Preachers and Plagiarism

An educator friend of mine recently shared a link to a website designed to help teachers check their students’ work for plagiarism.  A teacher can just paste a section of the student’s paper into the search engine and in a matter of moments know if the work has been copied from some online source.  After just a minute or two of exploration, I found there are many sources teachers can utilize to detect cheating by plagiarism.  I have no idea how well these websites deliver on their promises, but I do know from the number of available sites this must be a serious problem teachers face as they seek to educate their students.

As I looked at these sites I remembered students aren’t the only ones who plagiarize. Preachers plagiarize, too.

As far as I know there is not a website designed to check whether sermons are plagiarized, but if there were, the red light would be flashing constantly. Some preachers do not consider plagiarism to be a problem. After all, if a sermon is good, what is the problem with it being preached again in another setting by another preacher?  Why not preach the best sermons you can find?

Plagiarism presents multiple problems.  A preacher who plagiarizes cheats himself and his church. By presenting someone else’s well-researched and well-written sermon the preacher escapes the hard work that is disciplined research and writing.  By plagiarizing sermons a preacher can pretend to be something or someone he or she is not. By plagiarizing a preacher avoids difficult work, misrepresents himself, and steals from another.

I know of  one minister who presents himself as an expert in a particular field when in reality his “expertise” is entirely “borrowed.” I know another who regularly posts the words of others as his own in status updates and tweets. I know of preachers whose sermons series are lifted directly from the latest release of a book on the Christian bestseller list. The sermons are preached without any prayerful digging into the text, critical thinking and processing, theological reflection and disciplined writing.

I’m writing this to remind myself and my preaching friends that when we quote others in sermons, blog posts, or even status updates or tweets — let’s give credit where it is due. There can be great benefit to using good, helpful material from others when we properly give credit. Let’s not allow plagiarism to undermine our own spiritual maturation. And if we have such a craving to be thought an expert or witty or wise that we would steal, perhaps we need to address the underlying heart problems.

No Innocent Text

Chris Erdman’s Countdown to Sunday: a Daily Guide For Those Who Dare To Preach is, as you might guess from the title, primarily for preachers. In it Erdman suggests a weekly rhythm for preachers working with the text. He offers specific suggestions for each day of the week leading up to Sunday.

In the section on Wednesday, Erdman suggests “there are no innocent texts in the Bible. Every word, sentence, and page has an agenda.” He goes on to suggest exegetical work on Wednesdays that discerns “the mischief this text wants to do among us come Sunday.”

But it wasn’t the thoughts on exegesis, per se, that caught my attention in this chapter. It was the prayer Erdmans suggested for the hours in which the preacher is discerning “how Sunday’s text wants to form the people of God.”

“Lord, why this text? Why, among so much other material, was this little piece included in the Bible? I know it’s not innocent, but I’m not yet clear about what it’s guilty of trying to make of your people.”

I love that expression, “no innocent text.”

And I love that prayer, “What is this text trying to make of the people?”

And since it’s Wednesday and Sunday is closing in…

It’s time to pray!

Steinbeck, Worms, and Preaching

Today I am sharing a quotation from Chris Erdman’s Countdown to Sunday A Daily Guide for Those Who Dare To Preach in which he quotes John Steinbeck to illustrate how preachers should handle the text. Enjoy!

“If you want to know how to handle this text, I’ll steer you toward the novelist John Steinbeck over the mass of contempoary preachers. Stenibeck knows how to handle the kind of stories, rants, poems, prayers, commands, and whatever else makes up the pages of the Bible. Steinbeck knows nature and the human condition into which you and I are sent to preach the gospel. Here’s Steinbeck with a pretty accurate description of the preacher’s art —

Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream….How can the poem and the stink and the grating noise–the quality of light, the tone, the habit and the dream–be set down alive? When you collect marine animals there are certain flat worms so delicate that they are almost impossible to capture whole, for they break and tatter under the touch. You must let them ooze and crawl of their own will onto the knife blade and then lift them gently into your bottle of sea water. And perhaps that might be the way to write this book–to open the page and to let the stories crawl in by themselves.

