Culture At Large

Plagiarism in the church: how widespread?

Andy Rau

A Catholic theologian has been charged with that most sinister of academic crimes: plagiarism. According to the Boston Herald report, Rev. Richard McBrien is being accused of plagiarizing a Boston Globe story.

As some are pointing out, the actual accusation (made by a conservative watchdog group) looks pretty flimsy and politically-motivated. Nevertheless, the story got me thinking about plagiarism and the church.

With the rise of the internet, plagiarism is now ridiculously easy to do, and if you're a pastor hard-pressed to get your sermons written on time, the temptation to lift ideas (and sometimes entire sermons) from other sources must be immense. (And let's not forget that the line between stealing a sermon from somebody and simply incorporating their ideas into your own sermon is often pretty blurry.)

Not surprisingly, this problem has been around for a while now. Terry Mattingly wrote about a column about the issue a few years back:

The temptations are timeless, but the Internet has raised waves of new ethical questions....

But is it plagiarism to use an outline or text the pastor has legally obtained--even purchased--from one of the thousands of preaching sites that have sprung up online? Is it acceptable to use a respected site such as SermonNotes.com without telling the congregation? What about quoting from the anonymous inspirational stories that arrive daily in every pastor's email? Is it wrong if a megachurch pastor has support staff members who do "ghost" work as researchers and writers?

Does a preacher have to reveal each and every source of inspiration?

Mattingly's mention of ghostwriting as an ethically murky practice caught my eye, as it's something I've often wondered about. Long before the advent of the world wide web, Christianity Today was writing about the question of Christian ghostwriting and the faint hint of plagiarism that lurks around it.

The Every Thought Captive blog recently posted about pastoral plagiarism as well, suggesting that plagiarism is much more commonplace in the church than most churchgoers might guess.

It's a tricky problem, because while some instances of plagiarism are clearly unethical, Christianity also has a long and important tradition of sharing and building upon others' knowledge and insights. Is this an issue you've encountered at your church or elsewhere? Do you think this is a relatively uncommon vice, or is it as widespread as some of these writers suggest?

Topics: Culture At Large, News & Politics, Justice