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Plagiarism Hurts Cause of CBF, Women Ministers

A Cooperative Baptist Fellowship leader’s pulpit plagiarism packed a powerful punch, delivering black eyes to her organization and to the cause of women ministers.

Reba Cobb, the CBF’s resources coordinator, preached a sermon titled “The Bent-Over Woman,” based on Luke 13:10-17, at the Baptist Women in Ministry annual meeting, just prior to the CBF general assembly in Fort Worth.
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Unfortunately, the words were not her own. A sermon by the same name covering the same Scripture text, identical almost word-for-word, was written by David Owen, a United Church of Christ minister, in 1979. The sermon was published last year in an anthology, “Wisdom of Daughters: Two Decades of the Voice of Christian Feminism.”
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Confronted by a Baptist Press reporter who discovered the plagiarism, Cobb utilized two defensive tactics. She tried to diminish the degree of the deception and also blamed someone else.
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In a prepared statement, she told BP that “portions” of her sermon “had earlier been presented by another minister.” However, the definition of “portions” would have to be stretched beyond recognition to cover the duplication. The BP report detailed that the sermons begin identically and continue in tight parallel, through to the concluding paragraphs. The news report showed that Cobb said she had polled some women regarding their responses to the Scripture passage, exactly as Owen had done. Later, a CBF official acknowledged to the Baptist Standard that Cobb’s sermon repeated Owen almost word for word, with only very few personal anecdotes thrown in.
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Cobb also said she was unaware of the duplication of Owen’s sermon, claiming she had hired a freelance “research assistant” to “gather content materials for me.” She told Associated Baptist Press she paid the research assistant with her own funds and believed the material to be original. However, she has declined to name the researcher, so her story could not be corroborated.
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Even if Cobb hired an assistant who deceived her, her story is embarrassing beyond the fact of being duped.
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First, sermon material taken from others—particularly quotes, illustrations, statistics and significant biblical interpretations—should be attributed to the original author. Cobb should have asked for documentation from any assistant who would have provided such material. And if the assistant were so good that she came up with this material all by herself, Cobb should have given her some kind of public credit. Cobb never should have implied she “polled” people for the sermon when she did not.
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Second, Cobb’s attempt to diminish the scope of the indiscretion is in itself misleading. Confronted, she should have owned up to the fact the sermon was not her own.
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Third, pilfering sermons denigrates the sacredness of the preaching act. Baptists historically have held the sermon in high esteem. We are a “people of the book,” and proclamation from the Bible is one our most sacred moments. We expect those who preach to us to have prayed and studied and searched their souls for God’s word, not shilled out a few dollars to buy a sermon. (Of course, some male pastors have bought books of “Saturday night specials”—pre-written sermons they can copy and preach—for years. But since when is “everyone else is doing it” a satisfactory ethical response?)
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The lingering taint of this lapse pertains to the damage inflicted upon the CBF and upon the vast, vast majority of upright and ethical women in ministry serving in Baptist churches.
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Because of the political climate in which it was born, the CBF has legions of detractors. Baptist Press has attacked the 11-year-old organization almost without ceasing, seeking to discredit it through guilt-by-association. CBF leaders talk a lot about justice and integrity; now opponents may wonder about the CBF’s ethical administrative core. Moreover, the book from which the sermon was taken reportedly includes articles supporting lesbian relationships and the Wiccan religion. Practically no one affiliated with the organization would affirm such views, but Cobb’s sermon provides a link in BP’s guilt-by-association chain.
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An incident like this just gives non-fundamentalist Texas Baptists reason to be wary of the CBF. The comments of a Baptist who talked to former CBF coordinator and Texas pastor Cecil Sherman, comparing the SBC and the CBF, illustrate this wariness: “I don’t like them, but I don’t trust you.” Cobb’s plagiarism and the CBF leadership’s silence only compound other Baptists’ concerns.
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Moreover, we can expect this episode to be used as an argument against women in ministry, particularly women who feel called to preach the gospel. Never mind that, like male clergy, women who minister are overwhelmingly responsible, ethical and sincere in their calling. Detractors will cite “that woman who preached a man’s sermon out of a book,” and women who come behind will face even more difficult struggles.
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A generation ago, African-American leaders of the civil rights movement recognized a truth that was not fair but no less real: To be considered half as competent as a white person, they had to work twice as hard and be twice as good. To be considered anywhere near as virtuous as a white person, they had to be twice as honest and never—ever—mess up.
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The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and women ministers will live with this sermon for a long, long time.
 
Marv Knox is editor of the Baptist Standard. This column was reprinted with permission.