The Problem of Plagiarism in the Pulpits

     I was just thinking about how important the preaching of God’s Word is, and that reminded me of a situation that has arisen among some pastors in churches today.

     A few years ago, a seminary professor mentioned to me that he was listening to a sermon by a preacher via Facebook. As he did, he found that it struck a familiar chord. He had heard that very sermon from someone else. He began to look up other sermons by that preacher and found that he was plagiarizing the sermons of other preachers! He then said, “Tom, this is a rampant occurrence in pulpits today. Preachers are taking other preachers’ sermons and claiming them as their own. That is stealing!”

     I began to pay closer attention to this subject and began to research the issue myself. I found that the problem has been in existence for several years.

     Some might ask, “What’s the problem? A sermon is a sermon isn’t it?” Well, not exactly. I have been preaching for over 55 years. I love to build sermons, but I love to build my own sermons. In fact, I prefer not to call them sermons, but messages. I have always asked the Lord to let me preach messages that affect the lives of people to change them, cheer them, comfort them, challenge them, and yes, sometimes to chastise them. That is the responsibility of a pastor — to be a shepherd of one of God’s flocks.

     I am old now, and I feel a responsibility to the churches and to the pastors to address this issue. So as I pursued this matter, I asked myself, “Is God really concerned with where a preacher gets his sermon? Does He care if he gets it word-for-word from another pastor or evangelist?” It was then I was drawn to this passage: “Therefore,” declares the Lord, “I am against the prophets who steal from one another words supposedly from me.” “Yes,” declares the Lord, “I am against the prophets who wag their own tongues and yet declare, “The Lord declares” (Jer. 23:30-31 NIV). That word “steal”certainly got my attention. God is concerned where we preachers get our sermons, and He doesn’t want us stealing from others!

     As I researched this subject, I found that because there are so many preachers, evangelists and churches putting the sermons on the internet, it is so very easy for a preacher to just lift one and claim it for his own.

     I will share the comments from some of the better-known preachers in America whose sermons are being plagiarized. But first, let me share what plagiarism means. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, to plagiarize means: to steal and pass off (the ideas or words of another) as one’s own; to use (another’s production) without crediting the source; to commit literary theft. In other words, when a person plagiarizes, he or she commits an act of fraud. It involves two sins — stealing and lying. Someone steals another’s work, then lies about it afterward.

     We rarely think of anyone plagiarizing a sermon. After all, most who plagiarize do so in writing books, giving speeches, writing doctoral theses and other literary presentations. If a seminary has conferred a doctorate upon a person and it is later found that individual plagiarized his thesis, that doctorate is revoked. That is how seriously the institutions of higher learning take plagiarism.

     I share with you some comments from various writers and pastors regarding this subject:

     Collin Hansen, in an article titled, “When Has a Preacher Crossed the Line into Plagiarism in His Sermon?” wrote: “I still can’t help but think of pulpit plagiarism as an integrity issue.” Indeed, integrity is evidenced by these traits: honesty, authenticity, trustworthiness and genuineness. When the preacher takes another person’s sermon and leaves the congregation with the idea that it was his, and inspired by the Holy Spirit, that preacher’s integrity is questionable.

     I have discovered that there are hundreds of pastors who are finding sermons on the internet and then preaching them word-for-word, including taking illustrations and presenting them as if they had personally experienced them. Of course, they may change names of people, locations and events, but they still make the congregations think that this was their own experience.

     Some of the pastors/evangelists whose sermons are most often plagiarized today are John Piper, J.D. Greear, Charles Stanley, Tony Evans, John Hamby, Tim Keller and John MacArthur. Granted, there are many others whose sermons have been plagiarized, but not all take issue. Some, like Rick Warren, even say, “If you can preach my sermon, then preach it.” But not all take that view.

     Many people have written that they listened closely to their pastors’ sermons and thought, “That just doesn’t sound like my pastor. He uses words and phrases that I’ve never heard him use.” It is then that each had found their pastors where stealing other people’s sermons. They were, word-for-word, taking the material and preaching as if it was their own.

     John Piper, whose sermons are among the ones most often plagiarized, said, “To base the structure of your sermon on someone else’s sermon, but to use your own words, is plagiarism.” To avoid that, the other preacher needed to be cited.

     Dr. R.G. Lee preached one of the greatest sermons of all time, “Payday Someday.” To take that and preach it as one’s own would be plagiarism.  However, if one humbly stated before he preached, “This is a great sermon. It is not mine. It was preached years ago, by Dr. R.G. Lee. Tonight, I am going to share it with you word-for-word.” That would not be plagiarism. It would not be stealing because the one who originally preached it would have been credited.

     Is plagiarism in the pulpit today a problem? Yes, and it should not be! Long before the internet came about, preachers (full-time and bivocational) found time to study and prepare sermons. Today, it is too easy to be lazy and uncommitted to studying the Word of God that is so greatly needed by the people in the pews. They neither need nor deserve a pastor who is stealing sermons from others and deceiving the church members and guests into thinking that he has prayed, studied and prepared the sermon they just heard delivered.

     Do those preachers whose sermons have been plagiarized think this is a serious matter? Indeed, they do! Some have said the pastor should admit his failure and resign. Others have said that if he doesn’t face up to his error and apologize to his congregation, he should be fired. That indicates that these whose study, preparation and delivery of sermons that have been plagiarized consider this an extremely serious matter.

     Church members, pray for your pastors. Lift them up before the Lord. Ask the Spirit to speak to their hearts and minds, to encourage them to be students of the Word so that they might adequately teach the flock what God wants them to hear.

     The pastor’s office is called a study for a reason. It is where he should be able to be alone with God. It is where he should seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit. It is where he should study the Word of God so that he might rightly impart the Word of Truth to the people who are depending on him to do so for their sakes.

     Pastors, do not take lightly your calling. You were not called to be the most intellectual, most eloquent or most humorous person to grace a pulpit. You were called to impart God’s Word to God’s people. That is why Pastor Timothy received these words from his mentor, Paul: “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the Word of God” (II Tim. 2:15 NIV).

     Then Paul also wrote Titus: “In everything set them an example by doing what is good. In your teaching show integrity, seriousness, and soundness of speech that cannot be condemned, so that those who oppose you may be ashamed because they have nothing bad to say about us” (Titus 2:7-8).

     I recommend the following articles for those who might want more information on this problem of plagiarism in the pulpits:

     • “Five Reasons You Shouldn’t Preach Other People’s Sermons” by Carey Nieuehof;

     • “What Counts as Plagiarism in a Sermon?” by J.D. Greear;

     • “Your Pastor is Plagiarizing His Sermons: What to Do” by Joe McKeever;

     • “When Has the Preacher Crossed the Line into Plagiarism in His Sermon?” by Colin Hansen;

     • “Stop Stealing Sermons!” by Dean Lentini.

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