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D. A. Carson:

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.

In another place Carson wrote:

The bad way to listen to the sermons of others is to select one such sermon on the topic or passage you have chosen and then simply steal it, passing it off as if it is your own work. This is, quite frankly, theft, and thieves, Paul tells us, will not inherit the kingdom of God (1 Cor 6:10).

Yet in some ways that is not the most serious aspect of this form of plagiarism. Rather, it is the deep damage you are doing to yourself and others by not studying the Bible for yourself. Ministers of the gospel are supported by their congregations so they will give themselves to the ministry of the Word and prayer. That demands rigorous study. A faithful minister of the gospel is never merely a biological tape recorder or CD, thoughtlessly parroting what someone else learned, thought through, prayed over, and recorded. Indulge in this exercise and before long you will starve your own soul—and, no matter how good the sermons you steal, your ministry will sooner or later, and deservedly, become sterile, for the stamp of inauthenticity will be all over you.

R.R. Reno once explained why plagiarism is wrong in higher education:

When I assign a paper, I’m asking my students to analyze material and tell me what they think. Plagiarism amounts to avoiding the assignment, and turning in something that appears to be one’s own analysis. The transgression—dishonesty—is not complicated, and it has nothing to do with theories about the possibility or impossibility of originality.

Plagiarism is a problem in higher education, because it involves students (and professors, who also plagiarize) who lie. They lie about what they know. They lie about what they have considered and thought about. They lie about their competence. Their success contributes to creating a culture of impostors.

If this is true in the classroom, how much more so behind the pulpit in the house of the Lord?

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36 thoughts on “The Problem with Plagiarism in the Pulpit”

  1. Tad says:

    What if you were to memorize a historic sermon intentionally telling your congregation that so and so did this sermon.
    I could see this being a very effective method with one of Spurgeon’s sermons, or Edward’s Sinners in the hands of an angry God.
    Does anyone see this as potentially beneficial?

    1. Justin Taylor says:

      I think that would be fine and beneficial to do on occasion.

    2. Peggy Pedersen says:

      I was very happy to hear a sermon by St. John Chrysostom one Sunday and it was exactly what I needed to hear, but the pastor did identify who was the author. I wouldn’t mind an identified and carefully chosen sermon by Luther, Giertz, etc. or one a Synod President that the pastor thought would benefit everyone on occasion and don’t think if it is given proper credit that it is either lazy or deceitful. That is different from a regular practice of using canned sermons.

      1. Tim Schaaf says:

        I know Mark Dever has done that. His version of “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” was powerful. The key is that he gave full credit.

  2. I can’t fathom the mindset of preaching that can take a sermon presented by someone else to another group of people and present it to a group of people who come expecting some application of the word of God directly to their spiritual lives. I serve as a supply preacher to a nearby church. I don’t preach there more than a few times a year, but when I do I couldn’t look at them not having spent time praying the passage for them and laboring with their needs in mind to discover what God has for that particular group of people. The responsibility for pouring the life of Christ from the scriptures into a church is daunting and I frankly don’t know how bi-vocational pastors, such as was my grandfather, do it. But I have an appreciation for the need they had in Acts 6.

    Paul acknowledges preachers who have impure motives in Phil 1. As sinful as they are, if the sermon is good in general then at least Christ is still proclaimed. But we do acknowledge that such things are sinful and the preacher will not obtain the honor of the reward for presenting the gospel free of charge (1 cor 9:17-18). That is, their heart is not with Christ. And if their hearts are not with Christ then their hearts cannot be with his people. The bulk of the damage, as Carson indicates, is to the preacher.

  3. Matt says:

    While I agree that plagiarism is wrong I think Carson overstates it here. For instance, the Puritans plagiarized each others stuff quite often and it simply was a big deal. JI Packer makes the point that they seemed to merely say things the best way they knew how and many times that meant using someone elses words. He then went on to note it didnt seem to be a priority of their to always give recognition to who they thought said it first and came up with it.

    Is it wrong for a pastor to use a sentence or two from someone else simply because they say it well without always making sure you say, “John Piper says it this way…” etc?

    I understand stealing an entire sermon from someone is nonsense. If you are a pastor, be a pastor. I just think we can get a little to bent out of shape about it. Or do I have to quote the commentator every time I use an insight from his commentary on a specific text?

    1. reformedsteve says:

      ” Or do I have to quote the commentator every time I use an insight from his commentary on a specific text?”

      I wonder the same thing.

      1. Daryl Little says:

        I think you ought to. It only takes a moment to give credit where it is due.

        1. Jesse Gnann says:

          I think that also has the potential to be pretty distracting / disrupt the flow of the message.

    2. Scott Adams says:

      Well, said Matt. I agree.

