When a sermon plagiarism scandal isn't actually about sermon plagiarism

It's just a cheap excuse for one Southern Baptist faction to pull out the stops against their enemy faction--all to win a brief stint as president of the denomination.

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A very minor scandal called SermonGate briefly roiled the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) a while back. The current president of the SBC, Ed Litton, had been caught using someone else’s sermon without attributing it.

Sermon plagiarism is usually a minor and common sin in evangelical leadership. But this time, Ed Litton’s enemies in the Old Guard faction began howling for his resignation. Oddly, they didn’t care at all that his predecessor, J.D. Greear, did something much worse during his own reign.

I think there’s a reason the Old Guard never demanded Greear’s resignation while Litton’s has become a primary goal for them, even though he has only a couple of months left as president.

The principles of power: those in power guard each other’s backs

A while ago, I began noticing that certain people in evangelical leadership tend to run in similar circles. In addition, the people in each circle give each other speaking/writing gigs and professional opportunities, endorse each other’s books (even if they clearly haven’t read them), and speak at each other’s churches. They even give each other presents, sometimes very lavish ones.

These crony networks are powerful. They help keep dirty secrets hidden. Members guard each other’s backs against metaphorical daggers. And they help each other’s kids get established as apologists, writers, speakers, and in other such professional-Christian careers.

Sometimes—not often, but it happens—a member’s scandals become so overwhelming that the group washes its hands of that member. We saw that happen with a few people–Josh McDowell and James MacDonald, most recently (last year). In the case of the former, racism did him in. For the latter, it was mostly financial issues.

Once that happens, no matter how powerful that person once was in the network, the former crony might as well be radioactive.

But it doesn’t happen often. Usually, the network can circle the wagons and protect its members through almost anything.

Detecting faction membership through affiliation

With the rise of the SBC’s two current factions, these networks have become even more distinct. No faction member would ever compliment or show too much graciousness or kindness to an enemy faction member. So you can make some educated guesses about where a given person lands by examining their social media, memberships, and outside speaking and writing engagements.

As one example of what I mean, check out the Steering Council of this Old Guard creation, the Conservative Baptist Network. There we find Voddie Baucham, another candidate in this summer’s election still, as well as Mike Huckabee, Tony Perkins, and–of course–Mike Stone, who ran for SBC president last year for his faction–and very narrowly lost.

Among these names, you will not find J.D. Greear, the Pretend Progressive leader who was president just before Litton. Nor Ed Litton himself, nor Russell Moore, who recently quit his SBC leadership job, and the SBC itself, before anyone could fire him.

However, this network is for the extremists of the Old Guard. Thus, you also won’t find Al Mohler, who looks almost reasonable next to them, in that council. The extremists despise him and describe him with terms like “sub-Christian.” However, you will find Ryan Helfenbein there; one of his claims to fame is having taught Sunday School alongside Mohler. So: Clout, fine. Friends and cronies, never.

And the more subtle tip-offs

Dogwhistles handle most of the rest.

That’s how I identified Willy Rice as a Pretend Progressive, not long ago. The statement he made upon his nomination talked about unity even if it meant “doctrinal conviction” needed to shift a bit, and then he praised the upcoming Guidepost report and the Pretend-Progressive-created Sexual Abuse Task Force.

The Old Guard is absolutely enraged that this report is happening at all. They’ve done everything they can think of to stop it–including resigning major leadership roles to avoid being any part of it. No way, no how would a nomination statement include praise for it from anyone in the Old Guard.

And nobody in the Old Guard would ever, ever, ever advocate any softening whatsoever of the SBC’s doctrinal positions.

On the other hand, when an evangelical sneers about “SBC Elites” or “evangelical elites,” that’s definitely Old Guard phrasing. They’ve recently begun characterizing the Pretend Progressive faction like that. Pretend Progressives simply don’t use that language to describe themselves.

(In reality, of course, the leaders of both factions are elites in their way. They may all wear pretty princess crowns. Additionally, I’ve never heard either faction’s leaders talk about opening up officer elections to the rank and file. Only those attending their big Annual Meeting get to vote.)

Sermon plagiarism: one of the most common sins ever

Of all the sins an evangelical pastor can commit, sermon plagiarism is one of the most common. It means a pastor or preacher borrowing someone else’s sermon without attribution and presenting it as their own work.

Usually, it’s an unremarkable sin. One blogger, David Schrock, claims he personally knows two pastors who were fired for sermon plagiarism. At the same time, he says he’s heard “many reports of the same.” Of sermon plagiarism? Or of being fired for it? I’m not sure. Either way, he also reports “many others” that he’s discovered committing this sin who apparently weren’t fired.

I’d go him one further and say most evangelical pastors have probably committed sermon plagiarism. It occurs no matter how many condemnations of it come out of evangelical sites. This article from Religion News certainly concurs. (The pastor profiled in it, Zach Stewart, went on to pastor another church–and he continues to commit sermon plagiarism.)

