On Sermon “Plagiarism”

Ok, let me start with a funny story that illustrates a point:

Last week someone online accused me of “plagiarism” in a sermon, and their example was 4 separated sentences out of a 40 minute, 7,000-word sermon. Their first two examples were the sentences…

// “Become the type of person the person you’re looking for is looking for.” They said I got this sentence from Pastor Andy Stanley.

// Then later in the sermon I said, “Whoever you idolize, you’ll eventually demonize.” They said I got this sentence from Pastor Mark Driscoll.

FUNNY PART: I didn’t hear either of those sentences from either of those people, but I did hear similar ones from two totally other nationally-broadcasted Bible teachers! šŸ™‚ There are phrases that are similar to phrases other preachers have said in basically every sermon you’ll ever hear, because as one pastor of ~40 years recently told me, “Every sermon I preach is a collaboration of 40 years of listening and learning.”

Here are some unstructured, bulleted thoughts on sermon “plagiarism” …

2 caveats before anything else:

  1. Don’t tell stories that didn’t happen to you as if they happened to you, obviously.
  2. Not recommending preaching entire messages as if they’re your own.

Now, here goes…

Permission & Understanding. Because they have a heart to help, almost every pastor tells other pastors to use anything from his sermons that’ll help them. “If my bullet fits in your gun, shoot it!”: I’ve heard Adrian Rodgers, JD Greear, Craig Groeschel, Chris Hodges, Bob Russell, Rick Warren, etc all say this. Personally, I’ve given away my notes every week for years mostly to church-planters who are leading churches without any staff help and don’t have 20hrs / week for sermon prep. I’m HAPPY to do this, because…

Differing industry standards. A church-sermon is not an academia-dissertation or a book/journalism-publication. I freely give away my notes to other pastors, because pastors aren’t preaching to make themselves look good, sound smart, or sell something proprietary. We’re preaching for life-change and to grow the kingdom. Those differing goals of written communication in journalism or academia vs. the goals of verbal communication in preaching lead to very different standards. Frankly, this is why “sermon plagiarism” accusations almost never come from other pastors, but from journalists or academics (or professional pastor-critics who need to manufacture new ‘scandals’ to generate clicks for their monetized sites šŸ˜‰), trying to impose the standards of their industry onto another field.

Here’s Dr. Malcom Yarnell, Research Professor for Systematic Theology at SWBTS, on the differences in citation standards between academia / journalism and verbal preaching…

In the Western academy, we have strict rules for attribution. Other academies in other times and places actually exalt repetition as a way to compliment good teaching.

Think about it: There is a great deal of repetition going on between the Synoptic Gospels. Nothing wrong there.

And the writers of Scripture sometimes identified their sources and sometimes did not. Were they stealing words? No! Donā€™t be silly.

We must be sensitive to shifts between cultures and to peculiarities in our own culture, which exalts personal property rights to a high degree.

As Western academics, we protect intellectual property rights in both informal and formal ways. This is right and good for us to do. We rightly enforce these rules as a way to preserve the rights of fellow humans.

But the Church operates in many cultures and under its own Lord… The church is not the academy.

https://twitter.com/MusingsOnChrist/status/1408921066211266562

“But that’s stealing!” If I gave them permission to use anything from my notes that would help them, that’s not stealing. It is stealing in book, journalism, and academia publications because those things are zero-sum situations whose goal is revenue. Author X says something in a book, that’s the only place you can get that info, and is selling that book for income. So, if Author Y also says it, that takes away Author X’s book sales and income.

There’s no permission. It’s zero-sum. It’s for-profit.

Sermons are different. Pastor X using something from my sermons, A) has my permission, B) it diminishes me in no way, and C) actually serves to advance my original purpose in writing the sermon – to help AS MANY PEOPLE AS POSSIBLE and grow the kingdom.

