Scott M. Gibson
Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008. Paper, 119 pages.
Rare is the pastor who hasn’t gotten himself into a situation like this: It’s been one of those weeks when everything piled on-funerals, committees, other speaking engagements. The week is flying by, Sunday is almost here, and you haven’t even begun preparing the sermon you’ll soon be expected to preach. With a shelf full of great sermon books and an Internet packed with compelling messages, you ask yourself, Wouldn’t it be OK to borrow one of those sermons and preach it?
Every preacher has been there, but today there’s an additional angle to the question of using the sermons of others: preachers who invite you to use their work as your own. How can that be called plagiarism? you ask yourself.
In his new book Should We Use Someone Else’s Sermon? Gordon-Conwell Seminary preaching professor Scott Gibson explores the history of sermonic plagiarism, evaluates the current environment and offers helpful counsel to pastors who wonder where the ethical lines should be drawn.
It’s certainly not a new issue, Gibson relates. He tells us that “King James of England was so outraged by the plagiarism of preachers that he made a law requiring preachers to give at least one original sermon a month.” Long before, Augustine had argued that those who lacked the skills to write effective sermons should preach the messages written by others. Luther also encouraged his young preachers to use his sermons in the pulpit, though “he still wanted them to work with the text.”
Our goal is not to be original in all we say, Gibson asserts. We all stand on the shoulders of others and draw on their insights and models. He shares Haddon Robinson’s definition of what plagiarism actually is: “In a world of preaching, a pastor who takes sermons from other preachers-word for word-without giving credit is guilty of plagiarism. That is stealing what is not yours.” For Gibson, “plagiarism has less to do with actions than with attitude. It has everything to do with taking responsibility.”
Preachers, the author says, have a responsibility to “maintain a trust with God, their congregation, and themselves.” The key is to be responsible with the gifts God has provided. Plagiarism is “squandering the gifts that God gives to each preacher.”
Gibson describes various reasons why plagiarism takes place, along with excuses preachers use and ways preachers can guard against the temptation to use the sermons of others as if they were their own work. He also provides a candid discussion of steps to take if you have been caught in the act of plagiarizing. (As Gibson shares, more than a few pastors in recent years have faced such accusations.)
“This little primer,” says Gibson, “is intended to encourage preachers to be faithful with their God-given gifts and to use them to their utmost. When we once again practice the priorities of what it means to be a pastor, we will not lose sight of our responsibilities in preaching, and we will not plagiarize.”
This brief volume is not meant to provide a comprehensive treatment of the subject, and it includes few of the counter-arguments that have been offered by preachers who take a different view. Nevertheless, it is a helpful resource that will enable preachers to better think through many of the issues they face when tempted to take someone else’s sermon and preach it as their own.