Stop Thief! (Should I Have Put That in Quotes?)

June 24, 2016

Students regularly ask me when and how to cite sources in their sermons. There is, of course, no easy, one-size-fits-all, black-and-white answer to their question.

As J. D. Greear points out,

The question of plagiarism in sermon preparation is rather tricky, primarily because we are interpreting a document (the Bible) which has been interpreted by thousands of people for the last 3000 years. Almost everything we say, especially relating to Christo-centric interpretation, Greek and Hebrew linguistics or historical context, comes from commentaries and other sermons.

I think we would all agree that it is wrong to steal ideas from someone else and present them as our own. But exactly when and how to cite our sources is not always clear.

Case in point. As a sophomore in college if I had seen the following test question–True or False. It is wrong to steal ideas from someone else and present them as our own.–I would have marked “true” without hesitation. And yet that didn’t stop me from preaching the sum and substance of one of my first sermons right out of Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ commentary on Ephesians without giving him any credit, as far as I remember! I do recall thinking that he said things a lot better than I could, and I really didn’t see any way to improve upon it.

Looking back at it now, I’m sure people must have been amazed by the maturity and depth of my message as a 19-year-old. Perhaps that’s why one of the deacons came to me afterwards and asked me if I had ever considered the possibility of becoming a pastor someday.

All that to say, even if we are opposed to plagiarism in theory, it is sometimes difficult to know how to apply the principles of honesty and integrity within a sermon.

Greear has adopted for himself 5 general “rules” for avoiding plagiarism in a sermon.

  1. If I ever preach the gist of another person’s sermon, meaning that I used the lion’s share of their message’s organization, points, or applications, I give credit.
  2. If I glean an interpretation of a passage from someone, but the organization of the points, application and presentation are my own, I generally do not feel the need to cite.
  3. When I take a direct point or a line or the creative wording of a truth from someone, I feel like I should cite.
  4. When I give a list that someone else has come up with or offer some piece of cultural analysis, I feel like I should cite.
  5. If I hear a story told by someone else that reminds me of a story of your own, and I tell that story from my own life, I don’t think I need always to identify where I got the idea for that story from originally.

These “rules,” of course, do not cover all the bases, but I would say in general “When in doubt, cite your source.” It is always better to err on the safe side and give credit when none was technically necessary. However, be careful that your sermon doesn’t end up coming across as an academic paper full of bibliographic citations.

There are ways to give credit without bogging your listeners down with bibliographical information.

Let’s say, for example, that you wanted to reference or use Greear’s blog post in your next sermon.

You could go all-out and introduce the material this way:

J. D. Greear (author) posted an article May 21, 2013 (date) at Between the Times (source) entitled “What Counts As Plagiarism in a Sermon?” (article title).

But I think in most cases in a sermon (which is not an academic paper or scholarly article) it would be sufficient to introduce the material in one of the following ways:

In a recent blog post J. D. Greear gives 5 rules for avoiding plagiarism in your preaching. Here they are . . .


One blogger recently posted on this topic and gave 5 rules for avoiding plagiarism in your preaching. Number 1, . . .

To me the key in preaching is that you give the audience some kind of indication (whether general or specific, long or short) as to what is yours and what is not. The thoroughness of the detail given will depend on the particular situation, but the need for integrity remains.


Question: Do you have any rules or guidelines for when and how to cite sources in a sermon? If so, I’d love to hear them.

Kerry McGonigal

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In Adam by birth but in Christ by grace. That's my story. Husband to one and father of three. Pastor, homiletics teacher, and passionate proponent of expository preaching. If you like what you've read and want to be notified of future posts, take a second and subscribe via RSS or email (on the right sidebar). Opinions expressed here are my own.

7 responses to Stop Thief! (Should I Have Put That in Quotes?)

  1. I agree with you Kerry, or Greear, whosever ideas they are :-). I generally don’t cite all the nitty gritty details verbally when I preach. However, I try to give more documentation in my notes. For instance, if I use something from a website, I copy the address in my notes, but I won’t necessarily cite that verbally. I just want it for reference in the future. I believe some guys have a policy that they will not use an author’s name when they preach unless he is dead. Stay faithful friend!

    • Thanks for dropping by, Taigen. I assume your comment was original to you, since I didn’t see any documentation. 🙂 That’s a good point about the difference between your sermon notes and your sermon. I too include footnotes and detailed bibliographic information in my notes. I do that (in part) so that if I come back to that sermon later in my files I can remember where certain ideas came from, and I don’t just assume I came up with it all on my own. 🙂 Blessings as you prepare to minister the Word this Lord’s Day.

  2. Btw, here’s a great post by Mark Ward at Logos Bible Software on How to Avoid Plagiarism in Your Sermons and Papers. As he says, Logos makes it easy to keep track of your sources.

  3. So funny story, or maybe not so funny. I heard of a pastor up in ME many years back who was downloading sermons from Rick Warren’s site and preaching them to his congregation as his own. He did not acknowledge that they were Warren’s. When someone found out that he was taking another man’s messages consistently and regularly preaching them, the church fired him. That is an extreme example of plagiarism.

  4. I agree with Taigen on citations in notes. I publish my outlines along with the audio on our website. I cite quotations (or lists, main points, or any other organizational data I borrow), using Chicago citation formatting. One tool I would suggest to make this easier is Zotero. My son had some videos on the BJU Library website on how to use Zotero, I think they are still there.

    Don Johnson
    Jer 33.3