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Just What Is Pulpit Plagiarism?

Recently, I reviewed a copy of Scott Gibson’s book, Should We Use Someone Else’s Sermon? published by Zondervan.  Scott’s the Director of the Center for Preaching at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and co-founder of the Evangelical Homiletics Society.

His book squarely addresses the issue of plagiarism in the pulpit and has a lot of good insight into answering the question posed by the title of the book.  The book is extensively researched and articulately written, including vivid examples of pastors who have gotten into deep water with their sermon preparation practices. Just the book’s style and intellectual treatment of the topic makes it worth reading.  It’s a fairly brief book with just over a hundred pages and carefully prepared with 324 endnotes.  I recommend that preachers get a copy.

In my observation, the book is a fairly hard-hitting presentation, starting with words like “sermon-stealing” and ending by calling plagiarism “sin.”  There is a whole lot in between that examines different angles on sermon sharing, including historical examples down through the centuries.  I’ll share my reflections here, some in contrast to the book.

The book basically answers its own question with “We shouldn’t use someone else’s sermon,” or at least we shouldn’t plagiarize another’s sermon.  A better title to the book might be Should We Plagiarize Someone Else’s Sermon?  I think my article title leads to a bit more of a messy discussion and, perhaps, conclusion.

With a fascinating and extensive run up to defining the word “plagiarism,” Scott cites two definitions of the term, one from Haddon Robinson:

“In a world of preaching, a pastor who takes sermons from other preachers – word-for-word – without giving credit is guilty of plagiarism.  That is stealing what is not yours.”

I think the “giving credit” element is critical but also problematic.  Dr. Robinson’s definition raises other questions:  If we quote 50 words from another pastor – word-for-word – and don’t cite them, is that stealing? What about 100 words?  500 words?  An entire sermon?  What if we quote anything or anyone in as little as a sentence?  Or two?  Is that stealing?  The definition can get blurry.

In another instance, Dr. Robinson is quoted as saying:

“It’s hard to footnote sermons.  There’s no way to make people in the pews understand all of the sources you are using, especially if they’re highly academic sources.  I don’t think anyone expects preachers to stand up there and quote all of their reference books and commentaries by name.”

Robinson’s point is excellently made, though it seems to conflict with the earlier point.  If we preach a sermon like a professor writes a textbook, the art of preaching will clearly be undone.  We’re faced with this tension, and it’s not going to go away.  Hopefully, pastors can develop a framework that can facilitate healthy decision making in their sermon preparation process.

The other definition of “plagiarism” in the book is from a journalist:

“Plagiarism is borrowing someone else’s words and passing them off as one’s own, whether in print, in speech, or performance.”

So here’s another question:  If we borrow someone else’s words and don’t pass them off as our own, are we okay then?  For example, if I memorize and recite the Sermon on the Mount or the Declaration of Independence, is that plagiarism?  No.  The world knows the content is not mine.  The same is true of a homily in Latin provided from the Vatican or Archdiocese.  The audience understands from the context that the priest didn’t write the sermon.

I could ask the same about Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.  By the time I got to “the content of his character,” my audience would know I didn’t invent the speech.  So I wouldn’t be violating their trust.  But I might be violating the law with a copyright infringement.

Another example:  If I modify the language of a Charles Spurgeon sermon and preach it without citation, is that plagiarism? Maybe. My guess is Spurgeon would be thrilled—and disinterested in a royalty!  But it might cause a breach of trust with my audience.

Still another example:  If I find a great sermon from another pastor on Matthew 24 filled with crisp, current illustrations, and I recite it verbatim without citation, is that plagiarism?  It’s pretty hard to argue that it’s not, even if he’s given me permission to use the sermon.  Using someone else’s content extensively requires permission from both the source and from your audience.

In an article in The Wall Street Journal, Steve Sjogren emphatically stated, “Don’t be original.  Be effective!”  He urged pastors to quit spending time striving for originality; they should instead recite the words of better sermonizers.  “We need to get over the idea that we have to be completely original with our messages each and every week.  The guys I draw encouragement from…get 70 percent of their material from someone else.”  I think that Steve’s on tenuous ground, as we must ask the question, “Just how is the 70 percent handled?”  I do agree with his point that the expectation of originality can go too far.

Rick Warren is emphatic in the sermons he provides:  “Use them!”  He asks for no citation.  However, a pastor using Rick’s sermons must assess the expectation of his or her congregation.  Most listeners expect a certain level of originality, and if it’s not there, they probably expect a citation of some sort.

A couple of years ago, I asked Max Lucado about his sermon preparation.  With no apology (but with great humility), he shared that he has preached someone else’s sermons before.  It was during a very dry time in his life due to multiple book projects and a heavy pastoral load in his church.  He was just wiped out.  This is how he handled it:  He called another pastor friend, told him he was in need, and asked if he could preach to his church the same series his friend had just preached at his church.  The friend readily agreed.  Max openly told his church the source of his material, he preached the messages, and all was well.  He clearly borrowed someone else’s work and words, but he did not pass them off as his own; so I sensed no violation of conscience.  I, too, would have liberty of conscience under the same circumstances, properly handled.

