TGC Asks Tim Keller: When Has a Preacher Crossed the Line into Plagiarism in His Sermon?

Note from Collin Hansen, TGC editorial director: This week we’re examining the thorny issue of pulpit plagiarism. We’re hearing from pastors, scholars, and researchers to work toward common understanding on this pressing, perennial dilemma. Next we turn to Tim Keller, TGC vice president and senior pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City.

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Yes, it does appear to be a problem. For these reasons. Preachers today feel under much more pressure to be spectacular than they used to feel. Christians are much less likely to be loyal to a church of a particular place or a particular theological tradition. What they want is to have a great experience on Sunday, and that means they will travel to get to the most gifted preachers. When you put this pressure together with (a) a busy week in which you haven’t felt able to prepare well, and (b) the accessibility of so much sermon material through the internet—the temptation to simply re-preach someone else’s sermon is very strong.

Nevertheless, we must be careful not to over-react. I don’t think anyone expects oral communication to have the same amount of detailed attribution as we expect in written communication. To cite where you got every allusion or basic idea or general illustration in a sermon would be tedious. A certain amount of leeway must be granted. Also, if you take a basic idea or illustration and “make it your own,” I don’t think you have to give attribution. Often the preacher you fear you are stealing from got that idea from some Puritan author and re-worked it into more contemporary form. And the Puritan might have gotten it from someone else. In fact, in the act of preaching, we often say something that we know we heard somewhere, but we can’t even remember where we got it. Again, I think we need to be charitable to preachers and not charge them with plagiarism for every un-new idea. Brand-new preachers, especially, are going to do a lot of copying of preachers that have influenced them.

However, I think the problem comes in when a minister clearly has not done his own work on the sermon, and lifts almost entire sermons whole cloth from someone else. If he takes some preaching theme word for word from someone else, or if all the headings almost in the same words are taken from someone else’s sermon, or if he reproduces an illustration almost phrase by phrase—then he should give attribution. When the basic ideas of your sermon have come from some other brilliant sermon you can early on mention the minister, and say, “Rev X, whose great sermon on this passage has helped me understand it so much . . . .” And that’s all you need.

Seldom does this kind of lifting-whole-cloth from someone else happen if you have spent hours studying the text and working out your own outline. The problem comes when you haven’t given the text the time, or when you have been too busy to read widely and pray deeply and develop your own ideas.

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See also:

Pastoral Plagiarism Is an Integrity Issue

Read other responses from:

Don Carson

Sandy Willson

Matt Perman

Glenn Lucke

  • Justin Buzzard

    Well said Tim.

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  • Jakes Olivier

    Well said Tim. Full of grace and truth.

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  • Connie Boudreaux

    Wise words. I can better articulate a response to others who have asked my opinion on this topic. (not that anybody’s “opinion” really matters). We need to take God at His word! =)

  • Jon Wymer

    I felt like this response from Tim Keller was pastoral and balanced, and more helpful to me personally than the previous entries. It would seem to me those who intentionally deceive would fall more under Carson’s response.

  • Steve Dawe

    I’m glad for this article. Dr. Keller’s book, “The Prodigal God” is for me a personal example. It was very formative in my own understanding of the passage, and so when I preached the passage, I had a lot of ideas that came via Keller, from the pastor he had been following. The result was that when I had attributed the ideas, my congregation was exposed to those other writers (who are much more capable preachers than I can hope to be), and my congregation was strengthened.

    Of course, since I am an English pastor in Korea, it’s unlikely that my congregation can shop around for other English speaking preachers as easily. . .

  • Jon Snell

    I am a lay person, meaning for a non-preacher I spend a fair amount of time studying, listening to sermons from multiple sources, etc…

    Here is my perhaps really dumb question, but I would love it if some pastors might respond to my idea.

    I have always thought that there is a great opportunity with the internet and with all the fantastic preachers / sermon writers out there. Is there a Biblical reason that if pastors allowed it, say Tim Keller, or John Piper, or whomever, that other pastors could not “USE” their sermons word for word?

