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Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

On Christian Plagiarism

Apr 8, 2014

OK, here is a little Christian thought experiment. It did not occur to me that Christians might have differing thoughts on this, so I throw it out there to see what you might think. When I first mentioned it elsewhere it seemed pretty straightforward to me.

Thus this reflection did not begin as an article, nor did I originally intend to do a whole piece on this. I had simply posted a brief comment on another site, and a lot of debate erupted, so it seemed sensible to turn it into a full-blown piece. Indeed, I do so because I was actually a bit surprised by some of the reactions by some Christians.

plagiarismThe post had to do with Christians plagiarising the work of others. Regrettably, I have noticed this often. I suggested that this was actually a form of Christian theft. I explained that because I am not the world’s fastest typist, when I am typing in a lengthy quote from someone, I will often do a quick google of the passage first.

For example, I might be quoting a few paragraphs from a commentary or reference work, and instead of retyping the whole thing, I have a look to see if it is already online somewhere. That way I can just copy and paste it, and save myself a bit of time.

Mind you, it may take as long to do the google search as it does to type it all in, but I would rather do the former than the latter! Anyway, I often have found to my horror that when the search results are brought up, and I click on some of those hits, I find that the quote I am looking for has been taken holus bolus by another Christian, but without one word of acknowledgment of the source.

They have simply pinched it and passed it off as their own. And even more shocking, quite often these are written sermons by pastors! They have taken whole slabs of someone else’s work and just passed it off as their own writing! It seems to me that this is called plagiarism, pure and simple.

And it seems we have a lot of this sort of plagiarism and intellectual dishonesty going on in our pulpits. Yet when I mentioned this, I had all sorts of Christians offering different thoughts on this, with some folks thinking it was not such a big deal: “We should not pick on pastors.” “Well, we all borrow ideas.” “Yes, but if people get saved or God is glorified, it is OK.” And so on.

But they seem to be missing the point here. This has nothing to do with picking on pastors of course. And sure, we all get ideas from all sorts of people and various sources. But when anyone – whether a pastor or not – deliberately lifts someone else’s work and passes it off as his own, that is plagiarism and that is dishonest. No Christian should ever engage in such unethical and unChristlike behaviour.

And of course theft and intellectual dishonesty never brings glory to God. The idea that we can somehow sin (and I believe that such plagiarism is sin) and reach the lost or help others is risky in the extreme. “What should we say then? Should we continue in sin so that grace may multiply?” as Paul asks in Romans 6:1.

Also, I am not talking about myself here: people pinch my stuff all the time and don’t give me any credit for it. I don’t mind all that much when they do. But what I am talking about is when pastors for example have written sermons and they simply steal whole slabs of text from people such as John Stott, or James Montgomery Boice, or Martyn Lloyd-Jones, and pass it off as their own, giving no sources at all – that is dishonest and not very Christlike.

I find this time and time again when I do a search for some Christian quote. It is not just a phrase or short sentence, but entire paragraphs and more that are lifted without any credit. That is simply wrong. Sure, there are many clichés, phrases and common terms and concepts that we all use and share in common.

We may talk about ‘the old rugged cross’ or ‘what a friend we have in Jesus’ or ‘amazing grace’ and so on. These all come from Christian hymns and are of course quite popular and well known. We do not need to give chapter and verse here, or a footnote or endnote.

I am reminded of the old quip that John Warwick Montgomery once said: lifting one quote without credit is called plagiarism; pinching many quotes is called writing a theological paper – or words to that effect. So theological students can be just as guilty here as secular ones.

And schools will often inform students about when and where proper quotation is needed. Taking an idea heard elsewhere, and reframing it into one’s own words is one thing. Deliberately pinching another person’s work and pretending you wrote it is quite another. And even in academia a source is not always needed. Very well-known phrases like Marx’s ‘religion is the opiate of the masses’ need not be fully referenced every time.

The sermon of course is not the same as a proper research paper or thesis at university. But it is not just in the academy where plagiarism is a problem, as I am trying to highlight here. Christian leaders of all people are to be without blemish and fault – men and women of integrity. This includes their intellectual life.

