The Plagiarism Trap


One day, as Jesus was teaching the people in the temple and preaching the gospel, the chief priests and the scribes with the elders came up and said to him, “Tell us by what authority you do these things, or who it is that gave you this authority.” He answered them, “I also will ask you a question. Now tell me, Was the baptism of John from heaven or from man?” And they discussed it with one another, saying, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say, ‘Why did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘From man,’ all the people will stone us to death, for they are convinced that John was a prophet.” So they answered that they did not know where it came from. And Jesus said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.”
—Luke 20:1-8 ESV

Last week, The Wall Street Journal—my personal newspaper of record—ran a front page article discussing the issue of plagiarizing sermons (“That Sermon You Heard on Sunday May Be From the Web“). Some churches and pastors think nothing of using a message already delivered, while others grow livid at the very idea. I’ve followed the issue across several blogs ( had the most extensive discussion), but it appears to me, now that the dust has settled, that the discussion danced around core issues no one confronted.

Ultimately, the issue of plagiarizing sermons sets multiple traps.

Consider the Luke passage above. Jesus sets up a fork for the Jewish leaders, forcing them down two roads, neither of which they wish to commit to.

To discuss plagiarizing sermons, we must begin with the ultimate source of a sermon message: Does our preaching ultimately have its source in men or in God? 

The Bible makes it crystal clear that our preaching comes from God:

And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.

Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual. The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. The spiritual person judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one. “For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ.
—1 Corinthians 2:1-5, 12-16 ESV

Plagiarism argues the source of the words is wronged by their taking and should seek redress. It also states the plagiarizer deceitfully passes off the words he speaks as his own.

But if anyone reading now can make a case that anything you or I own has its final source not in God, but humankind, I’d love to hear that argument!

This brings us to the other fork. If we don’t fully believe that God is the one who owns the words that come out of a preacher’s mouth, then those words are merely words of clever men. If that’s the case, then God have mercy on us because we’ve removed Christ from our preaching. Evangelist Billy SundayThe Jewish leaders fell into this problem with the source of John’s baptism, and we merely repeat it.

The converse of this is that an avowed atheist could stand up in a church pulpit and read from the Bible with an actor’s passion, yet would anyone define that as pastoral preaching of the word, especially by the standard some insisting upon in their attacks on sermon plagiarism?

When we discuss this issue, this is the major dilemma we face. We can get all riled up about preaching the word, but then we shoot ourselves by insisting that somehow we’re the true source of that word.

But we aren’t.

Here’s what truly makes me shake my head: The people arguing most fiercely for punishing plagiarism are the same folks who uphold a high view of preaching. Yet by their very arguments, if they make a claim on a message, they strip out God and ascribe it to men. If they insist they’re not doing that, then they agree that God is still speaking.

God is still speaking? Wow, that sounds a lot like what those nutty charismatics believe! Yet you’d be hardpressed to get many of the folks who would argue that sermons aren’t messages that originate solely with men to buy that logical outcome.

If the primary issue here comes down to whether or not the Gospel is preached, does it matter if the person delivering the message was the first person to deliver it? If we humans can’t improve on the Scriptures already delivered to us, then what is being added to an exposition of those Scriptures that makes it rooted to one church on one Sunday, delivered by one human being?

Many argue against re-using a message, but that’s illogical if the message is inspired by God. Did the sermon get preached once and then no longer apply anywhere? Does God’s message return void after it’s been spoken once? It seems the same people who are arguing for stringing up plagiarizers hold a pretty low view of the Gospel, if they believe it only has a specific rendering to one set of people at one time and one place.

What’s worse is the logic that traps them—again. If the message were that specific to only one group of people, then it takes on a prophetic utterance that calls the closed canon of Scripture into question. (At least by their own arguments against an open canon, it would.)

One of the arguments against one person using a sermon delivered by another plays up the pastoral component. Aren’t we paying our pastors to preach the word?

The trap here wonders at what point a sermon no longer becomes relevant because someone else preached it previously. Isn’t a sermon someone else preached still the the word if God is behind it?

What about giving credit to the originator of the message? Well, isn’t the originator God? If you take a look at the sermons delivered in Acts, they bear an uncanny resemblance to each other, laying out God’s redemptive plan in a similar way, yet no one ascribed any authorship to anyone else.

