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TGC Asks is looking at pastoral plagiarism this week. That link will take you to Collin Hansen’s introduction, where he provides the anecdote of a well-known evangelical lifting paragraphs of Collin’s work and putting them in a published book--and no one seemed to care.

Sandy Willson provides some helpful counsel on how to avoid plagiarism in the pulpit.

And here is an excerpt from Don Carson’s entry:

Taking over another sermon and preaching it as if it were yours is always and unequivocally wrong, and if you do it you should resign or be fired immediately. The wickedness is along at least three axes: (1) You are stealing. (2) You are deceiving the people to whom you are preaching. (3) Perhaps worst, you are not devoting yourself to the study of the Bible to the end that God's truth captures you, molds you, makes you a man of God and equips you to speak for him. If preaching is God's truth through human personality (so Phillips Brooks), then serving as nothing more than a kind of organic recording device in playback mode does not qualify. Incidentally, changing a few words here and there in someone else's work does not let you off the hook; re-telling personal experiences as if they were yours when they were not makes the offense all the uglier. That this offense is easy to commit because of the availability of source material in the digital age does not lessen its wickedness, any more than the ready availability of porn in the digital age does not turn pornography into a virtue.

Check back throughout the week to hear from Tim Keller, Glenn Lucke, Matt Perman, and Collin himself

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40 thoughts on “Carson on Pastoral Plagiarism”

  1. Mike says:

    I completely agree that one should never pass off someone else sermon as their own. With that said, how would you guys say an honorable man should utilize sermon outline books which present a “skeleton.” I don’t use them, but I have a tone of them that came with my logos software….thoughts?

  2. Brent says:

    Shouldn’t we be happy that the Word of God is getting preached out there? After all, its all God’s stuff anyways, who cares if you preach the same sermon as someone else.

    1. Robert says:

      My word, carrying that rational to a ridiculous conclusion would take about 2 seconds. That’s really a poor attempt at justifying theft.

      1. Timothy says:

        The closest biblical precedent to such unworthy preaching of the gospel is in Philippians 1:15,17. It would be outrageous to claim that Paul delights in envy and rivalry and selfish ambition and by analogy I am sure he would disapprove of the dishonsty of plagiarism, and yet… He still rejoiced that Christ was preached. So I think Brent and Robert have a point.

  3. Is this really an issue? I understand the provlem in stealing personal stories and passing them off as your own. Or robbing material for published (read paid) works. But repeating ideas that others have used. Wonder what they thought of Peter on the day of Pentecost as he simply reminded the Jews if thier history. I am sure they were saying, “Could he not have come up with his own sermon anecdotes?!?!”

  4. Jason says:

    Not sure I would call this plagiarism. If someone who is gifted, has a sharp and creative mind, has come up with some incredible material that will benefit the body of Christ and may be used to help unbelievers understand the gospel, why not use his material? Maybe it doesn’t have to be word for word, and maybe you are not going to use all of the same personal illustrations, but the same idea, outline, illustrations, could all be used to help others grow more like Christ.

    I don’t think we should always depend on other’s for all of our materials, but why not use great resources and thoughts of others?

    It is not about taking credit for ideas, it is about the spread of the gospel!

  5. All doubt has been removed that the church is no different from the world regarding ethics.

    Sad state of affairs.

  6. You know what I think? I think that taking over another sermon and preaching it as if it were yours is always and unequivocally wrong, and if you do it you should resign or be fired immediately. The wickedness is along at least three axes: (1) You are stealing . . .

    Anyway, my mentor in the faith told me once that he typically preached other people’s ideas every Sunday. He said there was a right way and a wrong way to do it. First, he said, you can “adopt” their ideas. Take it and claim it for your own. This, he said, was plagiarism. Or, he said, you could “adapt” their material. Change it around a little and make it your own.

    I saw no difference. When I pastored I was so paranoid about plagiarism that when I got an idea from a commentary or passage, I’d always give credit to the one whose idea it was. The best idea is for pastors to learn to do exegesis. Will we often come to the same conclusions and ideas? Absolutely. But we can at least say they came from Scripture and were our own.

