On Plagiarism and Its Destruction in the Church

By: Ben Campbell

I have done it. You have done it. I’m sure, every preacher has been guilty at least once in their lifetime. I’ll never forget being less than 6 months into ministry and copying a sermon (COPYING A SERMON) from a well-known preacher for the purpose of re-preaching it to a group of people I was to preach to in the coming week (no, it was not a gathered church, thankfully). I finally did throw those notes away – maybe I should call it a manuscript, but I preached that sermon three times.

Friends, I know I am not alone. Though I do not have personal examples from other preachers I know, we all understand how tempting it is to commit such a heinous act. It is so tempting, but it is not profitable for your church or your own personal sanctification.

In this blog post, we will consider plagiarism and its impact on the local church.

What is Plagiarism?

Plagiarism is the taking of someone else’s produced work and resources and claiming it as your own. Plagiarism is the tried and true method of thievery in the realm of words and writing. It is both intentional and unintentional. It is intentional in the reality that men do this with complete awareness of what they are doing. Yet, it is unintentional when people do this without knowing they are doing it. However, the problem still has the same consequences, and this is why study in the office of the pastor is such a vital priority. Pastors must personally hear from God before they can hope to share that message with God’s people.

Plagiarism in the Pulpit

The same is true in the pulpit. There are far too many pulpiteers committing this same sin each week. They neglect the study, they do other things, or they simply ignore their pastoral calling and approach the sacred desk in front of God’s church preaching a sermon they have not prepared themselves. Again, pastoral plagiarism is the art of preaching a sermon you have not prepared yourself. Why is this such a big deal, you ask? The reason is because it deceives those you have been entrusted to lead in God’s church.

Plagiarism in the pulpit deceives those listening. Honestly, there’s no other way of communicating it. Taking other people’s sermons and preaching them as your own is pure deception. Whether intentional or not, the problem is still the same – deception is deception. Of course, there will always be questions – “What if they don’t know they’re doing it?” “How can you accuse someone of something they’re unaware of?” “Is it really deception if it is unintentional?” “Aren’t we all already using material formulated by others?”

All of these questions assume the best in people, which is something I have been taught to do from childhood. I am firmly convinced that one of the most godly traits a person can have is to give people the benefit of the doubt. Sometimes, yes, it can come back to bite you, but this is the true character of the Christian faith. As believers, we must assume the best from others. Yet, all of these questions also justify the sinful action of plagiarism. While assuming the best is a necessity, discernment is not to be ruled out because we give people the benefit of the doubt. The fine line is this: how do we necessitate kindness without compromising integrity in the pulpit?

I think the answer really lays to rest in the two-fold element of grace and critique. We give grace to those who commit this sin or those who have committed this sin because, as I said in the beginning of the post, all of us are most likely guilty. Yet, we critique because there is something magnanimously sinful with preaching a sermon that is not your own (I will clarify further).

What’s the Big Deal?

So, what do we do? Why is this a big deal? Is there a reason why we are addressing this problem again (we addressed this earlier here)?

You might have heard of the controversial situations coming up in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) regarding the previous president, J.D. Greear, and the current president, Ed Litton. In case you have not, the short synopsis is that Litton, the newly elected president of the SBC, has been preaching Greear’s (former president of the SBC) sermons from his own pulpit for some time now. In fact, after Litton was elected and approached about this issue, Litton’s church removed over 140 sermons from their YouTube channel because of the issue. Since this has come about, both Greear and Litton have issued hardly remorseful statements to the SBC, aiming to calm down the messengers of the convention, but they have been unsuccessful at best.

How Is It Destructive?

The reason this type of “preaching” is destructive is really two-fold. First, I do not think Christians take this as seriously as we ought. Honestly, I have been in too many discussions where the problem has been justified by the questions I asked in the beginning of this article. Secondly, this really is not a biblically faithful understanding of preaching altogether. Preaching is the act of a man laboring with Holy Scripture to expose the meaning of a particular passage and apply it to those listening. When a preacher does nothing more than copy and paste, he does not preach – he reads someone else’s material and claims it as his own.

Why is this destructive? Because it deceives those to whom you are preaching. It deceives those under your shepherding leadership in the church. You also deceive yourself in the process by allowing yourself to think you are preaching when you are not even “presenting yourself approved” (2 Tim. 2:15). However, the real problem is that this issue is not only plaguing the SBC, but it is plaguing Christianity as a whole. This problem is world-wide.

So, what can we do to combat this? Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Avoid Plagiarism. Again, this is not a controversial issue – or it should not be. Friends, plagiarism is stealing. It breaks the eighth commandment. Honestly, there should not be even a discussion about this. The sole qualifier for elders (or pastors) in the local church is apt to teach (1 Tim. 3:2). So, if you simply cannot avoid this issue, it might be best for you, dear brother, to find another calling in life.
  2. Give Credit. Now, let me give the more nuanced answer to the overarching probing question. The issue we focus on is most likely dealing with the issue of where credit has not been given. Most preachers who commit such a thing either say something someone else has already said or they failed to mention who said it altogether. This is not the issue of taking entire portions of sermons and preaching it as your own, but instead using a lengthy quote or something similar without accrediting it to the original author. In most cases, the issue is solved by attribution.
  3. Study for Yourself. However, the main problem with plagiarism is that our society has become intellectually lazy. We want everyone to do as much our work for us as they can. This is why there are institutions like Sermon Central, The Docent Group, and others who continue to stay in business. Too many pastors want others to do their work for them. Instead, God has called pastors like you and me to study for ourselves. Paul commands Timothy to “Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15). The word ὀρθοτομέω (orthotomeō) means to cut in a straight line. In other words, Paul wants Timothy to not botch his interpretation of the Scriptures. How does this happen? It happens by faithfully studying and exegeting Holy Scripture.
  4. Depend on the Holy Spirit. It could be that many pastors are overwhelmed by the task of interpreting the Bible. It is, in fact, a difficult aim. Yet, God has commanded pastors to do such things. Qualified pastors ought to want to teach the church of Jesus Christ the Bible. However, none of this happens without the unction and power of the Holy Spirit living within us. Pastors do nothing without the Spirits power and presence. So, brother pastor, depend on the Spirit. He is your source of strength; He is your teacher; He is your Helper when you are doing biblical exegesis.
  5. Carry Your Integrity to the Pulpit. The qualifications of pastors in 1 Timothy 3 are mostly qualities of character, not skill (with the exception of “able to teach”). In other words, pastors are to be men of integrity. I have not always been a pastor of integrity. I have not always led a life of godly character, even while pastoring. But I strive to it, and I’m sure you do also. So, carry that integrity and biblical character to the pulpit with you. Preach your own sermons! Let the Holy Spirit deal with you through your respective passage before you preach it to your congregation! The puritans called this experiential preaching – preaching from the heart of the pastor to the hearts of the congregation.

So, what now?

I truly believe the issue with this problem is attribution. Pastors, give credit if you quote someone. Don’t neglect commentaries, but don’t let them be your first line of interpretation in your sermon preparation processes. Do the challenging and fruitful exegetical work for yourself. Use resources later in the sermon development process. Don’t neglect to read sermons of other pastors, but don’t use large portions insofar as you neglect your own study. Write yours then read theirs.

Study for YOURSELF as a worker approved to God, so there will be no question on judgment day whether you were faithful to the local church God has entrusted you to lead and shepherd.

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