Plagiarism. Part 1.
Dictionary.com defines plagiarism as “the unauthorized use or close imitation of the language and thoughts of another author and the representation of them as one’s own original work, as by not crediting the author.” Other words for this practice include: appropriation, infringement, piracy, counterfeiting; theft, borrowing, cribbing, passing off. Plagiarism occurs a lot in the secular world. However, that realm of its occurrence is not the concern of this article. I am concerned about plagiarism in the pulpit.
Over the past few years, I have read several articles about the misuse of sermons and other materials by preachers. It is a very disturbing phenomenon that is occurring with far too much frequency in the modern church. A few high profile preachers have seen their ministries engulfed and destroyed because they were caught passing off the sermons of others as their own. In one case, the preacher was dealing with a time of severe clinical depression and turned to sermons by other preachers because he was unable to concentrate, and thus he was unable to prepare his own sermons. That is understandable, and it could happen to any of us. After all, we all go through dry spells, don’t we? This particular man fell into trouble because, when he was confronted about the sermons he had been preaching, he claimed them as his own, and did not give credit to the original author. Gentlemen, that is an integrity issue!
Let’s take a little time to think through this issue together.
First, let’s acknowledge the fact that none of our preaching is 100% original. We all glean from many sources when we prepare our sermons. If you look at the progression of my preaching, you will see shades of John Phillips, Jerry Vines, James Merritt, John MacArthur and a host of others. It’s not that I have used their sermons in their entirety, but it is true that I have gleaned from them on many occasions. I have tried, at least in recent years, to acknowledge their contributions either in end notes within the sermons, or with a disclaimer on my web site. We all use the work of others, and we should, but we should use the work produced by other men with integrity, giving credit where credit is due.
So, let’s face the fact that none of us are 100% original. When I think about that, I am reminded of the young preacher who said, “I will be original in my preaching, or I will be nothing.” Turns out he was neither. We will walk the same path through Scripture that others before us have walked, and there is nothing wrong with us gleaning from their efforts, but we must learn to give them credit for their work.
The problem in sermon development occurs when we claim the work produced by another man as our own. You would be shocked to know how often I receive E-mail from church members who have discovered that their pastor is using my sermons in his weekly preaching ministry. They will hear him preach a message, go to the Internet to find out more about the subject, and find my web site, which contains the sermon they just heard their preacher preach. Then, when they approach their pastor to ask him about it, the pastor refuses to acknowledge that he has taken a sermon by another man and claimed it for his own. I could give you incident after incident of ruined churches and ministries caused by a lack of integrity on the part of the pastor. One pastor went so far as to claim that he sold me the sermons that appear on my web site years ago when he was in another ministry. Aside from the fact that this is an outright lie, it is downright disturbing that a preacher would do something like that.
In my opinion, most everyone in any given congregation would respond well to a pastor who simply told the truth about where he heard or read the sermon. The people in the pew appreciate integrity far more than they do attempts at cleverness and originality. The people in the pew deserve integrity from the men who lead them and feed them! Anything less than honesty is an outright lie; anything less than uprightness and integrity is a disgrace upon any ministry!
I have no illusions that other preachers are preaching my sermons. I put them on the Internet, not because I think they are something special, but simply because I want to be a help to other preachers. If I do a word study, work through a difficult passage, or write about some theological issue in a way that make is easier for others to understand, my work can save them time in their own preparation work. Dr. Adrian Rogers used to say, “If my bullets fit your gun, fire away! But, use you own powder.” However, it is sad when preachers refuse to do the hard work of sermon preparation and take such shortcuts and use a sermon prepared by another man. They compound their error when they claim that sermon as their own. They destroy their testimony when they lie about where the sermon came from when they are questioned about it. Even if the congregation never discovers the deception, the Lord in HEaven knows all about it.
When is ever more sad, and infuriating on some levels, are the men who take the work of others and publish it under their own names. That is theft, and it is no different than shoplifting, or any other kind of stealing. I can go to sermoncentral.com and find dozens of my sermons and sermon series posted under the names of other men. Most of us would not think of taking property that belonged to another person, but we have no qualms about stealing their intellectual property and claiming it as our own.
My goal in this article is to ask preachers to stop and think about their testimonies. Is the appearance of originality worth the loss of your testimony? Is the momentary embarrassment of acknowledging that someone else prepared that particular sermon worth the cost of lying about and claiming for yourself? I think not!
We will talk more about this issue in coming days.