  7. Justin Taylor says:

    FYI: as per my policy I’m going to delete specific accusations about specific people engaging in plagiarism.

    1. JT,

      I’m a fan of this blog, and your work in general. In general, I largely agree with what you write, and probably even agree on the majority of what you are speaking about concerning plagiarism. However, I find myself frustrated every time it is brought up on this blog, not because I think it is well and good to steal, but because you never define what plagiarism looks like in an oral medium, and you refuse to give examples of who has done it so we can see what it looks like. Finally, there is no preacher on the earth who hasn’t imitated a mentor without giving him “credit” in the sermon. To say otherwise is unhealthy and preposterous.

      It is the latter that I think begs a distinction. I am committed to making disciples, and I know that when I do, they will imitate me. (Which is its own humiliation.) Who hasn’t seen a young preacher preach who hasn’t “stolen” the mannerisms of his favorite author/preacher/mentor. Surely, this isn’t what is being decried, is it?

      I agree that the person who lifted Collin’s work is a plagiarist. Plagiarism in the literary endeavors is defined very well. However, preaching is an entirely different medium. Here’s where I’ll agree with you:

      1. No stealing personal testimonies and passing them off as your own.
      2. No using another person’s outline verbatim without a reference.
      3. No yelling like John Piper, and refrain from saying “white-hot” and “ultimate” too often as these are his trademarks. (I kid.)

      I am left to believe that it is a serious problem in the publishing world that people are passing off work as their own. You have said some people are using ghost writers to do their work for them. Now, we are seeing that some pastors are nefariously trading on the work of others. Well, again I say that you are doing us no service by not saying who is doing it. All you are accomplishing, perhaps, is making fledgling preachers more nervous about the undeniable fact that everything that they teach is pretty much an amalgam of all his favorite teachers. Perhaps they should begin each sermon with: “Everything I say today has been lifted from Mark Dever, C.S. Lewis, C.J. Mahaney, the apostle Paul, and my pastor. I got my hand motions from John Piper. Now turn with me if you will in your Bibles to…”

      1. Justin Taylor says:

        Thanks, Brad.

        I really don’t want to make people so overly scrupulous that they fear sinning merely by being influenced by someone.

        Some of the other contributors to the forum will offer some more guidance in the gray areas.

        Let me offer an anecdote to demonstrate at least that this happens. When I worked for Piper, I would sometimes googled a line from his sermon to track down some bibliographic information about a quote. On two separate occasions I discovered pastors preaching this sermon verbatim claiming it as their own—and posting very lightly revised manuscripts (!). Thankfully both men repented when confronted.

        I don’t know percentages, but we are naive if we don’t think this happens a lot today. Witness the websites where you can buy ready-made sermon outlines and entire sermons.

        Hope that helps.


        1. You’re welcome, JT.

          I want you to re-iterate that I am almost certain that we have close to 100% agreement on this. I’m not overly concerned with someone who does what you described in the sense that it is very apparently ridiculous to verbatim lift a sermon. It seems to me that the memorization work alone would require, for me at least, nearly the effort of doing the work myself.

          I am more concerned about a young pastor who is new to preaching. He will imitate his mentors. He must! His admiration for them will compel him to at some level, and I think this is a good thing. Of course, he should be taught to give credit where credit is due. For myself, I freely confess that I am so indebted to my mentors, John Piper included, that hardly a thought comes through my mind that isn’t filtered through their instruction.

          It is difficult to describe, but let me try it this way. I have heard illustrations that I love from pastors, and many have heard them before, such as when Piper quotes Abraham Kuyper concern Jesus owning every square inch of planet earth. (I paraphrase.) Now, let’s say you want to deliver that line with the passion that Piper delivers it with. Should you stop the discourse and say, “By the way, I heard this first from John Piper, and I’m going to say it like he said it.” You see, my purpose in saying it like Pastor John is not to steal from him, but to imitate him in such a way that the delivery of truth will stir those who hear as it stirred my own soul. Is this stealing? I ask sincerely! I do not feel that it is, for I already confess that most of what I know comes from men such as this, and I want to deliver what they delivered to me as robustly and zealously as I received it.

