Avoiding Plagiarism from the Pulpit

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.

Pastoral Theology with Matthew Halsted

In this article, I interview Dr. Matthew Halsted about pastoral theology. Halsted is the Senior Pastor of First Baptist Church of McLoud, OK and a lecturer at Oklahoma Baptist University. His academic research has focused on biblical hermeneutics (i.e., interpretation) and the New Testament’s use of the Old Testament especially in Paul’s letters. He is the founder and director of Trinityhaus (a center for Christian thought). He has presented papers and given talks nationally and internationally, and he is passionate about bringing academia into conversation with the local church.

Thank you to Dr. Halsted for taking the time out of his schedule to answer these questions for us. My questions and comments appear in bold font, and his responses follow them.

What is pastoral theology? And what interests you about pastoral theology?

Broadly speaking, “pastoral theology” can be defined as fleshing out theological truths within the context of Christian ministry—particularly at the local church level. It is, by definition, applying God’s unchanging truth to the ever-changing circumstances of the lives of a worshiping congregation.

I suppose what interests me most about pastoral theology is that it requires attentiveness to both the needs of the congregation and to the biblical text. This relationship between Scripture and congregation is fascinating to me. Pastors must remain faithful to the Bible as God’s Word and, at the same time, be creative in how the truth of the Bible is fleshed out into the life of the congregation. This relationship between the truth of the fixed text and its fresh application to the contingencies of parish ministry is the heart and soul of pastoral theology.

Because pastoral theology covers several different topics, I would like to give you space to share your thoughts on a few different ones. How about we start with the office of pastor? Do you think pastors have a special kind of authority? Why or why not?

That’s a good question. There is a sense in which pastors should recognize that their position is one of “authority.” It has to be remembered, though, that it is a derived authority. That is, pastors are not ultimately in charge of, or responsible for, the church (thank God!). Rather, a pastor’s authority is authoritative in so far as it is connected to the truths of Scripture. My Protestantism may be getting the best of me here, but under no circumstances is a pastor to be considered authoritative unless that pastor is operating within the boundaries of biblical, orthodox truth—which has been handed down through the ages.

I have to add one more thing, if I may. Our culture is obsessed with “authority” and “being in charge.” I immediately think of the situation in Mark 10. In that chapter, James and John requested positions of power and glory in the kingdom, but our Lord admonished them to be cautious. The pagan leaders, Jesus said, were too fixated on how they could “exercise authority” over people (v.42). This is not to be the way of Christ followers. Because I think Jesus remains the best mentor for pastors, I think his own model is worth following: Instead of being preoccupied with notions of power and authority, people would do well to become servants. Pastors ought to be the first servants of the church—if they desire to be faithful followers of their crucified Lord.

Prayer seems vital to pastoral ministry. How does your theology of prayer shape your ministry? And how do you teach your congregation to pray?

There is a huge temptation for pastors to reduce their entire ministry down to nothing more than “talking about God.” In many ways, this temptation is always present because—to state the obvious—the pastoral vocation seems to be about doing just that: talking about God. As pastors, we are expected to preach about God, teach about God, and talk about God. To make matters worse, we are expected to teach others to do the same! But if were are not careful, we will make God into an object to be analyzed instead of the One with whom we are to commune. Prayer helps us in this regard.

Indeed, prayer is communion with God. Of course, this involves making requests, lavishing praise, raising doubts, and confessing sin. But these things are not what prayer is; prayer is communion. If we are truly communing with God, then of course we will be doing these things.

Eugene Peterson made a statement once that prayer is not so much about being nice before God but rather about being honest with him. I also agree with Peterson that, if Christians want to develop a prayer life, the Psalter is necessary curriculum. It is indispensable.

Do you think prayer changes how God acts, and if so, in what ways?

I recall reading C.S. Lewis on this very question. His musings, as always, are helpful as we navigate this topic. Following Lewis, I think the ideal prayer request is a request for something good. But if God is good, then surely God would already want the good for which we are praying—independently of our praying or not praying. And if God is powerful, then surely he would be capable in his own strength to bring it about—again, independently of our praying or not praying. So, why pray?

I’ll be the first to admit that prayer is a mystery in this regard. But I think something along the following lines is true. First, because prayer is fundamentally about communion with God (as C.S. Lewis also observes, as I recall), then it only makes sense that God would want to involve his creatures—the objects of his love—to engage him in communal acts such as prayer. Second, if a relationship such as this is to be meaningful in any sense, then a person must be capable of making choices that are significantly free. This leaves open the possibility for God’s people to pray or not pray. And if prayer is to be one of these significantly free acts, it must be—in some way or another—effectual.

What this means is that some things will not happen if we don’t pray. In other words, some prayers are acts that bring about change that, all things being equal, would not have been brought about except through prayer. This seems to be what is meant by certain passages of Scripture such as James 4:2 (“you do not have because you do not ask”). Here, something is not happening because of the lack of prayer.

