Plagiarism is a sin. In a wonderful talk “Meta-Apologetics” (available online here), Douglas Groothuis observed that the plagiarizer, by taking someone else’s work as their own, breaks at least three of the Ten Commandments: (1) they covet, (2) they steal, and (3) they bear false witness. He handles this issue when calling apologists “to be above reproach in citing our sources in our speaking and writing.” In this essay, I want to affirm the sin of plagiarism and suggest three practical steps to avoid it.
Of course, plagiarism has become a hot topic in evangelicalism, specifically among Southern Baptists, after allegations of plagiarism were brought forward against the new President of the Southern Baptist Convention. I have no desire to delve into denominational politics here, but I do want to say that this conversation has brought up an important topic for all pastors to consider: plagiarism in the pulpit.
1. Preach Your Bad Sermon
In John Piper’s newest revision of The Supremacy of God in Preaching, he adds a chapter called “In Honor of Tethered Preaching.” In this chapter, he addresses the difference between a “Bible-oriented preacher” and an “entertainment-oriented preacher.” I would recommend reading this chapter to understand this distinction alone. He claims that the Bible-oriented preacher sees himself as “God’s representative sent to God’s people to deliver a message from God.” Insofar as this is an accurate picture of a faithful preacher, we must acknowledge the need to represent God in truth if not in perfection. Typically, the desire to plagiarize arises out of a desire to be seen as a good preacher or a smart preacher or a fill-in-the-blank preacher. Pride leads us to the sin of plagiarism when we cannot stand to face our congregation with our own inadequate, imperfect, un-alliterated thoughts on a passage of Scripture.
Your people need a steady diet of faithful preaching (preaching drawn directly from the text of Scripture that communicates the gospel clearly and applies it to the life of the listener). They don’t need you to preach a sermon worthy of going viral every week. In recent decades, the internet has provided great resources online for pastors to learn about writing and delivering sermons. It has also given them access to huge catalogues of preachers across the globe that they can learn from, but it also leads to the temptation to “borrow” just a little more from someone else.
It’s Saturday night. It’s been a long week of pastoral visits in hospital parking lots, during lunch, and randomly in the pastoral study. The week left you behind. You haven’t gotten any further on your sermon than when you worked on it Monday morning. You have some ideas. You’ve meditated on it throughout the week, but now you have to plan what you’ll actually say. This is the critical moment. Do you write the subpar sermon that is drawn from your own ideas on the text and merely checked for truth by outside resources? Or do you go online type in the name of your favorite preachers and listen to their sermons on the text?
It doesn’t take a long week or a sermon written the night before to lead someone to cut corners. Sometimes we see the plethora of good resources and become disheartened by our insecurities and imperfections. We lean on someone else’s work—someone else’s sermon, someone else’s exegesis.
The first step in avoiding plagiarism in the pulpit is simple: when you get to those moments where your sermon just hasn’t come together, preach your bad sermon anyway. Make sure it is drawn from the biblical text. Make sure you preach Jesus. Make sure you address the hearts of the listeners. But when the transitions are weak, the points aren’t coming together, and you can’t help but think a YouTube preacher could do it better than you, preach your bad sermon anyway.
2. Struggle with the Biblical Text
I preach weekly on Wednesday nights for 6-12th graders. I only preach on a Sunday morning roughly once a month. Although I still have the pressure of weekly sermon prep, I’m not writing a 35-45 minute sermon for a whole congregation on a weekly basis. This allows me more time to write my next Sunday sermon. I often try to write a few weeks ahead of time which allows for new ideas and illustrations to be added, but it also makes sure I have a sermon ready to go in case my pastor is suddenly unavailable.
I last preached Mark 1:1-8, and I really struggled with it. I wrote it over the course of several weeks, and for the first couple weeks, I was lost. Should I end in verse 8 or push it forward? How do I preach Christ when he is only mentioned in verse 1? How do I handle this text without just going to a commentary to guide me? I spent at least 80% of my sermon prep time just wrestling with the passage on my own. I only consulted study Bibles and commentaries to see where they split the verses as independent thoughts to make sure my division wasn’t completely off base. I can say that if I had consulted other resources before that wrestling I would have been extremely tempted to take their points, thoughts, illustrations, and preach their sermon or a mix of a couple commentators’ sermons. I did consult resources for some study help to understand the context of the Old Testament Scripture being quoted and to understand the role and meaning of John’s baptism in the history of Israel. But otherwise, I allowed my own understanding of the text to drive the sermon.
I let myself struggle with the passage on my own for as long as I could. I didn’t let my misreading override the majority of commentators, but I did allow my legitimate reading to trump over other commentators’ legitimate readings. Let the text being the driving force, not a commentators explanation of it.
3. Cite Your Sources and Confess Your Sin
Besides the advice give above, the best way to avoid plagiarism is to give credit where credit is due. Cite your sources. No, this isn’t Junior English or Comp 1, but it is real life. The result of plagiarism isn’t just a bad grade, but it’s the integrity of your ministry before God and before your people. Don’t use another preacher’s words without giving him credit. Don’t take an idea from a book without giving its author credit. Don’t quote those song lyrics without giving the composer credit. Give credit where credit is due, and cite your sources.
Can you give credit to a whole sermon and then preach it? No. No publisher will publish a book that says, “C.S. Lewis writes: …” and then proceeds to type out The Abolition of Man in quotation marks. You can’t cite someone and take all of their work. You can reference all of their work. But you can’t spend a whole sermon quoting someone else. Cite sources when you use another’s work, but don’t make their work look like yours with an asterisk.
Finally, I would say that if you have plagiarized in your preaching—whether not attributing quotations, stealing outlines, or preaching whole sermons—confess your sin. If your church has a leadership team or a body of elders/pastors, reach out to them and confess your sins in genuine repentance seeking reconciliation with them and God. Allow them to decide how to discipline. It won’t be easy, but it will be right. If your church does not have a leadership body, you may confess it to your denominational leaders who exhibit authority over your local church. However, if you do not have either a leadership body within the local church or a leadership body outside of it, you should publicly confess your sin before the congregation and encourage them to pray and seek a biblical response to this problem.
When you plagiarize in the pulpit, you don’t just commit a sin, but you commit a sin that compromises your church’s trust in you and compromises your authority as a teacher. Therefore, you must seek reconciliation by confessing your sin to those you have wronged.