          These are the thoughts that go through my head when I hear a young preacher imitating someone they admire. When I hear a young preacher “sound” like John Piper, even quote him without credit, I don’t think, “Thief!” I think, “Student!”

          I hope that makes sense. I am, in no way, condoning thievery. God forbid! I am trying to explain something that happens in preaching delivery that differs from the printed page. I could be wrong, and I am open to correction on this.

          1. Alas! That should be, “I want to re-iterate to you” not “I want you to re-iterate”! The humiliations never cease. :)

            1. John Thomson says:


              I am with you. Well said.

      2. Alex Philip says:

        I plagiarize Piper’s hand motions all the time!

  8. Eloquorius says:

    At what point does it become theft, plagiarism, etc? Of course ripping off someone’s entire sermon is way over the line, as is downloading a sermon from one of the “sermon services” and the putting your name on it. Both of those happen constantly in modern churches.

    But what if a guy encounters a sermon series (say, a 12 part series on Christ on the cross or something) and uses those same topics/chapters as a framework or foundation for his own work? While blatant rip-offs are blatantly wrong, does every pastor have to reinvent the proverbial wheel every Sunday on the same topics of which other (perhaps more talented) men have already done excellent work? The fact is, we all draw from things we’ve heard, read or have otherwise influenced us. Obviously we must cite our quotes and such, but where — in e real world — is the line?

  9. michael says:

    I am in both academics and pastorate. I have no problem understanding the academic part of plagiarism. From the pulpit I am careful to: give credit to direct quotes, or credit to stories or illustrations.

    However is there a need to say, when giving the meaning of Greek or Hebrew word, “according to BDAG” or “BDB”? Or if I am reading Carson’s commentary on Matthew and read a lot of historical information on King Herod, do I need, from the pulpit, to cite that these historical facts came from Carson. I read one place on DG that a good rule of thumb was if it appeared in 5 commentaries you were safe. Seems a bit much to trace down 5 commentaries saying the same fact about King Herod. This is church, not a ETS meeting. My rule has been when I quote someone to give credit or if lifting a specific illustration. If the main beef is preaching someone else’s sermons then I understand completely.

    But here is the real life application: I read and saw Mark Driscoll’s sermon notes—He has none (well a few sticky notes!) He said he basically just recalls what he has read and studied and states it during the sermon. I do this too (though I do have an outline). How can we be sure what we are “recalling” isn’t in fact plagiarizing? I am sure every preacher does this. In the moment, we recall something we read and insert it in the sermon, yet we may not recall where we read it. (Perhaps Driscoll does – Not sure). Is this acceptable or do we all need to manuscript or sermons complete with footnotes? (NOTE: In no way am I accusing Driscoll of anything!)

  10. I would suggest that pastors do not publish their sermons and not record their sermons, and write books if they don’t want others to use them.

    I tell our people, I use a number of quotes and books and sermons in my preaching and teaching. I used a number of technical books to arrive at an understanding of a passage of scripture or word. If I were to say each Sunday in my teaching, here is where I got this quote, I would have not lest than 20 places. And they would say why are you bragging so much.

    List the pastors who do not every want their sermon quoted?

    I have notices a good number of preachers using others outline and idea. And others will get their secretaries to write their sermons.

    TO SAY THIS IS WICKEDNESS IS A LITTLE TOO MUCH. Who quotes Carson anyway. Tell him to stop writing books.

  11. John Thomson says:

    Who plagiarizes whom Peter (2 Pet 1) or Jude. Or do both plagiarize someone else?

    Got to say I agree with many of the qualifying comments above. I don’t preach much these days but when I did if I had sourced publicly all that was derivative in what I said, especially as a young preacher, congregations would have been fed-up and thought I was being pretentious.

    I think Carson is being a bit harsh here. I say this as a Carson fan.

