Sermon Plagiarism as Vice: A Short Exploration and Defense

Plagiarism has been in the evangelical news recently due to the current Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) President Ed Litton’s alleged plagiarism of former SBC President J.D. Greear’s sermons. Videos have surfaced portraying Litton lifting sermon titles, outlines, sentences, phrases, and even personal stories, sometimes word-for-word from Greear. However, I don’t want to focus on Litton in what follows. I intend to use him as an opportunity to think about an important and oftentimes confusing topic: What is plagiarism and is it a vice in Christian preaching and teaching? I focus specifically here because the pastoral office and its chief task of preaching are foundational for Christian worship. The Christian Scriptures and Tradition have treated them with the utmost seriousness. My argument will proceed in three broad steps, asking three questions: What is plagiarism? Is it bad? How bad is it? From here I will consider several potential objections. I then conclude that plagiarism, particularly sermon plagiarism, is a sin and, if habituated, is a serious sin. As a note: while I conclude that plagiarism in sermons is dishonest, detrimental to both the office and task of the pastor, and—depending on the nature of the plagiarism—disqualifying from the office of elder, I do not provide a conclusion on any specific situation—including Litton. My goal is better thinking. We at the London Lyceum want to avoid half-baked thinking which often comes from the immediacy of the internet and news stories. We seek to pursue the meekness of wisdom. However, I think the topics highlighted in this case—plagiarism and the nature of sermons—are especially fertile ground to grow as sound Christian thinkers. They intersect with both doctrine (the nature of the Lord’s Day and the task of preaching) and philosophy (the nature of virtue and vice). So, I think being general on the topic will serve serious thinking best. You can challenge various premises within my argument, draw your own conclusions, and debate from there. My goal isn’t to tell others what to think but to help them on the journey of thinking. I expect some will disagree with my arguments and conclusions and that is just fine. There are certainly many smarter and wiser men and women than I that will disagree at points with my assessment. This is by no means the final authoritative explanation on the topic. It was written over the span of several days, after all. There may be gaps in my reasoning for which I would be grateful for the correction. But such sharpening cannot occur without putting pen to paper. And I think charitable yet critical debate is healthy and drives us closer to the truth—which is what we are all after. So, while I won’t mince words in what follows, I intend to convey this in the spirit of charity.

 

 

1. What is Plagiarism?

The University of Oxford defines plagiarism this way: “Plagiarism is presenting someone else’s work or ideas as your own, with or without their consent, by incorporating it into your work without full acknowledgment.”[1]

So, based on this definition, plagiarism has at least three conditions:

  1. You are using someone else’s work
  2. You are using someone else’s work with or without their consent
  3. You are using someone else’s work without full acknowledgment

There are two vices that are relevant from this definition: theft and dishonesty. It appears that plagiarism is sometimes theft and always dishonesty.

Before elaborating on this, it is worth noting that some may contest condition 2. They may suggest that it’s not plagiarism if you obtain the original author’s consent. Fair enough. While I think condition 2 is right, I think you can remove it and still have a moral failure—dishonesty. So, I’ll proceed as if plagiarism has only two necessary and sufficient conditions:

  1. You are using someone else’s work
  2. You are using someone else’s work without full acknowledgment

So, as it relates to a sermon, it would be plagiarism on Oxford’s definition if it is someone else’s work (whether another pastor, a research assistant, a sermon team, etc.) and if full acknowledgment isn’t provided. So, permission is irrelevant.

But what does “full acknowledgment” mean? In academic work that means proper citation according to a certain style guide. But what about oral teaching? For example, is it necessary to give a full academic citation in the middle of a sermon for it to avoid plagiarism? I don’t think so. Citation style varies depending on the form of communication. However, it always requires some form of citation. I think full acknowledgment in such an oral context requires noting which portions aren’t original to the preacher/teacher. This could be anything from referencing the name of the author, the name of the book, or potentially a vague “someone said.” It doesn’t necessarily need to be during the sermon either. It could be more creative, such as offering a recommended resources list for the congregation where all the sources are listed. The point is that acknowledgment is necessary to avoid the charge of plagiarism. It doesn’t matter if the preacher/teacher has permission or not. It must be acknowledged. If it isn’t acknowledged it is dishonest. Obviously, some ways of source attribution are better than others. But the requirement is honest acknowledgment of dependence.

