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.
Still, I can’t help but think of pulpit plagiarism as an integrity issue. I actually appreciate when pastors tell me who taught them while researching. In the scenario I described, the pastor could have largely avoided the problem just by quoting or at least citing me and my publication. No one would have faulted him. In the end, however, he wanted to perpetuate the illusion that he was an expert whom his church and book readers should trust. And that’s why I took offense (not because I wrote anything particularly memorable or insightful, which I hadn’t, as friends pointed out at the time).
We don’t need our pastors to be self-appointed gurus. We need them to be honest. Given the prevalence of plagiarism in our time, and the confusion among evangelicals over when it has occurred, I asked several authorities with experience in this area to answer, “When has a preacher crossed the line into plagiarism in his sermon?” We’ll see if we can reach some measure of consensus or shed at least a little light onto a dark corner of our modern existence.
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