Mark Driscoll and Pastoral Plagiarism
Jeremiah 23:30 Therefore, behold, I am against the prophets, declares the LORD, who steal my words from one another.
Mark Driscoll is making controversial headlines…again. This time, the accusations against the Seattle-area pastor are new: charges of plagiarism. There are a number of news articles covering the story as it unfolds, but in case you haven’t heard about it, you can read one piece here.
My point in this post is not to attack or defend Driscoll. Truth be told, not enough of this story has unraveled to make a clear judgment either way. While the evidence for his plagiarism seems pretty clear, it is interesting to me that Tyndale, the publishers of the book, have thus far stated that their investigation has found that Driscoll has cited his sources to industry standards. The authors that Driscoll is said to have plagiarized have yet to make any definitive public statements, either, so there will be more to this story in the coming weeks. (It doesn’t help that Driscoll has stated before that pastors who steal intellectual property should quit their jobs.)
Instead of looking at Driscoll and passing quick judgment, I take this as an opportunity to look at someone else: me. I need to be far more concerned with the guy in the mirror than with a celebrity pastor I don’t even know. So here is the question I ask myself: how would my teaching ministry stand up to charges of plagiarism?
This is a tough question to answer. Like many pastors, I read a look of books, blogs, and sermon transcripts. I also listen to a lot of online sermons, interviews, and podcasts. My theology and therefore, my teaching ministry, has been hugely influenced by people I have read and listened to. There is no doubt in my mind that the teaching of other Godly men has intensely shaped my understanding of Scripture and even my proclamation of it.
I struggle a bit to define plagiarism in terms of biblical teaching. After all, if I believe there is only one correct interpretation of a given passage (which I do), is it wrong of me to learn it from other men and then teach it to others without giving credit? Do I only need to cite other teachers when I quote them word for word? Or should basic concepts be cited too? And what about a good sermon illustration? I am not sure I have good answers to these questions, but they are worth pondering.
I remember hearing Matt Chandler one time talk about how common it is for pastors to steal sermons from other pastors (I think he was quoting from someone else, perhaps Eugene Peterson?). The “joke” was that there should be a class in Bible college called “creative plagiarism” where pastors steal sermons from each other but tweak the language enough to obscure the original source. I have to confess that I have done similar things in my own teaching ministry. There has definitely been times when I was encouraged or enlightened by a particular sermon or book that inspired teaching of my own. I would like to think that in such cases I was doing so from a heart that was excited about truth and sincerely desired to share it with others. However, I am not convinced in my own memory that I have done this in a way that honours those who were the original sources.
It doesn’t help matters that I am a small-town pastor in youth ministry. If there was ever a situation where I could get away with stealing teaching content, this would be it. As a youth pastor, most of my teaching isn’t recorded for others to listen to later. I have no published books. Not to mention that I teach a young audience that is generally not very aware of the teaching ministries of others. In addition, I’m not in the celebrity spotlight where I’m expected to come up with world-class sermons on a weekly basis. I do not envy popular Bible teachers whose teaching is under such a great microscope by so many people.
Yet, I certainly should not use this as an excuse to be lazy in my study of the Word or teaching preparation, and certainly not in plagiarizing other people’s content. My guess is that a lot of the people who are reacting so strongly to Driscoll’s allegations are themselves guilty of the same thing. I know it’s a good opportunity for me, as a young pastor, to commit myself to the highest integrity in my teaching ministry from here on out. In this blog post, I am making such a declaration.
2 Timothy 2:15 Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.
I would challenge my fellow brothers in the ministry to make a similar commitment, if they have not done so already. Think of this as a moment of God’s grace, bringing to light an important issue that probably many of us have been slack on. Rather than setting the bar low, let’s set the bar high when it comes to giving credit where it is due. And let’s not be lazy in our teaching prep, choosing to cut corners and adapt from others rather than studying the Scriptures ourselves. Iron should sharpen iron, but let’s err on the side of caution when it comes to crediting others for their work. In so doing, we will be more prepared to face our Judge as workers who have no need to be ashamed.