A Christian’s Perspective on Plagiarism

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Aristocratic Romans began education early in their children with the use of private tutors.[1] Historian Robert Wilken goes on to explain that even a certain “style of speech” was essential to embrace early on so that there was no “style” to unlearned later in life.

To give a sense of the aristocratic educational processes of the mid-first century AD, Wilken writes:

Roman education consisted chiefly of the study of rhetoric, the skill an enterprising young man would need most for a life in the law courts or a position in the civil bureaucracy. Grammar, recitation, analysis of classical literary texts, imitation of the great styles.[2]

Such learning would include tremendous repetition.

That is probably why the Latins are attributed with the old saying: Repetitio mater studiorum estTranslation: “Repetition is the mother of all learning.”[3] After enough repetition, imitation is bound to appear – intended or otherwise.

It would stand to reason that at some point imitation must give rise to personal stylistic variations and the development of a unique voice. Still, one might hear the echo of a common saying: “Imitation is the sincerest [form] of flattery” (QuotationsPage.com).

Nevertheless, not all imitation is flattery is it? Especially the kind of imitation which goes by the name of plagiarism. Dictionary.com denotes the term as:

[A]n act or instance of using or closely imitating the language and thoughts of another author without authorization and the representation of that author’s work as one’s own, as by not crediting the original author.

Unfortunately, despite the constant emphasis on academic responsibility, plagiarism appears in our educational institutions and academic organizations.

With the time of the year upon us where educational pursuits are reinvigorated by the rush of “back to school,” we thought it timely to address an issue which affects the school house as well as the church house.

The Issue of Plagiarism

If a dictionary definition does not bring home the problem of plagiarism, perhaps synonyms will provide some focus and sharpness to our understanding. Phrases such as “piracy,” counterfeiting,” and “passing off” (Dictionary.com) should be pointed enough to stress that this act is “literary theft” (Thesaurus.com).

A few years ago, ABC Primetime’s Charles Gibson spoke to many college students regarding cheating and plagiarism. One student interviewed said, “The real world is terrible […] People will take other people’s materials and pass it on as theirs. I’m numb to it already, I’ll cheat to get by.”[4]

It is unfortunate when Christians use equally transparently flawed reasons for intellectual dishonesty. The Christian ought to have an aversion to plagiarism out of sheer principle that we ought not to be thieves or robbers (Exod 20:15; 1 Pet 4:15).

This ethic would extend beyond physical property to include intellectual property as well. “Sticky fingers” is not supposed to be a part of the “worthy” calling of God (Col 1:10; Eph 4:1). And yet, it is no longer a shock to this author when it occurs “even in religious circles.”[5]

It is an amazing thing that some operate under the impression that they can provide a sort of “wave-of-the-hand” acknowledgment to another’s work, while copying line-after-line of material, without the common use of appropriate grammatical devices which indicate the identity of the real author.[6]

The goal to expand the knowledge of humanity is never deterred by documenting the sources used and borrowed – “whether facts, opinions, or quotations.”[7]

While doing research on dinosaurs, I stumbled upon a so-called hi-profile preacher and publisher who blatantly took the words of their collaborators only to claim those “words” to be the mutual property of their ministry. Meanwhile, they fail to forget that they did not do the heavy lifting of the research nor organize of the wording of the material. Further, they seem to disregard the fact that most publications are archived so that it becomes clear whose words were penned first.

There are, however, times when it may seem impossible to attribute individual concepts one has come to believe or understand due to considerable collaboration with others. We ought to acknowledge the fluid elements of learning and idea shaping. I always appreciate the “Acknowledgements” page at the beginning of the book where the author intends to show an indebtedness to their colleagues and friends for the stimulation and fertile ground where many of the ideas they have written about were seeded and planted.

So Why Plagiarize?