    I envision an amazing website with source sermons from great preachers old and new, cross referenced nine ways to Sunday, by Scripture, by topic, by pastor, etc…

    It seems to me there are less truly gifted sermon writers out there then gifted speakers / shepherds. With the Internet, could not the pool of sermons by great writers be a central resource giving pastors additional time for study, prayer, presentation, and especially shepherding and leading their local body? And you cannot help but grow by listening to (not to mention orating) great sermons over and over. I think it would teach one style, technique, structure, etc…

    Didn’t preachers used to preach from common sermon books at one time? I guess I am just thinking in terms of resource effectiveness. Every broker does not create great investment opportunities. They are created by the talented folks and presented by those in the learning stages who the best of eventually grow into the new creators.

    I am sure there are some very important reasons why this is frowned upon, but if the purpose is to convey the Gospel why not use the most effective messages by the most gifted (by God) writers and preachers?

    Of course it is incredibly important to preach the facet of Gospel application most attuned to the pulse and place of any local church body, but resources are so plentiful it is hard to imagine that you cannot find, and modify great existing sermons to meet the needs of any local body. And of course it would be important to credit any writer properly.

    To hear a great sermon, preached well by my local pastor, written by another pastor, would not bother me in the least so long as the purpose is to preach the Gospel.

    Again, I ask this question very humbly and would love to hear feedback from especially pastors, and would really love to hear feedback from Dr. Keller, or Dr. Carson if they would…

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  • Mark

    Much more helpful article. Thank you. A sermon isn’t the same as a research paper, and even in a paper you don’t constantly write, “So and so said.” But it is impossible to footnote a reference in a spoken sermon without saying it, and it does get tedious. I’ll be the first to say that I’m pretty sure I’ve never had an original idea, and any that I have had probably needed some correction. I talked to some in my congregation about this, as it had previously bothered me when someone called pastors lazy, and I let them know that it’s the research, not my thoughts they are getting, and they responded lovingly, “We knew you weren’t that smart.”

  • Mike Warren

    Helpful, realistic and balanced.

  • Brian Malcolm

    2 Timothy 2:2 And the things you have heard from me among many witnesses, commit these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.

    Acts 17:11 These were more fair-minded than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness, and searched the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things were so.

    Acts 20 (Paul’s farewell to the Ephesians)

    Surely if one is passing on those things he has learned from faithful men, testing it against the Scriptures and being sure to teach the whole counsel of God, and Jesus is at the centre…

    1 Corinthians 3:4-8 4 For when one says, “I am of Paul,” and another, “I am of Apollos,” are you not carnal? 5 Who then is Paul, and who is Apollos, but ministers through whom you believed, as the Lord gave to each one? 6 I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase. 7 So then neither he who plants is anything, nor he who waters, but God who gives the increase. 8 Now he who plants and he who waters are one, and each one will receive his own reward according to his own labor.

  • steve

    There are those who are farmers, plumbers and factory workers who have never had formal training in theology nor speech and have limited time for preparation who take the works available and deliver them as best they can where a preacher cannot be paid or no preacher will locate. A congregation of 50 hears the gospel. It is recorded there and sent the next week to be played to a congregation of 12 who do not have men who can even deliver other’s works. The gospel is heard, and learned. The Worship of the Creator God occurs. Spiritual growth takes place. No money changes hands. Yet the Gospel of Jesus the Christ is delivered.

    Be of good cheer. There is a thriving underbelly of Christianity that shows up on no surveys or focus groups.

    And, sometimes, the stories and illustrations of mechanics, merchants and soldiers are much more interresting and helpful than those in the office. Thank you for producing great material.

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  • John

    Why does plagiarism in the pulpit actually matter? What is the motivation behind saying that some acknowledgement should occur? Is preaching about intellectual prowess or about freely expounding the truth?

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  • TLin

    Didn’t John Calvin write all the sermons in Geneva and have different preachers preach it at the 3 churches?

  • James Krieg

    I’ve heard it suggested that even Jesus himself didn’t always use original stories – there were versions of the ‘Good Samaritan’ story around before his time, in other cutures. He simply took the framework, and re-worked it to fit his context and to communicate the message he wanted to give. It was a story that would have been somewhat familiar already to his listeners – and that’s why it was effective. He never ‘quoted his sources’, except to acknowledge that all he said were the words of his Father…

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