What do you think about preaching someone else’s sermon?

In On Christian Doctrine 4.62 Augustine argues that it’s perfectly appropriate for a pastor to use sermon’s prepared by someone else. According to him, we should just face the fact that some people are gifted speakers, but not very skilled at study. To use Augustine’s distinction, they are fine “preachers” but they are not very able “teachers.” And, as long as the speaker does not use another person’s work dishonestly (i.e. claiming it for his own), and as long as the church has a coherent teaching (preferably through a singular teacher), there’s nothing wrong with this.

There are, indeed, some men who have a good delivery, but cannot compose anything to deliver. Now, if such men take what has been written with wisdom and eloquence by others, and commit it to memory, and deliver it to the people, they cannot be blamed, supposing them to do it without deception. For in this way many become preachers of the truth (which is certainly desirable), and yet not many teachers; for all deliver the discourse which one real teacher has composed, and there are no divisions among them.

Augustine goes on to argue that the real “thief,” the true “plagiarist,” is the one who preaches what is not true in his own life: “it is the man who speaks well, but lives badly, who really takes the words that belong to another.”

What do you think? Would you have any problem with a preacher who didn’t prepare his/her own sermons as long as they were honest about it?

About Marc Cortez

Theology Prof and Dean at Western Seminary, husband, father, & blogger, who loves theology, church history, ministry, pop culture, books, and life in general.

Posted on August 10, 2010, in Preaching and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

  1. I would think that by preaching part of someone else’s sermon you would also help yourself grow. With age, hopefully one is improving enough that there is original material of one’s own to use.

    We discussed this a bit in grad school in relation to education, and I came to the conclusion that borrowing material would be fine until I am more confident in my abilities.

    The only issue I see is if it becomes a lifelong crutch.

  2. The difference here, though, is that Augustine appears to be talking about having one person prepare the entire sermon and having another person simply deliver it. So, it’s not a question just of borrowing some pieces and incorporating them into your sermon. Augustine is saying that it doesn’t need to be “your” sermon. You just need to be able to present it well.

  3. I can see that being okay for a while, but I would assume that a natural progression would prevent this from being a long term situation.

    This reminds me of hearing a sermon where it consisted of reading the book of Hebrews from start to finish (from memory).

    When reading one of Ben Franklin’s biographies this summer, I am reminded of one of the only preachers that he respected. A young man that was using sermons of others, but there was no disclosure of the fact. When he was found out, they ran him off. “…supposing them to do it without deception” seems to be a key issue, hehe.

  4. To play devil’s advocate here, why not have this be a long term situation? If I’m a gifted and charismatic communicator and someone else in the church is a gifted scholar/writer, why not let us both do what we do well? As long as everyone knows what is going on, where’s the harm?

  5. Well, I guess I’m inserting myself into the scenario. I would feel inadequate if I spent my entire time teaching or preaching by using the material of someone else. It might indicate that I had not matured or grown enough to do it myself.

    It’s definitely an interesting idea, with parallels to theater, and acting in general. I hope I’m not too idealistic in thinking that it should be normative for someone in a leadership or authority position to be able to not only teach, but to teach material that they have organized themselves.

    This is starting to touch on a conversation I’ve had recently with my brother and sister regarding potential. Apparently I have this notion that not everyone lives up to their potential, and they should.

    Someone who solely communicates material created by someone else should probably attempt to self-actualize as part of their natural maturation process. Does this make the regurgitator an incomplete person/teacher/minister? For the sake of argument, I would say yes.

  6. Charles Spurgeon saw this activity as a form of theft and fraud and he spoke harshly against it. He believed ferverently that the sermon had power, by virtue of the fact that it had been formed in the preachers own heart by the inspiration of God. He described a true sermon as loading your own heart into a shotgun and firing it at the congregation. He said you had to live and breath and birth the sermon inside.

    It came to Spurgeon’s attention that one of his students (who was already in his preaching training position) had been accused of regurgitating verbatim one of Spurgeon’s finest sermons.

    The lad was duly hauled in front of Spurgeon and the accusation was put before him. To everybody’s surprise the student utterly denied that he had plagersied one of Spurgeon’s sermons. When firmly pressed on the matter, he did confess that the sermon in question was not his own, but had in fact been plagerised from Whitfield.

    Spurgeon took his copy of Whitfield’s sermons from his own bookcase, found the sermon in question, and rather red-faced realised that his own original sermon had in fact been plagerised from Whitfield…..

  7. Stuart, I don’t think that we can put this into the category of “fraud” since the situation envisions complete disclosure about this teamwork approach to preaching. But I like Spurgeon’s comment about the power of the sermon coming from the work of the text on the preacher before the sermon. That has always been my concern about “borrowing” too much material from other people. That would also fit well with Nathan’s concerns about stunting the growth of the preacher. (And, great story about sermon plagiarism.)

    I wonder, though, if Augustine’s comments could press us toward more of a community approach to sermon prep. Why do we assume that the preacher has to do all of the work alone? If there’s a gifted student/exegete in the community or someone who is creative and articulate, why not tap those skills in sermon prep?

  8. Yes “fraud” does seem rather harsh. I have commented from memory and so there is the chance that he didn’t exactly use this word, but in terms of the overall impression…

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