Monday, August 9, 2010

A Superfluity of Naughtiness: Plagiarism and Pastoral Fraud – Part I

”So then, men ought to regard us as servants of Christ and as those entrusted with the secret things of God. Now it is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful” (1 Cor. 4:1,2).

With these verses from 1 Corinthians 4, we begin a new topic: how the practice of pastoral plagiarism defrauds the local congregation of the high calling that Christ’s minister is expected to carry out. No greater trust can be given to a man than for God to place on his shoulders the responsibility of standing in the place of Christ to serve the people of Christ with the Word of Christ and the Sacraments of Christ. The Office of the Holy Ministry is, above all, a position of trust – that God should trust a man to represent Christ faithfully to his people, and that the people of God should trust that man to represent Christ faithfully to them. In this matter of trustworthiness, more than any other, “the overseer must be above reproach” (1 Tim. 3:2).

Pastors who Plagiarize: An act of infidelity toward the Preaching Office
In the discussion that follows, two separate issues will be treated: (1) the fraudulent nature of plagiarism itself, and the meaning of this fraud within the context of the Office of Representational or Public Ministry, and (2) the added offense of plagiarizing sectarian sources. Today, we discuss the first part of issue (1): the fraudulent nature of plagiarism itself.

The fraudulent nature of plagiarism

As we live in a litigious society, and as publishers and owners of original works have become more and more aggressive in their efforts to protect intellectual property, the issue of plagiarism seems to be most frequently equated with the fear of copyright infringement, or, more accurately, the fear of the consequences of copyright infringement. Indeed, copyright infringement is taken very seriously these days, especially as the issue of illegal recordings has drawn attention to the wider issue of intellectual property. People all over the country have been caught with contraband recordings and forced to pay thousands of dollars in fines for each recording, and for each time a recording was improperly shared with others. Regular folks have been charged with felonies and imprisoned, others have been saddled with hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines. But the legality of plagiarism in the secular world is really secondary to our consideration of it. Certainly, where plagiarism also constitutes copyright infringement, the issue of Christian obedience to secular authorities is part of the picture. Yet, the laws of secular authority are not our starting point. Not everything legal is moral, after all, and not everything moral is legal. The prime issues in our consideration of plagiarism are of ethical nature: the acts of misrepresentation and fraud.

To “plagiarize” is defined in Webster’s Unabridged Third New International Dictionary as follows:
    vt: to steal and pass off as one’s own (the ideas and work of another): use (a created production) without crediting the source... vi: to commit literary theft: present as new and original an idea or product derived from an existing source.1
Notice that the charge of plagiarism in an ethical context is independent of permission from a copyright holder. Theft in such a context is not necessarily stealing from the creator; it is also partially stealing the identity of a work’s creator from the plagiarist’s audience, and assigning it to himself. Thus, it also constitutes fraud. defines plagiarism accordingly:
    Plagiarism is an act of fraud. It involves both stealing someone else's work and lying about it afterward.2
Fraud, therefore, is another term that needs to be defined. Webster again:
    n 1 a: an instance or an act of trickery or deceit esp. when involving misrepresentation: an act of deluding ... : as (1) fraud in fact: an intentional misrepresentation, concealment, or nondisclosure for the purpose of inducing another in reliance upon it to part with some valuable thing belonging to him or to surrender a legal right: a false representation of a matter of fact by words or conduct, by false or misleading allegations, or by the concealment of what should have been disclosed that deceives or is intended to deceive another so he shall act upon it to his legal injury – called also actual fraud (2) or fraud in equity: an act, omission to act, or concealment by which one person obtains an advantage against conscience over another or which equity or public policy forbids as being prejudicial to another (as an act of violation of a relationship of trust and confidence) – called also equitable fraud, legal fraud... b: a means used in trickery : a dishonest stratagem or a spurious thing passed off as genuine... 2: the quality of being deceitful : the disposition to deceive... 3: the condition of being defrauded or beguiled 4 a: a person who is not what he pretends to be... b: one who defrauds .3
A plagiarist is one who knowingly quotes or uses a source other than himself while concealing the identity of that source. The result of this theft is misrepresentation and fraud: that is, the plagiarist’s audience concludes that he is the author or creator of the quoted or used material (misrepresentation) and uses this conclusion as a basis for trust in the plagiarist (fraud). He takes on an identity that is not his – that of the original author – and uses that identity against the consciences of those who hear or read his work. That is the seriousness of plagiarism.

In our next post in this series: The Impact of Misrepresentation and Fraud as it emanates from the Office of Representational, or Public, Ministry.


  1. Babcock, P. et. al. (Ed.). (2002). Webster’s Third New International Dictionary of the English Language, Unabridged. Springfield: Merriam-Webster.
  3. See note Footnote 1.


Anonymous said...

Here's my problem: those definitions of plagiarism all include stealing the work of someone else. I believe that's where some among us find a loophole. What if it is information that is freely available, and is meant to be used by others? What if it is material that is purchased to be used by others? That doesn't seem to fit these definitions of plagiarism.

I have heard a man speak about the time he spent "planning a series," when I could find it all free for download. Sure sounded like deceit to me (even without considering the orthodoxy of the source). But I'd bet that it's excused (by some) because there was no theft - that material was given away, and used as the author intended it to be used.

Pastor Rik Krahn

Mr. Douglas Lindee said...

Plagiarism may or may not be "theft from the creator." It is always theft from the plagiarist's audience.

Use of another person's term paper, whether it was purchased or made available for the purpose of plagiarism or not, still merits expulsion. Plagiarism or taking credit for another's work is considered by most employers to be a thieving of wages, meriting termination.

