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Plagiarism, Shmagiarism

The why and when of giving credit
Plagiarism, Shmagiarism
Image: Mikhail Pavstyuk / Unsplash

Says one prominent speaker with a smile, "When Chuck Swindoll starts preaching better sermons, so will I." For preachers, using sermon content from others can provoke humor and guilt.

For one thing, we don't always know when to credit other sources. Preaching is like blocking defensive linemen in football: the line between blocking and holding can be as fuzzy as that between research and reliance.

Citing sources sounds simple enough, but conscientious preachers run into dilemmas.

At times the need to credit sources is perfectly clear. Tell someone else's story as though it happened to you? Use an entire sermon without giving credit? Penalty, 10 yards and loss of down, major chewing out from the coach. Most everyone says that's a foul.

At other times, citing a source is a judgment call. If you purchase a sermon or receive permission from the source to use it (Rick Warren says, use my stuff), should you still give credit? If you illustrate from a Time article but get the illustration idea from Joe Stowell, do you credit Stowell? What if you use only another sermon's "angle," its interesting approach to a subject? Or only one of three main points? What if you base your sermon on insights from a commentary? On questions like these, ethical preachers will go both ways on whether to throw the yellow flag.

The yes-and-no nature of citing sources shows up in a survey of Preaching Today members, conducted by Christianity Today International. When asked, "Do you believe that writing a sermon should be viewed any differently than writing an academic or literary work?" 57 percent of respondents said yes; 43 percent, no.

The diversity of opinion is reflected in an email I received:

There is not a sermon preached that belongs to the one who received it. If they are truly a man of God, preaching his Word, believing in Jesus as Lord and Savior, and the gospel, nothing they preach belongs to them. It all belongs to God. "Freely you received, freely give."

It is unconscionable that Christian persons' lust for notoriety and money would lead them to take issue with a Christian brother or sister whose desire is to pass on the Word. Plagiarism, shmagiarism—what belongs to God, belongs to all.

How common is sermon idea borrowing (with or without giving credit)? Our survey asked, "In the past three months, have you used any of the following that originally appeared in another person's sermon?"

Illustrations: 69 percent had done so
The main idea: 43 percent
Theological/scriptural principles: 40 percent
Sermon titles: 31 percent
Main outline points: 29 percent
Well-worded sentences or phrases: 28 percent
Metaphors: 24 percent
Subpoints and developing ideas: 18 percent
Some of the manuscript: 17 percent
Most of the manuscript: 6 percent
Have not used anything from another person's sermon: 13 percent.

Thus, nearly 9 of 10 pastors had used an element from someone else's sermon in the previous three months.

Before we explore whether a preacher should credit sources for each of the above sermon elements, we need to answer the main question: why does it matter whether we credit sources? Why is sermon plagiarism wrong? And, before the article concludes, should a pastor caught in sermon plagiarism be fired?

Four reasons to credit sources

Fundamentally, giving due credit is about being honest with hearers.

We might think, I never claim that everything I preach is original. Several years ago my father-in-law returned home from a trip to South Carolina and said, "Funny thing, when I went to my church on Sunday, I heard the same sermon I heard in South Carolina." He chuckled, but clearly disapproved. He asked what I thought. I gave his pastor the benefit of the doubt, saying it probably had something to do with his using lectionary resources, but I didn't sense that my explanation satisfied him.

My father-in-law reflected what most people assume about speakers and writers: that we use our own words and outline unless noted otherwise. Therefore, even if we never claim originality, our hearers will regard us as dishonest if we do not credit significant sources.

In this regard, preaching is like painting. When we see an artist's name on a painting, though we know she has many creative influences shaping her style and vision, we assume she brushed every drop of pigment on the canvas. If she were to pay someone else to paint the picture and then sign her name, something within us cries foul. This would say something false about both her and the art. When we preach a sermon, though hearers know scores of people have influenced our thoughts, our name stands on the painting unless we give credit elsewhere.

Citing sources is also about honesty because hearers test our mettle as ministers based on our words, so we must not misrepresent our abilities, in particular for the sake of ambition ("Do you see a man skillful in his work? He will stand before kings; he will not stand before obscure men," [Proverbs 22:29]).

One survey respondent who understands the potential for misrepresentation says he cites a source when it "is too original or unique for my limited creativity. " The apostle Paul followed this principle, conducting his ministry in a way that "no one will think more of me than is warranted by what I do or say" (2 Corinthians 12:9).

But many preachers doubt the legitimacy of giving credit. One survey respondent asks: "Are we kingdom focused or not?" Another says, "It's all God's anyway." Still another, "It isn't about me or someone getting credit; it's about the kingdom of God."