  12. Todd says:

    What about preaching in a place (like some friends of mine did in India) where pastors (often with limited to no training) will essentially memorize a sermon that is given to them and preach it to their congregations? I agree with Carson as far as it goes for here in the US/Europe, but how do we think about these other places?

  13. steve hays says:

    Actually, it wouldn’t be a bad idea for pastors to tell their congregation what writers they found helpful in preparing their sermon. They could either do that live, at the outset of the sermon, or have a footnote in the web version of their sermon (assuming they post their sermons on the church website).

    I suspect that many pastors don’t do that because it would expose how little research they actually did in writing their sermon.

  14. Roger says:

    Charles, nice “spirit” big fella. Can I say in a loving way that I’m sure glad I don’t attend your church? Merry Christmas to you and yours.

  15. Luke Geraty says:

    First, Carson is a huge blessing for the church. I have quoted him many times in both preaching and writing. I am a nobody, so that doesn’t mean much, but he is excellent.

    Secondly, Todd brings up a HUGE point about missions. I have been in multiple countries where pastors literally “memorized” what I preached and then preached it to their congregations! They always (that I know of) told me they wanted to share those messages with their congregations. They even told their congregations they got the message from pastor conferences!

    I ask because on Christmas day (@ 6:37am!!), I am heading to Tanzania and Kenya to provide some training on Hermeneutics and Homiletics. Is this an issue to mention for pastors who basically have no resources? Actually, I should also mention that DesiringGod is donating several CASES of Piper books. Maybe I DO need to mention plagiarism!

    Interesting comments!

  16. Mike Francis says:

    Before this is an 8th, 9th, or 10th commandment issue, it is a 1st commandment issue: what is the preacher worshiping that compels him to do this and sacrifice both authenticity and integrity? Success? Approval? Concealing his own weaknesses and poverty from his people? Preaching is hard, hard work that reveals our own hearts to us, and what we discover is not always what we want to find. I agree with Carson, and hope that future posts will address the question of the heart motivations that lead to plagiarism. Thanks, Justin, for providing a forum to discuss and learn about this important issue.

  17. michael says:

    When I write my sermons, I frequently give them to people who are not fortunate enough to have had the seminary education I have and say, feel free to use this outline, I hope it’s a blessing. I just preached this. I hope it can be useful. Do I care if people know that “I” am the one who wrote it? No. What I care about is that people are impacted by the message. Anything I write ultimately comes from God, as His gift. While I understand some of the concern here, I wonder why these people are so upset at people using their material. It is coming across (I’m sure not intentionally) like: You can use my stuff, but I (emphasis) better get the credit.

    1. Barry says:

      Michael~ Everything you say resonates with me, and it’s hard to express it any better . . . thank you!

  18. Brian says:


    Overall, I think this is a great post on an important subject. I appreciate the comments of Brad above (who I think is saying the same thing you are, while clarifying a few specifics). But this whole discussion has raised a question in my mind about an illustration I used and how to handle similar situations in the future. Let me explain:

    When I listened to CJ’s “Ordinary Pastors” message from T4G, I was blown away by the “power under the hood” illustration he borrowed from Harry Reeder (for which he gave him credit). I was blown away because it was powerful and because I had had the exact same experience in which my dad helped me love an old ugly car by letting me experience how powerful the engine was. So I didn’t have to tell it as something that happened to Harry Reeder, because it actually happened to me.

    However, I never would have thought to use this experience as a sermon illustration until I heard CJ tell that story. So I shared my own story, drew the same point from it, but put it in my own words. Still I was left with the nagging question: “Was this my illustration, CJ’s, or Harry Reeder’s?” To explain how I came to make the connection in the midst of my sermon seemed like it would have been complicated and distracting. So am I responsible to say “CJ Mahaney helped me see that an event from own life actually illustrates this point…” and then tell all the back-story to how the idea developed? Does credit also need to go to Harry Reeder? How far back do we need to go in giving credit to an idea or illustration? And if we had the same experience, does it then become our own?

    When people commented on the illustration after the sermon, I immediately gave credit to CJ for helping me see an illustration in my own life experience. But during the sermon, explaining the details of how I arrived at that illustration didn’t seem like the best use of the short window of time I had to drive home the point.

