It seems, frankly, utterly unthinkable to me that authentic preaching would be the echo of another person’s encounter with God’s word rather than a trumpet blast of my own encounter with God’s word. Now to be sure, my sermon should be an echo. It should be an echo of the voice of God. But not an echo of an echo of the voice of God. So that is my conviction.
— John Piper —
When it comes to light that a pastor has been borrowing the work on another—what we might call plagiarism in the pulpit, sermon borrowing, retweeting, or any other euphemism for violating the seventh commandment—it is deeply troubling. But if that pastor has any influence on the life and ministry of other pastors, it is even worse, because it says to younger men, who are finding their way in the wilderness of pulpit ministry, that it is acceptable to use the work of others.
To date, I can think of two pastors I knew personally who were fired for preaching someone else’s sermons. And I have heard many reports of the same. I can also think of many others whose ministries I have written off as unfaithful after learning that they were reheating the meals of others. And most recently, I have watched the unbelieving world make sport of God’s people because of plagiarism in the pulpit.
In recent days, it has come to light that the president of the SBC, Ed Litton, has been found retweeting sermon material from J.D. Greear. You can watch his expositions of Romans 1 and Romans 8, both of which demonstrate word-for-word dependence on Greear’s work. Both men have released statements explaining the matter (see here and here), but with 140+ sermons pulled from the Internet, more explanations are needed.
Without addressing the specifics of the Litton situation, I want to step back and ask the question: Is it wrong for a pastor to borrow material from another? What does it mean to plagiarize in the pulpit? Why is this such a common practice? And what does Scripture say?
To start with, I am not first to tackle this subject. Albert Mohler has discussed it, so have D.A. Carson, John Piper, and Justin Taylor and Andy Naselli (who lists many others). Letting Carson speak for the bunch, he expresses the severity of the problem.
Taking over another sermon and preaching it as if it were yours is always and unequivocally wrong, and if you do it you should resign or be fired immediately. The wickedness is along at least three axes: (1) You are stealing. (2) You are deceiving the people to whom you are preaching. (3) Perhaps worst, you are not devoting yourself to the study of the Bible to the end that God’s truth captures you, molds you, makes you a man of God and equips you to speak for him.
Carson’s words are severe. And they are matched by the severity of others listed above. Yet, the consensus of these evangelical leaders does not mean there is consensus on the issue. For on the trusty Internet, you will find James Merritt’s permission for plagiarism, websites selling pre-packaged sermons, and encouragement for pastors to partake in the practice of using the work of others. Thus, in what follows, we need to answer three questions.
- What is Plagiarism? And does it apply to borrowing the work of another when permission is received and attribution given?
- Why is Plagiarism so prevalent today? Who is championing it?
- Is Plagiarism Biblically Defensible? (My answer: No, it is not!)
Answering these three questions, we can define our terms and evaluate from Scripture the practice of retweeting sermons.
What is Plagiarism?
Defining plagiarism should be relatively easy: it is using someone else’s material without giving proper attribution. Or, as Justin Taylor makes the point more finely: “‘Plagiarism’ involves using the original and specific wording or arguments of others without acknowledging the source, thus giving the impression that they are original with you.”
Such a definition makes it clear that when a pastor uses the material of another and does not give attribution, he is plagiarizing. (Whether he acknowledges the material later, when called to do so, is another subject). Yet, if he does acknowledge the source in the message (as Christianity Today suggests below), then the problem moves from plagiarism to “sermon sourcing.” This too is problematic, for reasons we will see in Scripture. But even before addressing the re-use of sermon material with permission and attribution, it is worth considering if such attribution escapes the charge of plagiarism.
In their helpful taxonomy of plagiarism, the good folks at TurnItIn, an online resource for teachers spotting plagiarism, list ten types of plagiarism. These ten types range from the copy-and-paste form of plagiarism to the retweet. And in their taxonomy (see below, p. 4) they suggest that a “Retweet” is a paper (or sermon) that “includes proper citation, but relies too closely on the text’s original wording and/or structure.” In such an instance, the author acknowledges the source of the information, but still falls into plagiarism because a single footnote at the end or the beginning of a paper is insufficient for properly citing the copious amount of information borrowed from the original source. The same applies to the sermon, I am arguing.
