When Do We Cross the Line into Plagiarism?
While there are gray areas, there are also black-and-white guidelines.

The recent plagiarism allegations against Mark Driscoll have brought the spotlight back on a growing problem among all pastors–not merely those who occupy the celebrity pastor pantheon on Mount Olympus. Here's an article from PreachingToday.com that can help the rest of us navigate the ethical and moral boundaries of plagiarism.

Collin Hansen

Anyone looking to learn official, academic, consensus definitions for plagiarism can find them in a couple mouse clicks. And that's just the problem. A couple clicks can get you a lot these days. Plagiarizing papers, talks, and even sermons has never been easier. Mere definitions don't deter desperate writers and speakers who are either too lazy or so overwhelmed with life that they lift someone else's words, ideas, and outlines.

Studying journalism and history in college, I learned again and again about the evils of plagiarism. If I were caught plagiarizing, I risked expulsion from school or at least a failing grade for the course. If a boss found me plagiarizing my research, professors warned me, I would be fired on the spot. Indeed, many professionals have ruined their careers by stealing someone's political speech or academic thesis and calling it their own.

You can imagine how I responded during my first job out of college when I discovered that one well-known evangelical pastor lifted several paragraphs word-for-word from an article I wrote. The internet might make plagiarism easy to perpetrate, but it also makes plagiarism easy to discover. I assumed others would share my indignation over this theft. The audacity of this minister! He actually bragged about his academic credentials in the process of lifting several innocuous paragraphs from an inexperienced journalist.

I learned, though, that evangelicals tend to hold a different view about plagiarism. I was told that pastors live by a different set of rules from the media and the academy. Whether preaching a sermon or even writing a book, I was told, pastors shouldn't be expected to cite all their references or feel the need to rework someone else's material in their own words.

Apparently this sort of thing happens all the time among pastors. In this case, it wasn't worth even writing the pastor a note to caution him against such actions in the future.

Years later, this situation still doesn't sit well with me. I know there are different rules for plagiarism in spoken contexts, compared with material that's sold for profit (as in this case). I know pastors are busy and face many temptations to take others' research and writing. And I know we Christians are not looking for new ideas about the gospel, so in one sense we're all repeating the same old, old messages from God's Word.

December 03, 2013

Displaying 1–3 of 3 comments


December 08, 2013  6:45am

Christians should be held to a higher standard, not a lower one. Taking someone else's words and passing them off as your own is simply a form of lying and/or stealing.

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December 04, 2013  6:50pm

From Sandy Wilsons comments: 1. We must not be guilty of "stealing" from our fellow Christians. Why is this considered stealing? Does this not mostly come from the notion that people should be paid for what they say so it is "copy protected"? This is so much making money off the people of God for what they received from God for free. Was Jesus plagiarizing when he quoted the OT writers? 2. We must not pretend before our congregations that we have researched or composed something that we have not. What about buying the whole sermon? Does every pastor who buy's one say he bought it or does he posture that he came up with it? 3. We must not substitute real Bible study and prophetic sermon preparation with "cutting and pasting." This is going to happen whether this is stated and agreed upon by all. The expectation that one man is expected to deliver all this truth to God's people is a bogus expectation. God's word clearly calls for full reproductivity by leaders in the local setting. To never "partner" or "entrust" or "fully train" his students to be "like him" is plain disobedience. The tragic consequences this plays out on the household of faith is huge and incalculable. The bema seat will show it for what it is, wood, hay and stubble. It can be transformed right now, or this truth can continue to be nullified by our traditions. It's our choice.

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Christina Asmuss

December 03, 2013  10:59am

And I will say to my soul, Soul, thou hast much goods laid up for many years; take thine ease, eat, drink, and be merry.

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