It is reasonable to suppose that God, in his sovereignty, has set up this world such that his creatures have this sort of significant freedom. This does not imply, of course, that everything depends upon our prayers or that God’s overall plan is itself dependent upon our praying. I have certain metaphysical commitments that permit me to think God, as the Absolute Good, will always get his way no matter what his free creatures choose to do or choose not to do—a subject for another day!

To change the topic a bit, John Calvin argued that a rightly ordered church includes the Word and Sacraments. What are these two different things? And could you explain your approach to both?

I think Calvin is largely correct here. The Protestant emphasis on the preaching of the Word is absolutely important to maintain. It is God’s Word, for example, that brings forth faith; it is God’s Word which instructs, guides, and corrects the church. So the proclamation of the Word, if it is not central, will result in a church that is not rightly ordered. The same can be said of the Sacraments—that is, the Eucharist and Baptism. The Eucharist, mysteriously, functions in the life of the church as a gracious benefit. It is a reminder of God’s goodness—one that is loving and confrontational all at the same time. Baptism, too, is inherently confrontational. It is an initiatory rite into a Kingdom that is opposed to this world’s powers. Like the proclamation of the Word, if the Sacraments are not properly placed within the life of the church, then our witness to the world will go impeded.

For pastors young and old, how would you encourage them to develop their pastoral theology? What resources or biblical passages would you direct them towards? What mistakes would you encourage them to avoid?

Every pastor needs to be a praying pastor. It’s essential. Prayer serves as a reminder that we are insufficient to bring about the Kingdom of God. I think one mistake pastors make is to treat their ministry as if everything depends on them. As a result of this mindset, pastors get emotionally discouraged and burned out. The truth, however, is that the success of the church depends on God, not us. All we are required to do is be faithful to do what he has given us to do, and he will take care of the results.

Again, I think the Psalms are super important for pastors. The main reason is because they will teach us to pray. I also think becoming familiar with the prophets, particularly Jeremiah, would be good for modern pastors. I have found the prophets to be encouraging friends and colleagues. In terms of other resources, I highly recommended Eugene Peterson’s works. His insights are gold.

Thank you again to Dr. Halsted! Look for more interviews with Matthew Halsted and others in the near future! If you missed my interview with Tawa Anderson on “Christian Apologetics” or my interview with Timothy and Faith Pawl on “Mary, the Mother of God”, you can view them here: Christian Apologetics and Mary, the Mother of God.

Top Tens of 2019

For everyone who doesn’t care, here are my three top ten lists in books, albums, and movies and television.

I read many books in 2019, and I could have read even more if I would just finish them. But instead, I chose ten that I particularly enjoyed reading regardless of whether I agreed with everything (as evidenced by including two books with different views on atonement).

I also listened to a great deal of music, and like the books, I listened to many that are older. However, these were the albums I enjoyed listening to most this year–I chose albums because I tend to listen to whole albums.

Finally, I don’t watch a lot of movies, and many of the TV shows I watched, I had seen before. So, I combined the lists with a heavy bent towards things I watched within the last six months. I’m not a critique, so this list is mostly based on enjoyment (although I will argue with anyone on why #9 should be included).

*Disclaimer*: I suggest always checking content advisory guides before consuming books and other entertainment. Some of the content below might contain something you wish to avoid, and at times, it is as easy as skipping one episode in a series (for example, I chose to skip an episode of The Crown).

Books

1. On the Cosmic Mystery of Christ by Maximus the Confessor

2. Philosophical Fragments by Søren Kierkegaard

3. Silence by Shusaku Endo

4. Analyzing Doctrine by Oliver Crisp

5. Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C.S. Lewis

6. Disruptive Witness by Alan Noble

7. On the Unity of Christ by Cyril of Alexandria

8. The Gay Science by Friedrich Nietzsche

9. Defending Substitution by Simon Gathercole

10. The Day the Revolution Began by N.T. Wright

Albums

1. The Crane Wife by The Decemberists

2. The Suburbs by Arcade Fire

3. Closer Than Together by Avett Brothers

4. The King Is Dead by The Decemberists

5. AM by Artic Monkeys

6. Kintsugi by Death Cab for Cutie

7. Revolver by The Beatles

8. Messenger Hymns Live by Matt Boswell

9. KIWANUKA by Michael Kiwanuka

10. Where Eyes Don’t Go by The Gray Havens

Movies and TV

1. Guardians of the Galaxy

2. The Good Place

3. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

4. Better Call Saul

5. The Crown

6. Spider-Man: Far From Home

7. The Irishman

8. James Acaster Reptoire

9. Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

10. Cuckoo

Thanks for reading! Comment with your favorites from 2019, and give me some recommendations for 2020!