(Also: Check out J.D. Greear discussing sermon plagiarism in 2012. I found a Wayback archive from 2012 that includes his praise for a sermon-preparation service called Docent. However, he never mentions it in his blog post. And I’ve never seen him cite Docent in his sermon notes. Here’s one such set of notes from 2012. That said, I’ve seen other 2012 sermon notes that do include footnotes of other kinds, like this one.)

For every one of these condemnations, though, we find rationalizations that seek to excuse it.

Obviously, evangelical leaders don’t take sermon plagiarism quite as seriously as their condemnations indicate.

But then Ed Litton and SermonGate came along last June, right after he’d won the SBC presidency.

SermonGate: anatomy of a mini-scandal

In essence, here’s what happened. On June 24, an anonymous YouTuber discovered that in 2020, Ed Litton had preached a sermon that had originally been given in 2019 by J.D. Greear (who, again, is his immediate predecessor and faction member). At times, Litton apparently repeated some parts of Greear’s delivery word-for-word.

A few days later, Litton took down or hid 140 videos from his church’s YouTube channel. His church’s subsequent statement didn’t say they were more examples of plagiarism, but rather that it concerned the congregation that people were going through these sermons to “discredit and malign our pastor.”

I couldn’t find that statement’s direct link, but this Baptist Press article quotes it–along with claiming that Greear gave Litton permission to use his sermon. This article also reveals that Greear had adapted at least part of that same sermon from someone else, Paul David Tripp. I just checked his sermon notes; for what it’s worth, Greear did attribute Tripp for inspiring his adapted anecdote.

So, Greear wasn’t offended that Litton didn’t attribute him. In terms of the usual plagiarism, it’s kind of a nothingburger. You could say it was just fellow faction members banding together, but I’ve followed SBC scandals for a long time. It really doesn’t strike me as a major problem.

Really, I was just surprised that for once, nobody’d been sexually abused. That wasn’t where my tag “for once not a sexual scandal” comes from (this is), but it’s close.

Sermon plagiarism: the very worst atrocity in the history of the SBC, or maybe even Christianity, period, who tf even knows

But almost immediately afterward, here’s our pal Tom Ascol, Extremist Old Guard leader, demanding Ed Litton’s resignation. (Interestingly, that story also includes a quote from the current Pretend Progressive presidential candidate, Bret Barber, supporting Ed Litton.)

It didn’t take long for Extremist Old Guard sites to declare SermonGate the worst thing that had ever happened. Seriously. Here’s the archive of it. And here it is quoted on another sympathetic Old Guard site. And here is the quote itself:

Reformation Charlotte has uncovered yet another entire sermon that Ed Litton plagiarized from JD Greear–down to even the prayer at the beginning–in what amounts to nothing less than one of the greatest scandals the Southern Baptist Convention has ever faced in its entire history.

Reformation Charlotte, now called The Dissenter, June 29, 2021

Really. “Abuse of Faith” didn’t win top honors, apparently. (It’s got my vote!) Nor Bob Reccord getting driven from the presidency of the SBC’s North American Mission Board (NAMB) for “numerous examples of poor management.” Nor even Frank Page, the President and CEO of the SBC’s top-ranked Executive Committee, having to quit over some unspecified “personal failing” that seems to be universally regarded as involving sex somehow.

Or even, I dunno, Paige Patterson fired in the middle of his humongous scandal, which involved egregiously mishandling sex abuse and assault reports for years while leading his seminary.

Oh. Strike that last one. Paige Patterson is still a member in decent standing of the Old Guard’s network.

Obviously, his scandal doesn’t count.

Instead, it looks like every single Old Guard member piled onto the “LITTON MUST RESIGN” bandwagon.

Back when J.D. Greear did something way worse than pastoral plagiarism

J.D. Greear might have used an unattributed sermon-preparation service, but he did way worse than that. During his presidency, he got in some trouble over hiring a pastor for his megachurch. This pastor, Bryan Loritts, had a record of covering up sex abuse at a previous church. When people found out, a lot of them got really upset–especially sex-abuse survivors and sympathizers.

In response, J.D. Greear launched an investigation and acted very very concerned.

(For it, Greear hired Guidepost. SBC-watchers might recognize that name. This third-party group is currently on the tail end of their exhaustive report for the SBC’s Sexual Abuse Advisory Group. Their report is due this June, right before the SBC’s big Annual Meeting–and their next presidential election. I expect it to make the Old Guard look really bad. The Pretend Progressives are certainly hinting at that outcome.)

Of course, the investigation came to naught. Loritts still works for Greear’s church, though it’s weird that the one Black person on staff still lacks a photo above his name. I don’t think he’s ever had one.

I bring this up because Greear definitely did something objectively way worse than pastoral plagiarism. He violated his very own stated convictions about sex abusers, during the exact term of his own presidency when he stated them.

And yet I saw very few demands for Greear’s resignation from the SBC presidency. Actually, make that no demands at all. I looked hard to find any, but no dice. Not even Julie Roys, a watchdog blogger, made that demand. She just wanted Greear to fire his new pastor and tell the truth about him.

Where were the Old Guard then?