Traps, traps, traps no matter where one turns if one pursues the plagiarism punishment angle.

Perhaps the better case is to forget making the use of someone else’s sermon a crime in the Church, ascribed or not.

What if we did? What if all we’ve done by stigmatizing the corporate use of preaching the word is to merely lift up the reputation of some preachers over others? I don’t think we ever consider that reality. Do we rate a minister of the Gospel solely by his talent for preaching? If so, many solid Christian men would be disqualified from the ministry. If we believe that preaching the word is a true spiritual gift, then every pastor in this country has that gift. Does anyone reading this believe that? One hundred percent? All the time? If not, then shouldn’t those pastors who may not have that supernatural gift operating at all times have access to the messages of those men who do have it?

Personally, I find the selling of sermons more reprehensible than any supposed plagiarism, especially because I believe God inspires those messages we hear. If it’s only to recover the cost of distribution, I can see some justification for that. Even then, freely we have received, so freely we give.

I offer all this as food for thought. I’m not fully decided on this issue myself. What bothers me is our failure to frame our terms correctly and to get to their roots. Unless we do that, we fall into worthless arguments based on the laws of men and not on the truths of God.

I’ve read all the arguments upholding the idea of punishing plagiarism of sermons, yet if followed to their natural conclusions they always lead to the same trap: the exaltation of men over God. John Piper (who’s written on plagiarism himself) wrote a book with the title Brothers, We Are Not Professionals. But don’t we act like professionals when we get defensive on this topic of plagiarism? Doesn’t it seem like we’re protecting a celebrity status for pastors by arguing for the punishment of “plagiarizers”? We may insist that using a message preached elsewhere is deceitful, but perhaps the entire premise is flawed. As I’ve laid out here, the reasons we may consider it deceitful may have more to do with the self-glorying of men than God’s honor.

Paul said that the important thing was not whether Christ was preached for envious reasons, just that the message of Christ got out (Phil. 1:15-18). If we keep that in mind, isn’t everything else spurious?

{Image: Evangelist Billy Sunday, whose own ministry was rocked by accusations of plagiarism}

24 thoughts on “The Plagiarism Trap

  1. Not every word spoken from the pulpit is from God. We may as well admit that from the start, otherwise our Bibke would grow every Sunday. But what I guess I have a concern with is a pastor using someone elses work without thoroughly checking it against scripture. The result is the words of man being recycled, rather than the word of God being preached. A pastor who uses someone elses ideas as their body of work is doing his flock a disservice. I would have to question the biblical foundations of someone who finds inspiration in “My name is Earl” on general principles, and I have problems with someone who delivers someone elses sermon nearly verbatim, simply because I don’t believe the Holy Spirit is into mass marketing. I think finding a gem and passing it on is fine, as long as the source of the gem is stated, and that the gem has been proofed as a genuine article by the Bible. Otherwise you are claiming the spiritual strength and creative abilities of someone else as your own, and that it lying, which has no place in the body of Christ.

  2. Peter Smythe

    Dan, I made a comment on Challies about this subject and approached it from the same angle. The Gospel is the Gospel and men are called to preach it. In my mind, the Body of Christ shouldn’t have any concerns about who is preaching whose material as long as it is the Gospel truth. On my blog, in a series on The Resurrection and the Blood, I am demonstrating that several prominent preachers have misinterpreted Jesus’s statement, “It is finished,” to mean the end of His mission. If they read my post and “see the light,” are they to credit me with the idea? Are they to credit me with the way that I have synthesized scripture for the Gospel narrative in a way that they hadn’t thought of before? In preaching this truth, should the preacher sit at his desk and attempt to reword the revelation so as to avoid complaints about plagiarism? Plagiarism concerns in the Body of Christ are silly. Every preacher ought to be able to use whatever material is available to “speak as he ought” on the mystery of Christ.

  3. I would have to agree with David on this issue. The issue is not whether we benefit or learn from others sermons or commentaries. (Many commentaries are just sermons put in print.) I have learned a lot from listening to Piper, MacArthur, etc. and even use some of their direct statements in my sermons or lessons. I have also used other’s outlines as the starting grid for my understanding of a passage. But I must allow God to direct my preaching to my congregation. Reading semone else’s message verbatim is not preaching. It is reading. I believe this is a preaching, not a plagiarism issue.

