipers.
Click here to read Tripp’s original account. Then click here to read Greear’s account: “I felt no hesitation in changing the details of the story to match my own experience or no need to cite Paul Tripp as the source, as the events as I tell them (a) actually happened to me and (b) are common among missionaries. I did convey to Ed where I got the inspiration for the story, and Ed, having never lived in Asia, chose to tell the story in Paul’s words and attribute it to Paul.”
All I can say is: Same story, with the exact same response, nearly verbatim? That is some coincidence!
In his statement on the scandal, Litton blames his plagiarism on the fact that he received permission from Greear to lift his sermon, but he just didn’t disclose that to his congregation.
In other words, we’re supposed to believe that Litton had the requisite ethics and integrity to seek Greear’s blessing in advance to plagiarize him, but he somehow misplaced those same ethics and integrity when he stood before his congregation and completely forgot to cite Greear even one time. But I shouldn’t say he “forgot” to cite Greear, because Litton never said he forgot to cite Greear. In fact, he gave no rational explanation whatsoever for trying to pass off Greear’s material as his own!
Do I sound cynical? Skeptical? Disgusted? I’m all three of those things. Maybe that’s because I’m still reeling from the heresy of Partialism (the Trinity is “three co-equal parts of one God”) that Litton’s church had for a time on its website, the statement that conveniently disappeared once an SBC messenger pointed out its existence at the recent annual meeting.
By the way, here’s an interesting aside on that. When I attended last week’s National Religious Broadcasters convention in Dallas, I asked the SBC’s media relations representative why Litton posted heresy and then quickly ripped it down without any explanation.
The representative later told me he’d spoken to Litton himself, and Litton’s response was that: a) The church posted the heresy of Partialism as a simple way of explaining the Trinity in a way that non-theological experts could understand; and b) Litton had nothing to do with that statement and didn’t see it before it was posted on the church’s website. Oh, and c) Rest assured, Litton is a Trinitarian.
Sure, because whenever I want a simple Christian to understand the doctrine of the Trinity, I always throw in a little heresy to keep things understandable. Then, after people notice that I posted heresy, I suddenly cease to care about making the Trinity understandable to the simple and remove the offending statement without notice or comment.
Also, it’s completely believable that a man with a doctor of ministry degree (who was running to become president of the Southern Baptist Convention, no less) would outsource his church’s doctrinal statement and then allow it to be posted without ever even looking at it.
Anyone want to buy my oceanfront property in Arizona? (Thank you, George Strait — see how easy it is to cite a source?)
In his statement, Litton downplayed the scandal of plagiarizing Greear by saying he was “sorry for not mentioning J.D.’s generosity and ownership of these points,” then cited his need to “take responsibility for places where I should have been more careful.” He then assured the reader: “I am committed to being a man of integrity and humility.”
In other words: Plagiarism. Eh. It’s kind of like forgetting to write the check number in the checkbook.
Greear’s statement conclusion was even worse. Not only did he take outraged Christians to task for making “snap judgments based on out-of-context soundbites,” but he also stated, “.. a culture of suspicion happens automatically; a culture of trust takes intentionality. Our convention desperately needs to build a culture of trust, and that starts with assuming the best about each other and giving the benefit of the doubt wherever we can.”
So it’s our fault that Greear and Litton did what they did? That’s rich. And he’s got the “culture of suspicion” narrative exactly backwards, too. In my experience, most Christians begin with a culture of trust concerning their pastors and only become suspicious after the pastors do something to destroy their trust. The fact that Greear had to put out this statement at all is problematic (because he had some awkward ‘splaining to do), but it’s even more problematic that he had to end it by trying to gaslight people who are rightly angered about this outrageous scandal. It’s as if he’s really saying, “I’m not the problem … Ed Litton’s not the problem … you’re the problem for not giving us the benefit of the doubt!”
Don’t buy it. Greear even wrote a piece on plagiarism in 2012, asserting that: “If I ever preach the gist of another person’s sermon, meaning that I used the lion’s share of their message’s organization, points, or applications, I give credit. .. If it’s not yours, you have to acknowledge where it came from.” Yet in his Saturday statement, he appears to give Litton a pass for doing exactly what he said a pastor cannot do. The Bible condemns this kind of partiality as sin! “But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors.” (James 2:9)
This scandal shows that both of these men deceived people and lifted other people’s material without proper citation (primarily Litton). But the bottom line is that, for more reasons than just the plagiarism, neither of them are above reproach anymore (see 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1), a strict biblical qualification for any pastor.
The way that Litton and Greear can really “build a culture of trust” at this point is to acknowledge that this is a major scandal, leave the ministry with appropriate sorrow and soberness and demonstrate their repentance by letting some trustworthy men with integrity take their places.
And if they don’t do that, which is the most likely scenario, then you’ll know everything you need to know about how much these men really value honesty and integrity — and how much they fear God.