Stumbling at Seminary: Cheating

In Academics by adminmark

In an interview with the dean of students at a leading evangelical seminary, I asked about the most common reasons people did not complete seminary.  One of his answers was a shock to me: students get caught cheating.

Seminary students have ample opportunity to cheat.

  • You can plagiarize-representing the academic work of others as your own.  You can rip off fellow students, sometimes with their cooperation.  You can rip off published scholars through failure to provide necessary citations in your written work.
  • You can use forbidden resources on exams.  Conjugations written on the palm of your hand?  Ever have a take-home, closed-book exam?  (Only at seminary!)
  • You can dishonestly answer those dratted blanket questions on your final, like:
    • Did you read all of your required readings?
    • Did you complete the special assignment?

Seminaries tend to be more trusting with academic honor codes than their secular counterparts.  They put great stock in the work of the Holy Spirit to convict students of sin, and rest confidently in that as a bulwark.  But students still cheat.  No one knows how much, but I suspect if we did, we would be embarrassed.

The spiritual roots of cheating

My systematic theology professor taught us that all sins boiled down to either pride or sloth.  Cheating is no different.  Let’s think deeply about this: why would you cheat?


  • You’re afraid you cannot pass seminary on your own, and would be ashamed to be found out as academically incapable.
  • You believe that the grade you make in class is an evaluation of you, not just your performance, and feel the need to inflate it.
  • Making a poor grade is unthinkable, so since you’re busy, you take a few shortcuts.
  • Since you’re capable of making an “A” anyway, why should you be forced to work to prove it?
  • Who will know?  It doesn’t matter anyway.

The common factor in these is pride.

To derail pride:

  • The antidote to pride is humility.
  • Humility is always chosen.  It is never accidental.
  • Humility is a choice only you can make.  God won’t make you humble.  His word clearly teaches that we are to humble ourselves. “Humble yourselves in the sight of he Lord, and he will lift you up.”
  • “God opposes the proud.”  If you’ve rationalized your cheating out of pride, consider this: Almighty God stands in eternal opposition to your inflated thoughts of yourself.
  • “…but gives grace to the humble.”  There is an unending cascade of grace for those who choose humility.  Trust in that future grace.

If you make a “D” in Biblical backgrounds, that doesn’t mean you’re not called of God.

If you fail a test, it doesn’t mean you are a failure

If your professor thinks poorly of you, that doesn’t mean that God does.

Humility, as I understand it, means taking God’s view of us as the true and correct view.  This encompasses both the horror of our capacity for sin, and the splendor of the gifts and nobility God has put within us.

We need to have the courage to face the truth about ourselves.  We can only do that by being secure in the love and favor of God in Christ.  If I know I am deeply loved and approved by God in Christ, then I can handle making a “C”.


The other major root of cheating is laziness-raw unwillingness to exert effort.  You don’t want to do the work, so cheating is a shortcut.  You cheat not to protect your image of reputation, but simply out of indolence.

Much like pride, sloth is characterized by rationalizations.  We are never so creative as when we’re trying to come up with reasons to avoid work.  A lazy person will say or believe anything to justify avoidance of exertion.

The effort we’re willing to expend in service to God reflects our view of His greatness.  If Almighty God in all his glory, power and love can’t motivate you to a bit of work and self-denial, then something is seriously wrong.  You may need to check your conversion.

If you’ve cheated:

Repent. In the most literal sense, you need to change your mind about it.  Your dishonesty is an offense against the God of truth.  Be done with your rationalizations, and acknowledge your sin.

Come Clean. Do this first with a pastor or trusted spiritual advisor; the more mature, the better.  Confession is never fun but is cleansing to the soul.  Second, come clean with your professor, even if the class is already over.  Go to him or her, tell exactly what you did, and submit to whatever instructions you’re given.

Find the root. What motivated you to cheat in the first place?  Find out.  Don’t assume that the first answer you come up with off the top of your head is correct, either. This kind of issue is best talked through with a counselor or perceptive spiritual director.  Most seminaries have free counseling for students.  Go sign up.

Walk in the light. Don’t do it anymore.  Study hard, do your best, and accept whatever grade you get with grace.  Write your own papers.  Cite all borrowed material, even if you have to lug back to the library to get the page number.  Enjoy the sweet fruit of a clean conscience.

Final warning

If you’re willing to cheat in seminary, you’ll cheat when you’re ministering in a church.  You’ll eventually be found out, and it will damage the church and the cause of Christ.  When it makes the papers, you will drive lost people away from the gospel.  The choices you make in the privacy of your head have eternal repercussions that you cannot fathom.  Resolve now to live with integrity, no matter what it costs you.