True, preaching is ultimately all about the kingdom, and all biblical preaching is "from him and through him and to him" (Romans 11:36). The preaching gift comes from God, the message and results come from God, and the glory returns in the end to God. Even so, God has chosen that humans receive credit for their works, whether good or bad (2 Corinthians 5:10).

In fact, sooner or later, God will make sure everyone gets precisely the credit his or her works deserve. "If anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones because he is my disciple, I tell you the truth, he will certainly not lose his reward."Proverbs 31 says of the virtuous woman, "Give her the reward she has earned, and let her works bring her praise at the city gate." Likewise, 1 Timothy 5:17 rests on the principle of people receiving credit for good work: "The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honor, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching." (See also Philippians 2:29.)

Apparently giving credit to humans in a godly way does not diminish God's glory. Human credit and God's glory are not necessarily competitive or mutually exclusive.

Notice, 1 Timothy 5:17 uses the word work. Survey respondents frequently based the need for citing sources on the rights that come from work . One said, "Although it is not copyrighted, it is still someone else's work." Another mentions sources "because it is the work of one person, and they should be credited for it." Another says, "Claiming someone else's work as your own is always wrong. " In Luke 10:7 Jesus legitimizes the idea that work gives certain rights to the worker: "Stay in that house, eating and drinking whatever they give you, for the worker deserves his wages."

I like one definition I read for work: work is creating value. That idea explains the phrase "sermon stealing." Someone else has worked hard and as a result has created words of value. To use those words without crediting the worker is to take something of value. To take something of value is to steal.

Finally, if for no other reason, preachers must mention sources because God calls us to be above reproach. In our culture's ethic, people apply roughly the same standard to sermon writing as they do to journalistic, literary, or academic writing. To stay above reproach, preachers cannot have a lower standard than the general culture.

One respondent objects: "In today's world, we all share information—including sermons. I use other people's ideas, and they use mine." In other words, the cultural standard has actually softened considerably because of the Internet—it's a copy-and-paste world.

Nonetheless, while plagiarism has certainly increased, it has only ramped up the ethical concern of those in academia, publishing, and business. I recently heard one professor say he searches the Internet when a student's paper makes him suspicious, and he catches plagiarists every semester. I also heard of a pastor in trouble because church members had searched the Internet and found the sermons he had been preaching without giving credit.

With these four fundamentals in hand—we must be true to what hearers assume about speakers, we must not misrepresent ourselves, we must not take credit for someone else's work, and we must be above reproach—we are ready to answer the tough calls about citing sources.

When is it necessary to give credit?

Citing sources sounds simple enough, but conscientious preachers run into dilemmas. As one respondent said, "I am a composite of all my teachers." Another said, "Ideas tend to have multiple sources, so little that is preached is truly original." We are pygmies standing on the shoulders of giants—a statement that itself is not original. The scrupulous preacher could introduce virtually every sentence with "I heard someone say."

In addition, "There are cases when citing is unnecessary and distracts from the message," says one respondent. Distraction indeed: If, for example, we mention Rick Warren, a hearer may think, Rick Warren—great book—what was the third purpose? I need to share that with my neighbor. Or, if we mention too many sources, hearers may feel, I don't want to hear any more about what others say; I want to hear what you say about this.

Finally, against the view that preaching should be regarded no differently than literary or academic writing, I hold that preaching has at least two far-reaching differences. (1) Preaching is oral communication, not written. In oral communication the rules for "footnoting" are far more relaxed for the sake of hearers. (2) Preachers follow spontaneous inspiration from the Holy Spirit in the act of sermon delivery. They are rightly more intent on following that leading and helping their hearers than on tracking the source of every idea that comes into their minds.

As a result, preachers should credit others only when necessary. The ultimate purpose of preaching—helping hearers—must dominate our attention. The central question, then, is, when is a credit necessary? Our survey asked, "Of the following sermon elements, which do you believe can ethically be used from the sermons of others without giving credit?"

Theological/scriptural principles: 62 percent of respondents said these could be used without giving credit.
The main idea: 53 percent
Illustrations: 53 percent
Sermon titles: 34 percent
Metaphors: 32 percent
Main outline points: 26 percent
Well-worded sentences or phrases: 17 percent
Sub-points and developing ideas: 15 percent
Nothing should be used without giving credit: 19 percent

Here is my view.

