CBF leaders respond to plagiarism charges

by Russell D. Moore and Peter R. Schemm, Jr, posted Friday, June 28, 2002 (12 years ago)

FORT WORTH, Texas. (BP)--Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (CBF) leaders fended off charges of plagiarism when a sermon by the group's resources coordinator was discovered to have been lifted, virtually word-for word, from an anthology of radical feminist essays.

CBF Resources Coordinator Reba Cobb preached the message, "The Bent-Over Woman," based on Luke 13:10-17, June 27 to the annual convocation of Baptist Women in Ministry (BWIM), meeting at Broadway Baptist Church in conjunction with the CBF General Assembly.

Cobb's sermon, however, was allegedly lifted verbatim and almost in entirety, from a sermon by feminist theologian David G. Owen, "The Bent-Over Woman," published in The Wisdom of Daughters: Two Decades of the Voice of Christian Feminism (2001), a volume sold in the General Assembly exhibit hall. The book indicates that Owens' message was authored in 1979. In addition to "The Bent-Over Woman," the volume advocates worship of the goddess Sophia, the acceptance of lesbian marriage relationships, and the integration of Wiccan spirituality with Christian feminism.

In a statement released by the CBF June 28, Cobb acknowledged, "After I was confronted by reporters for Baptist Press who questioned the origins of portions of my message, I contacted the freelance research assistant I had enlisted to gather content materials for me. I am saddened to say that this person did provide me with material from another source, without crediting the source."

"This grave error in judgment resulted in me unwittingly presenting portions of a message that had earlier been presented by another minister," Cobb continued. "I have contacted this minister and expressed my most sincere regrets over this incident. I also wish to extend my most sincere apology to others who may be offended by my unintentional actions."

It was not, however, "portions" of Cobb's message that replicated the earlier sermon, but virtually the entire address. The identical language starts with the very first line of the message: "Is it your impression as well as mine that the story of the Bent-Over Woman has long been neglected in the church? Somehow it never made it to the Top Ten or the Favorite Forty along with the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son, Blind Bartimaeus, the man with the withered hand, the Woman at the Well, and little Zaccheus up the sycamore tree."

The identical text between the two messages continues, with almost no variation between the two, throughout the entirety of the sermon. Cobb never attributed any of the message's content or language to Owen or any other author.

The one-to-one correspondence of Cobb's sermon to that of Owen includes Cobb's recounting that she had polled some women as to the possible reasons for the ailment of the woman in the text. Owen's text includes the exact same anecdotes, in the same language, of women suggesting the possibilities of the woman's children, picking up her husband's dirty socks for thirty years, "working like a slave for a minimum wage," and, from a homemaker, "working like a slave for no wages at all."

The sermon by Cobb and the sermon by Owen continue in identical language through the ending, when they both say to men: "Brother, if you ever see a bent-over woman beginning to unbend and to straighten herself, at the very least you had better give her a little standing room, because that isn't just another woman standing up. That's your sister rising to her full stature-and that's God's kingdom cranking up!" To women, both the Cobb and Owen sermons conclude by declaring "that since it is Satan who wants you to be a slave, only the Devil himself would say that now is not the time or that this is not the place. If your spirit is bent-over, you are free to rise up!"

When asked about the apparent plagiarism, Cobb at first refused comment, noting that her sermon "speaks for itself." Cobb then told Baptist Press that she did not know that the sermon had appeared anywhere else and that she had "had help" with the sermon. Cobb declined to discuss the matter further. The CBF statement on the matter was released the morning of June 28.

Cobb's sermon was featured in an article on the CBF and women in ministry in the June 28 Fort Worth Star-Telegram. The newspaper quoted from Cobb's sermon, noting that she "drew parallels" between the Southern Baptist Convention's opposition to women in the pastorate and the plight of the woman in the text from which she preached.

Cobb, a longtime activist in moderate Baptist life, has served as the national deputy to CBF coordinator Dan Vestal since her election to the post in 2001. She is one of the founding members of Baptist Women in Ministry.


Russell D. Moore teaches Christian theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. Pete Schemm teaches Christian theology and women's studies at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C.

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