From time to time publications ranging from the Wall Street Journal to Christianity Today run articles on plagiarism of sermons.  Having taught preaching on the seminary level a number of years, I dealt with the issue of plagiarism with students.  In my present role as Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of the PCA, church sessions and presbyteries ask me about plagiarism of sermons. With the advent of the Internet, the sermons of ministers have become more accessible both to ministers and anyone else who makes the effort to access them.   Modern communication technology makes research much easier than before.  Moreover, with the widespread accessibility of sermons, plagiarism is easier to detect because preachers are not the only persons with access to internet sermons.  Many churches, not just mega-churches with extensive media ministries, now offer their pastors’ sermons on church web sites.

Although such widespread accessibility of sermons is a fairly recent phenomenon, the use of others’ sermons in whole or in part is nothing new.  In the Reformation era in England, for example, the Church of England used two Books of Homilies, a collection of 33 sermons by trusted exegetes and theologians on key doctrines, which were to be read aloud in the churches from time to time (Article XXV of the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion of the Church of England).

To comprehend the complex issues involved in what constitutes plagiarism of sermons, we need to understand that preaching is at the same time a gift, a skill and an art.  The adage, “those whom God calls he qualifies” applies to preaching as well.  But even gifts need to be developed (1 Timothy 1:6) and not all are equally gifted.  Preaching is a skill as well as a gift.  Many of the fathers of the ancient Church were trained in classical rhetoric.  Augustine of Hippo’s (A.D. 354-430) work On Christian Teaching, Book IV, adapted rhetoric for preaching and was used for almost a thousand years to help preachers develop their preaching skills.  William Perkins’ book The Art of Prophesying greatly affected the preaching of the Puritans and those who continued the Puritan tradition.   Robert L. Dabney’s book on preaching, Sacred Rhetoric, influenced 19th-century Southern Presbyterian preaching.  Some preachers become wordsmiths and highly effective communicators.  For them, preaching is also an art. Preaching is a highly demanding work, intellectually, spiritually, emotionally, and pastorally.  So it is no surprise that preachers seek help to become better preachers.

There are three major stages of sermon development: (1) critical analysis of the biblical text, (2) creative synthesis of the exegetical information into sermonic form, and, (3) communication, the actual preaching of the sermon that brings biblical truth to bear on the lives and hearts of a particular congregation in a specific cultural and contemporary setting.  Each of these stages of sermon development requires a different set of skills.  Few preachers become accomplished masters of all three stages of the preaching process.

Phase One, Critical Analysis

Since biblical preaching is to be based upon sound exegesis, it should not be surprising that many sermons on a particular text preached by different preachers over the centuries would have the same basic interpretation of a given text.  We respect the three-fold standard of the doctrinal consensus of the Church on major doctrines stated in the fifth century as: that which has been believed everywhere, always, and by all; in other words, universality, antiquity, and consent.  In addition to doctrinal consensus by the Church Universal, there is usually a theological-exegetical consensus on the meaning of a particular biblical text, within a particular theological tradition such as the Reformed tradition.  This is evident from studying substantive commentaries.   An exegetical consensus is also evident in sermons as well as commentaries.  One could read the expository sermons of Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Donald Grey Barnhouse, and James Montgomery Boice on the Book of Romans and find frequent similarities of thought, though expressed in different words.  For a studious minister, the critical analysis of the biblical text, though neither brief nor easy, is the foundational and the most objective part of sermon preparation.

Phase Two, Creative Synthesis

The creative synthesis of exegetical information into a substantive, yet interesting, practical and compelling sermon is a different process, because creative thinking is involved.  Analytical thinking and creative thinking are different.  Moreover, insights into human nature, life experiences, trends in the contemporary culture, relevance to the culture of the particular congregation, and other subjective factors are required in creative synthesis.  In the creative process, exegetical and doctrinal insights from the biblical text are developed into a sermon. Some who are adept at analytical thinking are not skilled in creative thinking (and vice versa).  Some are intuitively creative; others may need to learn creative thinking.  A good butcher or green grocer is not necessarily an expert chef who can prepare nutritious as well as delicious and appealing dishes.  A learned exegete may not necessarily be an engaging preacher.  In fact, it is possible to preach an exegetically correct and theologically orthodox sermon that is boring and impractical.  I speak from personal experience.