Theological and scriptural principles: The guideline is whether the idea has common currency. As one respondent wrote, "If it is in every commentary, it is not really theirs, is it?" No. Thus if we read someone else's sermon on John 3:16 and use from it the idea, "God's love is sacrificial," there is no need to credit this source. Any such straightforward principle coming from the text with no artistry applied falls in this category. This is one reason why conscientious preachers rarely cite commentaries used in sermon research.

The question is not, did I read or hear this idea somewhere? Hearers expect preachers to harvest ideas from all of life and to research the accumulated wisdom of the church. Ideal research sources include not only commentaries but others' sermons. Thus we are not hiding anything by harvesting Scriptural principles from others' writings, and I disagree with the 19 percent of respondents who said, "Nothing should be used without giving credit."

If a source states a theological principle in a unique and striking way, however, we should give credit, so we do not misrepresent ourselves. For example, "Pascal said, 'There is a God-shaped vacuum in the heart of every man which cannot be filled by any created thing, but only by God'"

The main idea, or main angle of approach to the subject (not the full outline): The same two guidelines apply. Does it have common currency? Is it unique and striking?

The latter is often the case with the main angle of approach (what journalists also call slant)—a striking phrase, a reference to popular culture, a metaphor, or an arresting relevance for hearers—which can make a sermon especially interesting. This angle generally appears in the sermon title or subtitle. Communicators know an effective angle is invaluable. With anything that precious we should credit the source, for it reflects extra skill and work.

Illustrations: (In this category I include stories, extended analogies/metaphors, and quotations.) Quotations, of course, we should always credit because we are using words verbatim, and we do so because they are unique, striking, or especially insightful.

The source of extended analogies and metaphors should also receive credit, because they require uncommon skill and creativity to develop.

Ditto with stories. What's more, they are often personal and unique, so even if we just paraphrase a story, we should give credit if we can find the source. In oral presentation, while I in most cases favor using the person's name (rather than "someone said"), you don't need to name the resource or book title where you found the material. (For example, if you use a preaching resource like PreachingToday.com, you should not feel obligated to mention that. If you publish sermon notes, however, you should do it there.)

Sermon titles: The same two guidelines apply. Is the idea common currency? Is it unique and striking?

One-sentence metaphors and similes: "I could feel him coming like a passing car with a cranked-up, mega-bass stereo." Treat fresh metaphors like quotations. Even if paraphrased, the source deserves credit. If a metaphor has become a cliché, the common currency principle applies.

Main outline points: This requires a judgment call because it depends how much of the outline we employ. If all the main points march into our notes, we should give credit—even if they are not striking or unique, and even if we paraphrase—because hearers assume the overall shape of the message comes from us.

If we modify the outline significantly by adding and dropping main points, producing an outline at least half ours, we need not give credit, unless borrowed points have the striking and unique quality of a good quotation.

Well-worded sentences or phrases: For these we should give credit because they are verbatim uses of striking and unique content.

Subpoints and developing ideas: Should we give credit for ideas that prove, explain, and apply a main point? If we use supporting ideas for more than one main point, yes. If for one main point only and we do not quote verbatim, follow the guidelines above for theological principles and illustrations.

If in doubt on any of the above sermon elements, use this acid test: assume all your leaders have read the same sources you have this week. That being so, would you give credit?

Four puzzling questions

Our survey respondents raised a foursome of other tricky issues.

What if I have permission, or have paid for the right, to use the material? One person wrote, "Bill Hybels told me directly, 'If there is anything I say that you can use to further the kingdom, then do it.'" Another said, "When I buy it, it's mine. You put it out there to be used; when I use what you give me to use, it's not plagiarism."

This question pertains to all these sermon sources: pastors' magazines; preaching magazines and websites; church programs such as 50-Day Spiritual Adventure; and books of sermons and outlines from Charles Spurgeon to Charles Swindoll.

The ambiguity here comes from confusing copyright and plagiarism issues. Though they overlap, they are not the same. For example, publishers produce copyrighted sermon resources for the purpose of being reused by other communicators; thus, preaching purchased sermons even verbatim does not violate copyright.

But doing so without giving credit still fails all four guidelines for why plagiarism is wrong. First, it still violates the assumption that speakers use their own words and overall outline. Second, we still might be misrepresenting ourselves as producing sermon quality we lacked the gifts, diligence, or time to create ourselves. Third, we take credit for another's work. Fourth, we fall under reproach if the truth comes out.