2. Why is Plagiarism Bad?

Now, it is fair to further explore why plagiarism is bad—or if it is bad at all. Given the Oxford definition, while it may include theft it always includes dishonesty. Thus, plagiarism is bad because it is a vice—a sin. It sometimes is theft and always lacks the virtue of honesty.

But what is honesty and does plagiarism—especially in sermons—really count as dishonesty?

First, honesty is a broad virtue. Most fundamentally it is about truth-telling, though it relates to a host of sub-issues such as stealing, cheating, and yes, as I suggest, plagiarism.[2] Since dishonesty is the opposite of honesty, it involves not telling the truth. Such a definition is intentionally vague. This is because dishonesty may involve telling a truth, but with the intent to deceive. While telling intentional falsehoods is obviously dishonest, so is telling truths with the intent of deception.[3] It may also include partially telling the truth or selectively telling the truth.

So, plagiarism is not merely bad because it could be theft. It is most fundamentally bad because it is dishonest. It is a form of lying. It creates a misleading impression. Even when the plagiarized material is accurate, it is delivered in a way that deceives, and therefore is dishonest. This deception could arise from numerous motivations, but in preaching, plagiarism lacks the virtue of intellectual humility, perhaps seeking to avoid a sense of shame or embarrassment because of a lack of knowledge or skill. Perhaps it is due to the undue pressure of creating fresh, creative, and original sermons. No matter the reason—it is dishonest.

But dishonesty has disastrous effects, especially on those whose currency is trust, such as pastors. This is summed up quite well by Aristotle who said that “a lover of the truth who is truthful even when nothing is at stake will be still keener to tell the truth when something is at stake, since he will avoid falsehood as shameful.”[4] The idea is this: those who are honest in most circumstances are more likely to be honest in others, and those who lack honesty in some circumstances are more likely to lack it elsewhere. And this isn’t a secret. Parishioners in churches are keenly aware that a lack of honesty in small things often means a lack of honesty in far larger ones. Whatever gravitas and moral authority the office of elder had for that church will be eroded with each lie. If Aristotle’s age was one of distrust, he could only imagine the reality of the contemporary milieu. There is an epidemic of dishonesty. “Fake News” is ubiquitous. There is a deep distrust in the truthfulness of everyone. Thus, from such a pragmatic perspective, it seems paramount that we safeguard our reputations as truth-tellers.

From a further Christian perspective, Augustine argues that lying involves an abandonment of God as end since God is truth.[5] Thus, sermons that intend to deceive, even if the deception is at the level of the source, are abandoning God as end. In Augustine’s treatise against lying, he argues that even if we lie in order to gain believers to the truth we are sinning, not merely because lying is an absolute moral law, but because those that hear us, upon learning of our deceptive tactics, will be unsure of its veracity. As he says, “how can there be any believing one who thinks it is sometimes right to lie, lest haply he lie at the moment when he teaches us to believe?”[6]

Given this, I conclude that sermon plagiarism is morally wrong because it attempts to deceive its hearers. It withholds the truth. It attempts to present an image of the preacher that he is presenting words, ideas, illustrations, etc. that are original to him when they are not. It matters not that all truth is God’s truth. It matters more that we submit in humility to the God of all truth, acknowledging our debt to others.

3. How Bad is Plagiarism?

Sure, plagiarism is bad. But just how bad? Is it akin to a white lie where I tell someone their burgers taste great even though they don’t to make them feel better? Or is it akin to a serious lie where I tell my wife I have been faithful to her though I haven’t? There isn’t an exact science to this. Virtues aren’t always black and white. It is highly dependent on context. So, let’s focus on the sermon exclusively here.

