My Two Cents on Pulpit Plagiarism

I stood, called my text, and began to preach. There was a weird response by the congregation. Something strange was happening, but I didn’t know what. I couldn’t catch the vibe. The congregation, to whom I had preached several times before, was tentative throughout the entire message. But I couldn’t figure out why.

After I sat down, it all became clear. Someone leaned over to me and told me the speaker who had opened the meeting several nights before preached the same text and/or message.

For some reason, this news made me nervous. At the same time, I was at peace. I had preached what I believed the Lord wanted me to say. And my message was the product of my Bible study and sermon preparation.

They gave me a copy of the other pastor’s message. When I got to my room, I crawled into bed with my computer and watched the message.

Indeed, it was the same text. And it was essentially the same message. We both preached the same doctrinal theme from the text. We organized the messages differently. We labeled the messages differently. I worked through the message with three main points in my outline. He had four. The homiletical approach was different. And the way we argued the message was different. It really was the same message preached from two different perspectives.

This got me to thinking about the ethical matter of pulpit plagiarism.

The late evangelist, Vance Havner, said when he began preaching he was determined to be original or nothing. He ended up being both, Havner said.

This is true of every preacher. All faithful preachers deliver an unoriginal, “stolen” message – the word of God. Biblical preaching simply explains what the word of God means by what it says. And if we read the text right, what we see will be pretty close to the conclusions drawn by other faithful Bible expositors.

In fact, if you come up with a reading of the text that no one else has ever seen, you’re wrong! Likewise, most Bible expositors use many of the same exegetical resources. So it should be no surprise for you to hear two messages that “overlap,” for lack of a better term.

But let’s be clear. Stealing other people’s material and preaching it as if it is your own work is wrong.

After the tragic shootings at Virginia Tech in 2007, a certain pastor preached a message he claimed the Lord had given him. Later that week, his local newspaper outed him, revealing the message was actually from a website that sells sermons. This “inspired” message had, in fact, been preached and posted by several other pastors across the country that same day!

I repeat. This is wrong. The eighth commandment should apply to our pulpit work: “You shall not steal” (Exodus 20:15).

This is not to say that we shouldn’t use sources. To the contrary, it is arrogant for you to study a text and preach a sermon on it without consulting the wisdom of those who have, in some instances, spent a lifetime studying those passages, books, or themes.

Milk a lot of cows. But churn your own butter.

When you do the hard work of personal study and sermon preparation, something wonderful can happen. For instance, you can stand and preach a text that was just preached in that same pulpit three days earlier. And you can make the point the previous sermon made. Yet, God can use your preaching – YOUR PREACHING – to declare the unchanging truth of God’s word in a fresh, new, and life-changing way.

Just my two cents. What do you think about pulpit plagiarism? Join the conversation in the comments section. 

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Gman98

    As a bi-vocational pastor it is sometimes hard to come up with sermons with substance. I use a sermon sight that I pay for. I glean from many resources and take different sermons and give them my flavor as so to speak. I do not use other peoples stories and experiences as my on. I really believe what one contributor said “you can use my gun but shoot your own bullets”. I am becoming better at writing my own sermons but please don’t judge a pastor at a small church( who wears many hats, Janitor, lawn care, repair, etc…) that has limited time and wants to deliver a good sermon.

  • Kitt

    Kindly help me…What if a pastor takes his preachings from books..he doesn’t attribute and he uses the material word for word and he did this for
    many years and was found out just lately..what can we do about this?

    • http://www.hbcharlesjr.com/ H.B. Charles Jr.

      Kitt, if this is the case, I think you should begin with a private, prayerful, and humble conversation with your pastor about the matter, expressing your concerns in a spirit of Christian love and concern.

  • Felicia

    Well, many people today are getting into preaching for their own purposes, sometimes as a means to survive or to make money. As a result, they have to preach as if, they are teaching in a class and they are afraid of what they are going to say, how they are going to say it and top of it all, they don’t want to offend anyone. But, the question is, before you become a preacher, are you called to be one, if you have God’s calling as preacher then, you don’t have to worry about preaching other people’s messages, because the Lord will prepare and equip you before you go out there to preach.

