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Plagiarism in our culture

Posted: December 22, 2013 2:00 a.m.
Updated: December 22, 2013 2:00 a.m.

One of the hardest things in life is being ignored, bypassed, or dismissed. We all appreciate being appreciated, and when we contribute we ought to be acknowledged as having been part of making something meaningful happen.

This is especially true when it comes to what is called our “intellectual property.” When an idea starts in our minds, and then finds its way into a medium, like a poem, article, a painting or other form of expression, the idea is referred to as our “intellectual property.” And when it comes to the world of written communication be it a book or paper, to use someone’s intellectual property as though it were ours is called plagiarism.

In an increasing number of fields, plagiarism has become part of the culture. Speech writers and staffers produce thousands of written pages for the politicians who employ them, while it is standard practice for the major composers who score films to use melodic lines and harmonies written by underlings. In the journalistic field it is uncommon but on the rise for busy senior reporters to use the notes of their staff’s interviews in writing the final article. I could multiply examples from other fields, but the point really isn’t whether or not these things are happening. The point is that many who are contributing to the final produce are never acknowledged.
It pains me to admit that this practice has found wide use in my own field of pastoral ministry. Recently,

MarkDriscoll, a mega-church pastor in Seattle, and a nationally recognized leader among the emerging generation of Christ-followers, was exposed on a radio talk show for having plagiarized large sections from other publications in some of his own publications. But as bad as that is, there is an even greater problem here. The core issue is much more than merely lifting and using material that began in the minds of other people. The core issue is that in using it, the perpetrators are intentionally presenting themselves as smarter, more insightful, and more worthy of recognition than they truly are in and of themselves. They have moved from thievery to fraud.

There is a rather awkward little secret that has come to light, that many of the most prolific church leaders in America are clients of The Docent Group. Here’s how it works. For a yearly fee I could be assigned a doctoral student, usually in Europe, who will do research, write papers, even prepare sermons and illustrations for me on texts and topics I designate, up to 20 pages weekly. I personally know men in pastoral leadership who use this service, and some – like Mark Driscoll – who employ more than one student.

Now, let me be clear. I find no wrong in having research assistants and staff who contribute to the process of producing papers, doctrinal statements, booklets, sermons or what have you. What is wrong is that they are not acknowledged. It is wrong for one person to take all the credit, to stand before people and let them think he is blessed with a size 12 brain, a superhuman capacity for knowledge and insight, and the ability to produce and synthesize more information in a week than most can in a year. It’s not just ethically wrong, I believe it is morally wrong. And, to top it all off, it is theologically wrong simply because those doing it are making themselves into the idols that their followers end up worshipping.

The root problem is that leadership brings with it the almost insatiable desire to be appreciated. But when that desire becomes all-consuming and causes us to under appreciate and be dismissive of those who have contributed to our success, we’ve crossed the line into immoral territory. We’ve stolen from others to increase our stature, and that is just plain unethical.

I am reminded often that my Boss came into this world in a most humble way, in a birthing cave for lambs used by shepherds in the fields outside Bethlehem. And one of his later biographers – Mark – described Jesus’ philosophy of ministry this way: “He didn’t come to be served, but to serve and give his life a ransom for many.” He simply cared more about others than himself. There’s a great lesson in there for all of us.

David Hegg is senior pastor of Grace Baptist Church and a Santa Clarita resident. “Ethically Speaking” runs every Sunday in The Signal.


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