Recently in the news and across the Christian blogosphere, we’ve seen a great deal of fallout regarding Mark Driscoll and his publishing scandals (plagiarism and manipulation of the NY Best Sellers list). That’s easy to discern since the books were sold for profit and the integrity issues are plain as day. But what about plagiarism from the pulpit? Is it only a problem if done without permission from the original author? If a preacher has gone to great lengths to build a sermon series but then offers it as free material to be used in any way imaginable by anyone… does that absolve others of any wrong doing for using that material without acknowledging that the work was not their own? If you are an artist, you probably say, “yes, everyone is free and clear to use images that have been made public domain by its author without requiring citation”. But is that the standard?
Paul exhorted Timothy many times in his letters to preach the Word of God. Titus, too, was warned to preach sound doctrine. Paul told Timothy that all Scripture is God-Breathed (2 Tim 3:10-17) and Peter pointed out that no prophetic word of Scripture comes from man’s own interpretation (2 Peter 1:16-21). One of the major promises Jesus made to the Apostles regarding the Holy Spirit was that He would remind them of all Jesus had told them. His Word. That is why the Apostles point to the Scriptures and instruct so strongly against false teaching. The Written Word of God is sufficient for all things in this life and the life that is to come for those who believe in Jesus Christ.
Throughout school, we are warned, scrutinized, and punished for plagiarism. The tagline for Plagiarism in school usually takes the form of “plagiarism = stealing“. But what about the cases where the plagiarism isn’t stealing? Does that absolve the wrong of plagiarism? No. Because the rebuke of plagiarism in school isn’t only based on the idea of theft, but on falsely representing one’s own understanding of the material being presented. Why is that a problem in school? Because the very purpose of attending school (in the classical sense, not this new age progressive sense) is to demonstrate a working knowledge of academic material. Therefore, plagiarism isn’t only stealing, it’s also cheating. You are hoping to gain credit for someone else’s work by presenting it as your own. Proper citation demonstrates both the level of research taken and the integrity to distinguish your own work from the work done by others.
Plagiarism in the professional world (outside of academia) generally revolves around the concept of stolen property. Again, that is an easy one to spot. How about in the area of Christian Ministry? Rather than jump straight to plagiarism, lets first take a look at the role of citation of sources in Christian Ministry. What if an individual at the pulpit taught a sermon about how to pray without citing a single verse of scripture, or specifying which God to whom we should pray? Is the problem that he might have stolen the material? No. The problem here is that he’s speaking on his own authority and we have no means of testing the spirit behind his teaching, and we can’t even be sure if what he teaches is sound doctrine, because he has not properly cited the Word of God. In academia, the “cheating” element of plagiarism seeks to take credit for the work of another; however, when it comes to teaching/preaching, a lack of proper citation is often used to present the speakers ideas as though they were coming from God. When we preach the Word of God, we cite the Word of God because of the Authority of Scriptures (2 Tim 3:16) and to make it clear that we are not speaking on our own authority. Therefore, the role of teacher/preacher has a higher standard than a student in English Literature 101. Because the preacher isn’t supposed to preaching the myths or schemes of men, but the Word of God. The preacher must properly, contextually, dutifully, humbly cite the Word of God in an authoritative fashion for the building/edification of the Body of Christ. He must make clear when he’s sharing his interpretation, his understanding of the scriptures, so that the faithful Berean listener might search out the Scriptures for themselves to see what holds True to Sound Doctrine.
Preaching another man’s sermon from the pulpit, without citation is not a problem of stealing intellectual property. Doing so “with permission” doesn’t solve the problem of presenting as your own understanding what you did not extract from Scriptures. Furthermore, within today’s emergent, evangelical circles, pastors claim to be speaking divinely inspired messages that are custom-tailored to the needs of their congregation, and as such moved more to quoting portions of scripture rather than teaching passages of Scripture. This trend when combined with the trend of preaching pre-built sermons creates another integrity problem. If a sermon being preached to a small church in West Virginia is in-fact taken wholesale from a Beverly Hills, CA Mega-church… properly citing that sermon runs the risk of offending those who are under the impression that their pastor is teaching what God has for their church; however, NOT citing the Mega-Church sermon runs the risk of presenting someone else’s research, outline, anecdotes, application, promises, assurances, and errors as their own.
That last comment, is in-fact my biggest concern regarding pulpit plagiarism. A pastor/overseer/elder/deacon is worthy of a double portion provided he remains firmly rooted and grounded in sound doctrine, in the Word of God. The danger of this position is when he allows himself to drift from the Word of God and chase after myths, genealogies, and doctrines of demons, dishonest gain… because he does so not only at his own peril, but he risks being held accountable for all that he causes to stumble or leads astray. If the person preaching the sermon of another verbatim doesn’t catch the false doctrine or false teaching of his source material, then he is equally guilty of false teaching. Saying, “but I just preached what so-and-so preached” will not spare anyone. So then, it is clear to me that being absolved of theft (by an author making the sermon freely usable) does not fully remedy the problem, nor does properly citing the author but copying wholesale. Proper citation is the first step to solving the problem, but ultimately the problem stems from preaching other sermons as opposed to preaching the Word of God. The role of pastor/preacher/teacher isn’t just to give a good lecture, it is to preach the Word of God and that which accords with sound Doctrine.
2 Timothy 4:1-4 (ESV) 1 I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: 2 preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. 3 For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, 4 and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.
The Gospel Coalition was looking at this issue back in 2010. Take a moment to read the initial post presented as a question to the coalition, and the responses from pastors in the coalition at the bottom (hyperlinks).
In closing, as some of the pastors in the TGC responses mentioned, there are varying degrees of error here. When a pastor follows a script and incorporates even the jokes and anecdotal stories… there is a clear problem. How does one properly cite a sermon that is quoted verbatim without saying, “today I will be preaching so-and-so’s sermon with little deviation”? I’m sure that would be okay once in a while… but if it happened often people might start wondering why they attend and give money to this church if they can stay home and watch the original sermons on WebTV. Is copying graphics, series titles, and general outline problematic? All I can say is that it could be, so pray about it. I leave you with one thought. If “borrowing” such material as a starting point is such a minor point… then why not take the extra couple of hours to start from scratch? We don’t want people coming for our graphic design skills, we want them coming to hear the Word of God.
If you discover that your pastor is regularly preaching material pulled from another pastor and doesn’t cite the source, I recommend talking to him about it privately. If there are errors in scripture or doctrine that isn’t sound, it definitely needs to be addressed in a meeting. However, if the pastor refuses to acknowledge this as a problem then pray for him and consider taking the matter to the elders. The responsibility and authority to teach sound doctrine rests with the elders, not with the congregants. If you approach them in love with a valid concern and are ignored, I recommend shaking off the dust and finding a church whose leadership takes their responsibilities to teaching the Word of God more seriously. Those who notice you’ve gone and care will ask questions, answer truthfully. As the body of Christ, our unity must be based on the Word of God, not the branding of a church organization. I think that in most cases, a simple citation of borrowed material is all that is needed to both alert the congregation and elders of the source material and to encourage the preacher to search the scriptures himself, otherwise he’ll be citing entire sermons.
May the Lord Bless you and keep you,