Home Pastors Articles for Pastors 3 Tests of Pulpit Plagiarism: Do You Pass Them?

3 Tests of Pulpit Plagiarism: Do You Pass Them?

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 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 10,000 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 required to always 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 email 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.

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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.