“But that’s lying! They’re passing off your content as if it’s their own!” To this I say “lol” and “haha” : ) I chuckle at this for two reasons: 1) It’s only a lie if a preacher *actually lies* and specifically takes credit for something he knows he didn’t create, and 2) because…

It is understood that TEACHERS aggregate whatever content best helps their students. Guys, stop and think for a second: Pastors are TEACHERS. In schools, 0% of people assume every sentence their teacher says is their teacher’s 100% original thought and they never heard it from anyone else. Nobody hears a teacher finish teaching a lesson and says, “You need to resign IMMEDIATELY because you didn’t cite the mathematician’s name who discovered the equation for the circumference of a circle, and you saying it without attribution deceived students into thinking that was your original thought!” Nobody hears a grammar teacher say, “I before E except after C” and says, “Fire him, he didn’t attribute!” No one sees a physics teacher do an experiment and calls for his dismissal because he didn’t mention where he first saw that object lesson.

Why?

Because when teachers teach, people ASSUME they’re pulling from whatever research / info sources they can to BEST HELP THE STUDENTS, which is the goal. Because “there’s nothing new under the sun” (Ecc 1:9) and we’ve all been preaching the same Bible for 2,000 years, it’s a given that pastors draw from one another – illustrations, points, sayings, structure, etc – whatever BEST HELPS the people they’re teaching.

Here’s Pastor Tim Keller on this…

I donā€™t think anyone expects oral communication to have the same amount of detailed attribution as we expect in written communication. To cite where you got every allusion or basic idea or general illustration in a sermon would be tedious. A certain amount of leeway must be granted. Also, if you take a basic idea or illustration and ā€œmake it your own,ā€ I donā€™t think you have to give attribution. Often the preacher you fear you are stealing from got that idea from some Puritan author and reworked it into more contemporary form. And the Puritan might have gotten it from someone else. In fact, in the act of preaching, we often say something that we know we heard somewhere, but we canā€™t even remember where we got it. I think we need to be charitable to preachers and not charge them with plagiarism for every un-new idea.

Phrases or illustrations that convey a truth in a sticky way are often treated as “public domain” in preaching. I present the following two pictures without comment šŸ™‚

As preachers hear a powerful or helpful way of stating a truth, those sayings are passed around and become part of a collective “cloud” of sayings like the above “Milk a lot of cows, but churn your own butter” statement (ironically!).

An example of this is the phrases I was accused of plagiarizing:

– “Marriage doesn’t create new problems, it just reveals the problems that were already there.”

– “Whoever you idolize, you’ll eventually demonize.”

– “Try to become the type of person that the person you’re looking for is looking for.”

– “In order for God to make you like Jesus, he’ll take you through the things Jesus went through.”

These are phrases that hundreds of pastors have been saying for decades, so you’ll hear them in multiple sermons from different people. They’re “sayings that are public domain”, not “quotes that are intellectual property”, which is why I originally heard them from different preachers than I was accused of ‘plagiarizing’ them from.

The example of Church History. This (all the above) is why throughout church history, pastors have freely given content to one another and freely aggregated content from one another in effort to do WHATEVER helps people best understand the Bible.

Some examples from Stephen Eccer, Professor of Church History at the University of Saint Andrews…

St. Augustine of Hippo allowed the use of another’s sermon content, arguing, “There are indeed some men who have good delivery but cannot compose anything to deliver… Now if such men take what has been written with wisdom and eloquence by others, and commits it to memory, and delivers it to people, they cannot be blamed, supposing them to do it without deception. For in this way many become preachers of the truth (which is certainly desirable).”

Augustine’s reason was, “For those who steal take what does not belong to them, but the Word of God belongs to all who obey it.”

Charles Spurgeon. Martyn Lloyd-Jones tells a story in his book Preaching and Preachers. One Sunday Spurgeon slipped into the back pew of a country church at Essex when he was too depressed to preach at his own church. There he heard a layman preach one of his sermons. When the lay preacher saw Spurgeon after the service he was horrified, but Spurgeon declared, “I don’t care whose sermon it was. All I know is that your preaching this morning has convinced me that I am a child of God, that I’m saved by grace, that my sins are forgiven, that I’m called to ministry, and I’m ready to go back and preach.”

Hilariously, Spurgeon himself was clearly not above this practice. Lloyd-Jones also recounts Spurgeon confronting a student at a Pastor’s College who was gaining notoriety for preaching Spurgeon’s sermon outlines. When confronted by Spurgeon and asked whose sermon it was (assuming it was his), the student said, “William J Bath’s.” Spurgeon had forgotten that HE had preached Bath’s outline – ha!