I suppose there are many reasons for the seductive temptation to take the words of another to employ them as though they are yours: need, laziness, lack of creativity, tight schedules, arrogance, etc. “Convenience, quick turn around and other elements are also factors,” says Jonathan Bailey, a victim of plagiarism.[8]

The action is, however, thuggish. It has been observed that “plagiarists chose their victims in much the same way and they often do so with much less skill than the common mugger chooses theirs.”[9] Would anyone, including a child of God, want to be considered a “mugger”?

There are two New Testament terms of significance here.[10] (a) Thieves (kleptes) operate by means of “fraud and in secret”; likewise, (b) robbers (lestes) obtain what is not theirs “by violence and openly.” The plagiarist resembles both of these terms.[11]

Joseph Gibaldi, in the MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers, observes:

Using another person’s ideas, information, or expressions without acknowledging that person’s work constitutes intellectual theft. Passing off another person’s ideas, information, or expressions as your own to get a better grade or gain some other advantage constitutes fraud.[12]

It has been a painful thing to read the work of fellow classmates, and the work of others, only to discover that the words and research they employ are not their own – but that of others.

Not only has “intellectual theft” and “fraud” occurred, but blatant deception as well. Since liars, the greedy, and thieves will not be welcomed in that eternal abode (1 Cor 6:10, Rev 21:8), why plagiarize? There is no spiritual advantage. Frankly, there is no advantage at all.

What about the Sermon?

I was in the assembly of a congregation when a young preacher was “working” through his lesson. Then, the wording began to sound very familiar. I immediately looked for a pen and something to write on and jotted down what I suspected was his next few points. Sure enough, I had read this sermon before and apparently so had this young preacher. Was he plagiarizing? If I’m going to be a “stickler” about it, then yes.

However, there seems to be a sort of allowance among the preaching community for sharing and using the outlines and even content of another preacher. Yet, we must be careful. Gary Holloway shares a few anecdotal examples of “stolen sermons.” He introduces his segment of the practice among southern preachers with the following words:

Sermons, like most speeches, are not often copyrighted. Preachers felt no moral compunction in “borrowing” sermon ideas, outlines, and sometimes entire sermons verbatim from other preachers.[13]

Holloway recounts two stories of famous Restoration Movement preachers of the early 20th century (H. Leo Boles and N. B. Hardeman) who happened to be visiting a congregation when their sermons were being presented verbatim by the local preacher.

Despite the cordial responses and humorous reactions by the original speakers,[14] Holloway footnotes these anecdotal stories with a concern. A concern which I share:

[T]heir humor is based on a serious issue. Although stealing sermons was a common and accepted practice, there is an underlying sense of the unethical nature of the practice that provides the humor in this situation. These young men got caught doing what most preachers did surreptitiously [i.e., covertly, secretly].[15]

For preachers and evangelists, then, plagiarism can present itself to be a true danger. I sympathize. If I only consider the math of my own preaching ministry, then at the minimum I speak about 52 weeks a year – that’s every week.

I speak, at the minimum, three times a week before an assembly 52 weeks a year. That means I present spiritual content designed to stimulate, provide a reason for meditation, and to ignite action approximately 156 times a year, 13 times a month, 3 times a week.

Most church goers do not realize the work that goes into just one of these messages. They can demand the energies of a small college term paper. Then multiply this three times a week, 13 times a month, 156 times a year. That’s is a lot of temptation to short-cut the content and plagiarize and ignore a moderate level of attribution for words or phrases which may be vital to the delivery of a sermon or message.

Here are a few guidelines that I follow and I share them here as benchmarks of genuine attribution in a field which it can be very hard to cite the source. These are in no order of importance, and they are benchmarks that I have put together over time.