A sermon usually has no footnotes and the like. But if you quote others, it is usually good form to acknowledge even fleetingly where it came from. This is even more important if the sermon is written out, and later printed and/or put online. Then a bit more care is needed. So let us be cautious here.

None of us in the ministry would dare think about cheating on our spouses, or stealing from the church finances. Why should we not be equally zealous about cheating on intellectual property, and stealing from another Christian’s work? As Paul says, whatever we do, let’s do it for the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31; Colossians 3:17).

And I really don’t think that rather blatant cases of plagiarism can glorify God.

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22 Responses to On Christian Plagiarism

  • Bill, I agree with you. It really is a no-brainer. Taking ideas and putting them in your own words (although personally I would always reference) is one thing. Swiping quotes word for word and passing it off as your own – that is theft, nothing more, nothing less

  • Christians have different viewpoints on this?
    Try this one – Swiping (or inventing) testimonies and passing them off as your own… from the pulpit!
    I kid you not.
    I have even heard of pastors getting together to trade testimonies so that they all do the same one on the same day. I didn’t believe it either – until my friend happened to go to 2 churches on the same morning. Same stories – both in first person.
    Just to think – I used to believe people when they spoke…
    This was in the US though. I don’t think Aussies are good enough actors to pull that one off.
    Oh – and this story is true BTW – I have recordings of the pastor who made up fake testimonies (I was doing the sound for a while – until he got busted for money issues), and I have names of my friends in USA whose brother was a pastor during the pastor testimony racket.
    I said to my friend: “That’s lying”, They thought for a moment – “I guess it is when you put it that way”
    And that little story was true too.
    I guess it comes down to thinking ‘the ends justifies the means” which it doesn’t of course. (and that was a quote by Machiavelli – maybe – unless he plagiarised it).

  • This does seem like a no-brainer but there are a lot of Christians out there who will unashamedly tell you about all the TV shows and movies they illegally download and they will offer them to you as well so…

  • Thank you, Bill, for pointing out this serious problem with plagiarism, which is intellectual dishonesty. For every preacher, I take notes in an exercise book. As I get older it helps me to remember the preaching. Some months ago I visited another church in my region for 4 weeks and heard 4 sermons. There were too many magic one-liners for the average pastor, so I Googled and found that 3 of the 4 sermons were taken word-for-word from websites, 3 of them from Sermon Central, without one word acknowledging the source.

    I contacted Sermon Central for its policy on plagiarism and was told that Sermon Central is a resource and that sermons are not to be preached from that site. I was provided with 2 articles to advise Sermon Central’s plagiarism policy.

    I then made an appointment to meet with the pastor. He acknowledged that 1 sermon was purchased from Rick Warren and the other 3 were from Sermon Central.

    I’m finding plagiarism to be a major problem in some churches, but Christians are reluctant to acknowledge this kind of theft.

    It also is a further statement about the pastors’ inabilities with homiletics.

    Spencer

    http://www.sermoncentral.com/
    http://www.sermoncentral.com/sermons/preaching–the-danger-of-plagiarism-robert-sickler-sermon-on-false-teaching-165549.asp

  • Thanks for that Spencer.

  • I’m just gob smacked that this is even happening. As Christians we have to hold ourselves to a higher standard! You know, not being a stumbling block and all. Unfortunately this does nothing to alleviate my concerns about the Western Church. However are we surprised when we know this is the Laodicean church? Not at all but we must prayer and continue to ask our leaders to hold each other accountable and to a much higher standard!!

  • Although I am cautious about hearsay (second and third hand reporting tends to suffer from the “Chinese whispers” problem), this is starting to sound like the earlier problems of music copyright relating to choruses and new songs.

    I have to write out my sermons in full, both as a discipline to my thinking, and as an aid to my actual delivery. I am not that good at using commentaries and outside resources, so I don’t quote as much as you describe here. (Maybe I am not that good at preaching…:-) )

    But I wonder if this has grown up over time, as sermons originally written, delivered and then put aside, get to be “published” by tossing them onto the church website in a hurry?

