In Jeremiah 23:30, God spoke to Jeremiah strikingly about the false prophets who “ . . . steal from one another words supposedly from me . . .” Not only were the words that they were speaking delusions that claimed to be from God, they were copying each other’s words. With a closer look at the whole passage and chapter where Jeremiah prophesies about the false prophets, it is evident that God considered his Word not only to be his own possession, but to some extent the possession of the prophet to whom he had given his Word, and therefore, he termed taking the words of another man of God and presenting them as one’s own as an act of theft.
One of the biggest temptations to a pastor is that he may become a spiritual copycat and take what was presented in the preaching and teaching of other pastors and teachers of the Word as his own. There will always be an influence on the spiritual life and therefore the preaching and teaching of a pastor from the preaching and teaching of those he has heard and read. No pastor is a spiritual island, or the first one to whom the Word of God has come. Yet plagiarism is considered a form of academic dishonesty and theft, and throughout church history there have been those who have spoken out against it. It’s ironic that Charles Haddon Spurgeon, one of the most plagiarized preachers over the past century and a half, was one of the most outspoken critics of plagiarism in the pulpit himself.
The first guideline to avoid being a plagiarizing pastor is simply: acknowledge when you are citing the words of someone else as a corroborating, more experienced or more eloquent witness or authority with specialized knowledge in your preaching and teaching. If possible and appropriate, give the name of the source of a citation, either as as direct quote or paraphrase, and something about who that person is and why what that person said or wrote is relevant.
Even if it somehow does not seem to be appropriate to name a source directly, don’t try to give the impression that you are the real source if you are in fact echoing the words of someone else. For instance, in my first church, one of the women recognized one of the stories which I used as an illustration was from a devotional booklet she had read. When she asked me, I acknowledged to her that it was the source, and that I took my sermon illustrations from many other sources as well, such as my personal experience and my personal reading of Christian and historical literature.
Of course, it’s hard to give footnotes when a person is preaching and teaching. It is a good idea, though, to indicate that the insight you may be sharing is not specific to you, that it may reflect universal Christian experience, that it may come from others with specialized knowledge in the Biblical languages, history or archaeology, or that it may simply be stated in words more eloquent than you can formulate. No one expects a pastor to have all possible or available knowledge of the Biblical languages, history, background or theology, or to be the only one who can express something succinctly or aptly. Congregations do expect a pastor to do his preparation for preaching, and for it not to be merely a statement of a pastor’s personal opinions, notions and preferences, but to be based upon the scriptures, to be a reasonable explanation of what the scriptures mean, to reflect universal, realistic and attainable Christian belief and practice, and to be stated in an understandable and attractive way. Being able to point to these kinds of influences can be a tremendous bolster to the credibility of a pastor.
There are also times when a pastor can credibly preach the sermons of others, and if a pastor does this, he should acknowledge that he is using or adapting the sermons of someone else. For instance, Billy Graham preached the classic Jonathan Edwards sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” during the Los Angeles crusades, when he himself was running out of prepared sermons due to the crusade meetings being extended. A seminary professor of mine once memorized and preached the Sermon on the Mount from Matthew 5-7. Moreover, V. Raymond Edman preached some of the sermons of Charles Finney during the Wheaton Revival. They all acknowledged this publicly, though, and there is no indication that their ministries were ever strongly dependent on preaching what others had previously preached or written.
Certainly, then, pastors need to make sure that the majority of their preaching and teaching comes from personal study of the Word of God and preparation time. While others in the body of Christ, and others who have preached and taught the Word of God through the ages may have had a great influence on a pastor, seek to formulate your own sermons and lessons as much as you can from your own study of the Word, prayer and pastoral ministry. In the age of Google there is more material available than ever before. In the past sermon-stealers relied on collections of Charles Haddon Spurgeon’s sermons a lot, and I’ve seen some pastors who were sons of pastors preach their father’s sermons without any acknowledgment. But God definitely holds the pastor responsible to receive the Word of God personally (James 1:22-25) and handle the Word of God accurately (II Timothy 2:15), and most congregations expect that as well.
Finally, don’t bad mouth someone personally, living or dead, in the pulpit, or through any kind of insinuations, to whom you are indebted for any part of your preaching and teaching. I frankly don’t know how anyone could ever expect God to bless his ministry with conviction and power who does this, but I’ve seen it happen. No one expects a pastor to agree with everything that someone else said and wrote who has been an influence on his preaching and teaching, but it seems that there is something dishonest, hypocritical and even malicious if a pastor takes insights and material from someone else and then disparages, demeans or disdains that person in any way. Scripture says, “Anyone who receives instruction in the word must share all good things with his instructor” (Galatians 6:6) and “Now we ask you, brothers, to respect those who work hard among you, who are over you in the Lord and who admonish you. Hold hem in the highest regard in love because of their work” (I Thessalonians 5:12-13). This would definitely apply to giving due respect to those whose preaching and teaching has been a positive influence on one’s own preaching and teaching.
So, if you are a pastor now, if you were to be in a secular job, would you present a report which someone else had written or to which someone else had contributed as your work alone? If you were to reply no, that that would be dishonest, it’s the same kind of matter with a sermon. To present something that another person has written or spoken, when that person has put in the time and effort to go into the Word and formulate its truth and has communicated it to others, as if it were your work alone is just as dishonest.