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 preachinghelp.org and has been reprinted with his kind permission.

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12 Comments

  1. I tried to click “Like” but it tries to go to another page, but comes back to this one and does not record my “Like.” Anyway, imagine that I am clicking the Like button

  2. I agree with plagiarism is unethical but why spend so much time on an article like this and there are so many souls to be saved?

    Who should get the glory God or man?

    Remember Paul said he preached not with eloquent speeches but left his audience with the word of God.

    I am just sending friendly Godly thoughts!

    Thank you.

    Tommy

  3. I am appalled, especially with the actual examples that are given. I have often used the material of others but, especially when reprinting bulletin articles, I give the name of the real author. When using illustrations from others, in sermons, I have always tried to use caution to insure that 1) they are true (or whether just made up for illustrative purposes) 2) I never used the illustration of another and implying that it happened to me. However, I have noticed that others do use them as if they were personal illustrations. Not a good thing. I’m sure that I have made some slip-up’s from time to time, but never intentionally. I appreciate this article. It is also a help to those of us who do use other people’s materials, that we do so in a proper and honest way.

  4. Reply to Tommy. In reference to saving souls, what person would not be sorely disappointed if he found the person teaching him was dishonest and unethical? We must be honest and true in all things. “little” and “big”. Would you think of using a parable of Jesus and putting your name to it?!
    Plagiarism is stealing some one’s thoughts and presenting them as your own. It is unlawful, and violators in some instances can be and have been prosecuted. Try publishing someone else’s book or song as your own and see what happens.

  5. I understand things way differently. All these lessons come from God and if a brother likes how you worded something I don’t think anyone should take offense; I don’t think the original author does:) if you feel a little burdened or violated maybe you ought to ask a brother for some of their notes. What’s the matter with passing on a good thing; your credit will come in due time. Once it’s put out there and delivered consider it free for the taking. God bless you,

    1. Cathy, I think you understand what I mean. Thank you. Give all praise to God. Some good brothers give permission for others to use their materials. God bless them and their work!

  6. I, too, am appalled at the examples given. The reference to Titus 2:7-8 is well applied, and the saying “Give credit where it is due” is also applicable. Failing to do so harms the credibility of the messenger, thus harming the effect of the message. Having said that, I must also say that I like to stress that I’m not trying to be original. I’m trying to be true to the original. Someone said to me a few years back, “You must’ve read my [class] notes on that subject.” I said no, we must’ve got our ideas from the same Book. Also, I’m sure that I’ve recycled many analogies and points which I have heard from others over the years. As I’ve heard it said, “Originality is merely when I can’t recall my sources.” I’ve also heard my points recycled by other preachers, and they may not even realize they’re doing it. Often my first reaction is to be miffed, but I try to rejoice that the message is being reinforced and passed on. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, so I tell myself, “So what? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in this I rejoice.” (Did you see what I did there? 😉

  7. Why not try this. Don’t buy any more commentaries, sermon outline books and don’t use any bulletin material written by someone else. Also if you are receiving a religious paper like the Gospel Advocate, stop doing that. I might also add don’t go to any lectures or Gospel Meetings. Don’t listen to sermons on tape or Cd’s. After a period of time you want have to worry about using someone’s material ever again. After more than forty years of preaching I am unaware of every having presented an original sermon.

  8. I’m shocked that some people here are downplaying this “behavior,” which is really “thievery and lying,” and calling it as one just “spreading the gospel.” Seriously?! Taking someone else’s words and claiming them as their own is THEFT and LYING/DECEITFULNESS. Let’s just call it what it IS. Have we forgotten what God thinks about those behaviors?

    Proverbs 6:16-19 (emphasis is mine):

    “There are six things WHICH THE LORD HATES, Yes, seven which are an ABOMINATION to Him: Haughty eyes, A LYING TONGUE, And hands that shed innocent blood, A heart that devices wicked plans, Feet that run rapidly to evil, A FALSE WITNESSS WHO UTTERS LIES, And one who SPREADS STRIFE AMONG BROTHERS.”

    These are preachers who are supposed to be examples of Christ to everyone around them. When Jesus spoke, even He said He wasn’t speaking His own words, but He spoke the words of the Father (John 7:16). He didn’t tout the words He spoke as His own, and neither should these “liars and thieves” er … I mean, so-called “preachers.”

    Also, for those who say “get over it” because it’s “no big deal” after all the “gospel is being preached,” that tells me that something like this has never happened to you. As an author, I know how much work, research and study goes into putting together just the right words, the correct scriptures, and a clear meaning into a text. It takes WORK, TIME, and EFFORT: hours, days, even months! For someone to then take that person’s LABOR and pass it off as his own, ultimately making the originator of the work to look like the liar and thief is EVIL, it is a SIN, and “spreads strife among brothers.”

    I wrote a poem in 7th grade after witnessing an abortion on PBS. I was so shocked and horrified that I wrote a poem about it from the baby’s perspective. I kept this poem with me all the way through college where I read it to some college friends (this was a Christian college, btw). One of those “friends” asked to “borrow” my poem. It was my only handwritten copy (this was before copy machines were readily available). I trusted him to return it, emphasizing to him it was my only copy, please be careful with it, etc. Later, when I asked for it back he nonchalantly claimed he’d lost it. I was devastated to say the least. Fast-forward twenty years, my family moved to a congregation where I saw this person. We were so happy to see each other, he joyfully claimed how he’d used my poem in several of his sermons over the years. I had to assume he “found” my poem. When I asked for it back, he still refuses to return it and claims it is again LOST. This has been a very painful experience. And this behavior is NOT of God, no matter what the message is that’s being preached. This “preacher” is a “liar” and a “thief.” Plain and simple.

    1 Corinthians 6:9-10 (emphasis is mine), “Or do you not know that the UNRIGHTEOUS will NOT inherit the kingdom of God? DO NOT BE DECEIVED; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor [a]effeminate, nor homosexuals, 10 nor THIEVES, nor the COVETOUS, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor SWINDLERS, will inherit the kingdom of God.”

    These preachers are committing SIN, and if they don’t repent now before it’s too late, Paul makes it clear where they’re NOT going.

  9. I give full permission to anyone to use any material written or verbal authored by me: Give God the Glory!!!

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