    The Holy Spirit Himself will give you messages. That’s what makes a preacher that is called by God and preacher that is doing it for their own reasons. Some do it for money, for fame, for publicity, for popularity.
    When it is from God, it is very different. The Holy Spirit does not copy, He is the originator so, He knows what He is going to tell each audience, all He needs is a sanctified instrument to use. If He chooses to repeat a particular sermon, there is a reason why, He is doing just that. When it is the Holy Spirit, it is so different, that’s why, sometimes, you can hear some preachers tell you that they prepared something different and the Holy Spirit is taking them a different part. We can’t predict exactly, what the Holy Spirit is going to teach but all we have to do is to prepare ourselves, our sermons based on His words and pray fervently seeking the face of the Lord while we are preparing the sermon and even after we have finished. Sometimes, the Lord will come to you in the dream and give you a bible passage and a sermon title to preach. He is Almighty God, and we must be connected to Him fully especially when we are doing His work. The Lord will give sermons and preach the sermons Himself through the vessel which is the Pastor. But when, a Pastor wants to do it himself, he will definitely run into trouble. Seek the face of the Lord in everything before, you go to present to the public.

    The Lord wrote the scripture, He knows the Scripture, He is Almighty, He can preach a full sermon with or without preparation through any individual that He has assigned for the task. Think about it, the apostles of old, didn’t have the opportunities we have today, most of them didn’t go to theology schools etc but they were ready to preach in and out of season. I mean, someone like Paul that spent most of his ministry life in jail, locked up in the worst of worst conditions sometimes in serious pains from serious beatens without treatment of course…. How did he prepare his sermons in pains. Most probably, he didn’t, but he stayed in prayers all the time and the Holy Spirit was the one that did all the work through him. That’s why, his ministry has great impact in our lives today. The other apostles faced the same predicaments, sometimes running from city to city. What time do they have to prepare their sermons, most probably non but they let the Holy Spirit do the work through them. Paul said, no one taught him the bible. Jesus did by himself. That same God is working with us, just the same way that He did with the apostles of old but the apostles of old stayed in constant communication with the Lord.

    That’s just the key….The Holy Spirit is the worker living inside of us. No matter how much we prepare our sermons, the Holy Spirit can change it just a few minutes before someone mounts the pulpit. Every preacher should focus more on studying the bible and letting the Lord Jesus give them sermon titles, in that way, they will not worry about preaching other peoples sermons. It is good to consult other resources to help your individual ministry but don’t spend spend 99% of your time reading books written by fellow man than reading the bible. The bible is the best teacher and should be the main focus for sermon preparation and preaching.

  • Daniel Isah

    Brethren, I really appreciate your comments, contributions and way
    forward regarding the sermon preparation and delivery. The bottom line
    of it is that I pray that the Holy Spirit will lead us to do the right
    thing at the right time so that the souls the message will touch will be
    to His glory in Jesus name!

  • Mickey Allen Johnson

    What if you preached a sermon that was written by Charles H. Spurgeon or George Whitefield and you studied the text and your exegesis led you to the same conclusions as what these great preachers said, and you informed your congregation that this sermon was preached by C.H.S. or G.W. – would this be wrong? I don’t think so. I think you would be honoring the Gospel and these great men of God.

    • Mickey Allen Johnson

      But to use the work of others and not give them their due credit, I do believe would be extremely wrong.

      • http://www.hbcharlesjr.com/ H.B. Charles Jr.

        Fully agree.

    • http://www.hbcharlesjr.com/ H.B. Charles Jr.

      Mickey, I think you are absolutely right. If there is something you have dug up that will clarify the truth and edify your people, I think you are obligated to share it. But you should be honest about the source of it. I don’t think there is anything wrong with that at all.

  • Kathryn RandombyGodsdesignonpu

    To be a good preacher one must be a good animal and every animal is unique as in his or her personality. The congregation or audience to whom he speaks is unique. If the preacher is under the anointing of the Holy Spirit, he or she should be able to use a prepared sermon by either himself or another Holy Spirit filled preacher, and the Word of God shall not return void. Since the author of this article ended up preaching basically the same sermon as a previous preacher and there had been no collaboration, that leaves me with the conclusion that that particular WORD needed to be heard again by that same congregation and the Holy Spirit caused this to happen. I don’t call it stealing when one uses someone else’s sermon or a prepared sermon, and this practice did not just being with the internet age. Pastors have been preaching other pastor’s sermons forever, and some denominations and some church groups issue published sermons to be preached throughout their group so that everyone is getting the same WORD or message at the same time irregardless of their location. What is more offensive to me is preacher style or personality plagiarism,. i.e., whooping and hollering the same way as another preacher, following after how everyone else is communicating, and using the same catch phrases and cliches. A preacher can be to thine own self and unique personality be true and use a prepared by someone else’s or their own prepared message done at a different church or time period ago and be authentic and true. God calls different types of people to preach so that all may hear the Word and believe because people more often than not will “hear” someone with whom they have a connection to or preference of the personality and life’s experience of the preacher, they have something in common. So let’s stop personality plagiarism from the pulpit and not worry so much about textual or sermon plagiarism, it’s been around forever and not stealing, it’s called replicate and duplicate, consider it a compliment if done to one of your sermons, and efficiency if you use one already prepared.