I’m hard-pressed to imagine a better way of handling the Bible…and opening its pages among those whose lives are as full of as much stink and noise, light, tone, and habit as those whose lives the Bible wants us to capture whole. Work too hard at getting them out and off the page, and you’ll do them damage or injustice. Better to open the page and let the stories crawl out all by themselves. That’s when your preaching will be its best, and you’ll find yourself working at your task with more wonder and a lot less chore.” (pages 49-50).

The Gathering

“We gather for worship to remember who and whose we are. We come to recount the stories that shape our faith, stories that turn us from a collection of individuals into a community with a common source and vision. The church as a worshiping community carries our biblical faith and spiritual tradition down through the ages to each individual. We are joined to that community in Baptism, tutored in faith through the interpretation of scripture in preaching, and nourished at the Lord’s Table as a family of believers. Life in the church teaches us that we are made for a communion not only with God but with one another in Christ.”
–Marjorie J. Thompson in Soul Feast: An Invitation to the Christian Spiritual Life, p. 60.

Preaching Without Masks


2 Corinthians 11:11 (NIV)
“Why? Because I do not love you? God knows I do!”

The sermon I preached yesterday about Paul’s dealing with his critics reminded me of these words with which Chris Erdman opened his book, Countdown to Sunday A Daily Guide for Those Who Dare to Preach.

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“Those of us who preach know how tempted we are to be someone else, wear masks, and live inside our own skin in ways that are not altogether authentic. The demands of pastoral ministry are many and diverse, and while tending the souls of others and the life of a congregation it’s not hard to betray our own selves. We stand up on Sunday mornings in a place that can often feel more like a place of danger than a sanctuary. Conflict over a decision of the board, the pain of a family in crisis, the desires of those who hope you’ll tilt the church in the direction of their hopes and dreams, your own lingering mistakes and self-doubts and private cravings load the room where you stand to preach; it’s little wonder we wear masks.

It’s possible to preach in such a way that we keep these masks intact. But I don’t think we can keep them intact and preach Christianly. Christian preaching is, among other things, an announcement of the new creation, a whole new humanity in Jesus Christ, a liberation from old captives. When we wear masks, preaching becomes more about technique and the arts of rhetoric and oratory–managing those masks with greater skill–than it is about entering God’s new world made real through preaching. And preaching, if it is to be Christian, requires real humanness–God’s own in Jesus Christ, and ours as his witnesses, as scandalous as that may be.”

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Paul’s critics were all about style over substance. Paul would have none of that, seeking instead to focus on the power of the gospel message. Rather than wear masks, Paul was open and honest about his suffering and hardships, even if his critics used them to discredit him.

Most encouraging to me is the line from 2 Corinthians 11:11 that I quoted above. What helps Paul take off his masks and minister with honesty and authenticity was knowing that while people might impugn his motives, God knew the love in his heart.

When I love, God knows; so I can just take off my mask and preach!

Topical Hazards

When I was back in school I enjoyed taking a systematic theology class. Through the years I have read a number of helpful systematic theology books. I know there is a place for discussing Bible teachings topically. But having said that, there is a real danger when Bible study, and for that matter sermons and classes, are limited to topical approaches.

The expository preaching class I took years ago at Harding University Graduate School of Religion was one of the highlights of my time there (there were many). I remember discovering for the first time the importance of approaching scripture as it was written. I vividly remember the time when I was sitting in that class back in 1981 and realized, “If God had wanted to give us a topical Bible, He could have (but He didn’t).”

In spite of the fact that He didn’t, some people approach their Bible study, even their teaching and preaching, as if God had given us a topical Bible. And so if they want to do in-depth study about, let’s say for example, baptism, healing, or prayer they just look up those topics and study the verses wherein the words appear with little thought of the context.

What results is we end up reading isolated verses about baptism without reading the broader context of the story of redemption God has given us. So, for example, baptism is isolated from the broader themes of faith and grace. We know what happens when we study baptism in isolation from the story of faith and grace, don’t we? And, as a second example, what happens when we pull out the topic of healing from the story? We isolate it from the bigger story which includes suffering, trials, perseverance, and death at every turn. Finally, consider the topic of prayer. Think of how much richer and fuller our understanding of prayer if we see prayer as a part of the overall story instead of just pulling out verses. What was the situation? What was being prayed for? How was the prayer answered? Did what resulted from the answered prayer have the intended consequence?