Understandably, this specificity makes the discussion about plagiarism more technical. But it also acknowledges the fact that even when permission and attribution are given, if the second sermon is a clone—in part or in whole—of the first, the issue of plagiarism remains.
The takeaway from retweet plagiarism is this: When we are talking about plagiarism in the pulpit, that label fits whether attribution is given to the original source or not. Whenever a pastor is making use of someone else’s work for his own sermon—with or without attribution—the label plagiarism still applies.
Someone might object that TurnItIn does not have a monopoly on the term plagiarism, and that we should define plagiarism with something like Justin Taylor’s definition. Okay, maybe. But that only improves the matter slightly, and it may make it worse if pastors are actively justifying their use of others materials. By comparison, the larger community of communicators is held to higher standards, and this should not be. When the world is more honest than the heralds of truth, those who champion the truth have lost before anyone gets to Sunday morning.
Wherever you land on the definition of plagiarism, I will use TurnItIn’s tenth type of plagiarism, the Re-Tweet, to address the plagiarism in the pulpit. When pastors retweet another’s sermon they are, to return to Carson’s three points, (1) stealing via plagiarizing, (2) deceiving others and (probably) themselves, and (3) most notably, failing to live up to their calling as a pastor.
Yet, that calling may actually be the thing that divides Christians most on this subject. For those who define the pastors calling based on the qualifications and duties found in the Pastoral Epistles seem to be at odds with those who define the pastor’s calling in terms handed down from the modern professionalization of the pastorate. This difference may explain why so many have been defended the statements released by Greear and Litton, and why Christianity Today once offered a defense of plagiarism in the pulpit.
Why Is Plagiarism So Popular Today?
In 2002, Christianity Today offered a short editorial on the subject of plagiarism, “When Pastors Plagiarize” (p. 29). With a title like that, one might think that the editors would warn pastors of plagiarizing sermons. Yet, CT did just the opposite.
Instead of explaining why pastors should preach their own sermons, they list three reasons why pastors plagiarize. In so doing, CT urged pastors to cite their sources and for churches to expect pastors to retweet the sermons of others. Here is their rationale.
- Pressure. “We live in a media-saturated age in which we can watch, listen to, or read the brightest and best preachers at any time.” Therefore, “the pressure on the local pastor to match this eloquence is felt on both sides of the pulpit.” (p. 29)
- Comparison. Because no other modern vocation is asked to generate as much content as the pastor who speaks multiple times a week, the pastor needs help in content creation. Politicians have a team of people to help him or her, so it is natural for pastors to get help too.
- Isolation. “The pastor is about the only public communicator today whose efforts are not collaborative or edited by others before they are made public.” And any requirement that pastors must produce a sermon on their own is a “romantic illusion” that springs from the Enlightenment. (p. 29)
For these three reasons, the unnamed editors of CT make the case that pastors should freely use the work of others (while always giving credit to their sources) and “congregations should allow, even encourage, their pastors to use the best material from books, magazines, and the Internet” (p. 29).
With such an argument written by this influential magazine, it is not surprising that pastors borrow the work of other pastors with or without attribution. Ironically, the statements offered by Litton and Greear reflect CT’s argument, and thereby prove that there is a stream of thought in the church today that stands against the strong denunciations of plagiarism in the pulpit.
And this brings us back to the Bible itself with a bevy of questions in our minds: What does God think about such plagiarism in the pulpit? What does he expect for pastors, preaching, and plagiarism? If the Bible is our guide for all of life and godliness, then it must say something to us about pastors and the task of preaching. In their short editorial, CT simply assumes that the modern context makes it permissible to retweet sermons, but is that what Scripture says? CT does not look to the Bible for answers, but we must. And that is where we turn now.
What does the Bible say about Plagiarism?
Limiting our inquiry to the Pastoral Epistles (1–2 Timothy and Titus), we come across five discreet truths about plagiarism and one general truth that speaks to the issue of the pastor and his vocation of handling the Word. Without giving a full exposition of any passage, we can discern a double-sided message from the Pastoral Epistles: (1) Pastors show themselves approved before God and God’s people when they rightly handle God’s Word in the study and the pulpit, and (2) Pastors do not show themselves approved by wisely selecting and retweeting the works of others, especially when they hide the source of their sermon. With those two themes in mind, let’s consider the Pastoral Epistles.
