Matthew R. Perry

Is Plagiarism Acceptable in Preaching?

In For Preachers/Pastors, For Seminary Students, Preaching, Sermons on May 8, 2007 at 9:07 pm

Michael Duduit stimulated some of my thinking on this subject in his recent e-newsletter of PreachingNow. He begins by stating:

Any time I include a comment or excerpt in PreachingNow that touches on plagiarism, I get lots of notes from pastors. (Click here to see last week’s issue.) Some sincerely wonder where the lines are drawn — what is “stealing” and what is honest research? Others bristle at the very concept of plagiarism, insisting that everything should be “fair game” and that there is nothing wrong with using someone else’s sermon (even preaching the whole thing verbatim) if the original author doesn’t care.

He is right in how he represents both sides. I used to belong to a forum online which would share outlines of the sermons which we were to preach the coming Sunday. Some found them stimulating to their own study. Others would confess that they would use the outlines (points, subpoints, and sub-subpoints and all) under the pretense that there was “nothing new under the sun,” so it was permissable to simply preaching verbatim a sermon already preached by a fellow brother.

Soon after, I unsubscribed from that forum because I just felt it was too easy a temptation to simply take that outline and run with it. Ultimately I could not. Why? I just could not pass off as my own something that God gave someone else. I was using the fruit of another’s prayer, study, and sweat! Here what Dr. Duduit says on this matter:

If I did that in the business world or in higher education I’d be fired. Do we think preaching has less ethical demands than the secular world? Deception is deception, whatever the context. . . . It cheats the congregation of the anointed passion that comes from a God-called messenger working through the biblical text to uncover the truth God has for that congregation that day. Our congregations deserve better than generic, off-the-shelf sermons.

For me, it is an integrity issue. God has called me to be a vessel through which his Word is preached. For me to stand up and pass off as our own circumvents our calling. Instead of looking to God for a message, we look on the internet or other sources. However helpful those sources and sermons may be, we pass ourselves off as frauds and phonies. We betray the confidence and trust of our people.

Some closing thoughts from Dr. Duduit:

If God called you to be an actor or performer, then people expect you to perform scripts written by others. But when a congregation hears a preacher stand before them to present a message from God, they expect that person to have prayed and studied and struggled through to find the message God has for them. And I believe that is what God calls us to do. Why would we settle for less?

Amen.

Any thoughts? Any of you out there who believe that I am off my bean? Make your case!

(Information from Preaching Now, Vol. 6, no. 16 — May 8, 2007).

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  1. Plagiarism is never acceptable. Ever. However, it “might” be appropriate to read a sermon of a classic preacher, like Edwards, so long as it is “rare” and the audience knows exactly what and why you are reading it.

    The idea of buying sermons, like plagiarism, is even worse…its quite contemptible.

    Thats my cent and a half.

  2. I think the saying is “bake your own bread.”

    Our people need to be convinced we believe what we’re preaching. If we just “plug and play” someone else’s sermon, no matter how much we try to own it, credibility and authority are lost. It doesn’t matter how true the words are if the listeners could be convinced it matters little to you.

    I agree with Steven. A rare message you use such as “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” where it is explained up front what you are doing is acceptable. I think these kinds of things should be used no more frequently than once every 3-5 years. I have used “Dr. Law and Dr. Grace” (which isn’t even expository, tisk, tisk) with full disclosure before I began- just saying this story I found says it better than I could. I knew some people would follow the illustration of it all much better than they did explanation (lots of adults were in that congregation with little education).

  3. I don’t get much time off on Sundays to hear other preachers preach, but the last time I had the occasion, I went to hear a message that was pretty much a downloadable sermon from Pastors.com. During the preaching, I noticed the sytle of the message followed Warren’s method of sermon preparation. I searched pastors.com when I returned home and pretty much found the downloaded sermon. I would guess 85% of the sermon was verbatim from the download. After realizing this, I felt cheated and very betrayed as a hearer and responder to the gospel message.

    Now, with this said…I do think the line is not clear when it comes to “What can you use from another person’s sermon?” Honestly, I have used sermon outlines from others. For example, Dr. Akin provides sermon outlines in the back of his commentaries and I have preached them. Was this wrong? I am sure you could argue yes, but I do not feel convicted against preaching solid outlines that come from the biblical text.

    And also, I am sure you have had the occasion to write your preaching outline and then search the internet to find that someone else has formulated the exact preaching outline. Should you NOT preach it when you find this out? I guess you could argue either way.

    I think the key here is to do most your study and sermon development BEFORE looking at other sermons on your text. This will keep away the temptation to peek at other’s outlines. Of course, this might not be a temptation for you…you have to know yourself like Matthew shared so honestly above. Once you have an outline you feel is from the text and ready to preach, then you can move forward with your outside sermon research. This is just my take on the issue.

    Let me get even more transparent with you and confess my real question among all this is, “Why do churches with pastor’s preaching carbon copy sermons grow bigger and faster than my church where I do not preach this way?” Another blog for another day, but this is where my heart is too often. Just being honest.

  4. Oh yes, I forgot to mention…this was a topic on Rick Warren’s blog on April 26, http://rickwarren.typepad.com/rick_warren/2007/04/sermon_stealing.html.

  5. A good litmus test is to bring these questions into the light. Isn’t it interesting how easy it is to argue the merits of something that we are unwilling to be known by others? Let us ask ourselves, what would our congregations and fellow preachers think of our undisclosed use of someone else’s material? If we are uncomfortable with that in the least, I think we have the answer.

    Now, if we could just become more conscience that we do everything un-hidden before the face of the Holy and Righteous Eternal Judge (coram Deo). I am saddened that I myself find the scenario of my behavior being exposed to the congregation as a better prod than the far more penetrating gaze of the Lord. But that’s a different topic.

  6. Hey, I am new to blogging, so it is really exciting to hear good, honest discussion like this. I TOTALLY agree that we are responsible to “bake our own bread” as Brian wrote (see, there I go giving credit 😉 ). This has, for a long time, been a serious issue to me. I find the thought that a person would present as their own, what they have not gleaned reprehensible. Giving proper credit is a very simple and quick thing. I have (one time) used another person’s outline. It took me less than one minute to address the issue and explain that I thought this particular outline was so good that I wanted to use it (even there, I tailored it to the congregation). If we ever feel led to use another’s outline, I believe it is a matter of integrity to give proper credit. I also have to ask why a person wouldn’t want to? It makes no sense to me that anyone would not want to give credit, unless they feel like it would not be acceptable. If so, then why do it? Finally, I find the “nothing new” argument to be nonsensical. I feel like I’m rambling at this point, so I shall be silent after another, Amen!

    Ok, just ONE more… Amen!!!

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