    Any thoughts? I am honestly wrestling with this and want to honor Christ in all aspects of my preaching including how I use ideas and illustrations that were directly or indirectly from another source.

  19. Pedro says:

    When Jesus gave a variation of another Rabbi’s teaching (See: Golden Rule) He never gave “credit”. In fact, just the opposite, Jesus stood in contrast with those that were always quoting this rabbi and that rabbi in their teaching. Blatantly ripping off due to laziness or pride is wrong. Adding one’s name in someone else’s illustration is sinful. But calling discipleship “plagiarism” seems to border on the Pharisetical sometimes.

    1. Sebe says:

      Amen! Carson is making a good point, but I’m afraid he is operating more from an American “intellectual property” mindset than a scriptural one.

      Matthew Henry, whom he praises, openly plagiarized—as did most of the Puritans. There OK, but ‘Pastor Joe’ in central Iowa is a sinner for doing the same thing? Doesn’t make sense.

  20. chiefleast says:

    On more than one occasion I’ve felt like a dumb parrot when speaking truth’s that have come primarily from someone else’s study.

    I guess the main issue is whether the truth preached has resonated in my own life to the degree I am personally challenged and changed by it. Otherwise, they are just words that could be read by a lifeless audio device or any pagan with a tenth grade reading level. A truth God has birthed in me during the crucible of tough study and prayer will be preached with the fervor it deserves, whether or not it is the same truth Piper, Luther, or Augustine found in their own closet.

  21. Martin Kemp says:

    There’ a great story from here in Sydney about this. I’m not sure whether it’s just an urban myth, but here goes:
    There was a curate in a small fishing village south if Sydney who had one of those disastrous weeks where no sermon prep had been done. It was late on Sat night, and was wondering how he was going to get a message ready by the next morning. Then he suddenly had a thought: “I think John Stott wrote a chapter on this passage and topic in one of his books!” He pulls the book from the shelf, and there it is! A ready made sermon by one of the UK’s finest preachers.
    As he’s reading out the chapter the next morning, he notices one of his seminary professors sitting in the congregation. “That’s funny”, he thinks to himself, “I wonder what Dr X is doing here. And who is that older gentleman sitting beside him?”
    At the end of the service the curate is greeting parishioners at the church door when the professor and his friend pause before leaving. “Good morning Rev Y”, says the professor. “Can I introduce the Rev John Stott.” Trembling, the curate offers his hand, and taking it Uncle John looks him in the eye and says “Thank you for your words this morning. I wouldn’t have put it any differently myself.”

  22. Sebe says:

    Yet D.A. Carson holds Matthew Henry in high regard….whose book is full of (uncredited) thoughts from other men.

    Truth belongs to no one.

    People need to remember that sermons are not graduate research papers. Most congregations don’t want verbal footnotes and oddles of quotations. Some do (probably the ones Carson speaks at), which is fine.

    I agree it is blatantly wrong and lazy to take a whole sermon, edited a few words, and repeat it word for word. It is wrong to openly lie and give an illustration as if it happened to you. But is it really wrong to take a skeleton outline or even a single point? Do we really need to stop in the sermon and say, ever single time, point number 3 comes from John Piper’s sermon back in 1984 on Phil 3:4 (etc., etc.)?

    To me the issue is not whether or not we are giving other people credit (its not about us, remember?). The issue is whether or not we can honestly say we’ve studied through the text and meditated on its meaning and applications. Those who cut & paste on Sat. night (or even Sun morning) cannot honestly say this.

    But pity the poor brother who happens to like the way MacArthur outlined a passage, or think a key point by Mark Dever would be helpful to his people!

  23. Scott says:

    Honest question…

    Presume for a moment that an assistant writes a sermon for a pastor, and then a pastor preaches it. Does this qualify as the sort of plagiarism that Carson decries?

  24. Mike says:

    Maybe if the prospective plagiarist would get arrested first, than he would have the right words to say…Mk 13:11

    I love Don Carson; he’s absolutely correct.

