The story was told by Spurgeon of his visiting a small country church one morning, slipping in the back of the service unnoticed, just wanting to hear the Word for himself. A workingman stood up and delivered a respectable message, after which the great preacher went forward to express his appreciation for the preached Word. The man looked up to see the famous preacher in front of him. Spurgeon thanked the man for the message. The preacher stood aghast. Did Spurgeon know what he had just heard? The man had read one of Spurgeon’s own printed sermons to the congregation apparently without mentioning the origin of the message. Spurgeon heard his own sermon “preached” back to him. He thanked the man nevertheless in a rather self-effacing way. “Yes, I knew it was, and it was good of the Lord to feed me with food that I had prepared for others.”
We’ve all done it in the past—used something said or written by someone else without careful and proper attribution. Students do it in school either by accident or on purpose. When they do it on purpose, it is cause for serious academic consequences. Once I had a doctoral student from a two-third world country that submitted a paper to a fellow professor. The professor called me, as program director, and suggested that he thought the paper was not this student’s own work. The prose was too good. Foreign students often struggle to write in English if their mother-tongue is something else. This paper just sounded too good to be the student’s work. Doing a little research, we discovered that the paper had been “borrowed” (plagiarized) in large sections from a similar paper by one of the student’s former professors. When confronted, the student prevaricated, which made matters worse. There was no choice but to drop him from the program. First plagiarizing (not just ideas but paragraphs of prose), and then, lying to evade the truth. It was an easy decision to make on one hand. This was a flagrant violation of academic standards. It was also a hard decision, on the other hand, and a sad day, to end this student’s doctoral work, but there was little choice.
When I taught research and writing, I labored to help the students understand what plagiarism was and how to avoid it. For the most part, they did. Having done a considerable bit of writing myself, I am always alert to document carefully ideas, phrases, and particular statements I wish to use in my prose. Sometimes other writer’s ideas slip by the most careful of authors. I remembered working my way through John’s gospel for a sermon series and using two particular commentaries. I read something in an older one, then I read the same idea from a newer commentary. I was struck by the similarity of expression between the two sources. Well, how many ways can you say something, anyway? I passed over the likenesses as an odd coincidence. Later while studying a different passage in John, a ran across another pair of coincidental similarities . . . two strikingly comparable statements in the same pair of commentaries. So, I marked the second occurrence, more out of curiosity. Then I found a third and maybe a fourth such comparison. As I recall, I only noted three or four places in these two books where there were similar statements, so there was not enough evidence to suggest the newer commentator had plagiarized the older work—just a series of oddly similar statements. But it made for a good illustration with my students. Everyone is in danger of plagiarizing, even accidentally. Recently there was an incident of an eminent commentator that had his books pulled by his publishers because it was discovered that there was too much coincidence between his writing and some of his sources to be overlooked. Another equally prominent scholar described how and why this kind of thing happens and took a sympathetic posture toward the discredited scholar and his material. Plagiarism happens, whether unintended or on purpose.
But what about borrowing another man’s sermon, in whole or in part? Using the man’s outline, his exegesis, even his illustrations, including personal ones, without attribution or even with attribution? Can I preach another man’s sermon? To use the material without attribution is plagiarism. This very charge has roiled the SBC world since the election of the new president. Someone put up two sermons stitched together to show that the recently elected president preached a very similar sermon, “borrowing” ideas, structure, and even illustrations, from a similar sermon on the same passage by the former president of the SBC, all without acknowledging the origin of the material. His integrity has been called into question and many of his sermons, apparently, have been removed from his church’s website. Though the brother has publicly apologized and though the man from whom he took the message claims that he had given his permission for him to use the material (“I told him that whatever bullets of mine worked in his gun, to use them.”), there have been calls for the brother to step down from the presidency. The story made national news. As this was about to be published, The New York Times also ran the story. It is yet unfolding. Who knows what the fallout may be?
