Preachers, Stealing is Still Wrong

Plagiarized SermonsIn his little book Should We Use Someone Else’s Sermon? Preaching in a Cut-and-Paste World, Scott Gibson discusses the out-of-control problem of preachers plagiarizing their sermons.[1] One minister, W. Banwell “Barney” Heyward Jr., lost his job after admitting to plagiarizing sermons from Tim Keller, minister of Redeemer Church in New York City. Another minister, Robert C. Hamm of Keen United Church of Christ, resigned when he was confronted with his plagiarism. In this case, Hamm had copied and pasted entire sermons from the internet and preached them as if they were his own. Example after example, Gibson relays how preachers are copying and pasting sermons, and then preaching them as if they are their own. The problem is clear: more and more preachers are plagiarizing their sermons.

Several questions arise when this problem is considered. For example, is it really wrong for preachers to plagiarize someone else’s sermon? What if permission is given? Is it still wrong? And what about showing a little understanding toward preachers? Their responsibilities are, after all, very taxing and strenuous: church members often demand to have their “felt needs” met—they expect a good sermon every Sunday. Can’t we allow a little slack in the area of sermon preparation?

Although these questions are valid in this discussion, the issue comes down to this: is plagiarizing sermons wrong? That’s it—plain and simple. It seems to me that the answer to the question is just as plain and simple: plagiarizing sermons is wrong. It’s called stealing, and stealing is still wrong.

What Is A Plagiarized Sermon?

PlagiarismPlagiarism, by definition, is taking someone else’s intellectual written or spoken work and passing it off as one’s own. In the book The Craft of Research, plagiarism is said to be committed when “you use someone else’s words or ideas but fail to credit that person, leading your readers [or listeners] to think that those words are yours.”[2] In short, plagiarism is stealing.

This practice of stealing sermons is accomplished in numerous ways. Some ministers simply download sermons from the internet and preach them verbatim, including illustrations and stories that never happened to them. Others download sermons and then change a few of the illustrations and stories to fit their own personal experience. The problem, however, is that the other parts of the sermon are still not their own. Still others do it the “old school” way: they take sermons from books, or even outlines of sermons, and then preach them as if they were their own. No matter how one takes another’s sermon and preaches it without giving credit to the original source, it is still stealing.

Stealing Is Wrong

Thou Shall Not StealStealing will always be wrong. It is one of the forbidden practices embedded in the Ten Commandments: “You shall not steal” (Exod. 20:15). The Apostle Paul even tells the Ephesian church that “he who steals must steal no longer, but rather he must labor, performing with his own hands what is good, so that he will have something to share with one who has need” (Eph. 4:28; NASB). In this context, Paul was probably talking about stealing food or property, but surely there is an intrinsic principle here that is applicable to plagiarism. Paul’s words could be re-phrased to say, “He who plagiarizes sermons must steal no longer; but rather he must labor, performing with his own skills and mind what is good, so that he will have a message to share with the church which has spiritual need.”

Stealing is not just wrong because it breaks God’s command. It is also wrong because it betrays trust. God has created the world in such a way that humans have the right to property. When someone steals another’s property, it becomes more difficult to trust the thief. Who knows when he will do it again? Although entire trust may not be eliminated, the trust that once existed is no longer the same.

It’s the same with plagiarizing sermons. If a minster steals another’s sermon, trust is broken. How can such a man be trusted to do his own work next time? Certainly as Christians we desire to forgive those who repent. But that element of suspicion will always be present, not to mention that healing takes time and sometimes some are not willing to forgive.

Moreover, plagiarizing sermons breaks trust in another way: it breaks trust with the local church as a whole. Most, if not all, people in the congregation expect and assume that their minister writes and preaches his own sermons with his people in mind. When a minister plagiarizes, he breaks that trust. His people believe him to be speaking from his own experiences and study, not from another’s personal life who may live on the other side of the nation or globe. In essence, this breaking of trust with the local church becomes an issue of lying. When a minster uses illustrations and personal stories that are not his own without giving credit to the original source, he leaves the congregation with the impression that he is talking about himself, when in fact nothing he has said ever happened to him. This is lying. Eugene Lowry puts it this way:

When we substitute purchased sermons for that personal reflection, we betray people’s time and trust and our own integrity. It would be more honest to have the real writer tape the text, and to play that tape for the congregation. For the pastor to present someone else’s sermon as if it were the result of his . . . own discipleship, training and theological commitment is to bear false witness.[3]

But What If . . . ?