    One other issue. Some who read others sermons do so out of laziness or inability. Therefore, they will hide the human source of their message. Others out of a true desire to explain and teach will use a lot from others, and be very willing to give the human source. Motive will determine action.

  4. Frank Quinn

    I generally agree with you, Dan, but I’m going to have to disagree with you here. I think the issue here concerns preachers using other people’s sermons, not using illustrations or “nuggets” or what-have-you. Two things happen when a preacher uses someone else’s sermon without attribution (and arguably even with attribution– 1) it’s plagiarism, cheating–not even a close call here. Is there an intellectual fabric to the Scriptures or isn’t there? I believe strongly that there is and, consequently, we need to treat the substance of thought, of ideas, with respect. Just as we would want others to treat the Holy Scriptures. –and 2) it raises a concern in my own mind as to whether this preacher is genuinely called to serve in this manner. Preaching is, in part, about explaining and communicating. Preaching other people’s sermons as one’s own is about, well, the exact opposite, whatever that may be. Are plagiarizing preachers even able to explain what they’re preaching? Do they understand what they’re saying? Can they back it up if challenged?

    • Stephen

      This pretty much says what I was going to. The real problem is not the plagiarism per se, it is the dereliction of duty on the part of the pastor. His job is to prayerfully search the Scripture, seek the wisdom of the Holy Spirit, and then exposit this knowledge to the congregation. If he is simply regurgitating the words of others, where is the Spirit and the conviction behind that?

      As you said, Dan, even an atheist can stand up in church and read the Bible, or a pre-packaged sermon. But who would honestly call that preaching?

      Mind you, I don’t think this is necessarily a universal rule, but it is close enough that good pastors should avoid this trap.

  5. Thought provoking post, Dan. There are plenty of things to be potentially concerned about if this happens, but you are right to question if the ‘theft ‘ of the words is the most important. I wonder, if one does this regularly, is preaching really the work God is called you to? Are you doing the church a disservice being in a role that you can’t fill on your own? Wouldn’t the church be better served by someone who speaks primarily out of the overflow of his heart?

    To the one who is offended by someone ‘taking’ their words, my question would be what were they for if not to be delivered and distributed? What harm is done to you, or anyone for that matter, if your words are ‘stolen’? Actually, if ‘your words’ are good enough to be lifted, the church is arguably harmed by your hindering their distribution.

  6. Kaye

    If Michael W. Smith writes a new song, and I then memorize it and sing it in front of a group of people who pay me to minister to them (or not pay me), letting them believe that I actually wrote the song, is this not dishonest? The question isn’t so much as to whether or not Michael W. Smith should be upset with me, but rather, am I acting honestly.

    • In a way, Kaye, if the song is meant for the edification of the saints, it shouldn’t matter who the source was.

      It wasn’t until copyright laws came around that any of this mattered.And copyright laws only came about because of money. We had to have a way to preserve the income of the person protected by the copyright. None of it had anything to do with right or wrong.

      We forget the history of the Church! No copyrights existed because no one saw the need for them.

      “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” Charles Wesley’s great Christmas carol was changed by George Whitefield. Whitefield didn’t like Wesley’s first line, “Hark how all the welkin rings….” This didn’t sit well with Wesley because he didn’t believe the Scriptures supported that the angels actually sang. That dispute between the two lasted for years. In the end, they eventually made up. Co-opted and changed hymns happened all the time, but people dealt with it.

      But we’ve turned a lot of things that were free to use and without question of money into a business. But the word of God isn’t to be peddled as a business. When we make all these arguments in favor of punishing plagiarism, they ultimately go back to money issues and glorifying men. Think about it. Follow the trail—it always leads back to what men deem important and never to what God thinks is important.

      • francisco

        I am going to chip in my 0.02 cents. When I read Keith Green’s biography I could see that at the beginning he was upset that other Christian groups charged for their concerts/tapes.
        “But Keith Green gave his stuff for free…”
        was what someone told me when I realized several items in that person’s collection were copies. I did not push the issue further for several reasons. One of them was them I had not finished reading the bio. At the end I learnt that Green changed his mind: it became OK to him the fact that other groups charged for their tapes/concerts because that was how ‘The Lord was leading them’. I don’t remember if he ever charged for tickets (I guess offerings were collected for him and his band). But certainly today no one would dare copy one of his tapes and violate copyright laws, right?
        At least as it relates to material written/published/recorded by Christians, the question your post begs is: are copyright laws in direct violation to God’s ordinances/commands? If not, should we obey them?

