A Few Borrowed Words about Plagiarism

by Randy Corn

Recently I produced a post for this blog entitled “Whose Sermon Is It?” The subject was plagiarism, and I had been motivated to explore this at the request of a friend. This fellow minister is one of those guys in “denominational leadership,” which means that he doesn’t preach every week, but instead is on the road and is thus exposed to a variety of pulpit offerings. He was concerned about the number of sermons he heard which were straight from sources like Sermoncentral.com.

I suppose every generation has had such resources. When I began my ministry some thirty years ago, I had an older minister tell me that he would be lost without the Herschel Ford’s Simple Sermon books. Preachers of my generation will remember they were often disparaged as “Simple sermons for the simple minded!” Those who wanted to show a bit more refinement might try to rework a sermon from the Prince of Preachers, Charles Haddon Spurgeon. I once heard Warren Wiersbe recite a bit of poetry about this:

There once was a preacher named Spurgey

Who did not approve our lit-turgy

But his sermons are fine, and I preach them as mine

And so do the rest of the clergy!

Plagiarism is a problem, and I tried to broadly address it in my earlier article. Once I had finished the article, I asked for the input of a number of my friends and acquaintances. They were not the least bit shy about sharing their thoughts. While they articulated it a number of different ways, I came to group their responses under what I termed the “Ecclesiastes apologetic for plagiarism.”  As Ecclesiastes 1:9 says in part, “There is no new thing under the sun.” All of us would have to admit that our output will be the product of our input. If we can find someone who said substantially the same thing in an earlier sermon, then are we not guilt of plagiarism? This might even be at a subconscious level, some argue, and therefore we all stand condemned. This is usually quickly followed by the idea that if everyone is doing it, then it must not be that bad!

My problem with this defense of plagiarism is in the definition. I write this to further clarify what I said earlier. Plagiarism is presenting someone else’s work as mine. When I give credit for an idea, a phrase, perhaps even an entire sermon, I am not guilty of plagiarism. But when I conceal that origin, I am on shaky ground. And when I claim someone else’s work as my own, I have condemned myself as a plagiarist. What we are ultimately dealing with here is the motive of the preacher. Scott Gibson in his book Should We Use Someone Else’s Sermons? quotes Raymond Bailey, “Plagiarism is the willful representing of the ideas and words of another as one’s own. Deceit is intentional, and the motivation is usually personal gain of money or acclaim” [1]. There can be no accidental plagiarism any more than there can be accidental bank robbery!

Finally, what is it really saying about the ethics of a preacher who consistently passes off someone else’s work as his own? Ultimately, it is a neglecting of our calling as ministers to the people we lead. Your congregation did not call Charles Spurgeon or Charles Stanley to preach to them. They called you.


[1] Scott M. Gibson, Should We Use Someone Else’s Sermon?  (Grand Rapids:  Zondervan, 2008), ebook version.


Leave a Reply