If someone else's sermon uses an illustration or idea from a general source such as the newspaper or encyclopedia, should I credit the preacher from whom I heard it? For example, suppose on your drive to church on Sunday morning you hear a radio preacher illustrate from a major story in this week's news, and that idea had not occurred to you. If you use that illustration in your sermon, should you credit the idea to the preacher? If the idea is extraordinary, yes, because the ability to see parallels between daily life and spiritual things is a valuable and creative gift; we want to avoid misrepresenting ourselves.

Should I credit the source when I modify an idea or paraphrase the wording? If the change is superficial, yes, if material, no. If I modify a Vic Pentz sermon title from "Levi's Genes," to "Swimming in Levi's Gene Pool," that is a material change involving added creativity, and I don't need to mention Pentz. Even "Levi Had Good Genes" is material because it incorporates the phrase "good genes." But just rearranging the words, as in "The Genes of Levi," is superficial.

If you edit an entire sermon manuscript, putting it in your own words but not really changing the ideas, you should give credit. This falls under the guidelines for using sermon outlines.

How often do you credit someone who has significantly influenced your thinking? One respondent said, "I don't give credit to my professors from college and seminary." If you wear out the books of Dallas Willard or Martin Luther, if Wesley, Calvin, a pastoral mentor, or a seminary professor said everything you think is worth saying, and much of your preaching echoes their ideas, how often should you mention them? When mentors have profoundly influenced us over many years, they become a part of us; we often cannot distinguish what is theirs from what is ours.

Here the principle that we credit no more than necessary must prevail. Our church does not want to hear a mentor's name credited again and again. Once or twice a year we can note how great an influence certain individuals have had on our thinking and preaching.

Should plagiarizing pastors lose their jobs?

No, pastors caught plagiarizing for the first time should not be shown the door if the church has never agreed with the pastor on a sermon research policy. Our survey shows why: 57 percent—the majority—of pastors do not believe the same rules apply to sermon writing as to academic and literary writing.

They have a point, for there are obvious differences between sermon writing and other writing. The calling of preachers is emphatically not to be original in their ideas, but faithfully to proclaim, explain, and apply the same Scriptures proclaimed by millions of preachers for 2,000 years. All faithful preachers, therefore, ought to be saying roughly the same thing. As mentioned earlier, sermons are oral and have differing degrees of spontaneity. Few preachers write sermons to be published outside—or even inside—their home church, and have no plans to earn degrees or money with them. Their purpose is to glorify God, build the church, and help people.

So it's easy to see how an otherwise honest preacher could rationalize following different rules. Some may in fact just be following the rule (as one respondent said), "I base it on how I would want others to use my work." That may not be a good guideline, for as another respondent said, "I would be happy for any preacher to take anything I said or wrote and use it to make faithful followers of Jesus Christ. And I certainly don't need the credit."

Actually, the more "spiritual" the preachers (that is, having little regard for the world's standards), the more easily they may convince themselves there is no such thing as sermon plagiarism. When I told my colleague John Beukema I was writing this article, he emailed back, "I was just talking about this with someone the other day. I was amazed at the man's bewilderment over those who take sermon plagiarism seriously. I've heard this same sentiment many times, because Christians feel truth and ideas come from the Spirit, and therefore, all Christians should be able to claim them."

For this view, in effect, all sermons are universal church property.

Naturally that viewpoint affects how you credit sources. In our survey, pastors who viewed sermon writing as different from academic or literary work were more likely to view as ethical the use of elements from others' sermons without giving credit than pastors who viewed sermon writing in the same way as academic and literary work.

Church leaders who want to fire a pastor caught plagiarizing may not understand the typical sermon writing process. They may err by seeing it as either merely human or totally divine. With the merely human perspective, they may regard sermon writing as identical to crafting a novel or poem, and thus any uncredited use of other sources is unthinkable. With the totally divine perspective, they think pastors get sermons in a Mount Sinai experience in which God virtually dictates the sermon. Here again, using other sources is unthinkable.

But sermon writing is both a divine and human activity, just as Jesus and the Scriptures are both divine and human. For many pastors, sermon writing includes not only prayer and Bible study but also research in commentaries, sacred and secular books and magazines, illustration sources, lectionary aids, and sermons of others on the same text. Under the leading of the Holy Spirit, many tributaries flow into the sermon stream, just as the authors of Scripture sometimes gathered content from several sources as they wrote and compiled the Word of God (see for example Luke 1:1-3, where Luke mentions his research).

Purpose-Driven author Rick Warren wryly says, "Plagiarism is when you borrow from one person; research is when you borrow from many." There is truth to that, and such research should not be discounted. The editorial work of reading various sources, choosing what to use and what to modify, then ordering and shaping the harvested ideas with one's own into a coherent whole is itself a unique creative work. The editor of a book of essays by other writers is herself a creator, shaping a unique book by her values, vision, and choices.

