Plagiarism and Bible Teaching

by | Apr 25, 2014 | 02 Library, 05 Bible Study 201

You’ve probably heard the joke that the greatest insult you can give a Bible teacher is that your work is both original and good. Why is that funny? The part that’s original is not good, and the part that’s good is not original. 

The goal of Bible study is to be right, not original.

Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth.  – 2Timothy 2:15

Folks have been studying Scripture for 1000s of years.  At this point in history, I suspect any truly original interpretation is probably wrong. It’s hubris to think that in all that study no one ever got it right (until I came along). On the other hand, it’s folly to ignore good work done by those who came before us.

Ideally, we have an unbroken chain of understanding from Jesus to the apostles through the Scriptures to various teachers who pass on that same truth today. Original thinking could very well break the chain.

What crosses the line?

As a bible teacher, when I learn truth from someone and pass it on, how much should I change to avoid plagiarism and how much should I keep to avoid corrupting the truth? Isn’t it better to effectively communicate truth than to develop an original, less-effective way to communicate truth? How much “borrowing” is too much?

How do we know when we are “accurately handling the word of truth” and when we have crossed a copyright line?

While I don’t claim to have all the answers or a perfect citation record, as a teacher who is constantly learning from others, I’ve had to develop some general guidelines:

Give credit to anyone quoted verbatim and/or at length.  If you are publishing, copyrighting or making money off the work, be even more diligent about proper citations.

Communicate ideas in your own words freely. The specific expression of an idea is protected by copyright, but the idea itself is not.

Rather than reading and citing a long reference work verbatim, summarize (“as one scholar explained…’) and communicate the idea in your own words. In free & open teaching settings (leading a small group, teaching a large group or otherwise freely sharing ideas), citations can be disruptive and lengthy verbatim quotes difficult to follow. 

For example, Ray Stedman was my first pastor. As a baby-believer, I attended his church and read all his books. So much of his thought has become my thought that sometimes I don’t know when I’m quoting him or simply teaching what I believe to be true.

Whenever I teach Ephesians 4, I use Ray’s analogy from his book Body Life.  I cite the source, explain the analogy in my own words and encourage folks to read the book for more detail.

But sometimes I’m explaining a passage that I heard Ray teach at some point. Am I quoting him? Probably. Do I realize it? No. I am echoing his thought, because I absorbed it like a sponge in the years I attended his church.

And, Ray Stedman is not my only mentor. I am deeply grateful for the many who have taught me well. I have been blessed to know some of my mentors personally while others I know only through MP3s and thick reference books.

I love learning. I enjoy copious research. When I find a strong, biblical teacher, I attach like a parasite, drinking deeply of the nourishment he or she offers. While I haven’t seen my college pastors or my teachers at the McKenzie Study Center in 30 years, they still teach me through their sermons, blogs, books and articles. I never met RC Sproul, but I feel like I knew him well — at least I know his scholarship — through his ministry.

Original thinking?

I gave up being an “original thinker” years ago. The more I learn, the less I study a text completely on my own. While I always begin by wrestling with the text through my own study and prayer, once I have the general flow and the puzzles to be solved, I turn to my trusted teachers, reference books, and scholars.

I’ve finely tuned my theological ear to recognize good methodology carefully applied. I’ve learned who is most likely to have the cultural background, who is likely to know the nuances of the original languages, who has done the most work on poetry and prophecy, etc.

I seek the expert most likely to answer the question at hand. Then I learn, synthesize and incorporate. If I cited the source of every idea in my talks, every sentence would be from somewhere. There might be 50-100 different sources.

Understanding, not phrases

But — and this is an important distinction — I’m not looking for what to say, so much as how to properly understand the passage and “accurately handle the word of truth.”

One of the very first times I taught publicly, I tried to cite every book I used and every name who taught me. Afterward, my mentor told me he never wanted me to cite him again — not because he was angry with me, he was encouraging.  He told me something I’ve never forgotten:

“Truth is truth. Learn it, make it your own and teach it to others.”

Consciously or not, he was echoing Paul’s advice to Timothy:

The things which you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, entrust these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also. – 2Timothy 2:2

Yes, there’s a sense in which I am a product of plagiarism. But I pray that I am also a link in the faithful chain of those entrusted with the truth and passing it on.

Recently a women I co-labor with taught a passage I had helped her understand. To my delight and joy, she used phrases and minor quotes from my notes — enhancing and improving on them from her own study. Some might call that plagiarism, but it made my heart sing.  Just so, the chain goes on.

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart
Be acceptable in Your sight, O LORD, my rock and my Redeemer.- Psalm 19:14

Part of the Series: Bible Study 201: Learn to teach

Photo by Janayara Machado on Unsplash