Tuesday, August 10, 2010

A Superfluity of Naughtiness: Plagiarism of Sectarian Sources in the WELS – A Case in Point

In Part 1 and Part 2 of this series of blog posts, we discussed two important issues directly connected with the tragedy of pastoral plagiarism:
  1. the fraudulent nature of plagiarism itself, and the meaning of this fraud within the context of the Office of Representational or Public Ministry,and
  2. the added offense of plagiarizing sectarian sources.
We concluded both that:
    A plagiarist is one who knowingly quotes or uses a source other than himself while concealing the identity of that source. The result of this theft is misrepresentation and fraud: that is, the plagiarist’s audience concludes that he is the author or creator of the quoted or used material (misrepresentation) and uses this conclusion as a basis for trust in the plagiarist (fraud). He takes on an identity that is not his – that of the original author – and uses that identity against the consciences of those who hear or read his work.
    When a pastor knowingly quotes or uses a source other than himself while concealing the identity of that source, the result is misrepresentation and fraud – a case of clear infidelity to his Call. ...When he commits misrepresentation using sectarian sources, he not only passes off sectarian teaching as his own, but... passes off sectarian content as pure Scripture teaching. The fraud associated with this misrepresentation is no longer merely that others trust his teaching on the basis of his misrepresentation, but that they trust sectarian teaching as orthodox on the basis of his misrepresentation. In stealing and applying to himself the identity of the sectarian author, he disgraces his Call, which requires that he “[hold] fast the faithful Word as he has been taught.” Using borrowed sectarian identity against the consciences of those who hear or read his work is tantamount to false teaching.
In this third installment we provide an illustration of plagiarism in the WELS using an example from one of a growing number of congregations which we have either observed directly, or which have come to our attention through concerned laymen and pastors of our Synod.

Plagiarism from Sectarian sources in the WELS
If only we could concern ourselves with pastors who plagiarize the sermons of Martin Luther, Johann Gerhard, C.F.W. Walther, or other giants of the Lutheran Confession! We might be inclined to just let it pass, and let homiletics professors at the seminary stew over it! Indeed, there have been many fine Lutheran pastors who have bequeathed to the church a legacy and record of exegetical and homiletical excellence, from whom many continue to borrow and repeat, and will continue to do so. Fine. Many of the ideas communicated by them are not foreign to us, but reminders of what is already common knowledge – like quoting from the Small Catechism, which every adult Lutheran is expected to have long since memorized, understood, and incorporated into his worldview. Citing original sources of common knowledge is not necessary – not even under the stringent guidelines of the APA.

But when we warn of plagiarism in our Synod, we are not talking about the pastor who’s had a rough week and finds it necessary to read a sermon from one of Martin Luther’s or Sig Becker’s postils, nor are we harping on the occasional unattributed quotation. In this discussion, we leave the fine points of situation ethics regarding plagiarism for others to debate, for the thresholds of acceptable use of unattributed sources are far, far south of the gross abuses which concern us. What we are warning of is wholesale, unattributed, nearly verbatim use of entire sectarian sermons, outlines, devotions, and other resources, the motivation for which seems to be derived from priorities of the Church Growth Movement. Indeed, by and large, it isn’t the traditional churches who have found it necessary to parrot Rick Warren, Craig Groeschel, or Mark Driscoll.

The example of one such congregation is illustrative. They had made verbatim and unattributed use of devotional material from Chuck Swindoll on their website. They had published their congregation’s “strategic plan,” suggesting influence from the Church Growth Movement. They had evidently recently preached a sermon series from Craig Groeschel’s LifeChurch.tv. Knowing we were going to treat this topic, we sent them an email last Friday, informing them that we were going to use their congregation’s website as an example of the type of plagiarism and use of sectarian sources that we observe more frequently, and, we fear, is becoming more and more accepted in our Synod. To this congregation's credit, within an hour of having sent our email, most of the offending material was removed, and by Saturday, a public apology had been posted in its place. Because of this, we have voluntarily chosen not to reveal the name of this congregation. Yet, the example of their offense remains useful, so we reproduce the details of our communication with them, which reveals the nature of the issues we observed there, and observe elsewhere:
    Pastors and Elders of (name removed) Ev. Lutheran Church, (city and state removed)

    Intrepid Lutherans, a blog concerned with Confessional unity in the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, is currently writing an article on plagiarism and the use of sectarian resources in our Synod, and will be using your congregation's website as an example. We have discovered on your congregation's website several troubling instances where use of sectarian sources is made – instances which are quite typical of a growing number of our congregations. We are contacting you ahead of publication for your comments on the following issues.