    3. MIke says:

      I think the distinction resides between what is common knowledge and what is not. For grading purposes, I have to read a lot on plagiarism and this common knowledge clause always gets me. If you swim in the field of theology, the information quickly becomes common knowledge to the individual. So after absorbing hundreds of hours of material, you are bound to spout out information you read at some point.

      When prepping a sermon, I do not think we should quote ever sentence of a commentary, but if the overarching idea is someone else, credit should be provided. I think the distinction resides between learning from the commentary for teaching to help you think through the passage vs. teaching in a way that blatantly rips off an author. You can read more about common knowledge and plagiarism here…

    4. Randy O says:

      Quoting others is valuable, and all of the great preachers have done it. So the rub seems to be how to cite. In a sermon it is often distracting and sometimes even causes prejudicial response in the mind of the listeners. So why not add a works cited list at the end of the sermon notes or do as I have done often and at the beginning of the sermon I mention the names of those whose works have influenced the lesson.

  4. Justin Taylor says:

    Sandy Willson has some good counsel here on drawing various lines:

  5. Good post and good comments. I also believe that the preacher should dedicate himself to the study of the bible and time for prayer. Yet, also if a mention of another sermon is brought up, just make sure the original author get credited.

  6. Phil says:

    About six years ago I sat down after service with one of the most well known (at the time) pastors in the Silicon Valley. We talked about sermons and he admitted that most of what he preached were not his sermons, boasting that “I preach other people’s sermons better than they preach them.” I was stunned more by his inflated sense of talent than the fact that he was just an actor who delivered lines from a script most Sundays.

    Another question: How many pastors don’t even write their own sermons, but use understudies and ghost-writers to come up with their stuff? Ok, maybe that’s now outright theft of another pastor’s sermon, but it’s not exactly coming up with your own stuff either, yet it’s delivered as if he had written it. Where’s the line?

  7. Duncan Lennox says:

    A good article and interesting comments. I think it is very timely as the internet makes it so easy these days. I am concerned that those who use grammatical diagramming as the framework for their expository sermons can (and do) use computer programmes that do that for them rather than pouring over the text for themselves. Is there a significant difference between preaching someone else’s sermon and preaching a sermon of one’s own that was written some other time for another group?

  8. Anonymous says:

    “All originality and no plagiarism makes for a dull sermon.”
    –Charles Spurgeon

  9. David says:

    I agree with Spurgeon. What’s the big deal? God has provided the church with a diversity of spiritual gifts from across the years. Why waste their sermons and the Holy Spirit’s work through others? If it preaches well and it’s biblically faithful the Spirit deserves the credit as the source.

  10. Brent says:

    Justin, I think the first sentence in your quote from Carson needs to be put in the context of his original article’s four points. On its own, it might be taken to demand the resignation or firing of many men who have not “taken over” a sermon in the sense he is using this.

  11. Am I really reading people justifying plagiarism? The ethics of the pulpit are in poor state these days if I am. Spurgeon was using a bit of hyperbole. The point is that we can’t be more original or exciting than the Bible – so plagiarize the Bible all day long and you’ll produce good sermons. Spurgeon himself was exemplary of how creative we can get in preaching, but the message cannot stray from the truth found in the scriptures.

    That said, proclaiming the normative is only a portion of the sermon. It must also be applied in the present existential and/or situational and only the local preacher can do that. In order to bring it home to his people, he must do his knee-work and write that part of the sermon that will provide immediate and intimate meaning to his people.

    Preachers, no one else can do that and you are depriving your people of the great message you want to plagiarize if you don’t. You are also failing to carry out the calling that God has called you to. So get on your knees and do your work. You’re letting your church and our Lord down spending your time justifying your sloth rather than preparing good spiritual food for your flock.

  12. Carson’s point that we must devote ourselves to the study of the Word of God is well taken. It is the time of prayer and study of the Word that breeds the conviction, passion, authority, and anointing that make preaching effective. Without that investment, one is probably just giving a religious speech.

    Yet, there are many influences in any given sermon. We must not confuse preaching with research papers or term papers which abound in footnotes. When giving a direct quotation, it is generally proper to cite the name which may even add weight to the point made. But a sermon is not a series of quotations, nor does every commentary need to be mentioned. It should be generally understood that the pastor has done his homework, that he has done his exegesis and consulted lexicons, grammars, various kinds of commentaries, and other reference works. These need not be mentioned unless we wish to reduce the authority of our preaching to the level of our sources of influence so that we end up sounding like the Pharisees quoting Hillel or Shammai, having no authority at all. We preach not commentaries but the Word of God.

    On the other hand, it may be appropriate to redevelop and re-preach someone else’s sermon if, as one of my professors said, it has been “born again” in your own heart. Someone else’s exposition of a passage may be particularly helpful and should not be off limits simply because the pastor found it in his library or read it on the Internet or is by some other means aware of its existence. However, when another person’s work becomes the dominant influence in a particular sermon, it would be normal to reference that source by one means or another (at the beginning of the message, in the church bulletin, or on the church’s website) so as to maintain “a clear conscience, desiring to act honorably in all things” (Hebrews 13:18, ESV).