I have found the best way to study a topic is to read the Bible. That allows us to see whatever the topic of interest as a part of the bigger story of redemption that is the Bible (Similarly, the story of the disciples’ spiritual formation that I mentioned yesterday is best understood as you read through the entire gospel of Mark). So what’s your topic of interest? Worship? Gender roles? Justice? Poverty? Sexual ethics? Whatever it may be – may I suggest that actually reading through the Bible may be a much more effective way of discovering God’s will than resorting to a topical Bible.
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And on a related note —

Skyline’s adult education curriculum was designed with special attention to the big picture of the Bible. I want to share just a few quotations from Walter Brueggemann’s book The Creative Word: Canon as a Model for Biblical Education that help explain why attention to the whole is essential in Christian education. I want to highly recommend this book to anyone who is taking on the challenge of putting together a church education program.

The discussion I propose is simply this: Attention to the process and shape of canon may tell us something about education in ancient Israel. In addition, it may provide clues for our own educational task. . . (page 4).

The three agents of instruction are identified as priest, wise, and prophet. The three shapes of knowledge are said to be Torah, counsel, and word. Each of these, I shall argue, has a special substance and a distinct mode in the life of Israel. And a faithful community must attend to all three, not selecting one to the neglect of the others, or subordinating one to make it conform to the others (page 8).

I propose that church education, both in its modes and its substance, has gone awry precisely because of the failure to hold these three parts of the canon, these three normative modes of disclosure, in balance and in tension (page 11).

Such education, such ministry rightly done is radically subversive. It evokes resistance and hostility. That should not surprise us. That indeed is the condition of church education. Any educator who hopes to avoid that abrasion by focusing on one aspect alone cannot claim to be facing the whole canon in all its richness (page 13).

Word Stealing Prophets

Several articles have been published recently about the problem of plagiarism among preachers. It’s not a new problem but one that may be growing due to the availability on the Internet of both written and recorded sermons.

A friend of mine who is a popular preacher told me of the time he visited a congregation while on vacation. He settled in on the back row eager to listen to a sermon on his day off. What he heard amazed him. He heard the preacher preach word-for-word a sermon he had written and preached just a few weeks earlier. The plagiarising preacher even told the personal stories from the sermon as if they were his own.

In a recent article from PreachingNow (volume 6, number 8), Michael Duduit suggests that plagiarism is a problem for three reasons:

  1. “It is dishonest. It is presenting someone else’s work as my own. If I did that in the business world or in higher education I’d be fired.”
  2. “It cheats the congregation of the anointed passion that comes from a God-called messenger working through the biblical text to uncover the truth God has for that congregation that day.”
  3. “It cheats the preacher. When we simply take a shortcut and use someone else’s sermons instead of doing the prayerful study to prepare our own messages, we shortchange our own process of growing as spiritual leaders.”

How sad when a preacher listens to a sermon that is the product of someone else’s disciplined study and thinks that he has become an expert on the topic or passage by virtue of merely listening to the sermon.

The articles about plagiarism that I have read recently remind me there is no substitute to the hard work of research and prayerful study. They have also reminded me of the importance of following the rules of attribution when preaching.

I’ll let Jeremiah have the last word –“‘Therefore,’ declares the Lord, ‘I am against the prophets who steal from one another words supposedly from me. Yes,’ declares the Lord, ‘I am against the prophets who wag their own tongues and yet declare, ‘The Lord declares’ ” (Jeremiah 23:30-31 NIV).

The Nature of Exposition

Another quote from Stott —

“Christian preaching is not the proud ventilation of human opinions: it is the humble exposition of God’s Word. Biblical expositors bring out of Scripture what is there; they refuse to thrust into the text what is not there. They pry open what appears closed, make plain what seems obscure, unravel what is knotted, and unfold what is tightly packed. In expository preaching the biblical text is neither a conventional introduction to a sermon on a largely different topic, nor a convenient peg on which to hang a ragbag of miscellaneous thoughts, but a master which dictates and controls what is said.”

— John Stott, from ‘Paralyzed Speakers and Hearers’, “Christianity Today” (13 March 1981).