1. Plagiarism Invites Teaching without Knowledge (1 Timothy 1:3–7)
In 1 Timothy 1:3–7 Paul urges Timothy to remain in Ephesus and to contend with the false teachers arising in that city. Instead of teaching the truth of God’s Word, which Paul calls a “stewardship from God” (v. 4), they are “devoting themselves to myths and endless genealogies, which promote speculation rather than . . . faith.” Speaking of these false teachers, he writes, “Certain persons, by swerving from these, have wandered away into vain discussion, desiring to be teachers of the law, without understanding either what they are saying or the things about which they make confident assertions.”
The key point for our discussion of plagiarism is this: plagiarism invites teaching without understanding.
In Paul’s letter, he will make the point that these false teachers do not understand the law and how it brings people to the gospel of Jesus Christ (1:8–11). In our day, the rise of plagiarism also assures us that those speaking from the Word of God will have less personal knowledge of the truth they speak. This is Piper’s point about being an echo of an echo, instead of exulting in the glories that you have seen in the study with God.
Sure, the argument can be made that those who borrow material can actually learn from the brightest minds on the Bible. But such knowledge is always second-handed. As Helmut Thielicke observed in his book, A Little Exercise for Young Theologians, “The man who is in the position of reproducing a lecture about Luther, or possibly giving one himself, perhaps knows nothing or almost nothing about all this, and can hardly know.” Rather, this man “lives at second hand.” In context, Thielicke is lamenting the “adolescent” seminarian whose knowledge about doctrine exceeds his knowledge of God. But the same problem applies here. If pastors are preaching the work of others, it will stunt their growth and hinder their own knowledge of God.
To be clear, plagiarism doesn’t produce unbelief, but it does promote a way of speaking that divorces biblical knowledge from existential knowledge. Because pastors already struggle to live up to the words they preach when they do immerse themselves in studying God’s Word, the permission for and promotion of plagiarism will only produce a generation of pastors who teach without knowledge. And such teaching without knowledge can create a host of doctrinal problems—whether in parts or on the whole.
2. Plagiarism Promotes Impersonal Communication (1 Timothy 1:12–17)
A few verses later in 1 Timothy, Paul details God’s mercy to him in saving him and calling him to serve as an apostle (1:12–17). He describes his previous life as being “a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent” of Christ, but because he received mercy, God has displayed in his very life what the gospel looks like. Indeed, Paul’s testimony, repeated three times in Acts (chs. 9, 22, 26), is given to the church to demonstrate what happens in conversion—the old man is put to death, and the new man is brought to life (cf. 2 Cor. 5:17).
Such is the nature of gospel ministry. Preachers speak gospel truths as one recipient of grace inviting others to come and know the same. In such communications of the gospel, God has chosen to use vessels of mercy who have particular stories, gifts, and manners of speaking. No two preachers are the same. Yes, pastors will master the craft of preaching by listening to others, but as D. A. Carson has once said, and I am paraphrasing, if preachers only listen to one or two other preachers, they will sound like a cheap imitation. But if you listen to dozens of preachers, you will learn to develop your own voice.
One of the most important things a preacher can do is to grow comfortable in who God has made him to be and to speak with the gifts God has given to him. I have pastored two churches, and my personality, education, and gifts served me well for one congregation, but not the other. Thankfully, I am at a church where my gifts match the congregation. But previously, they did not. The fact needs to be recognized, that biblically qualified men will not fit in every congregation. And plagiarism, in addition to leading pastors to use illustrations and experiences that others have had, leads to an ongoing impersonal ministry of the Word.
Paul could speak the gospel through his personal experience. And pastors who are true shepherds will do the same. As Peter tells elders to shepherd the flock in which they are in the midst (1 Pet. 5:1), so pastors should be preaching messages that arise from the life and strife of a given congregation. When messages are borrowed from another location, however, congregational specificity is endangered and preaching with a personal dimension is in jeopardy. Sure, attentive retweeters can supplement borrowed messages with personal stories, but this only makes the message all the more artificial. And the reason is that it does not match the nature of the pastoral office.
3. Plagiarism Threatens the Pastoral Office (1 Timothy 3:1–7; cf. Titus 1:5–9)
When Paul turns to the qualifications of an overseer in 1 Timothy 3, we find at least three reasons why plagiarism cannot work in the pulpit. First, the overarching qualification for an elder is to be “above reproach.” Both 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 list this qualification first, and in Titus 1 Paul lists it twice (vv. 5, 7), saying in the second occurrence, “For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach.” Stewardship for Paul relates to the teaching of God’s Word, and thus the one who brings God’s Word must not have anything that would threaten the communication of that message.
