Avoiding Plagiarism in Preaching

dr. david olford Jan 11, 2022

What a privilege it is to be servants of the living God! How wonderful to be available for the service of the Lord!

Yes, ministry has its challenges, hardships, and problems but God is sufficient to see us through the various struggles we face.

Today, I want to address a matter that should not be a problem or a struggle, but it can be.

A friend of mine, who I hold in high esteem, recommended that I address the subject of plagiarism, especially in the preaching ministry.

These comments are by no means a thorough discussion of the subject, and therefore I write with some hesitation. But, I want to express a few thoughts that may be helpful.

I share these thoughts because we are a ministry that seeks to assist preachers and teachers of the Word of God, and we provide resources to help preachers fulfill their ministries.

Preachers, of course, are called to preach the Word of God and to do so accurately and purposefully in the power of the Holy Spirit.

Preachers are also called to preach with personal integrity and honesty.

For practical purposes, plagiarism is the use (actually the misuse) of someone else’s words in a sermon by claiming or implying that the words of someone else are your own.

What does this mean practically?

Plagiarism takes place when you are (knowingly) quoting someone else’s words as your own. This is dishonest if one is aware of what he is doing, and it is very unwise if the preacher is not aware of what he is doing.

The preacher should not hesitate to give the source of a key quotation that he has gained in study, an illustration that he has borrowed, or the direct “verbatim” use of someone else’s material, written, preached, or taught.

Just to clarify: a preacher may honestly develop a message that is similar to someone else’s message because they have been influenced by another message, but that is not plagiarism. Given the various mentors and helps a preacher may have had in the past, it is more than likely that at times messages will be similar to other messages. If opportunity allows in these instances, a reference could be made to the person of influence (out of respect).

I can use myself as an example. I have been deeply influenced by my father. There are phrases I use and a whole way of thinking that has been influenced by my father.  I don’t think it necessary to stop every time I say something to evaluate if I first heard this from my father or not. On the other hand, if I am reading one of his books, or listening to a sermon and I read or hear something I want to quote, I will attribute the quote to him. Even if I remember something my father said on a given occasion, and I am sure he said it, I will let people know this is something that he said.

It may be at times that you have a quotation or material you want to use, and you have forgotten the source. You can either choose not to use it, or just to say that you found this in your preparation and want to share it, but you don’t remember the source. It is not good to say this kind of thing often, and if possible it would be wise to re-discover the “author” of what you have shared.

People plagiarize trying to save time, or trying to add something to a message. In a copy-paste computer world, it is certainly easy to use other material and for the material to get lost in a sermon or document. Plagiarism by mistake happens and that can be corrected easily by a more careful use of material. The mistake also can be admitted and corrected.

Preachers can plagiarize because they think their message is not good enough as is it. On the other hand, plagiarism can be due to pride and a lack of willingness to let people know that you received help from others in the development of a message. This is both dishonest and unwise. People should know that you use good sources to strengthen a message. We are part of the Body of Christ, and we gain from the gifting and insights of others in Christ. Also, using the words and work of others (appropriately) at times does not erase the preacher’s need for and experience of the fullness and the anointing of the Holy Spirit. The authority of the preacher is based upon the Word of God and the Spirit of God. Using other material does not erase that authority nor personal originality.

Let me give a specific and relevant example. For years the Institute for Biblical Preaching has provided expanded sermon outlines as a resource for preachers. We have even given permission for the outline itself to be copied by the preacher and for the whole congregation. This assumes of course that the preacher wants to use the outline as is. These are the very outlines that we are making available on this website.

Why make these outlines available??

My father’s original burden was for the busy pastor/preacher who may struggle with shaping a message. The idea was and is to help the preacher by viewing the way a message outline and content can be developed. This “example” (my father provides) can be a help for the preacher’s own sermon development. My father used to call this “getting in the groove.” In other words, you get a sense of how to develop helpful sermon outlines that are true to the text and give clarity to a message.

My father was happy for people to use his material. He wasn’t concerned about receiving recognition for himself. He just wanted to help preachers preach the Word of God. Preachers can develop their own ideas from viewing how someone else developed an outline for a message.