  25. Bob Myers says:

    At this point in my ministry, after 23 years of preaching, I preach with very few notes, and spend at least 15 hours in preparation. I provide the congregation with a notes and quotes page, but rarely read a quote verbatim in the sermon.

    When I preached through Romans I read massive amounts of commentaries and sermons. Lloyd-Jones,Calvin, Boice, Piper’s sermon manuscripts, Leon Morris, John Stott, John Murray, Hendriksen and Moo, and a few other resources. I was struck by how much borrowing goes on in these commentaries and preached sermons, often not foot noted, but resources were often mentioned in the bibliography. Some of the borrowing without attribution happened in the course of oral sermons that were later transcribed. The standards have to be different than academia.

    I don’t think it’s even practical for a well read preacher to cite everyone he borrows from, and there is a need for balance here. If a preacher says, “If you were to die today and stand before God and He asked you, Why should I let you in?” does he need to credit D.James Kennedy and Evangelism Explosion? Charles Spurgeon preached a sermon and used that question before him, and someone pointed me to a writing of Augustine where he uses that question.

    I am sure that I have been guilty at times of relying too much on a preacher or commentary and not attributing.

    Early on Most of my apologetics in preaching were from Tim Keller who I cited so much I got teased about it. But my congregation benefitted, and when he started writing books, they snatched them up with delight. I have on few occasions preached on a passage where I borrowed so much from a preacher that I did credit him at the front of the sermon.

    I also think I overdosed on commentaries when I preached through Romans and would have done better to study, read, meditate and especially pray for the anointing to declare the Word.

    I think the heart of the matter is to as someone said, “draw nectar from many flowers but make your own honey”, or “eat the grass from many pastures, but make your own milk”…. The heart of the matter is powerful preaching arises out of prayerful study of Holy Scripture. Any preacher who is doing other than this is short-circuiting the process.

  26. Andy Hunter says:

    I wonder if Mark got so uptight about Matthew & Luke?

  27. Bob Myers says:

    Yes, Andy, Mark got so ticked off that he added those verses at the end of chapter 16 starting with verse 9!

  28. Jim Crigler says:

    This brings to mind a poem that appeared in the humor column in the early days of Christianity Today. Supposedly written by an Anglican minister in the 1800s, it went like this:

    There once was a preacher named Spurgey
    Who frowned on our liturgy.
    But his sermons were fine
    so I preached them as mine
    As did the rest of the clergy.

  29. michael says:

    “Of course, when I quote someone, I am careful to credit him. To quote someone else as though it were your own words is wrong. Yet I read so many different discussions and pour so many things through my mind as I prepare sermons that it is next to impossible to document the source of each thought. As long as I phrase the thoughts in my own words and combine them with other thoughts, it is not necessary to footnote them. Extensive footnoting is proper ina book. I am careful in my books to document my sources, but too many references to sources would be disctracting in a sermon.
    A balance is the ideal. We cannot document every thought in our sermons. On the other hand, we should give credit where due. Pastors sometimes ask me if they can use my material. I have given blanket permission for anyone to use my sermons and to preach them in whole or in part if they wish, and I do not want any credit as the source. If what I say has value to someone, I am honored for him to use it for God’s glory. The truth is all His.” —John MacArthurh, Rediscovering Expository Preaching, 338.

    Amen Pastor MacArthur! Oh that more of this humble attitude were present.

  30. Kay says:

    I had pastor that used PDL sermons everytime we had service then after about a year he started using another pastor’s sermons word for word, story for story, quote for quote.( Using his name)
    When he was exposed he called those who told the church “dogs barking at his parade” he then set about to remove them from the church. His deacon friend reminded us to “Touch not the Lord’s annointed! We were called troublemakers, and other names. My heart is broken, I loved my church and our church family.
    What a dividing issue this is. Over a third of my church was split off, my small rural community split.
    And yes, the pastor is still there reading word for word others sermons.

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Justin Taylor is executive vice president of book publishing and book publisher for Crossway and blogs at Between Two Worlds. You can follow him on Twitter.

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