When Do We Cross the Line into Plagiarism?

While there are gray areas, there are also black-and-white guidelines.

Collin Hansen

Anyone looking to learn official, academic, consensus definitions for plagiarism can find them in a couple mouse clicks. And that's just the problem. A couple clicks can get you a lot these days. Plagiarizing papers, talks, and even sermons has never been easier. Mere definitions don't deter desperate writers and speakers who are either too lazy or so overwhelmed with life that they lift someone else's words, ideas, and outlines.

Studying journalism and history in college, I learned again and again about the evils of plagiarism. If I were caught plagiarizing, I risked expulsion from school or at least a failing grade for the course. If a boss found me plagiarizing my research, professors warned me, I would be fired on the spot. Indeed, many professionals have ruined their careers by stealing someone's political speech or academic thesis and calling it their own.

You can imagine how I responded during my first job out of college when I discovered that one well-known evangelical ...

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Displaying 1–5 of 22 comments

Jeff Mckearney

February 17, 2014  11:22am

Much Originality and no plagiarism makes for dull preaching-Charles Spurgeon

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Marshall Shelley

September 17, 2012  10:47am

Yes, Virginia. There is originality in sermons, as surely as the goat has left the building, payday someday, and footprints in the sand. Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy, if they can make an honest effort to recall where the idea originated.

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Lenny Luchetti

February 28, 2011  11:58am

As a teacher of preaching for nearly a decade, I have observed that one question inevitably surfaces in every class: Do you think it is okay to preach another preacher’s sermon? I cringe a bit, even though I have come to expect the question. The reasons for my cringing are several. For starters, I know my response is bound to offend or, worse, humiliate someone in the class. Secondly, this issue is too multifaceted and complex for some of the overly simplistic and arrogantly opinionated answers I am tempted to shoot back at my students. Here is, I hope, a reasoned response to the question: Do you think it is okay to preach another preacher’s sermon? The best sermons are birthed through preachers who, like good ol’ Jacob of Genesis, wrestle with the angel for a sermon from the biblical text. In other words, the most profound and passionate sermons develop in preachers who have been engaged by God through a biblical text in a way that causes the former to come away personally transformed, limping with Jacob. This cannot happen for the preacher who simply downloads, prints, and preaches another preacher’s sermon. Developing a sermon that is conceived in you by the Holy Spirit through your engagement with the God of the biblical text not only makes for powerful preaching, it makes for powerful preachers. Many of us have grown weary, by now, of the word “authenticity.” However, the fact is authenticity matters. God wants to incarnate Christ through each preacher’s authentic voice. The way that Christ is revealed to us through the distinct voices of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, he wants to come to your people through your authentic voice. As a local church pastor, you know your church and community context better than any preacher featured on Sermoncentral.com, Pastors.com or Wesleyansermons.com. God wants to speak to your people through your authentic voice, which is why he called you to the church in the first place. God would rather speak to your people through a sermon from your soul than a downloadable sermon from someone else. Sermonic seeds from other preachers might germinate in you soul, but the best sermons we preach will develop in the context of our relationship with Christ, the biblical text, and our congregational context. Lenny

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Larry Whitney

February 27, 2011  9:08pm

A friend was terminated by a church for plagiarism. He is as sincere as anyone I know (without guile and net self-seeking); however, he lacked confidence in his own ability (even after an M.Div. from a good school). All the materials used were left in plain view on his desk, which is the way his accuser found the "evidence." Since I am an academic, he called and asked for our feedback. I called a systematic theologian-ethicist. Unlike some have suggested, we noted that sermons have been published for centuries. In fact, one of my acquaintances was almost required to preach the lectionary sermon. Since I have preached for 45 years, I would suggest that the best one can do in a sermon is to avoid verbatim usage and to give a very, very brief reference to your source. otherwise, I have been accused of being a "name-dropper" and "too academic." Clearly (to me) we step across the line from acceptable usage to plagiarism when we pass something off as our own. As an example, I made reference to Philip Yancey and to Fred Craddock this morning; however, nothing in my sermon was even related to a summary of either of their sermons.

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Richard Cameron

February 25, 2011  4:40am

Matthew, come on my friend. Does it really require 3 sermons a week to let us see what a 'good' sermon looks like? Does that really require you selling 3 and 4 part series of sermons verbatim? I agree - we should do our own work, and be honest to our people. But if famous preachers are so precious about their sermons then I suggest they don't sell them, word for word, over the internet.

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