The Gospel Coalition appears to have finished its series on preachers and plagiarism. I said I'd tell you what I think. Here it comes.
I'll explain. I think our dear, esteemed, illustrious and famous brothers are making a basic mistake. They confuse my Auntie Nellie with Delius Stein.
Delius Stein is a well-known author and television personality who publishes beautifully researched and wonderfully illustrated cookery books.
My Auntie Nellie is the busy mother of a hungry family.
Delius Stein and my Auntie Nellie met recently in the kitchen of our old neighbour, Annie Higginbotham. Annie was cooking her family's dinner and showed them her recipe for spicy fishcakes with pickled eggs. They hurriedly copied down the recipe.
Both went on to cook the same identical meal from the recipe they'd copied. Delius did it on television and published it in a cook book, unattributed. Auntie Nellie did it in her kitchen and fed it to her brood, unattributed.
Annie Higginbotham was outraged at Delius' plagiarism, but she was thrilled when Nellie told her how the family had loved the meal
Pastors are not artists, producing beautifully crafted works of poetic charm. The Bible calls us shepherds (pastors means shepherds) and tells us to feed the flock. We're not Delius Stein. We're Auntie Nellie.
Preaching is sometimes defined as truth through personality. If this is true, then there's a sense in which plagiarism in preaching is almost impossible. Whatever I say is filtered through my personality. It'll come out in my vocabulary, with my mannerisms. That's the way it is.
I once tried to preach a Stuart Olyott-style "list sermon". It didn't work. It's not me. I deeply admire Geoff Thomas and John Piper, but I couldn't try and imitate them in preaching. It'd not be me. If I took a Piper sermon and preached it loads of stuff would change in the process.
A couple more things :
When I was a student the pastor of the church I belonged to preached a series on Jonah. I discovered that lots of different people were preaching series on Jonah. Shortly afterwards a Sinclair Ferguson book of messages on Jonah appeared. I suspect to this day that somewhere in some conference or other somebody preached a series of message on Jonah and a whole bunch of pastors got fired up to do the same - and that possibly those messages were strikingly similar. Is that a problem ? No.
I preached a series on Acts once and got hold of a book of sermons that I found extremely helpful, so helpful that some of my sermons were recognizably based on the chapters.of the book. Of course, I had to change the illustrations and the voice - the author was a very academic man who preached in a posh voice to a very academic congregation. Some things I wasn't convinced by. Some things were just not useful for my folk. But it was good stuff and I wanted to give it to my folk. I emailed the chappie to thank him for the book and to say how helpful it was. I confessed to plagiarism. He told me not to worry at all, saying that all pastors are plagiarists and that he was glad I found the book useful.
A series of messages by Ted Donnelly at the Aber Conference on Isaiah 53 became communion addresses, I think. I know I wanted to pass it on to the congregation somehow.
Friends are aware of the "Dale Ralph Davis Effect". When preparing a message on an Old Testament historical book, once you've read one of his commentaries you're convinced of the basic point and structure of the text. It's a real danger ! You'd have to be mad to preach his material as is, however. He loves illustrations from American Military History. That's him ! Also I think one can do more to get to Christ from those OT books. However, is it plagiarism if a preacher uses DRD's structure or headings, or even if he retells a story about General Sherman ? I don't think so. After all, DRD wrote the books because he wants to help people understand those passages, not because he is a literary giant with great works of art burning in his soul or to make a swift buck !
Someone once told me that they'd found a particular message I'd given helpful and they were going to preach it to their folk. I was pleased, encouraged, flattered...
That isn't plagiarism. I'm not the poet laureate. I'm a cook trying to feed a hungry brood and glad of all the help I can get. And I'm glad to share anything useful with my fellows who are doing the same thing.
To quote John Piper (it's the title of one of his books), "Brothers, we are not professionals".
Now in publishing for profit or perhaps in conference addresses, a different ethic applies, of course !