Pastors and Plagiarism: We are all “Semi-Plagiarius.”

All the talk and controversy about plagiarism has made me somewhat uncomfortable. When I listened to the infamous interview between radio host Janet Mefford and Pastor / Author Mark Driscoll I was haunted by a phrase. I don’t know if it is an exact quote or not but it went like this, “You are stealing his ideas.”

I am a pastor. My whole life and ministry is about regurgitating someone else’s ideas. I believe it was Charles Hodge who said that he never had an original thought or idea. We read, listen, talk, think, integrate, pray, and listen. This is what we do. In one very real sense pastors don’t know what is original and what is not. Even our sermon outlines have a family tree.

After a recent sermon someone asked me a question about where I got something that I said in the sermon. I told them that as far as I know the sentence was mine, but the idea, the concept, that’s John Owen. And John Owen got it from the Apostle Paul. This could happen every week as the preacher’s influence comes out in his preaching. It’s impossible to escape.

It’s not just me. In one bizarre period of about 10 days last year I heard a popular pastor say something profound. A few days later I was reading a book by Tim Keller and found the same idea. Then I was in a sermon by Jonathan Edwards and it was there. Shortly thereafter my mind was drawn to a passage Paul’s writing and it was there. That thought was handed down the spiritual family line like broad shoulders and big ears. You can’t stop it.

Along these lines Dr. Martyn-Lloyd Jones recounts a story about Charles Spurgeon.

Lloyd-Jones describes the case of a young man, a student in Spurgeon’s college, whose preaching was drawing praises from some, but a criticism from others that he “was repeatedly preaching a sermon of Mr. Spurgeon’s.” When this was brought to the attention of the school principal, it was decided to take the young man to Spurgeon himself. After considerable questioning, Spurgeon became somewhat impatient. Lloyd-Jones describes the conversation between CHS and the student. Spurgeon asks:

‘Well, are you saying, then, that it is your sermon?’ ‘Oh, no, sir,’ said the young man. ‘Well, then whose sermon is it?’ ‘It is a sermon of William Jay of Bath, sir,’ said the student . . . ‘Wait a minute,’ said Spurgeon, and turning to his library, he pulled out one of . . . two volumes [Jay’s sermons had been printed in two volumes] and there was the sermon, the exact sermon—the same text, the same headings, the same everything! What had happened? The fact was that Mr. Spurgeon had also preached William Jay’s sermon and had actually put it into print with other sermons of his [own]. Mr. Spurgeon’s only explanation was that it was many years since he had read the two volumes of Jay’s sermons and that he had forgotten all about it. He could say quite honestly that he was not aware of the fact that when he had preached that sermon he was preaching one of the sermons of William Jay.” (Preaching and Preachersvia Adrian Warncok)

I recently reread some books from a few years ago. I found phrases underline and annotated that I did not remember reading but know that I have repeated. I was amazed at what sunk in without me knowing. I have referenced these concepts on several occasions without citing it (my apologies to CJ Maheny, John Calvin and Octavius Winslow).

Can you imagine how many preachers have went on to speak about the supremacy, beauty, and infinite majesty of King Jesus? How many times do we say that we want to see and savor the glory of Christ. Where do we get this? John Piper? Sure. But read Jonathan Edwards; you can hardly read an Edwards sermon and not say, “This sounds like John Piper.” You could also say, “This sounds a bit like John Owen.” (as Edwards was doubtlessly influenced by the Oxford theologian). It’s exhausting to consider.

In one sense we are all a bit of “Semi-Plagiarius.”

I’m not sure where all of the plagiarism talk is going to go and how it will be policed. I can say that I know that we cannot steal people’s sermons, books or ideas and pass them off as our own. That’s obvious (should be anyway). At the same time, we must acknowledge that the ministry of the gospel is made up of guys who read a lot of books and listen to a lot of sermons. Like Spurgeon, it will come out in surprising ways. And we should not be surprised when it does. We should, however, be gracious and thankful for the lineage of truth.

(I should say that some of these thoughts come directly from a discussion yesterday at lunch with a seasoned, faithful pastor and friend named Ron–from whom I continue to influenced.)