First, what is a sermon? A sermon is the sacred task of heralding the oracles of God to the people of God. It is not a comedy sketch. It is not for entertainment. It is not to impress others. It is the chief means of grace for the nourishing of souls. Apart from the Word the sacraments have neither meaning nor power.[7] This is a task of more moral weight than any academic paper. It is the center of Christian worship. Thus, the morality in question is more serious, not less serious, than the academy. As Saint James confesses: “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness” (James 3:1). Elsewhere Saint Paul speaks of the task with similar weight to Timothy: “I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word” (2 Timothy 4:1-2a). Even the Second London Baptist Confession of Faith, which allows for those who are not elders to preach the word, requires that they be “approved and called by the church” (26.11). There is a weight to the task not assigned to others. When discerning the severity of sermon plagiarism, the nature of the office of elder and the task of preaching must be noted. It is the place of highest moral authority and dishonesty in the form of plagiarism erodes and undermines it. Moreover, if the Holy Spirit struck Ananias and Sapphira dead for lying in Acts 5 about how much they gave to the church, how much more seriously does he take the man who lies while proclaiming his message to his people? Certainly, this is no laughing matter. It should be faced with the utmost moral clarity.[8]

Therefore, I conclude that sermon plagiarism is a grievous sin. While plagiarism is a sin on its own, when it is committed in the central act of Christian worship the stakes are raised—not lowered. It may be less grievous if the action is to plagiarize something such as an outline or to plagiarize a singular phrase. It may be less grievous if it is done on rare occasions. However, it may be more grievous if entire sections are plagiarized. And it may be of the utmost seriousness if personal illustrations or entire sermons are plagiarized. Moreover, plagiarism is easy to avoid. This is not adding an arduous task to anyone. It is simply requiring us to admit of dependence on others. I don’t want this point to be lost, either, because I think it is crucial: We can debate the seriousness of the offense (which I obviously conclude is serious). What we cannot debate is the ease of avoiding it.

Since the requirement for an elder is to be above reproach, to be holy, to be disciplined, to be respectable, and to be able to teach, I conclude that the elder who habitually commits plagiarism ought to be disciplined in the presence of all (1 Timothy 5:20) and ultimately removed from their office. To be clear, I am not arguing for the exact conditions that should lead to this discipline—whether three instances or fifteen instances, or minor or major plagiarism. That is specific to each unique context and should be handled by the local church itself. But I am saying that there is a moral gravity to this offense that should be taken seriously and acted upon. It is not something to ignore or to chalk up to creative license. To be clear, this is not a call to becoming completely original. It is a call to honesty. We are all dependent on giants in the faith. This is a good thing. But we should show honor to whom honor is due.

4. Overcoming Objections

Finally, I can engage some of the more common objections to plagiarism as a vice/sin—particularly sermon plagiarism.

Objection 1: Utilitarian Kingdom Dishonesty as Virtue

The objection goes like this: Sermon plagiarism could lead someone to faith. If it leads someone to faith, it’s worth it.

Reply 1: Scripture prohibits lying. It doesn’t matter what the ends are if the means are prohibited.

Ephesians 4:25: Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another.

Colossians 3:9-10: Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.

Furthermore, God can work through any means he so desires to bring someone to faith. God does not need me to lie to accomplish his task. If one is indeed worried about serious things such as a lack of time to prepare for a sermon or anxiety, it is morally permissible to use another’s sermon or to simply read the Scriptures aloud. There is nothing wrong with using someone else’s work. But it is always required to give full acknowledgment. There is no reason not to. The question is not whether other sources can be used, even in abundance. The question is whether proper acknowledgment is given.

Objection 2: Situational Dishonesty as Virtue

The objection goes like this: Since some lies in Scripture are vindicated (e.g. Rahab and the Hebrew midwives), other lies that produce goods are vindicated as well.

