Useful article which cites D.A. Carson, Tim Keller, Sandy Willson, Matt Perman and Glen Lucke on the topic of plagiarism in preaching.
Carson provides a helpful matrix in which to analyze the issue:
Taking over another sermon and preaching it as if it were yours is always and unequivocally wrong, and if you do it you should resign or be fired immediately. The wickedness is along at least three axes: (1) You are stealing. (2) You are deceiving the people to whom you are preaching. (3) Perhaps worst, you are not devoting yourself to the study of the Bible to the end that God’s truth captures you, molds you, makes you a man of God, and equips you to speak for him. If preaching is God’s truth through human personality (so Phillips Brooks), then serving as nothing more than a kind of organic recording device in playback mode does not qualify.
What about something less? After 2,000, there is quite a bit which has been said, and much that is useful. Most pastor’s have many books which discuss the text and often have done a great deal of reading before they preach. What crosses the line?
Willson provides a helpful guideline:
Any direct quote is always attributed to the author in full.
Any ideas that I found in my reading that are uniquely attributable to one scholar or author are normally attributed to him.
If there are a number of unique ideas from one author, I may make a general attribution to his overall influence on my thinking at the beginning of my sermon.
Ideas that I discovered from several others that were not my own are usually covered by simply saying, “a number of scholars suggest that . . .”
Books or articles that I have found helpful are often shared with the congregation for their own edification.
If my sermons are published or sold on websites or CDs, I must be even more scrupulous to acknowledge all of my sources through footnotes and comments in order to avoid “stealing” from my brother or sister.
Ron Forseth tackles the issue from a different direction in his article published on Church Leaders. Rather than merely examining word use, he also examines the matter of the heart of the pastor and effect on the congregation:
I believe that conscience is one of three major issues here. “Am I guarding my own conscience in my sermon preparation and delivery?” I must add that my conscience has to guide me, and your conscience has to guide you. If the conscience of others dictates my own, then my conscience will incessantly be conflicted. We aren’t wired to be driven by the conscience of another; each person’s conscience must stand or fall on its own. The conscience of some preachers compels them to cite meticulously; others aren’t so compelled. We must have faith before God that our sermon preparation is approved by him.
“Why should my freedom be judged by another’s conscience?” (1 Corinthians 10:29 NIV)
The second major issue is diligence. “Am I faithfully studying the Word that I am preaching?” If using the work of another is simply an excuse or temptation to neglect my solemn duty, I’ve strayed from my calling. Chuck Swindoll emphasized this to me over and over in an interview: “Sermon preparation is hard work.” We are workers.
“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 truth.” (2 Timothy 2:15 NIV)
The third major issue is that of trust. Frankly, I think this issue brings the most clarity to Scott Gibson’s question. If our mode of sermon preparation breaks trust with those to whom we preach, then the answer to the question posed by the book’s title is a clear, “No.” How can a relationship proceed with broken trust? It cannot unless it is restored. And restoring trust is far more difficult than guarding trust in the first place. There are pastors who have paid with their jobs to demonstrate this.
Tim Challies also notes another trouble with plagiarism, it’s stealing from the congregation:
A couple of weeks ago we had a touching moment in our church. My pastor, immediately before he began to deliver his sermon, addressed the congregation, thanking them for providing him with the opportunity of being supported in the privilege of spending his weeks studying the Bible. As a pastor, he feels his most important responsibility (and his greatest privilege) is in studying God’s Word, and then delivering that Word to the people. In an interview I conducted recently with Mark Dever, he said much the same: that a pastor’s primarily responsibility is to serve his church by absorbing himself in the study of the Bible. Rarely can a church outgrow the pastor. The pastor must lead the way in studying the Word. This must be his primary occupation and must take precedence over other tasks, and even important tasks, such as pastoral counselling or providing leadership.
A pastor who plagiarizes sermons is clearly not fulfilling his primary responsibility. He is not investing time and effort in studying the Word, in understanding the Word, and in helping others understand what God has taught him. Furthermore, he is being unethical in allowing his congregation to believe that the sermons he delivers are his own work. I don’t think it is always wrong to preach sermons written by another person. I heard of a pastor who preached a series called “Sermons I Wish I’d Written.” He did not try to pass these sermons off as his own, but simply wanted to provide his congregation with what he considered some of history’s greatest sermons. Surely this is far different from a person who preaches those same sermons while pretending that he has written them himself.
Matt Perman on the Desiring God website provides the following explanation of the wrong of plagiarism:
The central problem with plagiarism is twofold: (1) it is stealing; and (2) it bears false witness. Obviously, both of these are unacceptable for Bible-believing Christians (see Exodus 20:15; Mark 10:19; Matthew 15:19, etc). Stealing and bearing false witness fail to love your neighbor as yourself (Romans 13:9). The words and ideas of another person are precisely that–their words or ideas. To fail to acknowledge their source is to give the false impression that they have originated with you. Hence, plagiarism steals from another and gives a false impression to your audience. Both of these factors should be of utmost concern to the Christian, and especially pastors and teachers whose should have the utmost respect for the sanctity of truth.
Mars Hill takes the following position:
IF I USE MATERIAL FROM ONE OF PASTOR MARK’S SERMON’S DO I NEED TO CITE HIM AS THE SOURCE OF THAT MATERIAL?
Yes. If you don’t cite him, you are plagiarizing. If you use content from one of Pastor Mark’s sermons or from one of his books, you need to attribute the content (whether it is a quote or paraphrase) to Pastor Mark. Also, even though we make transcripts available of our sermons, this does not mean you can take the transcript and deliver the sermon as though it is your own. This too is plagiarism.
The same answer applies to your use of sermon content from any other pastors and any of our blog posts.