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Overcoming Plagiarism in Preaching and Teaching

There are two factors that, taken together, make plagiarism a danger for those in the Christian ministry. First, those engaged in pastoring and teaching generally love to learn and share what they have learned with others. This is obviously a very good thing. But, second, the guidelines for giving proper credit to those we have learned from are not always clear. Hence, there is a danger that the good desire to share and spread truth will sometimes be carried out, unknowingly, through the untruthful means of plagiarism.

Defining Plagiarism

The essence of plagiarism is to give the impression that the ideas or words of another person are actually your own. This can be done intentionally (in which case it is outright theft) or unintentionally—but either way, it is wrong.

The 10th edition of Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary formally defines the term “plagiarize” from three different angles:

  • “to steal and pass off (the ideas or words of another) as one’s own”
  • to “use (a created production) without crediting the source”
  • “to commit literary theft: present as new and original an idea or product derived from an existing source”

In a nutshell, you have committed plagiarism whenever you use another’s ideas or words without crediting or acknowledging the source.

Committing Plagiarism

We can spell this definition out more concretely. There are basically three ways in which plagiarism can be committed:

1. Quoting someone else word for word, but not crediting them as the source.

2. Paraphrasing another’s words without acknowledging the author whose words you are restating. In other words, if you do not quote the person verbatim, but instead just change a few words and do not give credit, you have committed plagiarism.

3. Using the ideas of another without acknowledging their source. Hence, even if you state another person’s ideas entirely in your own words, you still must credit them as the source of the ideas. The only exception is when the idea is well-known and has become common knowledge. For example, if I state that “it is 93 million miles to the sun,” I do not need to cite a source. It is common knowledge.

The Problem with Plagiarism

The central problem with plagiarism is twofold: (1) it is stealing; and (2) it bears false witness. Obviously, both of these are unacceptable for Bible-believing Christians (see Exodus 20:15). The words and ideas of another person are precisely that—their words or ideas. To fail to acknowledge their source is to give the false impression that they have originated with you. Hence, plagiarism steals from another and gives a false impression to your audience. Both of these factors should be of utmost concern to the Christian, and especially pastors and teachers who should have the utmost respect for the sanctity of truth.

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Desiring God exists to say, "God's ultimate goal is to glorify himself...and that's good news." Everything they do aims to spread a passion for the supremacy of God in all things for the joy of all peoples through Jesus Christ. Desiring God provides free access to the preaching and teaching resources of John Piper, pastor for preaching at Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis and author of over 30 books on ministry.