The Plagiarizing Pastor

“Wood drastically” – “Wood ‘drastically underestimates the impact of social distinctions predicated upon wealth, especially inherited wealth.’ You got that from Vickers, ‘Work in Essex County,’ page 98, right? Yeah, I read that too. Were you gonna plagiarize the whole thing for us? Do you have any thoughts of your own on this matter?” – Good Will Hunting   Michael Scott

The Plagiarizing Pastor

The history of Christian theology and preaching and its relation to plagiarism is complicated, especially since today we likely have a different view of what constitutes plagiarism than in previous centuries. In the past, you might find a Protestant theologian plagiarizing sentence after sentence from Martin Bucer’s commentary on Romans. Or you will see that Berkhof borrowed from Vos in a manner that might cause a few eyebrows to be raised today. I think some fascinating essays and books could be written on “plagiarism” over the centuries – but, like the word “racism,” the term will have to be carefully examined, understood, and applied, particularly since context is everything.   

Habitual plagiarism in the pulpit is a more complicated and widespread affair than plagiarism in print. Given the advanced technology available to publishers, it is getting harder to plagiarize in books. For example, one cannot even use a sentence from their own previous blog post in a book without being required to give attribution. But persistent and excessive plagiarism in the pulpit is harder to detect. And by “persistent and excessive” I am more concerned about patterns rather than when a pastor may make use of an outline from someone else that might constitute “plagiarism” by academic standards. Recently, I received an email where a pastor, who often visits Africa, asked to use my outline and ideas from a sermon I had preached; but he also said: “If I preach this text in the first world, I will certainly reference your contribution.” This seems sensible.

Open-AI is another issue that presents temptations to some pastors. Recently an elder in my church sent me (for fun) a ChatGPT that asked for a “practical application of 2 Chronicles 16:9.” It was the text I was preaching on that coming Lord’s Day morning. The information offered was basically correct, but it lacked personal connection, was a bit moralistic, and missed an important link to Christ. But I could see how many might be tempted to let AI do a lot of their sermon prep. Incidentally, I wonder if we, especially in the more theologically rigorous types of pulpits, haven’t produced AI messages long before this new technology. The information offered is accurate but there’s little connection to reality or the specific people in front of them. It’s a mildly interesting lecture.

Most Professors in Seminaries have dealt with plagiarism among students. Depending on the severity of the case, a student can be expelled for gross plagiarism or fail the course. There are degrees of plagiarism, which should lead to degrees of punishment. But the professor should not be the one caught by the student(s) for plagiarism. That’s more serious than the reverse. And this brings up the point of this post, namely, not so much to diagnose what constitutes plagiarism, but to argue that the sin may be exacerbated depending on who is doing the plagiarizing.

Allowances might be made for preachers earlier on in their ministries to be a little more dependent on sources due to a lack of confidence. Again, the pastor with less experience needs to grow and become less reliant on others over time. Some, however, might get too comfortable with the practise and end up in a place far worse than when they started. Usually, those who plagiarize excessively are the types to omit prayer in their preparation because the habit of short-cuts has taken root – they are lazy, wanting maximum benefit from minimum work.  

Some churches have found out that their pastor has been guilty of obvious and persistent plagiarism, sometimes through a remarkable providence that appears to be the Lord offering mercy to the pastor so that he does not have to show justice when it is too late. Many years ago, in my own presbytery, we dealt with a pastor who for years plagiarized the sermons of a well-known preacher, even making use of the preacher’s personal life stories as his own. In my mind, when a pastor, who has many years of experience, gets caught for obvious and persistent plagiarism, the sin is heightened. When they pass off someone else’s personal life experience as their own, there may be a need for serious intervention by psychologists (and the presbytery).

Plagiarism cases need to consider aggravations. Aggravations make things worse, like someone who stubs their toe and then gets their foot run over the next day. Edward Fisher says we should note the following when speaking of the aggravation of sins: The one sinning, the one(s) sinned against, the nature of the sin, and the circumstances. In addition, he says the person’s age, abilities, and social standing are also to be considered. 

A pastor stealing money from the church to pay a gambling debt is a worse sin than a young boy who steals a banana to eat lunch. A husband or wife cheating on their spouse for many years with another person who is also married and has children is aggravating the sin of sexual immorality compared to a young couple who, before marriage, do not maintain purity with each other on one occasion.

In the case of a pastor who plagiarizes sermons, we should consider several factors when looking at the aggravation of the sin.

As noted above, the sin is aggravated if the plagiarism is excessive and persistent. In addition, the sin is further aggravated if that pastor has a wider sphere of influence and receives extra remuneration and honor for his (alleged) work at conferences. To whom much is given, much is required (Luke 12:48). If the pastor has many years of experience, he should be borrowing less rather than more. The newly ordained young pastor who gets caught plagiarizing may have a less aggravating sin in this instance than the well-regarded pastor who speaks widely. Ironically, the latter person described is more likely to receive the type of protection from friends that enable him to continue speaking at conferences and earning good money to do so. If a seminary student had been guilty of the same degree of plagiarism, he would likely be sent packing along with his Berkhof ST. But this, sadly, shows us that a type of fame in Christian circles can hurt you if you are unlawfully protected when in fact you should be rebuked. Better off is the young man who gets rebuked, suffers consequences for his sin, and changes his ways, than the esteemed conference speaker that is not just protected but celebrated and never comes clean with his sin.

That said, the so-called “unknown” pastor can plagiarize with less chance of getting caught. Few listen to him outside of his immediate congregation whereas those who have a wider audience are more likely to get caught if they have plagiarized. So, while there have been some high-profile cases in recent years of pastors plagiarizing, we may be horrified at the amount that takes place among lesser-known pastors.

Why is it so serious to plagiarize another’s work in the pulpit? Pastors plagiarizing sermons are guilty of making themselves a god: they create their own rules, assuming they should have it easier than others but also receiving greater praise than others. They are guilty of false worship, taking God’s name in vain, unbelief, pride, theft, sloth, covetousness, and false testimony. They should be grateful if they are exposed but the very sins that led to their plagiarism often keep them from admitting their guilt. It is an aggravation of sin because of who they represent: Christ. Public repentance should be offered for a public sin. Some consequences should be suffered, not only to show that we take sin seriously, but that we show there are consequences for sin that even the esteemed must suffer, not just the lowly. But public repentance also shows the gospel at work. There really is forgiveness, despite the temporal consequences. We show that we care more for God’s justification than man’s, but hiding our sin reveals we prefer justification by men alone. In the case of a less experienced minister caught plagiarizing, I think further training and accountability can be fruitful, so long as there is repentance.

Remember, too, “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). If we catch a brother in a transgression, such as the one discussed above, we should restore him in a spirit of gentleness (Gal. 6:1). And we should remember to take heed, lest we be similarly tempted. But what a gift from God when we have a brother who sees our sin and doesn’t excuse it because of so-called “friendship” but instead cares more about our soul and God’s glory than “peace, peace” when there is no peace. I do not doubt that we will be held accountable not only for what we have said but also what we have excused in others when we had an opportunity and responsibility to lead them to repentance. Be wary of the ever-present danger whereby we love the glory that comes from man rather than the glory that comes from God (John 12:43).

In the cases of high-profile plagiarism, public repentance can do much good for the church, perhaps more good than their continued speaking from the pulpit where they are telling everyone else about the glories of the gospel but, evidently, not thinking that the gospel is enough to cover their sin and set them free. 

Mark Jones (Ph.D., Leiden) has been the minister at Faith Vancouver Presbyterian Church (PCA), Canada since 2007.