But this is exactly what plagiarism does. While undetected plagiarism may not threaten the content of the gospel, but as soon as it is discovered that a preacher of the truth has not been truthful in citing his sources, all sorts of questions arise. When such knowledge is revealed, the watching world writes articles exposing the removal of past sermons and laughs at the church. This is why Paul says of the overseer, “he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil” (1 Tim. 3:7).
When a pastor is not above reproach with his preaching, the unbelieving world is uninterested in CT’s explanation of tired pastors borrowing sermons. Instead, they add plagiarism to their list of reasons for dismissing church and its pastors. If you haven’t noticed the reputation of pastors is not doing well today, and incidents of plagiarism only add mockery to God’s Word. This is why God calls pastors to be above reproach, that the world may not dismiss those who bring the Word of God.
Second, elders are those who must be “able to teach” (1 Tim. 3:2; cf. Titus 1:9). But plagiarism makes it impossible to tell if someone is gifted to teach or if they are simply skilled to speak. Worse, if a young preacher permits himself to use the work of others, he won’t develop the gifts God has given him. Or worse, it will lead to a perceived skill in preaching that doesn’t match his actually gifting. To put it bluntly, plagiarism may misplace men in ministry.
So for the sake of men called to preach and for the sake of their churches, permitting men to retweet sermons is a recipe for long term disaster—for the preacher, the local church, and the universal church. Staying with pastors for a moment: one way pastors are sustained in ministry is by studying the Word, feeding their soul, and bringing to the congregation the bread of life on which they have already been partakers. Plagiarism short-circuits this weekly rhythm, threatens the soul of the preacher, and threatens the pastoral office, and changes the nature of gospel ministry.
4. Plagiarism Changes the Nature of Gospel Ministry (2 Timothy 2:1–2; James 3:1)
For those familiar with trends in ministry over the last century, they will not be surprised by the popularity of borrowing sermon material or relying on teams for their sermon preparation (I’ll revisit this another day). As David Wells has demonstrated time and again, pastors have become ministry managers, therapeutic counselors, and professionals in church growth. This is a far cry from the biblical pattern of pastors as stewards of the Word and heralds of the truth. Today, the encouragement to borrow sermon material, instead of repudiating plagiarism, is the sad but unsurprising fruit of losing a biblical approach to the pastorate.
When we go back to the Pastoral Epistles, however, we find something else entirely. We don’t find sermon teams, but men who give themselves to studying the Scripture and laboring hard to feed the flock with the Word of God. Most explicitly, Paul says in 2 Timothy 2:15, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.” This verse, which addresses the individual preacher, single-handedly denies the place for borrowing material. Why? Because it is impossible to be approved as a faithful handler of God’s Word if you are using someone else’s best material.
Again, we could get into all the ways that pastors rightly depend on others in the process of sermon-writing. It is true that every preacher depends on those who have gone before them. Commentaries and those who write them are gifts to the church, and any pastor who refuses to use them is fooling himself. Even Paul, in 2 Timothy 2:1–2, encourages Timothy to remember and repeat what he has said, so that he can teach faithful men who will then teach others. There is a place for preaching in community, but plagiarism sours the goodness of learning from others or preaching among a fraternity of preachers (as in Acts 13:1–3).
Because teachers will be judged more severely (James 3:1), they must give an account for what they teach and how they teach it. In the Pastoral Epistles, the elders who are gifted to teach are called to be stewards of the Word, faithful servants who teach sound doctrine from the Scriptures. Unfortunately, the practice of plagiarism changes the nature of this ministry. Pastors are led away from being prayerful disciples of God’s Word, to being a skillful distributors of man’s sermons. Such a change impairs the ability of the preacher to give an account for his words. And it denies the preacher the need to be skilled in biblical knowledge, languages, doctrine, or the wiles of the human heart. Such freedom from doing the work of preparing sermons each week may open up times to do other ministry (e.g., counseling, discipling, etc.), but in the long run, the church is impoverished when its primary teacher is not steeped in the Bible.