What about plagiarism? If an outline by my father is to be used in full, then it would be appropriate and honest to “give credit” and to say in the simplest of ways that you are using or following Dr. Olford’s outline. Indeed, as I have mentioned, that is why we have given permission for the outlines to be copied for a congregation to follow as the preacher uses it. It may be sufficient in an informal context, and where my father isn’t known, simply to say that I am following an outline I found in my preparation and I am using it today. You could always tell people afterwards if they are interested in knowing who specifically made this outline. There is a “common sense” aspect to this issue related to the various contexts for preaching and teaching. But, due to the ways speech can be captured and reproduced, it is best these days to be clear and specific about sources you quote. 

Once a preacher departs from using and “quoting” an outline (as is) and real changes are made, then it just becomes a help in developing your own outline, which is not plagiarism. In fact, you would be misquoting someone else if you make meaningful changes. There is a judgement call involved in (even though not quoting directly) determining whether you need to state the help you received. If a preacher is consistently gaining help from a resource of a specific preacher/teacher/speaker/author, it would be appropriate to let the audience know. This is a matter of personal conviction and help to the congregation. I am not talking about mentioning every commentary or dictionary used in study for every message. But, when quoting from these sources, it is still appropriate to state the source.

We are living in tense and judgmental times. People have an opinion on everything and generally don’t mind sharing it. This matter of plagiarism (real or perceived) has become a big issue due to the vast array of media, and the access preachers have to other preachers’ sermons. Also, people in a congregation have the same access. The pressure on preachers to present “quality” sermons is often very real. Congregations can become demanding and their expectations are influenced by their knowledge of other preachers. But, rather than “caving in to” this pressure and plagiarizing, the preacher needs to be who God made him to be, and to use the gifting that God has given him.

The power in preaching comes from the Word of God and the Spirit of God. The task of the preacher is to proclaim truth from the text of Scripture as accurately and clearly as God enables and with application to the lives of the people listening. We depend before, during, and after preaching on the Holy Spirit for life change. Our “strength” is not ultimately in various quotations and materials that we use. Our strength is in God and His Word.

I recommend that the pastor/preacher discuss this with the leadership of the church, and even at a specific called church meeting. A pastor/preacher can explain to the congregation how he develops messages and some of the regular helps he uses. Why not? Let them know. Some of the regular translations, sources, and helps can be shared in this context instead of cluttering messages with unnecessary information. But, when it comes to quoting specifically and directly other’s materials or oral presentations, it should be the commitment of the preacher to be honest and respectful and make the audience aware of what you are doing.  

I hope this brief article will “do” a couple of things.

First, I hope it will free preachers to state their “direct quotations” and “accurately used materials of others” with confidence. I want to protect preachers from accusations and other problems that can emerge. 

Second, I hope that this matter of plagiarism can be discussed within the local church context so that the leaders in the church and the congregation sense the honesty and diligence of their preacher. I believe that most mature Christians just want to know that the preacher has studied the Word of God, and with prayer and preparation is ready to “rightly divide the Word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15).

Third, I want preachers to use good resources and helps if they are available. Many of our brothers and sister in Christ have limited resources, so we need to be grateful for the resources we have. 

Remember that help can be gained at various levels: the linguistic level, the historical-cultural level, the literary level, the syntactical level, the theological level, the homiletical level, the devotional level, and more. There is no need to constantly refer to resources that helped you in general ways to develop a message. But, when you are quoting in full a key statement, or using someone else’s illustration, or quoting and depending upon the conclusion of a thorough study of someone else, it is right and helpful to the audience to state your source clearly and as simply as possible. 

If you go online, you will see various “rules” given to guide in the use of materials written or authored by someone else. You may notice that there isn’t total agreement on these matters. So, preachers need to establish their own principles and parameters. If you are printing, publishing, or charging money for something you have said or written, then you need to be very careful to follow the specific disclosure and permission process in using other’s materials. That is very important and is standard practice in the publishing world.

We serve the Lord Christ. We do not want to give offense. We need to be faithful and honest in the way we communicate. So, this is an important matter. With a clear commitment to the appropriate use of sources, the preacher need not be intimidated by this issue of plagiarism. Let’s not give the Evil One another opportunity to cause conflict or shame due to the irresponsible and dishonest quoting of other’s words or works.

Here is a link to an article by James Emory White in the Church Leaders journal that may be of further help to you.

Meanwhile, “Preach the Word” (2 Tim. 4:2a).

Blessings to you,

David Olford

PS: Due to the controversial aspects of this subject right now, no part of this article should be copied or quoted without direct permission from David Olford.


50% Complete

Register as a Beta Tester to Access our Prototype Site