This problem is certainly not new, and it has been written about before, again and again, by well-known authors. News stories crop up about its regular practice all too often. But this kind of thing needs to be written about repeatedly for new generations of preachers and in the light of new technologies that make it easier to “borrow” material and use it as our own. We need to carefully avoid using another man’s sermons without attribution lest we become personally disqualified, or our message is ridiculed. Plagiarism is theft of intellectual property. How can a preacher do that with a clear conscience?
Truthfully, we have all borrowed sermon material from someone else. You’re sitting in a service, being blessed by the Word and something catches your ear. “Ya! That’s good! I’m gonna use that myself!” It might be an idea from a particular text, a catchy title, a unique way to outline a passage, a sermon illustration, any number of things. When I was first in ministry, I had an outline on Christian growth that I gleaned from someone else that I would occasionally preach myself. Only the outline, the content was my own. But I gave credit, as best I could, to the unknown man whose idea, written in the margin of my Bible without the source, I had borrowed. New preachers have little material of their own, so “borrowing” someone else’s thoughts seems like a good idea. But this must be done carefully and done in such a way that is honest and above board. Also, we should be reluctant to merely preach someone else’s sermon because sermon preparation is important for the one who delivers the message as well as the one to whom it is delivered. I get ready to preach by studying for the message. I want the Word to soak into my own soul so that it might bless me before I deliver it with the hopes of blessing others! My esteemed theology professor, Rolland McCune, often made his way into my sermons when I was in seminary. I would jokingly tell him on Mondays that we had preached a good sermon the previous day. With his content and my delivery, we knocked it out of the park. My parishioners knew that I was studying theology under him, and I regularly gave him credit when such was due. But even then, I never preached a McCune sermon.
Let me suggest several reasons why borrowing someone else’s sermon is a bad practice. Note here, I am not using any other essay on this topic that I have read in the past or linked to in this article. These are my thoughts, though doubtless some of my thoughts were someone else’s thoughts first! So, why should we avoid merely borrowing a ready-made sermon even with attribution? First, sermon preparation allows the preacher to personalize the text. As I work through the passage and discover its flow, it become personal to me. I understand its meaning, its thrust, its goals. I can then tailor my message to direct those ideas to my hearers. Preaching is a personal discipline, and it needs personal involvement to be effective. As Philip Brooks said so long ago, “Preaching is truth through personality.” Second, our auditors have a right to expect that we have engaged the text before we deliver it. Anyone can recite what someone else has written without thought. But the process of laboring over the text implies effort on my part and, by my doing so, I suggest that it was important enough for me to choose this text, to study it, to understand it. It is, therefore, important for the audience to listen to the text. Third, merely borrowing someone else’s sermon could be a sign of laziness. Of course, it doesn’t have to mean laziness, and someone could study to master someone else’s message so that the text becomes “personal” to them but there is still the danger that taking the easy way out for sermon preparation may be tempting to make as a regular practice. Especially if it works well. If I think it works, then I may be inclined to do it again, and I will justify my lack of effort by arguing that I can preach better sermons if I just preach someone else’s material. To these reasons, others could be added, but these are sufficient to argue that the practice of simply preaching another man’s message with or without attribution is wrongheaded. Without attribution is both wrongheaded and sinful.
I once read where a well-known mega-church pastor argued that he needed to hit a homerun every time he entered the pulpit. He didn’t have time to do that much studying and the only way he could guarantee doing so was by using someone else’s proven material. Well, preaching isn’t a performance art. Not every batter can hit a homerun like Hank Aaron and not every preacher can preach like C. H. Spurgeon. The outcome of the sermon is in the hands of the Holy Spirit anyway. We are not responsible for the result, if we have labored well at the Word. Since I began to write this essay, a very good article citing Spurgeon’s view on sermon plagiarism was published. It warrants a careful read. Even as I read what the author has written about Spurgeon, there is more that I could say, that I should have said. But he and Spurgeon said it well, so I will simply leave it there and encourage you to read that essay. May God give us grace to stand with integrity in the pulpit. And now, thanks to Newsweek and The New York Times, apparently the world is watching. But even if they weren’t, God certainly is.