3 Reasons Pastors and ‘Authors’ Should Never Plagiarize

This post originally appeared on The Gospel Coalition.

What’s the difference between a pizza and a seminarian? A pizza can easily feed a family of five.

I never thought that joke was funny. However, when we first moved to seminary, it was definitely true for us. With three kids younger than 4 and a host of bills, I was in desperate need of a job. I started working the 4 a.m. shift at a local grocery store to make ends meet. A few months in, I received a call from a pastor of a large, growing church who asked if we could meet after service to discuss a possible job opening. I was elated.

As I listened to him preach that evening, I was admittedly distracted while I should have been worshiping through the hearing of God’s Word. Instead, I was dreaming about the possibility of working for this man and the great opportunity it could be for our family.

I stayed after the service and met him in the back of the sanctuary. He asked me to share my testimony, asked questions about my family and the standard “where do you see yourself in five years?” Next, he told me what every young, aspiring pastor dreams of hearing from a headline speaker. He said he’d read some posts from my blog and was impressed with my writing ability. I was swooning . . . until he extended me a tentative offer.

He asked if I would be interested in being his ghostwriter.

I asked what that meant. The pastor explained that I would write blog posts, conference papers, and work on book projects for him. After this, he would look over my work, make small edits as needed, and put his name on it. Unsure of how to respond, I just stood there staring at him with a blank look on my face.

Without thinking, I blurted out, “I’m not sure I understand what you’re asking me.” He commented that ghostwriting was a common practice for pastors in his sphere of influence and rehearsed a litany of well-known pastors who supposedly use ghostwriters. He closed his pitch by saying it was an honor I was even being asked, and he encouraged me to chew on it for a few days before giving him a response.

My head was spinning, and my stomach was in knots. I thanked him for his time, told him I would get back to him shortly, and walked silently to the car, where my wife and kids were waiting. I was thrilled at the possibility of not waking up at 2:30 a.m. five days a week to sort through rotting vegetables, dairy, and meat products. But ghostwriting? A week later, I politely declined the position, confident that—despite his claims that this was standard fare—he was the exception and not the rule.

I was wrong.

I reached out to a contact in the Christian-publishing industry to ask: Is this normal? He replied that it is and that he doesn’t like it either.

I used to imagine pastors sitting in their studies after an hour on their knees, begging God to open the eyes of their heart, hugging their yellow legal pad and their Greek New Testament, laboring into the night to put together a message for Sunday morning. That bubble had burst.

Over the next few years, I was approached by a writing firm to perform similar services, and on multiple occasions, I have been offered thousands of dollars to write or complete doctoral dissertations. In all of this, I wondered if maybe this is just the new normal. It could be that I’m too idealistic. Perhaps I’m the weaker brother. Or maybe I’m not. Ultimately, what he was asking was to take credit for someone else’s work. Let’s call that what it is: plagiarism.

I have chewed on this issue for the last six years and want to offer some thoughts on the matter. Here are three reasons I think plagiarism is wrong and should never be practiced in the church.

1. Plagiarism Doubts God’s Power

After Peter and John were arrested for proclaiming the name of Jesus, they stood and gave testimony to the assembled Jewish leaders that salvation exists in no one else. How did their accusers respond? Luke tells us:

Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they were astonished. And they recognized that they had been with Jesus. (Acts 4:13)

God’s power still echoes through these earthen vessels. We should preach with the hopes that those who hear will be astonished, recognizing that we, too, have been with Jesus. Plagiarism squanders God’s promise to be with us always and exposes that we believe we need to fend for ourselves.

Stealing the work of others insinuates that he will not give us the words of life for the nourishment of his church. It questions the calling, unction, and gifting of the Spirit in our lives. Plagiarism doubts God’s power to work in and through us for his purposes.

2. Plagiarism Refuses to Boast in Weakness

Pastors often feel crushed by the constant pressure to perform. The number-one reason people usually give for leaving their church is that they “aren’t being fed.” With enough sobriety to know they aren’t the next John the Baptist, John Chrysostom, or John Piper, some pastors look to upgrade their ammunition by raiding someone else’s armory.

This is a travesty.

Presuming enough of a sense of calling to stand in God’s pulpit, but not enough to believe he’s gifted us to use it, plagiarism convinces us that God’s church is built on the strong and not through the weak. It covets the abilities of others while embracing the lie that God’s been withholding something from us. Plagiarism operates under the premise that our ability to articulate profoundly and uncover penetrating new insights in the Scriptures somehow adds something to the potency and persuasiveness of the gospel message.

God’s grace is sufficient, and his power is made perfect through our lack of words, mental prowess, busyness, and lack of confidence. If we are faithful with our five talents, we will hear the same resounding “Well done, good and faithful servant! Enter into the joy of your master” as the pastor with ten (Matt. 25:21).

3. Plagiarism Fails to Give Honor Where Honor is Due

I knew one pastor who began “preaching” a sermon by saying, “Now, this is not original to me.” Then he proceeded to read an entire sermon written by someone else verbatim, feeling as though he’d covered his bases. The sermon he was reading, of course, was written by a famous pastor who employed a team of writers. The irony is that his sermon also began with the words, “Now, this is not original to me.”

While you are called to be all things to all people, you can’t be all things and all people. The church, not the Christian, constitutes the body of Christ. It requires each part working correctly to make the entire body grow (cf. Eph. 4:16). While I think many pastors will heartily preach this on Sundays, some struggle in their heart of hearts to grasp that “the body does not consist of one member but of many” (1 Cor. 12:14).

Plagiarism believes that giving credit means losing credibility. It diminishes the efforts of some to build the platform of one. It’s like swinging the bat with two hands for additional power, then hiding the left behind the back as we lift the right into the air for booming applause. Plagiarism violates the second greatest commandment to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31). Indeed, plagiarism is a kind of inverse gospel: It considers oneself as better than others.

Instead, the logic of the gospel should move us to celebrate others, prompting us to pay “respect to whom respect is owed” and “honor to whom honor is owed” (Rom. 13:7). Paul is so serious on this point that he ensures even his amanuensis, Tertius, gets credit for penning the letter to the Romans (Rom. 16:22). If you need a rule of thumb, here it is: Err on the side of showing honor, knowing that “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together” (1 Cor. 12:26).

Parcel of Sins

Like paying your bills with a credit card, putting your name on the work of another’s may alleviate the immediate pressure of a closing deadline, but it utterly ignores the negative dividend it accrues. Plagiarism promises to save us time and garner the approval of men. However, when exposed—and in this digital age, it will be exposed—plagiarism disqualifies the perpetrator, hurts the family, confuses the parishioner, and taints the collective Christian witness.

Plagiarism is a sin. In fact, it’s a parcel of sins: pride, dishonesty, theft (even if paid for), covetousness, and collusion. Plagiarism operates in darkness under the auspices of light. Most importantly, it dishonors the God whom we claim to serve. Plagiarism is never worth it.