    There is no review, not even re-working the spoken word into written form. Thus there is no attempt to edit them for proper citation, and now the technology interferes with the normal disciplines, allowing us to be lazy and forgetful.

  • Seems so simple to me – just quote your source

  • Hi Bill,

    I think one reason people (including Christians) plagiarise is because of pride – they want people to think, “Gee, isn’t he clever coming up with that all by himself!” So, even if Christians want to defend plagiarism by saying it’s not theft etc, there maybe a much more sinister sin involved in passing off other people’s stuff as one’s own.

    Nick Davies

  • Hi Bill
    your article and the related comments reminds me, years ago, of how well meaning Christian friends would copy Christian worship music for us to enjoy. God convicted her that what we were doing was theft, and then issued her with a challenge: “do you think I can’t supply you music to worship me with?” We were suitably chastised and threw out our stolen music. The following week, she rang the local Christian radio station in response to a competition, which she won. In the post a few days later was a parcel containing 6 Cd’s of contemporary Christian worship music!
    Along the lines of Nick’s comment, maybe the pastors who do use stolen material feel they need to continually be wowing their parishioners with high and lofty thoughts just to keep them coming back.
    Vic Trudeau

  • Wow, just wow!

    Reading all the stories you guys are telling, it’s no wonder Christianity is failing in the west.

    Those so called “pastors”, do they even have a real testimony of their own, or are they just in it for the money they can get from unsuspecting church goers?

    Have to wow the parishioners? How about a bit of good ole fashioned truth? How about some good ole fashioned instructions from the scriptures on how we make ourselves worthy to be called “friend” by our Lord and Saviour?

    Sharing testimonies with other preachers, or even having all the one sermon? Wow, talk about being ripped off if your going to church.

    Are these pastors on payrolls? if they are, they need to be sacked!

    If your pastor does not prayerfully consider his topic, asking for guidance of the Holy Ghost/Spirit to show him/her the topic to share, maybe it will be for just one person that day, then they are not worthy of the title they take upon themselves. find a different church/denomination to attend, one where the pastor really cares for his/her flock, not just the “prestige”.

    Anyhow, thus ends the pulpit rant of the Neil.

    Neil Waldron
    (thought about my response for two days before I posted, as it made me quite upset at those who would do such a thing).

  • Neil,

    When I challenged the pastor about the 4 sermons he had plagiarised, there was no response of, ‘I’m sorry; I’ve sinned against God by stealing material without attribution. I repent’.

    Instead, he told me that he spends a lot of time on creative Power Points to accompany his sermon because ‘that is what people want and need today. It is what grabs attention, especially with the younger generation’.

    Since he did not guarantee this plagiarism would never happen again, I chose not to attend that church. Some in regional areas will not be able to make such a choice.

    Spencer

  • Hi Spencer,

    You did the right thing on going to a different church.

    Although I must say, Christ never said following him would be all sweetness and easy street. Yes it may be difficult in regional areas, I myself live in a country town, yet there is at last count at least 10 different churches here.

    I understand that in todays world we are taught that everything should be easy, quick and non painful. Having said that, sometimes we need to make sacrifices to follow the Lord. So if you need to get in your car, or get a lift and drive an hour or so, is that too much to a price to pay?

    Or perhaps they need to follow what the first century Apostles did when they did not have a proper church, they met in homes, they sang hymns, they taught the scriptures, they fasted, prayed, edified one another.

    In other words, perhaps some people need to grow a spine, get some callouses, get some blisters on their feet and just make the decision that whatever it costs, whatever it takes, I will follow the Lord. We need to stop making excuses for why we cannot do what the Lord has told us to do. Revelations talks about him spitting luke warm followers out of his mouth, don’t be luke warm, be boiling hot, the Lord likes hot Christians.

    To quote Joshua 24:15 KJV,
    “And if it seem evil unto you to serve the Lord, choose you this day whom ye will serve; whether the gods which your fathers served that were on the other side of the flood, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land ye dwell; but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”

    Oh looky, a quote that isn’t plagiarised, including full disclosure of its origin. see that wasn’t too hard now was it. (proving the point of this topic, for full disclosure).

