Editors’ note: 

Note from Collin Hansen, TGC editorial director: This week we’re examining the thorny issue of pulpit plagiarism. We’ll hear from pastors, scholars, and researchers to work toward common understanding on this pressing, perennial dilemma. Next we turn to Matt Perman, senior director of strategy at Desiring God.

A preacher has crossed the line into plagiarism in his sermon when he, intentionally or unintentionally, gives the impression that the original ideas or words of another are his own. The way to avoid this is to simply make sure and cite the source. This applies not only to quotes and lose paraphrases, but also original ideas and even sermon structure.

For example, one of the best messages I’ve ever heard is John Piper’s sermon “The Happiness of God: Foundation of Christian Hedonism.” In it, he first makes a case that God does all things for his own glory. Then he raises a problem: Is this selfish? And then he resolves the problem. If you preach a sermon with that basic outline, even if you do all of it in your own words, you should still cite Piper’s original sermon.

Now, the issue is not always cut and dry. For example, Jonathan Edwards makes a compelling (and biblical) case that the goal of God in all things is his own glory. Edwards is perhaps the most detailed person to make that case. Yet he is stating a very common and pervasive biblical truth—and one which I believe for all sorts of reasons beyond and in addition to the arguments that Edwards makes. Do I need to refer to Edwards every time I say “God created all things for his glory”? That would be annoying. (Though of course that does not settle it!) The answer is no, because Edwards is stating a truth that can be called “common knowledge.” Even though he is being very profound, thousands of theologians and Christians before (and after) Edwards have believed and argued the same thing. If you use any of Edwards’s specific arguments, then, you should cite him; but in simply stating the truth “God created all things for his glory,” you do not need to cite him or any other theologian. (But it would always be a great idea to cite some biblical texts!)

The Edwards example is probably too easy. Sometimes you might genuinely be uncertain. Here is, I think, the best way to deal with that ambiguity: Just be free about letting people know the sources of your ideas and where you have learned things. This doesn’t diminish your credibility at all, and in fact benefits your listeners and the church by letting people know about other helpful teachers and resources. And it gives them confidence that you are always learning from others, rather than a solo shop. Let your default be to tell your congregation what you are reading and where you have learned things.