  1. Remember that there is no copyright on truth. There is copyright protection for the presentation of that truth, but not on truth itself. Every preacher is influenced by the thoughts and studies of another. If you quote an author verbatim and at length introduce your quote with an attribution.
  2. When you make a linguistic argument, there is no need to cite every source which was consulted (nor the whole debate). Nor, should one make lexical lists of definitions for matters which are insignificant (I have heard one preacher spend over 10 minutes quoting lexicons over the definition of the word “cup”). If it is significant to the point of the lesson, refer by name the language tool being used and give the audience a sense of why that is important.
  3. When you follow a book, article, or commentary’s flow of thought then at the beginning of the message an acknowledgment to the author would be ideal. However, it would be best if the preacher worked through the text on their own and found their own sense of the flow of thought of the passage before they ever consulted other authors.
  4. Keep track of your research and sources of information by footnoting or parenthetical references in an outline or manuscript of the sermon. Sometimes I share outlines with the assembly so they can follow along or so they can study the passage again later. I’ve been asked, “why do you have all the footnotes in your outlines?” My answer, “so the brethren will know I have thought through my message.”

No doubt some will disagree with some of my suggestions. I’m sure some will say that I have missed a few more benchmarks. Yet, the above will go a long way to preventing plagiarism in the pulpit. We already have the greatest message in the world, there is no need to hide how we frame our thoughts.

Concluding Thoughts

It may be argued that plagiarism is not the worst thing “out there.” One might be tempted to agree, but the practice of hijacking the words of another robs one of learning and personal development. More importantly, it reflects a sinful disposition which must be rejected.

The truth of the matter is that it is an ethically deficient habit which not only hurts others but also ruins the trustworthiness of intellectual thief. It is a tragedy that some either do not know the courtesy of citing where they learned their information, are shallow or too lazy to follow through with it. We strongly encourage our writing brethren and friends to refrain from literary theft.

For our friends who are in the spotlight we submit this brief warning from Wayne Jackson:

Every writer should remember this. Once he has compromised his status as a serious student and a researcher of integrity, he will forever be suspect. Whose material are we reading—his or someone else’s? It behooves the Christian to be honorable in all things.[16]

Indeed, Christians would do well to follow the words of the apostle Paul, “give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all” (Rom 12:17).

Sources

  1. Robert L. Wilken, The Christians as the Romans Saw Them (New Haven, Ct.: Yale University Press, 1984), 2.
  2. Wilken, Christians as the Romans Saw Them, 2.
  3. Amanda Moritz, “Repetition is the Mother of all Learning,” Brainscape.com.
  4. A Cheating Crisis in America’s Schools,” ABCNews.com.
  5. Wayne Jackson, “Hank Hanegraaff and the ‘Christian Research Institute’,” ChristianCourier.com.
  6. Jackson, “Hank Hanegraaff.”
  7. Joseph Gilbaldi, MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers, 6th ed. (N.Y.: Modern Language Association of America, 2003), 142. Cf. Wayne Jackson, 1997-2012, “Advice to Aspiring Writers,” ChristianCourier.com. Jackson writes, “I have observed some writers quote line after line—even consecutive paragraphs—from other authors with no credit given whatever. Or, sometimes significant portions of a writer’s material will be “borrowed”—word-for-word with no quotation marks—but with some sort of generic acknowledgment added at the end. Literary “plastic surgery” is unethical. One never detracts from his own scholarship by giving proper acknowledgment to those from whom he has learned.”
  8. Jonathan Bailey, “Why Plagiarism is not Flattery,” PlagiarismToday.com.
  9. Bailey, “Why Plagiarism.”
  10. See: Jovan Payes, “Such Were Some of You (5),” Livingstoncoc.wordpress.com.
  11. Richard C. Trench, Synonyms of the New Testament, 12th ed. (London: Trubner, 1894), 157.
  12. Gilbaldi, MLA Handbook, 66 (emphasis added).
  13. Gary Holloway, Saints, Demons; and Asses: Southern Preacher Anecdotes (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1989), 25.
  14. When a preacher saw H. Leo Boles in the assembly, he apologized from the pulpit. Boles responded, “That’s all right; the fellow I got it from said you can preach it too” (Holloway, Saints, Demons; and Asses, 26).
  15. Holloway, Saints, Demons; and Asses, 26.
  16. Wayne Jackson, “Ethical Guidelines for Writers,” ChristianCourier.com.
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