  7. Jeff Wilson

    What concerns me in this is that in bypassing the process of personally wrestling with the scriptures is that the pastor misses out on the personal spiritual growth that would come with that effort. Expectations are so high for preaching. It’s like a consumer mentality. We place so much pressure on our pastors to be effective preachers that they can feel compelled to take a shortcut like this. Instead of demanding that our pastors be “effective” each and every Sunday, can we show grace to the less-than-perfect-preacher and encourage them to be faithful in their study of God’s word, and allow them the chance to grow into the job of preaching?

    • If you’re not a pastor, Jeff, when do you wrestle with the Scriptures if you’re not preparing sermons? The same applies to pastors. A pastor doesn’t have to get all his wrestling time in sermon preparation.

      Expectations are too high for preaching, if you ask me. We hear a lot of preaching, but our churches are filled with people not putting those words in practice. Perhaps we need to start finding other ways to put the words we hear into practice. Perhaps more of the word in action would be preferable to sitting in a pew listening to someone talk about something, when we could be out actually doing it.

      Like I mentioned above, we neglect to see how much money plays into this whole issue of plagiariam. You’re right about our consumeristic attitude.

      I don’t think shortcuts have much to do with it. If a pastor hears a message that stirs him, why not deliver it to his hearers? Or are we somehow “not getting our money’s worth” if he does so?

      I’m not for a pastor repackaging every sermon. But I see absolutely nothing wrong with him doing so from time to time.

      And let’s be honest, we don’t give most pastors time to grow into their roles. In a lot of churches you have three years and that’s it. If anything letting a pastor grow into a preaching role actually supports the idea of using another preacher’s better articulation in order to grow his confidence in preaching.

  8. I think we also have to define all that a pastor does and ask if he is justified at times using portions of a previously given sermon.

    Like I mentioned in my post, our premise is that using the words someone else received from God for the edification of the Church is wrong. But no one seems to give me a good reason why. If our premise on that wrongness is itself wrong, then it changes the whole way we look at this subject.

    I write this blog as God calls things up within me. If other people use my words, that’s perfectly fine by me, because it’s not about me. I don’t make a living blogging. My words are for the edification of the Church. I don’t even ask for an attribution—for the same reason. I don’t believe that everything I write here has its origin in me. Therefore, I can’t take credit for it anyway. That’s called humility.

    • …or reality…But the definition is centered here: “…received from God for the edification of the Church.” If that is indeed the case, then the one though whom the words given will have no problem with the words being used, and the user will have no problem acknowledging the words of a brother. The point of acknowledgement, however, is not so much to give credit as to give warning, as Paul did, “these are my words, and not those of God.” We borrow at our peril, but more important, at the peril of our flock. When we quote someone else and reference who originally said it, we give our flock a point to go back to and test that person against the scriptures.

        • 1 Corinthians 7, Paul makes a distinction between his own commands and those of Christ in matters of divorce. All I’m saying is that a congregation should not accept all words spoken from the pulpit or taught in Sunday School as being from God. We must have discernment and weigh carefully against the Scriptures what we are taught (and what we teach). When I repeat what others have said, I should measure those words carefully as well, and giving their source allows my listeners the chance to know from whom those words come. It also gives my listeners a chance to know who has influenced my teaching.

  9. Excellent points.

    If I were gifted to receive a message directly from the Lord, and I said “if I would be afraid to givemyself the credit for the message. Secondly, if I really believed the message was from the Lord, I
    would think, the Lord would have the message given to other people in other churches. I would beglad to hear that sermon preached in another church.

    If I were to say this message was as a direct influence from the Lord, I would freely say, “who ever would like to use the message for the glory of the Lord, please use it, and leave my name out of it.

    We say we do all things for the glory of the Lord, and then we want credit for what we say came from the Lord.

    Because we don’t want to be accuse of plagiarizing, we go to lengths of thinking of different ways of saying what a verse means. We might create ways of saying what we believe the verse says.

    Its no wonder our people in our pews are confused as to what a passage of scripture means, because every time they hear a story in the Bible its usually different. I have heard the story of Samson about
    a few dozen times. And we have Samson doing a dozen different things. We make up stories to be different The bottom line is, we really have no idea what Samson did.

