Christians, Copyrights and "Piracy"

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Imagine David requiring licensing fees for every use of each of his psalms. Imagine Jeremiah refusing other prophets the right to repeat his words. Imagine Paul taking Timothy before the Ephesian elders for choosing to "follow the pattern of sound words you have heard from me" in his preaching ministry. Imagine Bach's descendants maintaining control over and receiving royalties from his compositions a century after his death. Imagine Spurgeon refusing others the right to preach his sermons (for more on this, see below). Imagine Handel copyrighting the Messiah's libretto.

Which is the greater travesty: Christians downloading copyright music or Christian musicians and composers claiming inspiration from God to the glory of God, then slapping big, fat dollar signs before their offerings?

World's blog-writing pastors have been asked to comment on a letter from a reader who writes:

"Christian pirates" [Joel Belz, World 5/8/2004] prompted me to write to you about a related subject that I think might be a topic for World to consider looking into -- pastors "borrowing" verbatim from copyrighted internet sermon sites.

The writer, having checked the internet for the provenance of a quote from Max Lucado in her pastor's Palm Sunday sermon, found to her surprise that much of her pastor's sermon had apparently come from a sermon web site. First, a disclaimer and several observations:

1) I have preached others' sermons. I have preached nearly verbatim certain sermons by my brother Timothy Bayly and my father, Joseph. I have used Thomas Watson on the Decalogue and the Lord's Prayer. I have followed the basic outline of sermons by Spurgeon, Martin Lloyd-Jones, Kent Hughes and probably others. I am both a conscious and inadvertent copyist: I will never preach on Stephen's defense before the Sanhedrin without Martin Lloyd-Jones's outline of that passage framing it in my mind, yet I probably will forget that it was an article in Banner of Truth magazine on MLJ's sermon skeletons that served as the source of my outline.

2) Nothing is original. This is doubly true of Christian work.

3) Even in the secular world, intellectual property law is the focus of serious criticism. Significant thinkers even advocate the outright abolition of patent and copyright (for more on this, see here or here). Copyright and patent law protect income streams. Whether this is appropriate in the secular arena is for courts and legislators to decide. In the Christian arena, God's glory is paramount, yet human income and glory seem more often than not to be the paramount concern.

Returning to the letter to World....

Though the reader criticizes her pastor for preaching a sermon by Max Lucado, I suspect her criticism is somewhat attuned to his source. Would her criticism be as severe if his illustration had been of a spider dangling over a pit of fire and the sermon had echoed Edwards's "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God?"

I can't help but think that the source of her pastor's sermon was as offensive to this writer as the fact that his sermon had a source. Would she have been as aghast if his sermon had been based on a sermon by Luther? Calvin? Watson?

God's standards are not coterminous with American law, nor with the glory-seeking code of the American academy. No pastor should be preaching or writing to prove his learning and originality. He is preaching God's Word to his people. To compare what this pastor did with a student cheating to obtain a grade at Grove City College is inane.

Is this pastor doing well to preach Max Lucado? Probably not. It's safer to stick with Spurgeon. But the question is not whether he is preaching faithfully by quoting someone else either verbatim or in outline form (and both constitute academic plagiarism--I was accused by a college professor of stealing a theory of literary criticism once, not specific words). The question is whether this pastor is a faithful shepherd preaching and teaching the full counsel of God. Specifically, is what he is preaching true? Does it meet the spiritual need of his flock at the point at which it is preached? Is it faithful to the Word? No honest pastor will be quick to criticize a fellow pastor for being helped at times by the work and words of another. The problem comes when a pastor cannot discern a "pattern of sound words" which to follow in his preaching.

It's interesting that the correspondent has nothing to say about the character of her pastor's Palm Sunday sermon. She doesn't criticize it. She doesn't say it was untrue. She doesn't say it was unfaithful to the Word. Paul was careful to praise God for the preaching even of those whose sermons were based in a contentious personal desire for advancement. What does it matter, Paul says, if the Kingdom is advanced and men are saved? The dividing line for Paul is the truthfulness of what is preached. The Judaizers of Galatia are abhorrent to him because they preach a false Gospel...

Meanwhile, on a related note, the letter to World about sermon "plagiarism" was prompted by a column by Joel Belz on "Christian Pirates", young Christian men and women who download copyrighted Christian music from the web. But who are the real pirates? Are they only the downloaders? What about those who take what God has given them for the benefit of His Church and treat it as their own? Those who copyright the Word of God? Those who profess to write and sing to God's glory but demand unceasing royalties along the way? Those who sell their sermons on the internet? Isn't it equally piracy to take what God has given us and to use it and profit from it as though it were entirely our own? What about the sons of Samuel? Weren't they pirates too?

If a man says, "God gave me this sermon," then seeks to sell it, isn't he a pirate? If a woman says, "God gave me this song," then licenses it and charges royalties on it, isn't she a pirate? Aren't the publishing company and its scholars pirates when they put their names on a translation of Scripture and copyright it, and deny those who buy it the right to copy from it more than a limited number of verses? Where is our shame?

Finally, a story from Spurgeon's autobiography of "piracy" or "plagiarism" being used by God to His glory and for Spurgeon's benefit:

I once learnt something in a way one does not often get a lesson. I felt at that time very weary, and very sad, and very heavy at heart; and I began to doubt in my own mind whether I really enjoyed the things which I preached to others. It seemed to be a dreadful thing for me to be only a waiter, and not a guest at the gospel feast.

I went to a certain country town, and on the Sabbath day entered a Methodist Chapel. The man who conducted the service was an engineer; he read the Scriptures, and prayed, and preached. The tears flowed freely from my eyes; I was moved to the deepest emotion by every sentence of the sermon, and I felt all my difficulty removed, for the gospel, I saw, was very dear to me, and had a wonderful effect upon my own heart.

I went to the preacher, and said, "I thank you very much for that sermon." He asked me who I was, and when I told him, he looked as red as possible, and he said, "Why, it was one of your sermons that I preached this morning!"

"Yes," I said, "I know it was; but that was the very message that I wanted to hear, because I then saw that I did enjoy the very Word I myself preached."

It was happily so arranged in the good providence of God. Had it been his own sermon, it would not have answered the purpose nearly so well as when it turned out to be one of mine. (from C. H. Spurgeon's AUTOBIOGRAPHY, by his wife and personal secretary [J. W. Harrald], Vol 3, pg. 337, London: Passmore and Alabaster, 1899. Reprinted by Pilgrim Publications, Pasadena, Texas, 1992).