How might we handle a suspicion of sermon plagiarism in public preaching?
In answering this question it will be helpful to define sermon plagiarism. Simply put, it is preaching another person’s material without giving due credit. Examples may be quoting another’s statements verbatim as if they were your own. It may be using another’s sermon outline with the same points, alliterations and illustrations without identifying the source.
What is wrong with sermon plagiarism? It is stealing. It is taking what belongs to another as if it is your own. It is deceptive. It is giving the audience the impression that the thoughts you are conveying are original with you. It can be a sign of laziness. Rather than doing the hard work of studying a topic or passage for yourself and prayerfully pondering it, you “cut and paste.” It may be prideful. You want to impress the audience with your cleverness.
The question at hand is: what do we do when we suspect sermon plagiarism? While plagiarism is serious, there are varying degrees of culpability. Did the brother simply forget to identify the source? Is it a one-time occurrence or a common practice? Is it primarily the speaker’s own material with a few borrowed points, or are large swaths stolen? These should be carefully evaluated before confronting the brother, as his character is being called into question.
If the plagiarism appears to be deliberate, the first step would be to substantiate your suspicions. Make sure you have evidence to back up your suspicions. It would be wise to share the evidence with a mature and objective brother that witnessed the same sermon to validate your suspicion (1Ti 5:19).
The next step would be to confront the offending brother. Who should confront him? Is this a Matthew 18:15 case? “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother” (ESV). Generally, plagiarism is not a personal offense, unless it is your material he plagiarized. It is really a sin that has the potential to damage the testimony of the assembly, as the integrity of the teaching is compromised. Probably a more suitable approach would be for the elders to whom the offending brother is accountable to address the issue.
The correction should be done in the spirit of Galatians 6:1: “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted” (ESV). That the correction be done in “a spirit of gentleness” is important. This would be highly embarrassing for the brother, as his character is being called into question. Give the brother the benefit of the doubt that it was sloppiness rather than deliberate stealing and deception. It may be sufficient to remind him to cite his sources. Encourage him to dig into the Scriptures for himself and let the Word first feed his own soul before giving it to others (2Ti 2:15; 2Ti 4:13-16).