    1. Your "Pastor's Message" entry located at this URL is taken almost verbatim, without attribution, from Chuck Swindoll's devotional Day by Day with Chuck Swindoll, Copyright 2000. This very same entry from Chuck Swindoll's work was used, with attribution, on Christianity.com, here: http://www.christianity.com/devotionals/day_by_day/11623905/. Do you have permission from either Chuck Swindoll or Thomas Nelson Publishers to use his content without attribution? If you do, do you consider it dishonest toward your readers to pass off his thoughts and experiences as your own? Did you actually "[receive] a letter from a fine Christian couple, and [smile] understandingly at one line: 'Although the Lord has taken good care of my wife and me for the past thirty-eight years, He has taken control of us for the past two and a half'"? If not, do you consider it a lie to say that you did? Is lying sinful? If so, do you and Chuck Swindoll know the same fine Christian couple? Could we see a copy of that letter?

    2. We noticed that Chuck Swindoll's message is entirely a message of Law – Gospel-less is the term we used when critiquing it – which is aptly demonstrated in the final line summarizing the devotion: “Don't get ‘out of control’ because you're so determined to stay ‘in control.’” Do you think that it is appropriate for Lutherans to fixate on sanctification messages such as this? Do you think it is appropriate for a Lutheran to emphasize the third use of the Law without preceding it with its second use and the Gospel? If so, how can this be considered proper application of Law and Gospel? How does Swindoll's content indicate a Gospel motivation for Christian works? Granting that you may have found a pearl of great value among Swindoll’s works, do you consider it wise to use his material without warning your readers of his many errors? If so, have you read Harold Senkbeil's Sanctification: Christ in Action, published by NPH? It is an analysis of modern Evangelicalism and it's theological fixation on sanctification over justification, using Chuck Swindoll as a case study, and offers a confessional Lutheran corrective. For that matter, have you read Robert Koester's Gospel Motivation: More than "Jesus Died for My Sins", also published by NPH? If not, we highly recommend them.

    3. We noticed that you altered Chuck Swindoll's content, in the third to last paragraph, adding the following sentence: "And it is only through the Spirit's working through the Means of Grace - the gospel in Word and Sacrament - that he bends and shapes our will (our new man) to be conformed to the likeness of God's Son, our Savior."

      Click image to see documents side-by-side
      We have further noticed that adding a token reference to the Means of Grace is a common way to "Lutheranize" sectarian content among WELS congregations enamoured with non-Lutheran sources. Your one-sentence addition to Swindoll’s work is illustrative of this technique. Do you honestly believe that this one-sentence is sufficient to make Swindoll's devotion – a devotion that is entirely a message of Law and entirely centered on sanctification – something that could be considered (a) your own original work, and/or (b) a distinctly "Lutheran" devotion, centered on Justification, where Law and Gospel are balanced in favor of the Gospel? Moreover, if you have permission to use Swindoll's content without attribution, do you also have permission to alter it?

    4. We have noticed, in your congregation’s "Proposed Strategic Plan," that you envision people joining your church for no other reason than that your congregation is "so welcoming." We see precious little emphasis on Word and Sacrament ministry, nor mention of the Holy Spirit's work exclusively through those Means to call, gather and enlighten His people, drawing them into fellowship with other believers and keeping them in the faith. This troubles us. We are, of course, very familiar with the errors of the Church Growth Movement (CGM), and the reliance of CGM on alien means – means outside those through which the Holy Spirit is known to work – to “grow the church”.