    Neil

  • “…it is what grabs attention” Oh why are pastors so obsessed with “bums on seats” instead of lives that bare fruit?
    As it says in one of Don Francisco’s songs: “what can be done for the sheep when the wolf is on full time staff?” Oh dear, I can’t give you the name of the song or the album this came from – One Heart at a Time, or Vision of the Valley.
    Many blessings
    Ursula Benett

  • Neil. It is sad to have to check things.
    Apart from passing off sermons, quotes and testimonies as their own, there is the other dubious intro “I knew a guy once who said…”
    OK, did you know the guy, or did you read about the guy?
    I found this easier to understand when in the US because I noticed the people were so focussed on the art of public speaking. I was amazed how churches on every corner had such accomplished orators. Reeeally good talkers.
    Same in AUS, but more exaggerated in the US, so easier to see.
    I reckon it goes something like this.
    1. The people want to hear a rousing speach.
    2. The speaker knows they need to perform well
    3. Performance morphs into acting
    4. Acting smears into little “white” lies
    5. “White” lies become plaigiarism and false representation

    Back in the good old Bible, Moses was no orator. John even says it like this… “My little children, let us not love in word or in tongue, but in deed and in truth”. 1 John 3:18
    Paul writes similarly;
    “For the kingdom of God is not a matter of talk but of power”. 1 Cor 4:20

    So the problem is we lack power. So we fake it till we “make it”.

  • Excellent post and intelligent comments! When I discovered a writing of mine unattributed in a mega-pastor’s bestseller, a Christian friend – like one of Job’s pals – told me I was being “greedy” for wanting attribution. Many Christians are astonishingly ignorant about plagiarism. I really don’t understand how ministers who plagiarize can stand to look in the mirror.
    For anyone who is interested, I’ve posted an article about my tale on my website. More Pulpit Plagiarism? How I became a ghostwriter for a celebrity preacher and didn’t even know it.

  • The church I am a former member of is dealing with this issue right now.

    It all started about a year ago, and it was NOT public knowledge, but was brought to a pastor in total privacy in someone’s home. It was found out that one of his sermons was completely plagiarized; word for word. He used his name on the sermon, so it was obvious he didn’t give credit where due. Well, that was kind a “warning” for him. But a year later, and a very long investigation later, it was discovered that his 15 year career was a MINIMUM of 90% plagiarized; books he had written, sermons, church mission statement, etc. He was asked to resign.
    I’m sure I don’t have to tell you how absolutely devastating this has been. So many people are just heartbroken bc we all loved him so much. He does not see the fault in his ways, which makes it difficult.
    Thank you for your prayers as we all walk through this.

  • It must be pointed out the copyright law only protects actual written or published spoken words (transcripts). It does not protect ideas.

    Reframing someone else’s idea in your own words is not plagiarism. However, I think it is fair and ethical to at least acknowledge where the ideas come from.

  • Yep thanks, as I state in my article.

  • Like many Christians, I was too casual about this issue until I published my own book a few years ago. I soon learned the truth about myself and this issue when my book suddenly became available for free on so many dodgy pdf download sites. I now know how it feels to be ‘ripped off’ in this way. I try to console myself that at least the book is being read, but it’s still disappointing.

  • I read a Christian book by a relatively famous author that I believe may have sections that are plagiarized. Is there a company or entity the can assist me in looking into this? If so, what is their contact information?

  • I would like to add a positive story about what a pastor can be like when they are really listening to the Holy Spirit.
    One time my Dad was asked to preach 10 min before the sermon time (this was in Kenya). So what he did was use a discussion he had had the night before with the family and talked on that. When a person is always in the Holy Spirit and always talking about God He provides what is needed. There no need ‘to cater to the younger generation’ or make things sound/look nice when you are speaking the truth and are filled with the Holy Spirit. I’m sure there are many other stories like this one.
    BTW I was told about this from my sister. I was in Australia at the time.

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