Editor’s Note: SermonCentral.com is a site dedicated to resourcing pastors in more effective and efficient sermon preparation. Its resources are available to preachers and teachers as they see fit as they minister for God in their churches. Access to the resources is one of the wonders and opportunities of the digital age. Colleagues in the ministry have given freely of their thoughts and messages for your benefit. You may use what they have freely shared—but we all must be diligent to use these resources responsibly. This article and other content published earlier offer the opportunity to reflect on and perhaps even correct our approach to preparing and presenting the Word of God in a way that pleases him. The views expressed here are not necessarily the opinions of SermonCentral.com, but we welcome open exchange on this important topic.
The opinions below are originally published by The Gospel Coalition on the thorny issue of pulpit plagiarism. Contributors include New Testament scholar D. A. Carson, senior pastor Sandy Willson, author and senior pastor Tim Keller, senior parachurch executive Matt Perman, and church research consultant Glenn Lucke.
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Question: When has a preacher crossed the line into plagiarism in his sermon?
D. A. Carson:
First: 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. (Occasionally preachers have preached a famous sermon from another preacher, carefully noting their source. That should be done, at most, only very occasionally, but there is no evil in it.)
Second: Taking over the structure, perhaps the outline in exact wording, and other significant chunks, while filling in the rest of the substance yourself, is not quite so grievous but still reprehensible. The temptation springs from the fact that writing a really good outline is often the most creative and challenging part of sermon preparation. Fair enough: If you “borrow” someone else’s outline, simply acknowledge it, and you have not sinned.
Third: In the course of diligent preparation, you are likely to come across clever snippets and ways of summarizing or formulating the truth of a passage that are creative and memorable. If you cite them, you should acknowledge that they are not yours, either with an “As so-and-so has said” or an “As someone has said.” This discipline keeps you honest and humble.
Fourth: 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. Often such sources can be tracked down fairly easily. On the other hand, do not become paranoid: A well-stocked mind is the result of decades of reading and learning, and ought to overflow easily and happily with gratitude toward God to the blessing of God’s people.
Johann Albrecht Bengel (1687-1752): “Apply yourself wholly to the text; apply the text wholly to yourself.”
The issue of plagiarism in preaching has been a “hot topic” in years past, as several ministers have been fired or severely rebuked for crossing the line. But, more importantly, this issue is crucial for the sake of our personal integrity and for the honor of Christ whom we proclaim; therefore, we need to be very careful.
I think there are several issues at stake:
- 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 have not.
- We must not substitute real Bible study and prophetic sermon preparation with “cutting and pasting.”
Here’s how I try to handle it in preaching:
- Any direct quote is always attributed to the author in full.
- Any ideas that I found in my reading that are uniquely attributable to one scholar or author are normally attributed to him.
- If there are a number of unique ideas from one author, I may make a general attribution to his overall influence on my thinking at the beginning of my sermon.
- Ideas that I discovered from several others that were not my own are usually covered by simply saying, “a number of scholars suggest that . . .”
- Books or articles that I have found helpful are often shared with the congregation for their own edification.
- If my sermons are published or sold on websites or CDs, I must be even more scrupulous to acknowledge all of my sources through footnotes and comments in order to avoid “stealing” from my brother or sister.
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.