I believe that conscience is one of three major issues here.  “Am I guarding my own conscience in my sermon preparation and delivery?”  I must add that my conscience has to guide me, and your conscience has to guide you.  If the conscience of others dictates my own, then my conscience will incessantly be conflicted.  We aren’t wired to be driven by the conscience of another; each person’s conscience must stand or fall on its own.  The conscience of some preachers compels them to cite meticulously; others aren’t so compelled.  We must have faith before God that our sermon preparation is approved by him.

 “Why should my freedom be judged by another’s conscience?”  (1 Corinthians 10:29 NIV)

The second major issue is diligence“Am I faithfully studying the Word that I am preaching?”  If using the work of another is simply an excuse or temptation to neglect my solemn duty, I’ve strayed from my calling.  Chuck Swindoll emphasized this to me over and over in an interview:  “Sermon preparation is hard work.”  We are workers.

“Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth.”  (2 Timothy 2:15 NIV)

The third major issue is that of trust.  Frankly, I think this issue brings the most clarity to Scott Gibson’s question.  If our mode of sermon preparation breaks trust with those to whom we preach, then the answer to the question posed by the book’s title is a clear, “No.”  How can a relationship proceed with broken trust?  It cannot unless it is restored.  And restoring trust is far more difficult than guarding trust in the first place.  There are pastors who have paid with their jobs to demonstrate this.

So in answer to the question, “Should we use someone else’s sermon?”  I would say that in many, many cases, the answer can legitimately be, “Yes.”  We can use the sermons of Jesus, Paul, Peter, Stephen, Calvin, Edwards, Wesley, Moody, Finney, Sunday, Graham, and many, many others.  Anthologies of sermons have been valuable tools for preachers for hundreds of years.  Now (as on SermonCentral.com), we have more than a hundred thousand sermons available online, including some of the great sermons of history as well as contemporary sermons of pastoral peers.  I believe these, properly used, are a tremendous resource.

Should we deliver them verbatim while secretly concealing the source?  Certainly not.  But compare them, study them, glean from them, treat the online collection as a half-million-page commentary on virtually every verse in the Bible?  I think so.

Think of the precious time and money that pastors have saved by learning directly from each other online.  Pastors are among the busiest people on the planet.  They must balance the demands of studying the Word and accomplishing much, much more with their congregations and communities (admittedly, often too much more).  SermonCentral is about assisting pastors in more efficient, biblical sermon preparation, a highly time-and energy-consuming activity.

(Note:  To guide what we consider to be the proper and improper use of the resources on our site, we recommend that users join more than 6,500 other preachers and teachers in affirming The Preacher’s Pledge.)

I’d like to delineate between the three terms I’ve used in regards to the use of others’ work.  I’ll also give some examples of how they play out in preaching (these are my own definitions):

  • Plagiarism:  Taking the work of another and representing it as your own.  (Actually, that one might be stolen!  I honestly can’t remember.)
  • Quotation:  Taking a limited portion of the work of another and representing it as such.
  • Citation:  Identifying the source of a quotation.

Are we always required to cite?  Haddon Robinson has expressed that complete citation of all sources is very problematic.  If I preach the sentence, “Death, be not proud, though some have called thee mighty,” do I have to reference John Donne?  I think not.  I may, but I don’t have to.  Everyone either knows that Donne wrote the sentence, or if not, they know that I didn’t write it!  Either way, it’s obvious that it’s not my original thought.  Similarly, if I say, “We’re not trying to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade.  We’re just trying to share Jesus with someone by the end of the week,” must I necessarily cite John F. Kennedy?  No.

Does this mean quotes need not be cited?  Often they should, especially when a quickly mentioned name can get the job done.  A preacher will constantly be faced with a stream of decisions about how to present materials and when or if to cite a source.  Through intellect and conscience, each of us is equipped to regularly make those decisions.  (Romans 14:22-23)

In terms of operating guidelines, the longer the quote, the more likely a citation is needed.  Also, the less a quote is known, the more likely a citation is appropriate.  JFK might not need a reference, but a little-known pithy summary of the Bible by Henry Johnson probably merits a citation.

In summary, if we are guarding our conscience, working hard to study a passage, and maintaining trust with our hearers, we should enjoy full freedom to utilize the sermons of others.  I agree with Scott Gibson that we should not plagiarize someone else’s sermon.  In the framework I’ve presented here, I think he’ll probably agree that there can be real value in using someone’s sermon, so long as it does not violate conscience, diligence, and trust.  I’ll e-mail him a copy of this article with an opportunity to share further in our article forum.

It’s remarkable that we have the privilege of holding in our hands the very words of God, to preach those words, and with them to shepherd God’s people.  Thankfully, we have a community of peers to learn from, to challenge us, and to encourage us along the way.   

Originally published on SermonCentral.com. Used by permission.
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Ron Forseth is Editor-at-Large for SermonCentral.com and churchleaders.com. He studied for two years with Wycliffe Bible Translators and has a passion to share Christ and see all people groups of the world reached with the Gospel. He served for several years as a college pastor in Colorado and in Christian service for most of the 1990s in China and Mongolia. He is Vice President of Outreach, Inc, an organization dedicated to inviting and connecting every person in America to a Bible-believing church so that they might have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Ron lives with his wife Carol in Colorado Springs, Colorado.