    You are right, God has gifted some to be able to write better than others. Some of us, are grateful for those who are so gifted.

    I don’t hear singers giving credit to the person who writes the songs before they sing.

    Yes we should study the Word, its what we are called to do. Spurgeon I am told read books and was able to recall what he read when he preached.

    I love to give credit where credit is due, but my people are not impressed where I got it from. They think it came directly from the Lord, first hand. I only wish I could get an e mail each week from the
    Lord. Wouldn’t that be something.


  10. I’m part of an intentional community where we don’t have a pastor. We’re most blessed, however, to have probably a higher per capita percentage of seminary graduates than may even be moral! Just a simple observation, because we all share in the responsibility of bring the Word, is that I can’t imagine our community, with its unique challenges and needs, hearing the words of other people week after week who have no idea where we are spiritually. It really isn’t ‘one size fits all’ is it?.

    Furthermore, from where I sit, I can’t imagine God only speaking to a group of believers through ONE PERSON, week after week, either. But that’s another post!

    Blessings! Thought provoking and thoughtful as usual, Dan. Thanks.

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  13. Kaye

    I’m not so much concerned as how I should feel if someone used my words. I’m more concerned about how I should feel if I used someone else’s words, without giving them credit. Do you see the difference I’m trying to get at? If I write or speak to a group of people, and they are touched by what I say, why would I not want to credit the original author? Is it because I want my listeners to think that I’m clever? Do I think it would lessen me somehow? At any rate, I feel it is dishonest of me to use someone else’s thoughts and then allow my listeners or readers to think that they were my own.

  14. Peyton

    Believe it or not, preachers can subscribe to sermons! This is more useful in denominations that follow a liturgical calendar, for everyone is “supposed” to be preaching on the same texts on a given Sunday.

    I attended a congregation whose rector obviously used “prepared” sermons. The preaching was wise, witty, and properly nuanced — but it was obvious that the man had not dealt with the readings to any depth. He was, in fact, a bit of a huckster.

    On the other hand, it is obvious to me that the Holy Spirit deals with his Church in a unified way, as should be expected. The message I hear on Sunday is likely the same as my neighbor hears, and we are certain that the two preachers have each wrestled with different texts but received the same inspiration. Is this not what we should expect?

    And then there is our part, as hearers. Our Pastor Emeritus is fond of quoting Acts 17:11

    These were more noble than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so. KJV, Public domain

    Whatever comes to us, better or worse, we are to be attentive — even if it is “stolen.”

  15. Kaye said: I’m more concerned about how I should feel if I used someone else’s words, without giving them credit.

    This is the problem I have with it.

    Congregant: Fine sermon, this morning, Pastor Schmastor! You really hit it out of the park today!

    Pastor Schmastor: Well, thank you, Brother Schmother! Praise the Lord.

    I’m a published author. Imagine I took somebody else’s manuscript, changed a word here or there, some phrases, added my own anecdotes, then put my name on it and sold it. Is there any scenario under which that’s not dishonest? And more importantly (and I’d really like to know) why is it any different with sermons?

    • Lisa,

      I covered some of reasoning above, but will expand further.

      My answer is a simple one. You make your living selling books. A book is a product. I make my current living crafting words as a product for businesses to use to sell their products.

      Pastors are to preach the Gospel, which is never a product. I also don’t believe that we should pay pastors with the idea that we’re paying them to deliver a product to us.

      Truthfully, I question the whole idea of paid clergy. If our clergy were bivocational, this idea of plagiarism in the pulpit would be even less important. But the more we try to make pastoring into a profession, the more it takes on the trappings of the business world, including the idea of “this sermon is MY product.” Again, as John Piper entitled his book to pastors, “Brothers, we are not professionals.”

      I know you will disagree with me on this and you have every right to do so, but I see my novel writing as entertainment. In the end, as a novelist, I’m an entertainer. Yes, my novels may have a solid message, but they’re still meant for entertainment purposes as they are for any teaching that comes out of them—even if the teaching is solid. Novel in hand, people don’t want to curl up in a fleece blanket with a warm cup of mulled wine unless they’re seeking some kind of escapism, even if that escapist entertainment encourages or teaches.

      But preaching should never be thought of as entertainment. When it comes down to that, we’ve turned the Church and the Lord Himself into a sideshow.

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