Churches should commend pastors who—after prayerfully studying the Scriptures and sketching out the direction they feel the Lord would have them go in the sermon—proceed to prayerfully research other sources for exegetical and homiletical ideas in order to bring the best possible messages to their people. (The small percentage of pastors who preach others' sermons as a shortcut should seek accountability from a fellow-pastor. Cutting spiritual corners is unworthy of the gospel.) If hard-working researchers have not yet learned to credit their sources properly, they can grow with coaching.

Avoiding a mug shot

A few days ago I ran into my neighbor watering his lawn, and he asked how things were going at work. I said, "I'm writing an article on sermon plagiarism." He has been a Christian only a few years, and he works in manufacturing, so I explained, "The article deals with how pastors should give credit to other preachers when they use their ideas."

I was surprised when he responded, "Here is how I feel about this. If a pastor steals someone else's ideas, that is between him and God."

What surprised me was his abrupt use of the word "steals." He immediately applied this moral category. Steals is not a word I want applied to anything I do, least of all my preaching. Steals is not a word I want associated with my name. But in our world today, if I am careless about giving credit, some people will use the same word to describe me as they use to describe a man who takes someone else's wallet.

That is reason enough to go to the trouble of properly crediting sources. It is a discipline for preachers who want to be completely honest, fair with fellow preachers, and entirely above criticism from those who hear from their lips the Scriptural truths that are "flawless, like silver refined in a furnace of clay, purified seven times."

Footnotes and bibliography

1. Interviews were conducted by self-administered mail questionnaires. The random, anonymous, survey of Preaching Today subscribers was conducted in 2003 and 2004, with a sample size of 1,450.

2. Responses are compared for each sermon element below:

It is ethical to use theological/scriptural principles without giving credit:
Viewing sermons as the same—54 percent agree
Viewing sermons as different—67 percent agree
(That is, of those who regard sermon writing the same as literary and academic writing, 54 percent would use a theological principle from someone else's sermon without giving credit. Of those who see sermon writing as different from academic and literary work, 67 percent would use a theological principle from someone else's sermon without giving credit.)
It is ethical to use the sermon's main idea without giving credit:
Same—40 percent agree
Different—61 percent agree
It is ethical to use the sermon's illustrations without giving credit:
Same—44 percent agree
Different—60 percent agree
It is ethical to use the sermon's title without giving credit:
Same—27 percent agree
Different—41 percent agree
It is ethical to use the sermon's metaphors without giving credit:
Same—24 percent agree
Different—38 percent agree
It is ethical to use the sermon's main outline points without giving credit:
Same—15 percent agree
Different—34 percent agree
It is ethical to use the sermon's well worded sentences or phrases without giving credit:
Same—9 percent agree
Different—22 percent agree
It is ethical to use the sermon's subpoints and developing ideas without giving credit:
Same—9 percent agree
Different—21 percent agree
Nothing should be used without giving credit:
Same—26 percent agree
Different—13 percent agree

Raymond Bailey, "Plagiarism,"Concise Encyclopedia of Preaching, edited by Willimon and Lischer (WJK, 1995)

Christianity Today editorial, "When Pastors Plagiarize," Christianity Today (12-9-02)

Darryl Dash, "Confessions of a Sermon Thief," Preaching (Sep/Oct 2004), pp. 19-21

Cary Dunlap, "When Pastors Plagiarize," Rev (Jan/Feb 2005), pp. 102-108

Sara Horn, "Plagiarism in the Pulpit," Preaching magazine (Jan/Feb 2003), pp. 30-33

Terry Mattingly, "Washington Bureau: religion column" (6-25-03)

Matt Perman and Justin Taylor, "What is Plagiarism?" Desiring God Ministries website

Mike Woodruff and Steve Moore, "An Honest Sermon," Leadership journal (Winter 2003), pp. 33-36

David Handley, Mark Beeson, Erwin Lutzer, "Reliable Sources," Leadership journal (Winter 2003), pp. 35

Haddon Robinson, "Using Someone Else's Sermon," The Art and Craft of Biblical Preaching (Zondervan, 2005), p. 586

Gerald L. Zelizer, "Sermon sharing: Timesaver or sin?" USA Today (3-26-02)

Craig Brian Larson is the pastor of Lake Shore Church in Chicago and author and editor of numerous books, including The Art and Craft of Biblical Preaching (Zondervan). He blogs on Knowing God and His Ways at craigbrianlarson.com.

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