Spurgeon scholars attest he borrowed outlines and content from George Whitefield, John Bunyan, John Gill, Richard Baxter, and a host of others. Punchily mocking academics who accused pastors of “plagiarism” in their verbal preaching, Spurgeon once said, “All originality and no plagiarism makes for dull preaching!”

During the Medieval Era many priests had little / no theological education and training, so they relied on preaching manuals and sermon collections distributed for them to preach.

Martin Luther, scholars deduce, used the work of earlier German Bibles to produce his famous September testament of 1522.

In the 16th century, two Books of Homilies, which included sermons crafted by trained Biblical exegetes, were frequently preached aloud in Anglican Churches.

John Maxwell, again hilariously, was once approached by a church member who complained about his sermons. He responded, “Donā€™t blame me! When Charles Swindoll gets better, my sermons will get better!” Also humorously, Chuck Swindoll would commonly joke that much of his preaching material came from Dr. Howard Hendricks, who publicly joked much of his came from Charles Spurgeon!

Bishop TD Jakes comments on the tradition of “sermon alchemy” in the black church ā€“ā€“ the practice of taking content from forerunners in the faith and transforming old into new. Jakes uses the example of a famous sermon “The Eagle Stirreth Her Nest” from Reverend Franklin, saying…

What you must understand is that this sermon had been in the corpus of the black preaching cannon, the historical body of sermon material, messages, and methodology, for more than one hundred years by the time Reverend Franklin developed his version… Franklin, as well as many other black preachers, often knew and preached popular sermons from this cannon… While some critics might be tempted to ask him if this sort of appropriation spills into plagiarism, I can assure you, and have confirmed with Dr. Thomas, that it doesn’t. Every preacher, and I daresay every communicator, takes everything he or she has been given and transforms it into a new version. [This is a] fresh adaptation or remix of the sermon to meet present communal circumstances.

TD Jakes, Don’t Drop the Mic, p278ff

Eccher summarizes all these historical examples (not including Jakes)…

In [modern Western culture], we might remember that in certain non-Western cultures verbatim recitation of another’s ideas or words, even without citation, is not deemed anathema but a sign of deep respect and high honor… so before we cancel anyone on this matter, perhaps we should pump the brakes a bit and avoid being captive to the moment and our culture.

“Ok, I guess it’s not plagiarism, but why NOT just attribute everything anyway!?” First off, I do think it’s wise to mention it or at least nod to an outside source especially in situations like…

// You’re preaching an entire sermon that’s someone else’s

// A larger section of a sermon is from someone else

// You’re quoting a section from a book word for word

… but again, the difference between verbal communication and written communication lead to different needs. In books, academic papers, and journalistic publications, authors can do extensive citation without distracting readers by footnoting / end noting. The reader doesn’t have to hear “I got this statistic from blah blah blah academic journal, which cited a study in 2016 called ________.” They can just read the stat with a little footnote number next to it, and check the source on a completely different page at the end of the book if desired without the citation interrupting the flow of the prose. The same is not possible in verbal preaching, and as noted by Bart Barber, President of the SBC, over-citation in verbal preaching can be distracting for hearers…

If you do those things, I really don’t care how much you cite your sources. Honestly, I think it can be a distraction during the actual delivery of a sermon. Failing to provide citation for even a single source is plagiarism if you omit that citation in an academic paper. A sermon is not an academic paper and a church is not a university. Imposing academic rules for citation in sermons is just silly. I love Turabian, but it is not Scripture.”

Pastor Bart Barber, SBC President

“But pastors are supposed to be getting their own word from God for their church!” They are! That happens THROUGH the research process, not apart from it. Just like in commentaries, books, lectures, and articles, sometimes I’ll hear something in a sermon and think, “Yeah, that’s a word for our church right now,” think the Spirit wants me to deliver it, and I’ll use an illustration, phrase, or way of explaining a passage. That’s a “word in season” that happened through research, not individual inspiration.

The Bible. I’m not gonna go here, but if you REALLY want to get salty, know who didn’t always cite sources? Bible writers. Gospel writers and other epistles borrow liberally from the Old Testament, sometimes citing, but often just saying without citation because in preaching what really matters is that people are helped with the truth.

All of that to say, in the words of Pastor James Merritt…

If someone borrows liberally from one of my sermons and somebody gets saved because of it, I have an investment in it gladly.

Pastor James Merritt