According to the Concise Oxford Dictionary, to plagiarize is ‘to take (the work or an idea of someone else) and pass it off as one’s own.’
Plagiarism can occur in various walks of life: in academic study, in art and music, and in preaching. Obviously, it is the latter that we are concerned with here.
Plagiarism may be intentional (in which case it is dishonest). Or it may be unintentional (in which case it is due to poor work methods).
Plagiarism may be extensive (such using an entire sermon of someone else, or a significant portion of it). Or it may be minimal (such as using someone else’s idea for an illustration, but putting it in your own words). Indeed, there is a ‘grey area’ in which it is impossible to say exactly where a line should be drawn.
Confession time! I have probably stepped into that ‘grey area’ on a number of occasions, both in my preaching and writing. The very process of writing this post will, God willing, make me more alert in future.
Plagiarism in preaching is not exactly the same as plagiarism in the academic and commercial worlds. In these latter, the issue of unfair advantage (in terms of gaining qualifications or money) becomes more obvious. Therefore, the standard of attribution (such full bibliographical details) is higher in academic work than it is in spoken sermons. But this does not diminish the preacher’s moral responsibility to avoid plagiarism.
Plagiarism from internet sources is easy to commit, but also easy to detect. This is especially so when the source is text-based, because the plagiarism can be committed by using a simple cut-and-paste, and can be detected (once suspicion has been aroused) by the use of a search engine. (Hint: with Google, you can find a specific string of words by placing them in “quotation marks” in the search box.)
Plagiarism should be confronted. If you think that someone has plagiarised either your own work or someone else’s, you have a moral duty not to ignore it. Exactly what you do will depend, of course, on your relationship with the person and how extensive you think the plagiarism is. If the person is known to you, you may be able to discuss the problem and reach an agreement (‘Yes, I pinched your work, I realise that I shouldn’t have done so, and I’ll be more careful in the future”).
Plagiarism is sometimes legitimised by the authors and publishers of books of printed sermons. An egregious example is the Canterbury Preacher’s Companion, which is published each year and which offers ‘150 complete sermons for the coming year’. The publishers boast that
The sermons are complete and ready to use, or can be used as a base for local adaptation. This is an essential companion for hard-pressed clergy and preachers everywhere.
The person who uses these sermons is not guilty of thievery, because he or she have been given clear permission to do so. But the charge of deception probably stands, unless he or she makes it clear to the hearers that the sermon was taken, wholly or in large measure, from a book. In any case, it is a dereliction of pastoral duty to suppose that a Christian congregation can survive, let alone thrive, on such left-over crumbs.
I turn to some thoughts and guidance from various Christian leaders.
Don Carson has some clear words for pastors:
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.
But, as Carson acknowledges there are other types and degrees of offence. If, for example, a preacher reproduced, word for word, the headings of another person’s sermon, and perhaps pulls across other significant chunks of material as well, that is ‘not quite so grievous but still reprehensible.’ Then again, a preacher might, in the course of preparation, comes across effective turns of phrase and clever ways of explaining a passage. If the preacher cites these, he should acknowledge they they are not his own, with perhaps a, ‘As someone has said.’ Then again, ‘if you read widely and have a good mind, that mind will inevitably become charged with good things whose source or origin you cannot recall.’ These sources should be tracked down and acknowledged where possible, but there is no need to become paranoid about it.
Sandy Wilson urges:
- ‘We must not be guilty of “stealing” from our fellow Christians.
- ‘We must not pretend before our congregations that we have researched or composed something that we didn’t.
- ‘We must not substitute real Bible study and prophetic sermon preparation with “cutting and pasting.”’
Tim Keller would allow the preacher ‘a certain amount of leeway’. There are ways of taking certain ideas or illustrations and ‘making them your own’, and in such cases, attribution wouldn’t be necessary. Also, some of these ideas and illustrations are in such common currency that no-one knows their ultimate origin anyway!
If [the speaker] 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.
Glenn Lucke wisely says that:
Using another’s sermon material in one’s own messages is not a simple black-and-white issue, but rather a gray area requiring wisdom. Factors in play include quantity of material used, permission, attribution, and cultural conventions about published versus spoken material.
But, Lucke adds, important issues are at stake. To take material from another person without permission is stealing. And to represent such material as one’s own is cheating.
Jared Wilson points out to preach other people’s sermon is to seriously short-change your own hearers. They have a right to know that a message has been prepared by someone who knows about them and their needs. Plagiarism, writes Wilson, involves serving up some else’s ‘leftovers’. The temptation to plagiarise, he suggests, may come from the preacher’s own sense of insecurity. The remedy, in large part, is to have confidence in the gospel itself to do its work through one’s own ministry, humble though one’s skills may be.
Matt Perman offers some helpful guidance (the headings are in his words, the explications in mine):
1. “General acknowledgements do not suffice.” It is not sufficient for the preacher to announce, from time to time, ‘I get a lot of help for my sermons from a wide range of sources.’
2. “Detailed bibliographic data is not necessary.” The standard in this regard is not the same as for academic work, where sufficient information must given so that the reader can find the source for his- or her self. It is generally sufficient for the preacher to name the person from whom the idea, quotation, or illustration came.
3. “Common knowledge does not need to have its source cited.” You do not need to reference the fact that ‘John Calvin was one of the leaders of the Reformation’, or that many scholars think that John’s Gospel was the last of the four to be written.
4. “If the original source simply cannot be found, it is acceptable to say ‘As someone has once said…’” However, it is not usually difficult to track down a source by means of an online search.
5. “Restatements, in your own words, of the positions of general movements do not necessarily require citation.” You can state, in your own words, that the heresy of Docetism denies that Jesus had a physical body without giving details of any source.
6. “The preaching of another’s sermon is usually a bad idea, but is not plagiarism if the original author is clearly cited.” A few years ago, a minister of my acquaintance lost his voice. So he asked someone else to read out his sermon notes for him. It was perfectly clear to the congregation what was happening, and so no-one was misled. However, it did not make for a very lively or heart-searching sermon!
7. “To base the structure of your sermon on someone else’s sermon, but to use your own words, is plagiarism.” Some discretion is to be exercised here. ‘Basing the structure’ of your sermon on that of another could mean using that person’s very words, which would probably be wrong. But it could mean something less blameworthy than that. The Bible passage itself might suggest a structure which not only could, but probably should, be used. For example, Romans 5:12-21 suggests a two-point sermon, ‘Death through Adam, life through Christ’ and it is no crime for preachers to stick fairly closely to this structure.
Haddon Robinson makes the obvious, and yet important point, that preachers will rightly draw on many sources for their sermons. Occasionally, the main idea of a sermon, or the way it is developed, works well for you. But:
But somehow you have to make the sermon your own. Using someone else’s material cannot take the place of our own study and meditation on the biblical text. The sermon must be in your words. It may be someone else’s idea, but it is in your words. Do you make it your own, or do you claim it to be your own when it really belongs to somebody else? It must fit your experience. Although we do not preach our experiences, we must experience what we preach.
To the same effect, Joe McKeever quotes the words of Warren Wiersbe: “I milk many cows, but make my own butter.”