Sermon CentralThere are usually two responses at this point in the discussion. But what if consent is given by the author to use his sermons? Rick Warren is well known for his website Pastors.com where he provides his sermons for free and some for a small price to minsters to preach. Sermoncentral.com is another popular website that provides free sermons from Rick Warren and Andy Stanley, to name just a few well-known pastors. All these preachers have given consent to have their sermons on those websites downloaded and preached. Why would it be wrong for ministers to use them?

My answer is two-fold. First, although it would not technically be plagiarizing (i.e., stealing), it would still betray the trust of a minister’s congregation. For a minister to stand up behind the pulpit on a Sunday morning and deliver a packaged sermon still leaves the impression that he studied and wrote the sermon. This is deception, and deception is wrong. For minsters to give consent for others to use their sermons is simply encouraging ministers to lie to their congregations.

Second, Christ has called ministers to write their own sermons, not others. Paul told his understudy, Timothy, to “preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction. . . . you, be sober in all things, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry” (2 Tim. 4:2, 5). Notice that Paul tells Timothy to preach the Word of God. He told Timothy to do the work of an evangelist. He told Timothy to fulfill his ministry. He did not tell him to let others do it. When ministers plagiarize their sermons it is a failure to fulfill the task God has given to them.

But what if a minister uses a sermon from Pastors.com or some other source but gives credit? Since the minister would be giving credit, it is no longer stealing. Additionally, by giving credit, he no longer is leaving the impression that the sermon is his own. There is no lying to or deceiving his congregation. There is, however, the issue of the minister doing his own work. It seems that the minister should regularly write and preach his own sermons. This does not mean that he can never use another’s sermon and give credit to the original source. There are many good sermons written and preached by very good ministers, and it seems that an occasional borrowing (with giving credit!) would be permissible. But it seems to me that this should not be a normative practice. It should be done sparingly. The minister should do his own work. As Gibson states, “Jesus is looking for faithful servants who will be honest, genuine, and diligent.”[4]

At the end of the day, stealing is still wrong. And plagiarizing sermons is stealing. Ministers ought to spend more time using their own skills and gifts to study Scripture and to craft a theologically sound sermon to deliver to his congregation. Only the minister knows his people like he does and can speak directly to them. A sermon someone else wrote for a different people may “sound good” and may even be “impressive” and “knock it out of the ball park.” But it is still a stolen sermon and it still betrays the trust of the minister’s congregation. May every minister fulfill his own ministry to the glory of God!

Grace,

Peter

Notes:

[1] Scott Gibson, Should We Use Someone Else’s Sermon? Preaching in a Cut-and-Paste World (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2008). For the examples given here in this paragraph, see p.27.

[2] Wayne C. Booth, Gregory G. Colomb, and Joseph M. Williams, The Craft of Research, 2nd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), 201-02.

[3] Eugene Lowry, “Preaching or Reciting? Theft in the Pulpit,” The Christian Ministry 22 (March-April, 1991: 12. Also quoted in Gibson, Should We Use Someone Else’s Sermon?.

[4] Gibson, Should We Use Someone Else’s Sermon? 48.

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2 Responses to Preachers, Stealing is Still Wrong

  1. Justin says:

    As you mention in the introduction, there are several questions surrounding this issue of plagiarism. One that I have is related to the underlying reason why this is increasingly happenning in the first place. Does the book attempt to examine why so many feel the need to steal in the first place? Is their schedule too busy to write authentic and thoughtful sermons each week? Does the preacher feel like he has run out of good ideas or is unable to compete with the work of celebrities? Taking things a step further, is there a fear of thinking “outside the box” due to disapproval? If there is no “burden” on the heart of the minister that he feels he must share? I once heard that there are two kinds of preachers: those that have something to say and those that have to say something. My point is this: maybe a consistent dependence on these things might indicate a need for spiritual revival.
    Do you have any thoughts on this?

    • prasor says:

      Justin, thanks for reading. To answer your question directly: yes, the book deals with the issue of why plagiarism is occurring so frequently among ministers. If you haven’t done so already, I highly recommend getting a copy of the book. It’s not too large and it’s an easy read. Some of the reasons given in the book for why plagiarism in the pulpit is on the rise include: lack of confidence, pressure to “succeed,” time constraints, and some of the other items you listed in your response. I personally believe that a sense of inadequacy is a primary reason and the pressure to “grow the church.” I would probably also include at the top of the list the inordinately high and unrealistic expectations by the congregation and/or leadership.