Sunday after Sunday, the minister preached his way through a book of sermons that he was certain nobody in his congregation had ever seen. However, one man in the church owned a copy of the book and had read it. As the man left church one Sunday, he said to the minister, “That was a good sermon this morning,” and the minister thanked him. Then the man added with a smile, “Next week’s is good too.”
The series crashed and burned.
At least three preachers I know about were caught plagiarizing. One was forgiven by the church and allowed to stay, but hte other two were asked to resign, even though one of them explained that he was in the throes of depression and simply couldn’t do creative work. But there are better ways to solve such problems besides kidnapping other people’s brain-children, and the church leaders certainly would have assisted him in getting therapy.
In English, the word for what these preachers did is plagiarism. It comes from the Latin word plaga that means “a hunting net, a snare” and it gives birth to the Latin word plagiarus, which means “a kidnapper.” Plagiarists are people who deliberately steal and use other people’s intellectual property and claim it as their own. They kidnap the “brain children” of others.
Someone has said that plagiarism is the highest form of compliment and the lowest form of larceny. One homiletics professor called it “pulpit larceny.” Compliment or not, plagiarism is a practice that God’s servants had better avoid. In Jeremiah’s day, the Lord condemned the false prophets for stealing messages from each other; and certainly the sin would be even more heinous if committed by a true servant of God (Jer. 23:30-32). The true messenger of God gives the people bread, and this involves plowing, planting, cultivating, harvesting, milling, kneading and baking. The false prophet has nothing to offer but straw (Jer. 23:28-29). Commenting on this passage, Charles Haddon Spurgeon said, “Borrowed sermons–pages of other people’s experience–fragments culled from old or new divines–nothing of their own, nothing that God ever said to them, nothing that ever thrilled their hearts or swayed their souls–God will not own such teaching as this” (Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, vol. 42, p. 180). And yet Spurgeon knew that his own sermons were being “borrowed” throughout the English-speaking world. In fact, during his time there was a bit of doggerel written about this ministerial thievery:
There once was a preacher named Spurgey, Who did not approve our liturgy; But his sermons were fine, And I preached them as mine, And so did the rest of the clergy.
We don’t remember it, but as little children we learned about life by watching, listening and mimicking. If our models were good, this imitation became education and we learned to do things well; if not, we needed remedial lessons in order to catch up with the pack. An English proverb says, “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” but that’s not true when people imitate others so they can avoid hard work but at the same time win easy praise. “No man ever yet became great by imitation,” said Samuel Johnson, but plenty of them have tried.
But we must distinguish between deliberate robbery and unconscious duplication. When I was a young pastor, I worked out what I thought was an original approach to the family of Bethany–Mary, Martha and Lazarus–only to discover that a well-known Bible teacher had a similar message in one of his books, which I had yet not read. Had I preached or published my material, I would have been accused of plagiarism, and yet the material was the fruit of my own labor. However, I felt good that I was, at least with one sermon idea, on the same wave length as a man whose ministry I greatly admired.
While compiling the volumes of the Classic Sermons Series for Kregel Publications, I read hundreds of sermons and frequently noticed similarities. But this doesn’t mean that one preacher had stolen material from another preacher. It just meant that two preachers thought alike as they studied the Word. During my years in the pastorate, when I often preached five times a week, as I prepared, I never read sermons on my chosen texts until after I had done my own “spadework” and developed my own outline. If I found a published outline or sermon similar to mine, I took a new approach.
When I began publishing the BE series of Bible expositions, the situation changed and I was accused of being the thief!
I was speaking at a conference at a Christian college when a student approached me and said, “You did something last night I thought you would never do.” I asked him what it was and he replied, “You preached another man’s sermon.”
“Who was the other preacher?” I asked, and he told me it was his own pastor at home. When I asked if the sermon had been recorded or published, he said, “No.” Then I asked if he saw me in the congregation, and again he said, “No.” My next question was obvious: “Then how did I hear the sermon?” Slowly it dawned on the student who the real culprit was.
“Adam was the only man who, when he said a good thing, knew that nobody had said it before him,” said Mark Twain. On March 4, 1933. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was sworn in as president of the United States, and perhaps the only thing history remembers from the speech is this statement: “So first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Tradition says that an aide had seen the statement in a newspaper the day before and had shared it with the president.
But American naturalist Henry David Thoreau, author of Walden, had written in his journal on September 7, 1851, “Nothing is so much to be feared as fear”; and British philosopher Francis Bacon wrote in 1623, “Nothing is terrible except fear itself.” Nearly fifty years before that, the French essayist Michael Montaigne wrote, “The thing of which I have most fear is fear.” If we searched long enough, we might discover that Julius Caesar made a similar remark–in Latin, of course.
One of the arguments (excuses?) the plagiarists give to defend their “borrowing” material is that the Internet has replaced print culture and therefore the vast treasures of cyberspace are available to everybody without cost. Writers’ unions, publishers and legislators are now struggling to define these new “copyright boundaries” and to defend creative material from being stolen en masse. Some publishers are now putting a clause in their contracts protecting their printed material from being confiscated by “any new technology that might be devised.” (Can we sue a robot for stealing our sermons?) Those who oppose this approach say that nobody has the right to control a “free culture” such as the Internet. If you want to study the pros and cons of the debate, read Free Culture by Lawrence Lessig (NY: Penguine Press, 2004).
Whatever decisions the courts make about the issue, we who are Christians know that it’s wrong to take somebody else’s material and pass it on as if it were our own. Folk Singer Pete Seeger (“Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”) claims that “plagiarism is basic to all cultures” and just has to be accepted. Musicians have always been very oepn on this issue. We know that the classic composers sometimes borrowed melodies from each other and worked them into their own compositions. But sounds may be different from sentences, and perhaps in those days the law looked the other way. The kleptomaniac who told the judge, “I steal only from the very best stores” didn’t really have much of a defense.
(Copyright 2008, Warren W. Wiersbe)
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).