In my first attempts at preaching, my sermons often suffered from information overload but lacked interest or relevance to those who heard my early sermons.  So I studied homiletics (the preparation and delivery of sermon) in depth and to learn more about the creative process.  Later, when I taught preaching, I was able to help seminarians learn how to make the transition from critical analysis to creative synthesis; i.e. to take the results of exegetical study and to organize, develop, and present substantive biblical truths in an interesting and practical sermon.

Preachers who need help in transitioning from technical exegesis to popular exposition, often consult the efforts of other preachers to see how they preached a particular text or dealt with a specific issue. Christian bookstores often offer books of suggested sermon outlines or books of illustrations, as well as books of entire sermons, for preachers to use to prime the pump in sermon development. With the advent of the Internet, checking how others have preached a text is more easily done without a trip to a bookstore.  If a preacher is not adept at creative thinking, if pressed for time, or not willing to do the hard work of preparation for preaching, it is tempting simply to copy the work of others.

Phase Three, Communication

The third stage of the preaching process is the communication of the message, the live preaching of the sermon to a congregation, the broadcast of the aural sermon through various electronic media, or also the publication of the sermon in print or digital-electronic means (web site, compact disk, etc.).  The critical analysis and creative synthesis stages of preaching are done prior to the preaching of the sermon.  There is a sense in which a sermon does not really become a sermon until it is preached by a minister to a congregation.  This is when communication occurs. There is a definite pastoral, relational aspect to preaching.  Much of the material we read in the works of the writing prophets of the Old Testament era was first delivered by the prophets in their preaching as heart-felt burdens for the people of their time.  Most pastors will agree that they do their best preaching when preaching to their own congregations, the sheep of their own flock, rather than at a special occasion to a gathering of strangers.

Preachers sometimes emulate the communication style of other well-known or effective preachers. I went to seminary with a fellow from the Midwest.  His natural speech pattern was a Midwestern accent.  Yet when he preached, he preached with a North Carolina accent, used Billy-Graham-like gestures and catch phrases, all because Billy Graham was his favorite preacher.  When I was teaching preaching, I could easily guess who the student preacher’s favorite preacher was by the manner in which the student preached.  Preachers, consciously or unconsciously, often follow the preaching style of other preachers that have influenced them.

A Complex Issue

How original a sermon must be, or how similar to or dependent on previous works, is not as simple as it may at first appear.  The Bible itself is repetitive in its major themes such as creation, the fall and all its effects, redemption, judgment, and consummation in the new heavens and new earth.  Sometimes biblical writers directly quote other biblical writers.  Sometimes those quotations are attributed to others, but not always.  Other times biblical writers paraphrase previous biblical writers, with or without attribution.  Sometimes prophets, apostles, or preachers repeat the major themes of the Bible and, in many instances, without stating which prophet was the first to state the issue.

A sermon is not an essay like one would write for a class assignment, nor is a sermon a technical article like one would write for a theological journal.   A sermon is not a formal academic lecture that one would give in a classroom.  A sermon is an aural composition, intended to be heard.  Preaching is the exposition and application of the word of God.  Moreover, a sermon is an important aspect of a Christian worship service.  For these reasons, constant “oral footnoting” would not be expected in the preaching of a sermon.  Nevertheless, honesty requires some acknowledgement of significant insights and major materials gleaned from others.  That would include such things as exegetical insights, sermon structure, illustrations, and wording.

In written works the standards for the citation of sources and plagiarism are more easily and objectively established.  For, example The Chicago Manual of Style, a 900-page, widely used reference work on publication standards, gives extensive requirements on when citation of sources is necessary and how citation of sources is to be done in published works.  Unfortunately, there is no sermonic equivalent to the Chicago Manual for preaching.