The only time sources don't ethically require citation is when the cited material is "common knowledge." For example, a Lutheran preacher is more than free to quote from the Small Catechism without attribution, as it is expected that his adult members have not only memorized the Small Catechism and know what it means, but will immediately recognize the words of the catechism, that they belong to the catechism, that they are not the speaker's/writer's original work. Again, the point of reference in the ethical consideration may or may not include the source cited, but it always includes the audience, against whom the misrepresentation and fraud is committed.

Anonymous said...

Doug (nice post) and Rik (greetings),

As I look at the definitions Doug provided, all of them focus on presenting something as your own work or product, when in fact it is not. The remedy therefore is to provide attribution. In other words (and setting aside for now the issue as to whether copying or utilizing a sermon series is such is a “good” thing), the issue of plagiarism can be made a non-issue simply by providing attribution.

So, let’s assume that we get beyond plagiarism per se (there is copying, but there is also appropriate attribution) and let’s assume there are no copyright issues. In that case, what are your thoughts regarding the use of another’s sermon (or significant portions thereof)? And, how about re-using one’s own sermon?

Now I can see a few, very clear, legitimate uses of another’s sermon text, such as in the case of an emergency that prevented the pastor from preparing his own sermon – and as a result, with appropriate attribution, he uses the sermon of another orthodox pastor. But, other than in very rare circumstances, such as that just mentioned, I struggle to see a justifiable use of substantial portions of the text of another.

That said, I do see a difference between the text itself and aspects like the ideas in, organization and/or outline of another’s sermon (for example, the themes in a sermon series provided by the Synod or the organization of Lenten sermon by someone like Hoenecke).

Again, assuming attribution, what are your thoughts about such? (Note that legally, there likely would be no issue (ideas are not copyrightable and if public and not patentable, cannot be owned). Likewise, so long as there is attribution, there would be no plagiarism.)

Finally, what are your thoughts about a pastor re-using his own sermon text and/or the ideas, organization and outline of his own sermon?

With best regards,
Harvey Dunn

Lisette Anne Lopez said...

"Finally, what are your thoughts about a pastor re-using his own sermon text and/or the ideas, organization and outline of his own sermon?"

I once had this pastor (not my current pastor), who asked me while I was on vacation, attending another WELS church- he would ask me for the bulletin. He wanted to see what the other WELS pastor was using for his service on Sundays. I never thought anything of it, and I do not recall my pastor using the other pastor's sermon or ideas.
Anyway, I can think of many messages Jesus our Savior gave to the Apostles. He told them over and over what was going to happen to Him; how He would die. I guess if a pastor wants to reuse his sermons, maybe it is because they are useful to the congregation and a good reminder for himself and his flock. After being in the ministry for years and finally retiring, I don't think there would be one pastor who could say, "I never repeated God's Word."
God's Word is a lifeline. We live by it, we need to be reminded of it all the time because we forget it... That's why God Himself repeats Himself. Christ is our only end and our only beginning.

Mr. Douglas Lindee said...

Mr. Dunn,

Thanks for posting. Some of the questions you ask will be addressed briefly in our next post, and in the one following that. Assuming attribution, and absence of copyright infringement, the issue of plagiarism as theft of a source's identity, and the misrepresentation and fraud against one's audience that results from it, disappears. However, this does not necessarily mean that misrepresentation and fraud disappear when attribution is provided, and copyright infringement is avoided. The nature of the Divine Call that the Pastor accepts and executes is itself one of Representation, predicated on the unique gifting and preparation for the tasks of preaching and teaching, and of maintaining integrity to sound Scripture doctrine. This gifting and preparation is expected to be his own, and he is expected to carry out this call on this basis. Pastor's however are people. They have difficulties like the rest of us. An exceptionally busy schedule may force a faithful pastor to read from one of Luther's postils one Sunday instead of write his own sermon. Family difficulties or health issues may make such necessary for, say, a month. At some point, however, a faithful congregation will need to come to decide whether a pastor continues to have the gifting, preparedness, faithfulness, or dedication to fulfill the expectations of his Office. For the pastor who habitually parrots other pastors, and cannot write his own original sermons, he simply does not fulfill the qualifications of a pastor, and, in my honest opinion, must be removed.

As for the re-use of one's own sermon, or spoken/written works, APA, for example, requires that an author or speaker publicly attribute himself, whether he is quoting his own published material, a private email, or even his diary. In most contexts, I would personally consider this excessive. Nevertheless, this demonstrates that the real issue isn't necessarily theft from the owner of a source, but theft from one's audience and the resulting misrepresentation and fraud that is committed against them. In the case of the pastor substantially re-using his own material, even if everyone knows that he is reusing it, I think that the points above apply. The point is that a congregation expects that a pastor will grow in different areas in his faith life, as the Holy Spirit continues to prepare him for His work, and this this continued preparation will re-color his interpretation of a text. The sermon will be different because the pastor has changed and interfaces with the text differently. Where does this break down? Perhaps in the case of elderly pastors, or "actively retired" pastors who continue preaching old material. Whether or not they continue to grow in their faith substantially enough to alter their perceptions from forty or fifty years of preaching, I don't know. A case could be made either way, in my opinion -- and I'm not about to burden them with the question. On the other hand, if a mid-career pastor can do nothing other than repeat the sermons he wrote fresh out of seminary, not only does he have a problem, but his congregation has a decision to make: does this man continue to posses the qualifications of a pastor?

While related, I see these issues as quite separate from the issue of plagiarism, and concern priarily the Doctrine of the Call and qualifications for the pastoral Office.

My Thoughts...

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