Plagiarism

Preaching and Worship Resources about Plagiarism

Plagiarism is the act, intentional or unintentional, of presenting another's words or ideas as one's own. Plagiarism is a form of both theft (taking without permission) and dishonesty (bearing false witness about oneself). Even when unintended, plagiarism is a serious matter.

In Scripture

False witness "You shall not steal. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor" (Ex. 20:15 - 16).

Dealing falsely "You shall not steal; you shall not deal falsely; and you shall not lie to one another" (Lev. 19:11).

Falsehood "I hate and abhor falsehood, but I love your law" (Ps. 119:163).

Walking in integrity "Whoever walks in integrity walks securely, but whoever follows perverse ways will be found out" (Prov. 10:9).

Guided by integrity "The integrity of the upright guides them, but the crookedness of the treacherous destroys them" (Prov. 11:3).

Lying "Lying lips are an abomination to the Lord, but those who act faithfully are his delight" (Prov. 12:22).

Stealing words "See, therefore, I am against the prophets, says the Lord, who steal my words from one another" (Jer. 23:30).

Eschatological reality "For I will leave in the midst of you a people humble and lowly. They shall seek refuge in the name of the Lord — the remnant of Israel; they shall do no wrong and utter no lies, nor shall a deceitful tongue be found in their mouths" (Zeph. 3:12 - 13).

Keep the commandments "And [Jesus] said to him, `Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.' He said to him, `Which ones?' And Jesus said, `You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; Honor your father and mother; also, You shall love your neighbor as yourself'" (Matt. 19:17 - 19).

Stealing "[Y]ou, then, that teach others, will you not teach yourself? While you preach against stealing, do you steal?" (Rom. 2:21).

Working honestly "Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy" (Eph. 4:28).

The old self "Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator" (Col. 3:9 - 10).

Christian witness "Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence. Keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame" (1 Pet. 3:15 - 16).

Points to Ponder

Biblical witness Unsurprisingly, the overwhelming Biblical witness condemns lying and stealing — forbidden in the Ten Commandments (Ex. 20:15 - 16), affirmed in the Law (Lev. 19:11), advised against in wisdom literature (Prov. 12:22), included by Jesus as pivotal commandments (Matt. 19:17 - 19) and included among the actions of the "old self" before regeneration in Christ (Col. 3:9-10). The witness of Scripture also affirms the need for integrity (Prov. 10:9), suggesting that there is an eschatological reality to such a life (Zeph. 3:12 - 13) and that our Christian witness is hindered when we do not live with integrity (1 Pet. 3:15 - 16). The Bible also suggests that using the words of another is equivalent to stealing (Jer. 23:30).

Spoken word vs. written word Some believe that plagiarism in a spoken sermon should be treated differently than something written. Numerous sermon clearinghouses exist online where sermons can be downloaded for free or for a price. Practice varies with these: Some are offered with ownership rights; others have strict usage guidelines. In light of this, some suggest that copying (in large or small sections) such sermons is not plagiarism. This is simply untrue. Whether spoken or written, attribution should always be given.

Not even with permission Occasionally, someone may offer their work or a portion of it and indicate that they are unconcerned with getting proper attribution. A pastor may borrow a section of a sermon from a friend, or a newsletter article may copy from a colleague who offered the article. While this may no longer be theft, it is still false representation of the words or ideas of another as one's own.

Multiple ways to give attribution Pastors should feel free to be creative in the ways in which they give attribution. They might put a note in the bulletin indicating where the inspiration for that week's sermon came from, or they might project their sermon outline on a screen and include brief bibliographic information. The key is that when one uses the ideas or words of another, attribution must be given.

Irreconcilable? In some instances, discovery of plagiarism may cause an irreparable breach of trust. In academic circles, plagiarism is a cardinal sin: automatic failure for students, grounds for dismissal for faculty in serious cases. Any instance of plagiarism should be treated seriously within the church, but the frequency, the level and the intention of plagiarism will factor into whether or not a pastor found plagiarizing should remain in his or her pulpit. Pastors found to be plagiarizing should have a clear process of reconciliation, whether that means remaining in his or her current church or preparing the pastor to begin with a new congregation in a healthy way.

Emotional roots In cases of willful plagiarism, one may find emotional roots to the cause. Feelings of inadequacy may lead one to idolize the words and ideas of another. Feelings of being overwhelmed or overworked may lead one to seek shortcuts. Plagiarism may be accompanied by other destructive behaviors. Churches addressing the plagiarism of a church leader will want to handle the situation with grace and forgiveness, but also with pastoral sensitivity to other matters that may be lurking beneath the surface.

A way to honor each other "When you have wit of your own, it's a pleasure to credit other people for theirs."


Scripture quotations are from New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.