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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 pastor lifted several paragraphs word-for-word from an article I wrote. The internet might make plagiarism easy to perpetrate, but it also makes plagiarism easy to discover. I assumed others would share my indignation over this theft. The audacity of this minister! He actually bragged about his academic credentials in the process of lifting several innocuous paragraphs from an inexperienced journalist.

I learned, though, that evangelicals tend to hold a different view about plagiarism. I was told that pastors live by a different set of rules from the media and the academy. Whether preaching a sermon or even writing a book, I was told, pastors shouldn't be expected to cite all their references or feel the need to rework someone else's material in their own words. Apparently this sort of thing happens all the time among pastors. In this case, it wasn't worth even writing the pastor a note to caution him against such actions in the future.

Years later, this situation still doesn't sit well with me. I know there are different rules for plagiarism in spoken contexts, compared with material that's sold for profit (as in this case). I know pastors are busy and face many temptations to take others' research and writing. And I know we Christians are not looking for new ideas about the gospel, so in one sense we're all repeating the same old, old messages from God's Word.

Still, I can't help but think of pulpit plagiarism as an integrity issue. I actually appreciate when pastors tell me who taught them while researching. In the scenario I described, the pastor could have largely avoided the problem just by quoting or at least citing me and my publication. No one would have faulted him. In the end, however, he wanted to perpetuate the illusion that he was an expert whom his church and book readers should trust. And that's why I took offense (not because I wrote anything particularly memorable or insightful, which I hadn't, as friends pointed out at the time). We don't need our pastors to be self-appointed gurus. We need them to be honest.

Given the prevalence of plagiarism in our time, and the confusion among evangelicals over when it has occurred, I asked several authorities with experience in this area to answer, "When has a preacher crossed the line into plagiarism in his sermon?" We'll see if we can reach some measure of consensus or shed at least a little light onto a dark corner of our modern existence.

Collin Hansen is editorial director of the Gospel Coalition and co-author with John Woodbridge of A God-Sized Vision: Revival Stories That Stretch and Stir.

D. A. Carson

First: Taking over another sermon and preaching it as if it were yours is always and unequivocally wrong, and if you do it you should resign or be fired immediately. The wickedness is along at least three axes:

  1. You are stealing.
  2. You are deceiving the people to whom you are preaching.
  3. Perhaps worst, you are not devoting yourself to the study of the Bible to the end that God's truth captures you, molds you, makes you a man of God, and equips you to speak for him. If preaching is God's truth through human personality (so Phillips Brooks), then serving as nothing more than a kind of organic recording device in playback mode does not qualify.

Incidentally, changing a few words here and there in someone else's work does not let you off the hook; retelling personal experiences as if they were yours when they were not makes the offense all the uglier. That this offense is easy to commit because of the availability of source material in the digital age does not lessen its wickedness, any more than the ready availability of porn in the digital age does not turn pornography into a virtue. (Occasionally preachers have preached a famous sermon from another preacher, carefully noting their source. That should be done, at most, only very occasionally, but there is no evil in it.)

Second: Taking over the structure, perhaps the outline in exact wording, and other significant chunks, while filling in the rest of the substance yourself, is not quite so grievous but still reprehensible. The temptation springs from the fact that writing a really good outline is often the most creative and challenging part of sermon preparation. Fair enough: If you "borrow" someone else's outline, simply acknowledge it, and you have not sinned.

Third: In the course of diligent preparation, you are likely to come across clever snippets and ways of summarizing or formulating the truth of a passage that are creative and memorable. If you cite them, you should acknowledge that they are not yours, either with an "As so-and-so has said" or an "As someone has said." This discipline keeps you honest and humble.

Fourth: If you read widely and have a good mind, that mind will inevitably become charged with good things whose source or origin you cannot recall. Often such sources can be tracked down fairly easily. On the other hand, do not become paranoid: A well-stocked mind is the result of decades of reading and learning, and ought to overflow easily and happily with gratitude toward God to the blessing of God's people.

Johann Albrecht Bengel (1687-1752): "Apply yourself wholly to the text; apply the text wholly to yourself."

D. A. Carson is a New Testament scholar and president of The Gospel Coalition.

Sandy Willson

The issue of plagiarism in preaching has been a hot topic in years past, as several ministers have been fired or severely rebuked for crossing the line. But, more importantly, this issue is crucial for the sake of our personal integrity and for the honor of Christ whom we proclaim; therefore, we need to be very careful.

I think there are several issues at stake:

  1. We must not be guilty of "stealing" from our fellow Christians.
  2. We must not pretend before our congregations that we have researched or composed something that we have not.
  3. We must not substitute real Bible study and prophetic sermon preparation with "cutting and pasting."

Here's how I try to handle it in preaching:

  • Any direct quote is always attributed to the author in full.
  • Any ideas that I found in my reading that are uniquely attributable to one scholar or author are normally attributed to him.
  • If there are a number of unique ideas from one author, I may make a general attribution to his overall influence on my thinking at the beginning of my sermon.
  • Ideas that I discovered from several others that were not my own are usually covered by simply saying, "a number of scholars suggest that …"
  • Books or articles that I have found helpful are often shared with the congregation for their own edification.
  • If my sermons are published or sold on websites or CDs, I must be even more scrupulous to acknowledge all of my sources through footnotes and comments in order to avoid "stealing" from my brother or sister.

Sandy Willson serves as senior pastor of Second Presbyterian Church in Memphis, Tennessee.

