“Why did you preach my pastor’s sermon last night?” a student asked me at a seminary Bible conference. “I’m not sure I know your pastor,” I replied, “and I rarely get to hear other men preach. Was I in the congregation when you heard him preach it?”
“No, I guess you weren’t,” he mumbled. “Maybe you just preach alike.” And with that, he walked away. I was glad to close the conversation, because I might have been tempted to tell him that the message had been in print for several years and was also available on tape. I certainly didn’t want to undermine his faith in his pastor.
Perhaps his pastor did happen to hit upon the same outline and illustrations that I used. Perhaps we do “preach alike.” Perhaps . . . but I must confess that I had a strong feeling that Pastor X was guilty of “a sin in good standing” in the ministry – plagiarism.
Of course, we all joke about it and argue, “If you steal from one author, it’s plagiarism; but if you steal from many, it’s research.” Of course, we don’t really “steal” – we “borrow.” And we hope that the people who listen to us don’t know where our material came from.
You may have heard about the pastor who was preaching his way through a book of sermons written by a famous preacher; but, unknown to him, a man in his congregation owned the same book.
“Excellent sermon, Pastor!” the man said as he left church one Sunday.
“Thank you!” smiled the minister.
“Next week’s is good, too!” added the man; and with that Parthian shot, he left the pastor in confusion.
Very few preachers are original; all of us are midgets standing on the shoulders of giants. “The ancients have stolen all our best thoughts!” is our constant complaint. So much good sermonic material is available these days (you can even subscribe to “sermon services,” but we don’t recommend it) that it is easy for the preacher to coast in his studies and feed his people on borrowed, second-hand bread.
The first person to suffer, however, is not the parishioner; it is the pastor. Something happens to the character of the minister who is dishonest in his preaching. It is simply impossible to preach the truth and at the same time live a lie.
Our messages ought to grow out of our personal walk with the Lord and our ministry to our people. Of course, we will read and study everything that can help us; but the final product must be our own. As a friend of mine likes to put it, “I milk a lot of cows, but I make my own butter!”
There is certainly nothing wrong with using another man’s material, provided we sincerely give credit. The word plagiarize comes from a Latin word that means “to kidnap,” and kidnapping is a serious offense. But the law permits us to entertain the “brain children” of others. We might even “reclothe” them in our own way, but let’s not claim paternity.
Blessed is that preacher who reads widely and who recognizes excellence when he meets it. Even more blessed is that preacher who can enrich his own ministry without robbing others, but who can use what he finds in an honest way, to the good of his people and to the glory of God.
P.S. When tempted to plagiarize, meditate on I Chron. 21:24
©2002 WWW Used by permission. This article is copyrighted by the author and is for your individual use. Reproduction for any other purpose is governed by copyright laws and is strictly prohibited. This material originally appeared in Prokope, January-February 1988
Dr. Warren Wiersbe (1929-2019) was an internationally known Bible teacher, author, and conference speaker. He graduated in 1953 from Northern Baptist Theological Seminary in Lombard, Illinois. While attending seminary, he was ordained as pastor of Central Baptist Church in 1951 and served until 1957. From September 1957 to 1961, Wiersbe served as Director of The Literature Division for Youth for Christ International. From 1961 to 1971 he pastored Calvary Baptist Church of Covington, Kentucky south of Cincinnati, Ohio. His sermons were broadcast as the “Calvary Hour” on a local Cincinnati radio station. From 1971 to 1978, He served as the pastor of Moody Church in Chicago 1971 to 1978. While at Moody Church he continued in radio ministry. Between August 1979 and March 1982, he wrote bi-weekly for Christianity Today as “Eutychus X”, taught practical theology classes at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois, and wrote the course material and taught a Doctor of Ministry course at Trinity and Dallas Seminary. In 1980 he transitioned to Back to the Bible radio broadcasting network where he worked until 1990. Dr. Wiersbe became Writer in Residence at Cornerstone University in Grand Rapids and Distinguished Professor of Preaching at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary. In his lifetime, Dr. Wiersbe wrote over 170 books—including the popular Be series, which has sold over four million copies. Dr. Wiersbe was awarded the Gold Medallion Lifetime Achievement by the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association (ECPA).