A quick note about SBC election rules

I couldn’t find any past records of any SBC presidents resigning during their presidency. I don’t think it’s ever happened. But according to the SBC’s most recently-published constitution, they’ve laid out contingency plans if it ever does:

In case of death or disability of the president, the vice presidents shall automatically
succeed to the office of president in the order of their election.

2021 SBC Annual Report, Article V.5, p. 8

It uses that language because after electing their president, the SBC then elects two vice presidents, a first and second one, one after the other. So they have a first vice president and a second vice president.

Also, as we see in Article V.2 of the same constitution, the SBC’s vice presidents get elected separately from presidents. They’re not running mates like the United States does in presidential elections. So it’s entirely possible for a president and vice president to be on entirely different wavelengths, policy-wise.

Here’s exactly why sermon plagiarism became the Old Guard’s sticking point

In 2018, J.D. Greear won the coveted title of SBC President. At the time, Baptist Press, the SBC’s official news site, praised the “diverse slate of officers” elected alongside him. This slate included A.B. Vines as “first vice president.”

So if Greear had resigned his presidency, Vines would have become the SBC’s new president.

I strongly suspect that Vines is part of the Pretend Progressives. On his Twitter last month, for example, he retweeted fulsome praise for the ERLC–and Ed Litton. (Screenshot archive.)

No way, no how can I imagine an Old Guard, especially an Extremist Old Guard, doing that–especially as late as March 2022. By now, that sub-faction is acting like the Pretend Progressives are all flaming liberal fake-Christian Democratic feminists, rather than differing from them by less than a degree in doctrinal beliefs and hopes for the SBC’s future. (The less-extremist Old Guard differs from them even less. Maybe that’s why they seem to hate that end of their faction even more.)

Even hating their faction’s enemies as much as these guys do, though, it would have done them no good for Greear to resign during his presidency. That simply would have gotten them an A.B. Vines presidency. And Vines wouldn’t have made them any happier.

But you know who, as a vice president ascending to the presidency, definitely would?

The current one: Lee Brand.

Introducing Lee Brand, Extremist Old Guard stalwart

Remember that Steering Committee I mentioned earlier? The one including Mike Huckabee and Mike Stone?

Well, it also includes Lee Brand.

Lee Brand was elected first vice-president after Ed Litton won the presidency. So if Litton resigned, then Lee Brand would become president.

Lee Brand is the Vice President and Dean of Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. According to the Font of All Knowledge, it is not formally affiliated with or operated by the SBC. Wikipedia also calls it part of “the conservative wing” of the denomination.

According to Capstone Report, Brand rejects critical race theory (CRT) in favor of what I suspect is simply demanding that everybody Jesus harder. That approach has utterly failed to solve evangelicals’ racism problem since, well, the beginning of American colonization. But the Old Guard keeps insisting it’ll totally work this time.

So, a Lee Brand president would make the Extremist Old Guard extremely, incredibly happy. If they could make it happen, it’d represent one of their only real victories over their enemies in the past couple of years. Since the SBC president also has the power to make appointments across a whole range of positions, that victory might also help them reverse some of their humiliating losses as well.

Sermon plagiarism was never the real issue here

I strongly suspect that this succession prospect is what’s made the Extremist Old Guard harp on and on about Ed Litton resigning. It’s also why they didn’t scream for J.D. Greear’s resignation earlier.

It was never about sermon plagiarism. It still isn’t. Rather, it’s about finding an excuse, any excuse at all, to win over factional enemies.

Either way, the Old Guard hopes to score a win–or else a lot of sympathy points.

If Ed Litton resigns, then Lee Brand will help them recover from their devastating losses in the recent past.

But if Litton doesn’t resign, that’s fine too. In that case, they get to smear him in the vilest terms imaginable and claim he lacks moral integrity for not resigning. That’s what they’re doing now. They’re pulling out every snarl word they’ve ever dreamed up in their most vicious revenge fantasies, then flinging them all at their enemies–who, again, barely differ from them in terms of actual beliefs and future vision for the SBC.

It looks like the Old Guard are hoping to paint the other faction’s candidates–and their voters–as so disgustingly evil that no sensible SBC-ling would ever want to go near such repulsive creatures.

The worst part: that strategy works on evangelicals

It’s worked in the past. Similar tactics destroyed Hillary Clinton’s candidacy in 2016, paving the way for an ignorant, predatorial buffoon and draft dodger to win widespread, even almost unanimous, evangelical support.

Sure, it’s not even vaguely loving, charitable, forgiving, gracious, or even kind to treat anyone that way, much less their own fellow Christians. It’s not even honest. (And yes, Hillary Clinton is very much a Christian.)

But something way more important than following Jesus’ direct orders and example shimmers before the Old Guard’s eyes right now. It’s so important that not even the prospect of offending Jesus could stop them from this behavior.

You’d think a group containing so many Calvinists wouldn’t ever want to perfectly embody “cheap grace,” but here we are. Really, this whole election season has embodied the notion of all-important self-interest in evangelicalism in a new–and altogether more intense–way than I’ve ever seen before.

Rules for thee, but never for me. This is the guiding principle of broken systems, as well as the ultimate goal of all system members craving power.

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ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...