KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (BNC) by Steve Higginbotham — I used to receive a church bulletin from a church in Texas and I noticed that nearly every week, the preacher at this church was publishing in their bulletin, articles that I had written. However, he was making one minor change to those articles. He was using “Whiteout” to remove my name under the title and was inserting his name in its place. When I inquired about his practice, he offered no apology, but simply removed me from their bulletin mailing list.

I once received an email from a preacher who asked me if he could reprint some articles I had written. I told him, “of course he could, and that he need not ask for my permission.” He wrote back and thanked me and then asked, “Can I remove your name from the articles?” I wrote back and simply told him that one should never remove an author’s name from his writings. I soon received a final email explaining why he asked this question. He shared with me that he had recently been fired from the church because his elders had discovered he was removing my name from articles I wrote and was passing them off as his own.

I have also learned of another preacher who, for years, has been taking personal illustrations that I use in my sermons and using them in his sermons as though the events actually happened to him.

On another occasion, I had finished preaching a sermon in a gospel meeting and a preacher who was in the assembly asked me if I had copied that sermon from another preacher. He said my sermon was nearly “word-for-word” of what he heard another preacher preach.  Out of curiosity, I went to this preacher’s website and discovered that every week, for the past six years, this preacher has preached my sermons at his congregation, title by title, point by point, subpoint by subpoint, the week after I preach them at mine. He’s not had an original thought to share with his congregation in six years!

These examples are a small sampling of acts of plagiarism by preachers. Because of this, I thought I would share a few thoughts on this topic that might be helpful to all of us who write and preach.

Why Do Preachers Plagiarize?

  • Laziness. Some preachers are just too lazy to do their own study, research, and sermon preparation. It’s much easier to rely on someone else to do the hard work of sermon development. Some preachers have found it easier to be a “Public Speaker” than a “legitimate Gospel Preacher.”
  • Pride. Some preachers fail to give credit because they are full of pride. They want to take credit for a memorable thought, a pithy quote, or a creative phrase. They feign insightfulness in order to receive misplaced appreciation and respect of men. Their pride is more important to them than their integrity.
  • To Look Intelligent. Some preachers fail to give proper credit because they think it will make others think less of their intelligence.  However, quite the opposite is true. By taking the time to credit another speaker or writer, a preacher is actually demonstrating that he has studied, listened, read, and researched his subject matter.

Why Plagiarism Matters

  • It Harms One’s Own Influence. It’s only a matter of time until someone discovers plagiarism, and when it is discovered, the plagiarist’s influence is all but destroyed. A preacher who plagiarizes proves himself to be unethical and consequently, untrustworthy. If a gospel preacher doesn’t have respect, credibility, and trust, then of what value is he? Once discovered, people will stop listening and reading to be edified and challenged but will start listening and reading to catch you in another “theft.”
  • It Harms The Influence of Others. I once wrote an article I planned on publishing the following week and shared it with a preacher for review. Unbeknownst to me, this preacher promptly published my article in our local newspaper, but removed my name from the article and put his own name on it. So when I published my article a week later, people thought that I had blatantly plagiarized his work. I spoke to this preacher about what he had done and he said, “Don’t get so focused on who gets credit for the article, just be thankful the truth was taught.” I explained to him that my concern was not a matter of “credit” but it was a matter of my reputation and credibility. What he had done caused, who knows how many people, to think that I had plagiarized him, potentially harming my integrity and influence.
  • It Harms the Cause of Christ. As spokesmen for God, we must give care to protect our integrity. If we show ourselves to be untrustworthy, it doesn’t just reflect on us, but it also taints the cause of Christ.  Paul told Titus to be a pattern of good works and in doctrine to show integrity, reverence, and incorruptibility, and to speak in a way that no one can condemn (Titus 2:7-8). When our actions don’t rise to the level of the faith we preach, God is blasphemed (Romans 2:24).

How to Avoid Plagiarism

  • Start doing your own research, study, and meditation. Open your Bible and start mining for truths on your own before consulting what others have said about the text.
  • Start giving credit. It doesn’t distract from a sermon to attribute a quote or a well-turned phrase to the person who originally said it. Trying to take credit for another man’s work is unethical and places you in opposition to God.
  • Learn from others, but do your own work. Warren Wiersbe was known for telling preachers to “milk many cows, but churn your own butter.”  In other words, research, read after, learn from many sources, but take that body of material and work it into something that becomes your own.
  • Keep your pride in check. Potentially standing in front of hundreds of people who regularly tell you how wonderful, insightful, motivating, and ingenious you are can quickly go to your head. Pride is a plague among preachers. Don’t become infected with it. Pray, stay on guard, enlist your spouse to warn you if she sees signs of it, and purposefully practice humility to overcome this sin.

I know that we are all working from a single source, and it is highly unlikely that you will come up with some insight that no one has ever before noticed. Surely, nearly everything we say has been said before. I get that, and that is not what I am talking about in this article. I’m not talking about two men studying a text and coming away from it with the same or similar thoughts. What I am talking about is trying to take credit for another man’s work and words. Long ago, God told Jeremiah that he was against prophets who were stealing his words from other prophets (Jeremiah 23:30). Trying to take credit for another man’s work is unethical and places you in opposition to God. Let’s repent, if need be, and do better!

Steve works full-time with the Karns congregation and teaches in the Southeast Institute of Biblical Studies. This article was first published on his website and has been reprinted with his kind permission.