  • Le Pew

    all these comments have caused me to question so much now. I mean, I never thought of the pulpit messages as being territorial with a concern for showmanship except for maybe a few bruised apples

  • Wendell Hicks

    This issue is one that really needs to be addressed. In the age of YouTube and other social media, it can be very tempting for an unprepared preacher to use these tools to form sermons rather that sincere Godly inspiration. We need to understand what God has called us to and understand that with the call comes responsibility…a responsibility of preparedness.

  • Lee Michael Grzywinski

    I’ve borrowed illustrations that I have read or heard with a few changes to fit the situation, and I use quotes and always give credit. I have not taken someone else’s sermon to use as my own, but I do not think I would have a problem with someone stealing mine, which leads me to wonder how others would feel about being the “victim” of pulpit theft? Thoughts?

  • D. Keith Bonner

    I think what makes some ministers cavalier about the idea of taking another man’s work into the pulpit is websites that tell ministers to freely use their material and books of sermons that can be purchased online or at bookstores. When I first began preaching, I received a book of sermons by a noted theologian. Honestly, at that time, his material was too advanced for me to understand. Now, I read his work on certain passages I study for myself. When I put my manuscript together, it is never a complete copy of his or any other man’s sermon. In fact, sometimes I may use their research to provoke a thought that sends me in a totally different direction but arriving at the same junction. I always give credit when I churn butter from foreign farms. In my opinion, one should never have the audacity to use another man’s work. If we take the time, we will discover there is joy in the journey of taking a passage apart limb by limb, word for word, and going through the butterflies of meditation while God solidifies His application of that text for us. It’s lazy to preach another man’s work. It’s lovely to know you’re preaching what you’ve prepared. Dr. Earl Leslie Bledsoe say’s “When you find where God has gifted you, work the hell out of it!” Frankly, sometimes it’s hell getting to an understanding of the writer’s intent, but man oh man, in that eureka moment when God drops the scales from our eyes and we see it for what it is!!!! GLORY!!!! After all, God called us not to recite but research. Paul in 2 Timothy 2:15 says “Study…” I do believe we all use another man’s thoughts and ideas in EVERY sermon, but as Pastor Charles say’s “milk a lot of cows but church your own butter.” Sorry, no bibliography. LOL.

    • D. Keith Bonner

      That is CHURN not CHURCH your own butter!

  • Edward L. Smith

    Great post, thank you for your thoughts

  • http://www.facebook.com/mattwoodley77 Matt Woodley

    I liked the perspective in this article. And I love the line “Milk a lot of cows. But churn your own butter.” There is so much we can learn from reading other people’s sermons, but when we don’t do the hard work of meditating on the text, praying the text into our own life, wrestling with how God is speaking to us in the text, exegeting the text, we miss out on some incredible opportunities so see God work in our hearts. And the fruit of all that hard work will definitely produce more fruit in our people.

    • Derec

      And the fruit of all that hard work will definitely produce more fruit in our people.

      Good thought by the way …

      plagiarism detector

  • Minister Sanford

    Pastor Charles,
    As a new minister! I really appreciated your comments about plagiarism. Needless to say, as a minister who doesn’t get to preach a lot, there is great pressure to deliver substance whenever we speak. I have found it very difficult to use any portion of the work of others because it doesnt seem to “feel right” in my spirit and doesnt fit my speaking style. Though it takes lots of hard work to prepare, nothing beats the original work that God gives through the Holy Spirit.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jeffery.ferrell Jeffery Ferrell

    I have this one confession, I was once a thief, but now I steal no more!

  • http://www.facebook.com/easylou Barney Lewis

    It’s ok to take my switch and chase the devil with it. You may be able to catch him and beat him back to hell!

  • Le Pew

    Does it really matter? I dont feel that it should somehow be some kind of theological contest. Hopefully, those ministers who feel they have to resort to procuring sermons and borrowing others’ oratorical style and homilies will over time develop if it is TRULY God’s will.
    His Word will stand forever…Isaiah

  • Robert Earl Houston

    I’ve been in this situation. At a convention, one of the speakers preached my sermon directly in front of me, verbatim (with small changes). However, I remembered something that the old preachers used to say, “once you put it out there it’s public domain.” I have a sermon service online, as you know, however, for me, I prefer to write fresh sermons. I’ve been at my church for almost four years and I’ve NEVER had a repeat sermon. I like to exercise my theological muscles too much for that. WHW used to have a saying “dig your own well.”