Theresa Harvard Johnson

SINOFSPIRITUALPLAGIARISMExcerpt from the book, The Sin of Spiritual Plagiarism
Copyright 2013 Theresa Harvard Johnson

(Because this is a serious topic among the congregation, this book has been offered as a free resource. You may download it or read it online here. Print copies are available here. In addition, this excerpt addresses the definition of "plagiarism" and does not dig into the spiritual aspect. For the full understanding download the book.)

A few years ago, I was discussing the issue of spiritual plagiarism with a group of prophetic scribes when one of them said to me: “Is there really such a thing? How can plagiarism be an issue among brothers if what each one of us receives is from and belongs to God? We are to take ownership of nothing and leave everything in God’s hands.” 

While I can see the logic and perhaps some spiritual debate in this exchange, there was a need to take thie discussion further. Father wanted this scribe to see that there are people, some with malicious intent, who carelessly and deliberately steal the words and works of others – even among the body for their own personal gain. He wanted to bring clarity and understanding in that: “It is not okay to take someone’s inspiration (meaning published words, works) under any circumstances and claim it as your own. It is stealing. Yes, that inspiration may be from the very heart of God but it was given to that specific person under God’s authority; and recognition, acknowledgement and permission will still be required if you or anyone else decides to share, distribute or otherwise publish that person’s information. If for no other reason, as believers, we should look at using someone else’s inspiration as a privilege, honor and courtesy.” That expression is one of respect, honor. We are Sons of God first, regardless of our “business in the world.”


If a person fails to give their brother this respect or place of honor, then they are willfully stealing from them whether they see it that way or not; and are showing immense disrespect and dishonor.

In the world system, stealing the words of others and claiming them as your own is known as plagiarism. The term is most commonly acquainted with literary works.  It applies to the theft of video, images, presentations, choreography, performances, computer code, writings, etc. However, our focus in the midst of this book is primarily on the literary aspects of plagiarism – written or audible words and ideas. One of my favorite definitions of this term can be found on the University of Southern Mississippi’s website. It reads:

“Plagiarism is the act of taking another person's writing, conversation, song, or even idea and passing it off as your own. This includes information from web pages, books, songs, television shows, email messages, interviews, articles, artworks or any other medium. Whenever you paraphrase, summarize, or take words, phrases, or sentences from another person's work, it is necessary to indicate the source of the information within your paper using an internal citation. It is not enough to just list the source in a bibliography at the end of your paper. Failing to properly quote, cite or acknowledge someone else's words or ideas with an internal citation is plagiarism” (University of Southern Mississippi 2004)."

Purdue University adds the following to our understanding:

“Research-based writing in American institutions, both educational and corporate, is filled with rules that writers, particularly beginners, aren't aware of or don't know how to follow. Many of these rules have to do with research and proper citation. Gaining familiarity with these rules, however, is critically important, as inadvertent mistakes can lead to charges of plagiarism, which is the uncredited use (both intentional and unintentional) of somebody else's words or ideas” (Stolley, Brizee and Paiz 2013).

When I worked as a print news journalist, we were required to use “attribution” in every news story we wrote. Even more so, we had to be able to validate and verify these sources upon request. Attribution is a journalistic term that means to provide credit to the source of your information in a way that ensures that the information can be traced back to its origin. This attribution did not require citing work as it does in academia or corporate settings, but it did include identifying the names of the people, where we obtained the information from or other sources based on standards set by the Associated Press (AP), a worldwide newsgathering organization that sets the stage, in some regards, for journalistic integrity. In academia and some magazine publishing environments, the guidelines for attribution or citation are highlighted according to Chicago Style, Turabian Style or MLA Style.

In print news in particular, I had to personally learn the journalistic standards set by the AP Style Manual which is significantly different from the citation standards I had to adopt in college, and then again in graduate school. I'm sharing this to make a quick point. At the end of the day, however, the same rule remains across the board concerning plagiarism: Sources must be cited. Simply put, we can literally look at plagiarism as “literary theft" as it relates to writing, and as theft in general.

During my print news career, I was heavily involved in industry goings-on. I remember hearing about news reporters (print, radio and television journalists) who been disciplined, fired, sued and black-listed in the profession because of this type of theft. In academia, it can ruin your student record and reputation; result in suspension or expulsion from any educational environment; cause graduates to be stripped of academic degrees; and even result in litigation. If a person plagiarizes while employed, they could possibly cause that business, agency or organization legal problems and public disgrace that can be difficult to bounce back from.

I’m going to share one more definition of plagiarism before moving on. I want to be sure that we grasp – as closely as possible – what it looks like before uncovering the spiritual weight of the crime. Yes, I used a strong word -- crime!

Take a look at this statement from the Council of Writing Program Administrators at Purdue University, which has an in-depth online writing lab that thoroughly covers this issue. It says, “In an instructional setting, plagiarism occurs when a writer deliberately uses someone else’s language, ideas, or other original (not common-knowledge) material without acknowledging its source” (Purdue University 2007).

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