Tim Keller

Sermon plagiarism does appear to be a problem for several reasons. Preachers today feel under much more pressure to be spectacular than they used to feel. Christians are much less likely to be loyal to a church of a particular place or a particular theological tradition. What they want is to have a great experience on Sunday, and that means they will travel to get to the most gifted preachers. When you put this pressure together with (a) a busy week in which you haven't felt able to prepare well, and (b) the accessibility of so much sermon material through the internet—the temptation to simply repreach someone else's sermon is very strong.

Nevertheless, we must be careful not to overreact. I don't think anyone expects oral communication to have the same amount of detailed attribution as written communication. To cite where you got every allusion or basic idea or general illustration in a sermon would be tedious. A certain amount of leeway must be granted. Also, if you take a basic idea or illustration and "make it your own," I don't think you have to give attribution.

Often the preacher you fear you are stealing from got that idea from some Puritan author and reworked it into more contemporary form. And the Puritan might have gotten it from someone else. In fact, in the act of preaching, we often say something that we know we heard somewhere, but we can't even remember where we got it. Again, I think we need to be charitable to preachers and not charge them with plagiarism for every un-new idea. Brand-new preachers, especially, are going to do a lot of copying of preachers who have influenced them.

However, I think the problem comes in when a minister clearly has not done his own work on the sermon, and lifts almost entire sermons whole cloth from someone else. If he takes some preaching theme word for word from someone else, or if all the headings, almost in the same words, are taken from someone else's sermon, or if he reproduces an illustration almost phrase by phrase—then he should give attribution. When the basic ideas of your sermon have come from some other brilliant sermon, you can early on mention the minister, and say, "Rev. X, whose great sermon on this passage has helped me understand it so much …," and that's all you need.

Seldom does this kind of lifting-whole-cloth from someone else happen if you have spent hours studying the text and working out your own outline. The problem comes when you haven't given the text the time, or when you have been too busy to read widely and pray deeply and develop your own ideas.

Tim Keller is senior pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City and vice president and co-founder of The Gospel Coalition.

Matt Perman

A preacher has crossed the line into plagiarism in his sermon when he, intentionally or unintentionally, gives the impression that the original ideas or words of another are his own. The way to avoid this is simply to make sure and cite the source. This applies not only to quotes and loose paraphrases, but also to original ideas and even sermon structure.

For example, one of the best messages I've ever heard is John Piper's sermon "The Happiness of God: Foundation of Christian Hedonism." In it, he first makes a case that God does all things for his own glory. Then he raises a problem: Is this selfish? And then he resolves the problem.

If you preach a sermon with that basic outline, even if you do all of it in your own words, you should still cite Piper's original sermon.

Now, the issue is not always cut and dried. For example, Jonathan Edwards makes a compelling (and biblical) case that the goal of God in all things is his own glory. Edwards is perhaps the most detailed person to make that case. Yet he is stating a very common and pervasive biblical truth—and one which I believe for all sorts of reasons beyond and in addition to the arguments that Edwards makes. Do I need to refer to Edwards every time I say, "God created all things for his glory"? That would be annoying (though, of course, that does not settle it!).

The answer is no, because Edwards is stating a truth that can be called common knowledge. Even though he is being very profound, thousands of theologians and Christians before (and after) Edwards have believed and argued the same thing. If you use any of Edwards' specific arguments, you should cite him; but in simply stating the truth—"God created all things for his glory"—you do not need to cite him or any other theologian. (But it would always be a great idea to cite some biblical texts!)

The Edwards example is probably too easy. Sometimes you might genuinely be uncertain. Here is, I think, the best way to deal with that ambiguity: Just be free about letting people know the sources of your ideas and where you have learned things. This doesn't diminish your credibility at all, and in fact benefits your listeners and the church by letting people know about other helpful teachers and resources. And it gives them confidence that you are always learning from others, rather than being a solo shop. Let your default be to tell your congregation what you are reading and where you have learned things.

Matt Perman is senior director of strategy at Desiring God Ministries.

Glenn Lucke

Using another's sermon material in one's own messages is not a simple, black-and-white issue, but rather a gray area requiring wisdom. Factors in play include the quantity of material used, permission, attribution, and cultural conventions about published versus spoken material.

The concept of plagiarism addresses at least two concerns: (1) taking material from another, and (2) representing another's work as one's own. In short, stealing and cheating. The amount of borrowed material affects deliberations about plagiarism in academia and publishing, and should also in the church.

Does reciting a minority portion of another's sermon without attribution constitute plagiarism? Without permission, yes (stealing). With permission? No. What about a sermon that is paraphrased and personalized by another? Not as clear. What about the creative framing of a topic or a story or an outline? Do these require attribution? Gray areas, but these don't require attribution.

Does reciting another's sermon nearly verbatim without attribution constitute plagiarism? Yes, because even with permission such a practice activates plagiarism's second concern, cheating. Ask yourself, "Why would a follower of the Truth take credit for the work of another?"

Last, by convention we place higher standards on published works than on speech acts. We recognize that breaking verbal stride to cite sources frequently in a sermon short-circuits the power of preaching.

Here is a wisdom guide:

  • Don't tell someone else's first-person story in the first-person.
  • If the bulk of a message is from another, regardless of permission, briefly attribute the source(s). If you fear such candor would diminish you, crucify your ego. Or simply don't use the material.
  • If a minority portion is from another and you have permission to use the material without attribution, enjoy the gift.
  • Err on the side of attribution, but too-frequent attributions distract from and thus dissipate the power of the sermon.

Glenn Lucke runs Docent Research Group, which provides customized research assistance for pastors and churches.

This article first appeared at TheGospelCoalition.org.

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