Reply 2: There is no situation that would require a pastor to lie about their dependence on a source besides themselves. Even the bi-vocational pastor and the underground church pastor can give full acknowledgment. It is not a difficult task to say, “someone else said this.” We are not talking about a threat to someone’s health if they say this. We are not talking about an intellectually difficult thing to say this. It is simple: This work is not mine.

Objection 3: Permissive Dishonesty as Virtue

The objection goes like this: Since I have permission from the author, I’m not stealing. Therefore, it’s not morally wrong.

Reply 3: As explained above, plagiarism is morally wrong, not only because it is sometimes theft, but because it is always dishonest. Even if permission is granted, deception remains. The congregation is under the assumption that the preacher has done his own research and is presenting his own work. To be clear, it is not wrong to use other’s work, but it is always wrong to use it without full acknowledgment.

Objection 4: Variation in Form

The objection goes like this: Sermons are relevantly dissimilar to other sorts of communication that prohibit plagiarism. Therefore, there is an assumption that sermon material is borrowed which means citation is not necessary.

Reply 4: Citation form may vary depending on the form of communication, but it is always dishonest to pretend that someone else’s work is your own.

Objection 5: Premodern Dishonesty as Virtue

The objection goes like this: It is a modern invention to protect intellectual property. Therefore, plagiarism is common to history and thus cannot be sin since it would implicate the majority of history in sin.

Reply 5: While examples in history may be muddied at times on this point, it is nowhere the universal case—or even majority—that plagiarism took place and wasn’t seen as morally vicious. However, I’m admittedly not a historian. Nor have I spent serious time researching historical thinking in the Christian tradition on this topic. So, more to the point: the historical practice (or lack thereof) of plagiarism is largely irrelevant to the morality of the issue. Maybe a significant number of people sinned. This would not be surprising given the statistics on lying in general which suggest we lie nearly one-third of the time.[9]

Objection 6: Truisms and Citation

The objection goes like this: Everyone agrees that we don’t need to cite truisms. We don’t cite someone when we say “I before E except after C.”

Reply 6: This is true. We don’t cite truisms. That is because these are considered “common knowledge.” But it doesn’t follow that we don’t cite uncommon knowledge.

5. Conclusion 

Much more could be said, especially as relates to the sacred task of preaching, the nature of the gathered assembly, the office of elder, the nature of virtue, the nature of honesty, etc. However, I think my goal has been accomplished. I wanted to be clearer on what is meant by plagiarism, how it relates to preaching, and whether it is a vice or not. I have concluded that sermon plagiarism is a vice. It is a sin. More, if egregious enough, it is worthy of discipline and removal from the office of elder. For, it is not hard to say with the author of Hebrews: “It has been testified somewhere…” (Heb. 2:6a).[10]


[1] “Plagiarism | University of Oxford,” accessed July 1, 2021, https://www.ox.ac.uk/students/academic/guidance/skills/plagiarism.

[2] Christian B. Miller, The Character Gap: How Good Are We? (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2018), 115.

[3] I realize there is much debate over the nature of honesty, dishonesty, and lying that I am presupposing here. I am not defending my account of the matter because this is a short think piece and not a full academic work. I am also assuming the Augustinian account is largely accurate.

[4] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, trans. Terence Irwin, Third edition (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc, 2019), 1127b 5.

[5] Christopher Tollefsen, Lying and Christian Ethics (Cambridge University Press, 2014), 34.

[6] Tollefsen, 36.

[7] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003), 4:444.

[8] A further note here is that pastors are charged with this duty for their particular local congregation. To preach another’s sermon is to malnourish their own congregation. Each congregation has unique needs and if the pastor is unwilling or unable to meet them, they are ultimately doing harm. Certainly, there are exceptions to this—if the pastor knows another sermon would serve them best in that context. However, it does not remove the need to give full acknowledgment.

[9] Miller, The Character Gap, 105.

[10] Thanks to comments and criticisms of an early draft of this piece from Jake Stone and Garrett Walden. Garrett made several especially useful criticisms that made this better.

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