In such instances, the pastor and his flock suffer from a deficiency of the Word. This may not be immediately evident, especially in a day when biblical literacy and theological depth are lacking. However, the proof will be seen in time. It will be observable in the pastor who is retweeting the work of others, instead of mining the depths of Scripture. But when this practice is permitted, it will also entice others who have no business to lead God’s flock.
5. Plagiarism Entices False Shepherds and Rewards Laziness (1 Timothy 6:5; 2 Timothy 2:1–7; 4:5)
In addition to the harm plagiarism has on the genuine pastor, the allowance for borrowed material entices false shepherds to find a place in the church. Again, addressing the problem of false teachers, Paul warns Timothy of those who imagine that teaching God’s Word is a means of great gain (1 Timothy 6:5). Without assigning motives to those who have been exposed plagiarizing sermons, if a congregation permits borrowed material to be preached in the church, it will only open the door to false teachers—and if not false in doctrine, then false in desire.
Churches already have enough trouble calling pastors who serve with a good conscience, and pastors have enough trouble with their own ambitions for success in ministry. Adding the prospect of preaching the slick sermons of someone else does nothing to mortify the pastor’s desires for a larger congregation nor protect the church from charlatans who are using their pulpit as a means of promoting themselves. Instead, it entices pastors to depend on the work of others, which in time will decrease their dependence on the Lord. Thus, even if a church experienced a greater season of sermonic delivery following the use of retweeted sermons, in the long run, the costs outweigh the benefits.
Closely associated with the desire for a larger church and the monetary gain that goes with it is the desire for greater ease. Preaching is hard work. And as with anything that is hard, the temptation to find short cuts are many. Yet, this temptation for ease is exactly where Paul speaks most directly, “As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry” (2 Tim. 4:5) In short, Paul is saying to preachers of the Word: Do the work!
Wonderfully, the bi-vocational pastor doesn’t have to be the next Billy Graham or John Piper. The small town pastor doesn’t have to engage all the cultural challenges that fill Tim Keller’s sermons. Before the Lord and his heavenly court (2 Tim. 4:1), the faithful pastor must simply: “preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching” (v. 2). Nowhere in the Pastorals do we find a word about eloquence or erudition. It is all fidelity to the Scripture, but such fidelity must crucify desires to use the ministry as a means of gain and it must eschew all temptations to laziness in preaching.
By contrast, when plagiarism is embraced or even encouraged, it does untold damage to the preacher and the church who receives his ministry. But above the impact that can be seen is the impact that plagiarism in the pulpit has on the Word of God itself.
A Final Word: Plagiarism Dishonors the Word
The cumulative message of the Pastoral Epistles is to guard the flock by guarding sound doctrine. Preaching the Word is the work of the pastorate, and there is nothing more important for a pastor than holding out God’s Word to God’s people every week. In that work, the pastor soon learns that what God has called him to is an impossible task: “Who is sufficient for these things?” (2 Cor. 2:16). Yet, the faithful pastor in prayerful dependence on the Lord finds strength to do the work of the ministry in the power of the Spirit (cf. Col. 1:28–29).
Plagiarism destroys all of this. Not only does it turn preaching from a week-long communion with God and his Word to the rote repetition of someone else’s work. It also invites scrutiny and skepticism on the veracity of God’s Word and the sincerity of God’s gospel. Instead of protecting the Word and the flock, plagiarism endangers the flock and the right preaching of the Word. For this reason, pastors must spur each other on to fulfill their ministry of preaching the Word, a Word prepared during the week and preached to the people they shepherd.
Anything less than this fails to honor God’s Word properly and invites disrepute on the Word of Life. For that reason, as popular as plagiarizing sermons has become, it is biblically indefensible.
May God give us the courage of our convictions to stand against such practices. And may God strengthen his shepherds to continue to study the Word of God, so that we would show ourselves approved as faithful shepherds of the flock which Christ purchased with his blood.
Soli Deo Gloria, ds
 I am not saying that there is not a place for Christians to gather and listen to sermons, even written sermons. But I would say this practice is only healthy and good when there is NOT a qualified teacher in their midst. Far better for a poor-but-faithful preacher to preach God’s Word than to retweet the sermon of someone else. Likewise, far better for the growing preacher to labor in the text and stumble in the pulpit, than to be eloquent in the pulpit and stumble with integrity.
 These quotations come from chapter 4, “The Theological Change of Voice.”