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}