by Randy Corn
It was better than twenty years ago. I was attending the Bible Conference at our National Convention listening to a preacher I knew only by reputation. He did a good job with some fine insights into God’s Word and some unusual turns of phrase that held my attention. I left the meeting thinking it had been a worthwhile time.
Fast-forward about six months to find me looking through books in a used bookstore. Since my days in seminary, I had casually pursued the idea of collecting all of the Yale Lectures on Preaching that had found their way into print. When I opened a volume published in 1913, I was excited to find it was the 1910 series penned by a preacher named Charles Jefferson. When I got around to reading this new acquisition, I found myself at first with a feeling of déjà vu. The further I got in my reading the clearer it became. The preacher from the Bible Conference had plagiarized this message.
I wish I could say that was the only time I have caught another of the preacher brethren “appropriating” someone else’s sermons. I have known of more than one minister who was asked to resign over persistent plagiarism. At the other end of the spectrum I have heard too many ministers say, “When (insert name of popular preacher here) preaches better sermons, so will I!” Just what should be the attitude of churches, and more particularly ministers, toward using someone else’s sermons?
Some reading this post are probably wondering how we are to define plagiarism? John Broadus in his classic On the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons writes, “A plagiary among the Romans was a kidnapper, one who stole free men and made slaves of them, also one who stole or enticed away another man’s slave to use or sell as his own, and this secondary sense appears to be that which gave rise to the literary usage.1″
This is good as far as it goes, but just how far is that? For something to be called plagiarism, does it have to be the whole sermon, title, major points, even illustrations? Is it still plagiarism if the structure of the secondary sermon is the same, but the title and, perhaps more importantly, the illustrations are changed? It quickly becomes evident that hard and fast rules are difficult to develop when defining plagiarism. What’s more, what a preacher may think of as “borrowing,” a church member may think of as a commentary on the work ethic of the minister, perhaps even grounds for his dismissal.
Obviously the safest definition to apply is the one that keeps the preacher furthest from danger. Except in the most extreme cases, this is something only the preacher can know. Did he simply appropriate the work of another, or did he take only the seed of an idea and grow it himself? A practical test might be how different the thrust of his sermon is from the parent message. If there is significant variance, then this is not plagiarism.
Some will argue that the real issue here is credit being given. If the preacher credits the source, then he really isn’t stealing anything. Of course, there are limits here, too. One wonders what the reaction in the typical church would be if a pastor announced that he was going to preach a twelve-week sermon series originally produced by John Piper. Those in the trenches will also know that many sermons nowadays are something of a cut and paste job. Many who would never appropriate an entire message by another pastor will take the outline from one, an illustration from two or three others, and well-turned phrases from even more. It can grow tedious to credit everything that is not original with the man doing the preaching. Still, no matter what the justification is, the preacher should know how much of it is his and how much he owes to something like sermoncentral.com. If he can claim the final product as his own, with due credit given, then he isn’t guilty of plagiarism.
How Does It Happen?
I doubt that any pulpit minister sets out to be known as a plagiarist. How then does this come to pass? I have thought long, and questioned a number of fellow ministers, as well as laymen, on the issue. It seems that there are three paths to plagiarism.
First, there is inability. Preaching is both a science and an art. Some who end up filling pulpits will never have had the privilege of training for the task. I had this brought home to me a few years ago when a friend asked if he could buy my lunch. We had graduated from college together, and I knew he had been a better student than I was. While he graduated with highest honors, I simply graduated! During college he had not anticipated preaching so he did not take homiletics. He had worked on church staffs and with denominational agencies, but was now in a situation where he was expected to preach at least once a week. He did not feel equal to the task. I tried my best to be helpful and suggested a number of books, but it is easy to understand why someone like this friend might fall back on books of “sermon starters.”
Second, there is the tyranny of time. Any faithful minister knows that a church can gobble up every available minute. When you throw into this mix some unexpected ministry obligation, you can arrive at Saturday evening with nothing close to a completed sermon for Sunday morning. David Blanchard is quoted in Should We Use Someone Else’s Sermon? saying, “[w]hen it’s midnight on a Saturday night and the sermon is not finished most of us will settle for secondhand inspiration over no inspiration at all. And so will our congregations.”2 It is easy to understand how the pressure of limited time can make a plagiarist of all, but the most principled of men.
Third, there is the worst possible reason: laziness. I fear that when most laymen learn their pastor has been plagiarizing someone else’s sermons, this is the conclusion they draw. Let’s face it, many assume the only real work the pastor does is to come up with sermons; now they learn he isn’t even doing that! In Preaching from the Bible, the great homiletics professor Andrew Blackwood cautioned ministers about being so taken with the sermons of others that they might present them as their own. He warns, “[i]f one is tempted to steal the fruits of other men’s labors, one ought to let such books severely alone, partly because the lay hearers also read sermons.”3 Blackwood is saying that if a pastor is tempted to use another man’s work as his own, the only safe recourse is to remain ignorant of it. Let every man of God be honest with himself about this.
A Caution and a Cure
What are we to say about this problem of pulpit plagiarism? I think the first note to sound would be one of caution. The same Internet that supplied the preacher with his sermon can be searched by his church members. I had this brought home to me recently while listening to a sermon. Something about the style reminded me of a popular preacher who had penned a number of books. I happened to have those volumes in a Bible study program on my iPhone. I resisted the urge to check during the service, but when I got home I realized the speaker had used the main points and sub-points of another man’s sermon. To put this in Biblical terminology, I would say to the plagiarist, “Be sure your sins will find you out.”
To those who allow themselves to end up with not enough time, reorder your life. Streamline some things, cut other things out, but recognize that the one thing a preacher can do in the church that no one else can do is preach. The congregation deserves the benefit of your primary spiritual gift.
Finally, to those who feel they are not up to the task and must rely on others’ sermons, I say with all sincerity, be willing to fail. I am so grateful for the struggle of learning how to preach. When I arrived at my first church, I had taken a number of homiletics courses, but I quickly realized there is a difference between theory and practice. I had to try numerous things that failed before I slowly began to grasp what might succeed.
As I said at the outset of this, I benefited from that long ago Bible Conference message. Sadly, my opinion of the preacher soured with my discovery of his sermon in an antique bookstore. My hope is that fewer preachers will make this outcome possible in the future.
- John Broadus, On the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons, (New York: Harper & Row, 1944), 88.
- Scott M. Gibson, Should We Use Someone Else’s Sermon? (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008), ebook version.
- Andrew Blackwood. Preaching from the Bible, (New York: Abingdon-Cokesbury, 1941), 235.
Recommended Reading: While many books on homiletics mention plagiarism, the only full length treatment of it I found was the work by Scott Gibson cited above. The subtitle of this volume is “Preaching in a Cut and Paste World.” It is a brief but important book.