Intellectual property rights are an issue.  The Chicago Manual has numerous references to copyright law, procedures, and standards.  When a professor publishes a book that originated in research he conducted and lectures he prepared and presented while an employee of a college, university, or a seminary, the issue of whether the professor or the institution that employs him owns the intellectual property rights is important.  That is why educational institutions have policies on publications of professors.  With pastors who publish books, electronic books, and audio sermons that are available on websites, many churches have wisely addressed the issue of intellectual property rights of sermons by establishing clear policies.

Most Christians consider cheating on tests as a violation of the eighth commandment, “Thou shalt not steal,” because it is stealing the ideas and intellectual work of others.  In like manner, a pastor who preaches another preacher’s sermon as if it were his own, may well be considered stealing the work of another.

Recognizing Plagiarism

Given the different types of thinking and skills involved in preaching and complexity of the issue of legitimate uses of the work of others as opposed to plagiarism, what standards could be used?  Obviously, when a preacher preaches another preacher’s sermon as if it were his own, changing only a few words here and there, he is plagiarizing.  Other, less obvious, cases are more difficult.  Here are a couple corollaries that I suggest.

Do not expect 100% originality in a preacher.  After 2,000 years of Christian biblical study, doctrinal development, and preaching, it is difficult to expound and apply every biblical text with 100 percent originality.

Corollary One – Originality

  • Expect a minister to work hard to utilize his gifts, training, skills, and experience to be informed by the work of others so that he can craft for himself fresh sermons that are biblical, orthodox, interesting, and practical.

Corollary Two – Crediting Others

  • Do not expect that an aural sermon would be subject to exactly the same detailed standards as are required for a published work or an academic paper with extensive formal citations of sources (author’s full name, title of a book or web site posting, place of publication, name of publisher, date of publication, volume number, and page).
  • Expect a preacher in an aural sermon to appropriately acknowledge in some way direct quotations, paraphrases, or unique insights of others.  For example, “J. I. Packer once said that one of the most difficult doctrines for Christians truly to believe is the goodness of God” would be an appropriate and adequate means of acknowledging Packer’s insight in a sermon.

Dealing with Plagiarism

What are sessions and presbyteries to do when ministers plagiarize other preachers’ sermons?  That depends on several factors.  Some helpful questions to ask would be:

  1. Does the minister admit to plagiarism? – If a minister readily admits to plagiarism when confronted, he will more likely be shown mercy and patience.  If after being presented with irrefutable evidence of plagiarism, the minister denies he plagiarized or claims that he does not know what plagiarism is, or excuses his plagiarism, a stronger penalty would be appropriate.
  2. How extensive is the plagiarism? – Many preachers occasionally or unintentionally fail to acknowledge direct quotations, paraphrases, or unique insights of others in sermons. That is not a serious issue.  If, however, a preacher, frequently and intentionally fails to do so, that is much more serious.  And when a preacher preaches another preacher’s sermon as if it were his own, changing only a few words here and there, that is even more serious.
  3. Why has the minister resorted to plagiarism? –If the pastor is too busy with other tasks, he may need to change his priorities, or he may need help in time and task management, or the session may need to provide staff or volunteer help with non-pastoral tasks.  If he is spiritually impoverished, he may need a time of spiritual refreshment.  If the preacher is too lazy to do the hard work of sermon preparation, he needs to change his work ethic.
  4. What are appropriate remedies for plagiarism? – That depends on the answers to the previous questions.  Sometimes a simple exhortation is adequate.  Other times helping the pastor strengthen his weaknesses in analytical-exegetical thinking, his creative thinking or his communication skills through continuing education is a solution.  If pastoral fatigue is the major factor, a vacation or sabbatical may be a remedy.  When congregational confidence in the pastor has been irreparably eroded, a pastoral resignation may be appropriate. In more serious cases a formal disciplinary process by the presbytery may be warranted.

Plagiarism will not go away.  In this Information Age it is a greater temptation.  The Church needs to deal appropriately with it.