      The ministry approach espoused in your "Proposed Strategic Plan" smacks of CGM. Are you familiar with CGM? Are you adherents of CGM practices? If not, who advised you to engage in such methods? If so, why are you so willing to flirt with sectarian errors?

      Are you aware that the WELS Michigan District commissioned a multi-year study of CGM, and that the resulting paper repudiated CGM, especially Lutheran involvement with CGM? The name of the paper is "The Tendrils of the Church Growth Movement," and it was enthusiastically received by the Michigan District at their 2008 Convention. We have attached a pdf of this paper for your edification.

    5. Are you fans of Craig Groeschel's LifeChurch.tv? Was your July 4 sermon, entitled “How to Commit Adultery,” and taken nearly verbatim from the identically titled 1st part of Groeschel's five-part sermon series "Five Easy Steps...," published on his website, here: http://www.lifechurch.tv/watch/five-easy-steps/1?

      If this is the case, did you inform those assembled that you were parroting a sectarian sermon? Or, is Craig Groeschel a confessional Lutheran? Did you do the same with the remaining four sermons of Groeschel’s series? We understand that Craig Groeschel publishes his sermons so that others can copy him, but also that his blog states pastors ought to cite their sources, because citation "honors the pastor or church who came up with the idea," "demonstrates humility and security," "exposes a church to other great leaders and teachers," and "removes any doubt of copying" (Plagiarizing Pastors by Craig Groeschel; July 21, 2008). If you copy his sermons, we assume that you largely agree with Craig Groeschel's preaching. If Craig Groeschel isn’t a confessional Lutheran, shouldn’t we be concerned about this fact alone? Moreover, even granting that one may have permission to copy someone else’s work without attribution, when, in your opinion, does a failure to cite sources constitute fraud against one’s hearers/readers?

    Gentlemen, we will be publishing our article on Monday. Please have your comments to us by Sunday afternoon in order to have them included in our article. These are matters of public offense. Having taken council together and with others, we stand firm on Scripture (Ga. 2:11-14; 1 Ti. 5:20) and the Confessions (LC:3:284ff) when we insist that discussion of these issues, and all responses, be made in public. This includes a refusal to answer or participate. If you are unable to reply by Sunday afternoon, you may publicly engage the ensuing discussion by posting to our blog following publication.

    In Christ,

    Intrepid Lutherans
Apart from the removal of most of the offending content and the posting of an apology on their own website, we have received no return communication from this congregation.

Nevertheless, in response to their online apology, we have written back to them. That letter (with names removed) will appear in our next post.


Anonymous said...

What's truly disturbing isn't that this pastor copied the words of another person, it's whose words he copied.

I can totally understand why a pastor, pressed for time, would post a devotion written by someone else. I cannot understand why a Lutheran pastor would post a devotion written by a false teacher rather than one written by Luther or Walther or another orthodox Lutheran pastor. How far from true Lutheranism and how deep into sectarianism must a pastor have wandered before he defaults to Swindoll rather than Luther? This is a serious symptom of a much deeper problem.

Obviously, this pastor's district president needs to step in and discipline this pastor, but sadly I have lost faith in almost all WELS district presidents to discipline false doctrine and poor practice. Have the Intrepid Lutherans contacted this pastor's district president about this? If so, did you get any response?

Mr. Adam Peeler

Rev. Paul A. Rydecki said...

Dear Anonymous commenter (not you, Mr. Peeler - you signed your name, as always),

If you wish for your comment to be posted in order to engage the discussion, please provide your full name, as the rest of us have done. We do not allow anonymous comments on the blog.


Lisette Anne Lopez said...

This is disturbing. Times are changing, take note.

Cindy Ramos said...

Is the paper you mentioned, "The Tendrils of the Church Growth Movement," publicly available? I would like to read that.

Mr. Douglas Lindee said...

Hi Cindy,

Near as I can tell, the paper has been absent from the MI District webpage for some time, but has been passed around via email. I believe it was available on the old "Issues in WELS" website.

Anyway, we are looking into providing a permanent link to the .pdf from the blog. So, stay tuned!


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