  13. I agree with points 2) and 3) (and therefore would not support the practice under discussion) but have an issue with point 1). If using a significant chunk of someone else’s words in your text without attribution is “stealing”, then the Chronicler stole from the author of Kings. To give one example, 2 Chronicles 34-35 is lifted fairly straight from 2 Kings 22-23 – and without attribution. Did God really cause his word to be created by sinful means? If this is plagiarism, and plagiarism is a sin, then the Chronicler sinned.

    This is not a flippant point. We need to subject our culture’s strong sense of authorial “rights” and “ownership” to the scrutiny of Scripture.

    1. MIke says:

      Funny, for that matter…every NT author stole and did not provide credit to the OT authors (with some exceptions)!

    2. Recovering Pharisee says:

      Great point.

      I also think that while Carson makes some interesting observations his assessment may say more about the misunderstanding of the role os pastors in the 21st century. The conservative evangelical community has become obsessed with celebrity pastors and scholars with a desire of finding the next one. I went to seminary with guys who longed for controversy so they could become the next Piper, Carson, Driscoll, P.T Obrien, N.T. Wright, Mohler, David Wells, etc… When the context is that of becoming the next great pulpiteer or lecturner then I think the call against plagiarism is spot on. However, I also think it probably would not be a bad thing to take Carson and JT with a grain of salt on this. Carson works for the academic system which eventually perpetuates itself on originality. If people do not pursue studying to become novel pastors then perhaps Don is eventually unable to justify his role as a professional educator, at least in one sense. (Naturally, you should take me with a grain of salt on that as well because there are numerous other justifications for being a professional educator / academic reference book writer). JT works for a publishing house that could not exist if IP laws and copyright laws did not exist. So in some ways Carson and JT are able to self justify their respective roles, which is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact I would argue that most thinking people do and should seek to understand how what they do every day can be justified in the overarching meta narrative.

  14. Mike Francis says:

    The question of motivation needs more attention: WHY does a preacher determine that he will use someone else’s material? The heart chemistry which produces that outcome is a true peril indeed-both to the pastor and to those whom he serves.

  15. Gordon says:

    All those who are talking about plagiarism are off-base. Every time I preach my message is an amalgam of so many sources. I rarely have anything original to say. I love reading widely in preparation and pray over the final form of my manuscript. It’s mine because I believe it and wrote it, although it’s inevitably a patch-work quilt of many sources. I never feel like a thief because all truth is God’s truth not ours. I do let my people know that I’m fallible so that they will test everything preached against God’s word for themselves. So quit with this charge about plagiarism. Preaching is a labor of love already.

  16. JB says:

    You may be pulling from various sources but give them citation.

    Don’t mislead people to think you did the hard work of studying the text and don’t be lazy by assembling a sermon through what amounts to “cut and paste”.

    1. Jesse Gnann says:

      A sermon is not a scholarly work. The pulpit is not seminary class. A pastor’s flock sees the stacks of commentaries in his office. They know he uses them. He doesn’t need to cite the author or commentary series every time he pulls a bit of insight from one. Cite a hard-hitting quote? Sure. But to cite every general observation/history, gramatical insight is simply a distraction.

      1. The issue is not whether or not a preacher cites every little source. There is a trend lately where preachers are downloading written sermons from web sites and delivering them verbatim as though they wrote it.

        There are also sites that prepare outlines. All the preacher has to do is follow the outline for a good sermon. You can debate the merits of that, but the preacher does more harm to himself for not having done the work that went into the outline or having wrestled with the text to see if the outline provides the best reading of the text. The preacher never develops his own hermeneutical muscles and his ability to discern well the Biblical text atrophies. When a theological challenge confronts his congregation he is less capable of seeing it and countering it effectively. There are wolves and bears out there, shepherds.

  17. Russ says:

    I had a prominent NT prof who frequently said:
    “Plagiarism is stealing from one source. Good scholarship is stealing from 5.”
    Notably, it’s call RE-search…

    1. Good scholarship also lists sources. Poor scholarship doesn’t.

      Preaching is a different medium with a different purpose.

  18. Brent says:

    15 It is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of goodwill. 16 The latter do so in love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. 17 The former preach Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains. 18 But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice.

    “The modern concept of plagiarism as immoral and originality as an ideal emerged in Europe only in the 18th century, particularly with the Romantic movement, while in the previous centuries authors and artists were encouraged to “copy the masters as closely as possible” and avoid “unnecessary invention.” ” From wikipedia but you can find that stated in any reputable source.

    The only reason we care about this is that we are so far removed from a Christian worldview. Point one goes to show how far we have come. Plagerism is not stealing, any more than clubbing a baby seal is murder.

  19. Totally disagree with this article.

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Justin Taylor, PhD

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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