I received an interesting inquiry from an individual today who has just discovered that his pastor is using other people's messages (the Internet is a great revealer) without attribution. He wondered what he should do.
I believe that there are two key issues at stake here, the first being integrity. All of us know that using someone else's content without giving them credit for it is plagiarism. In academia, plagiarism can be cause for firing. In politics it can be cause for losing elections or ones job. Everyone recognizes that there is an ethical lapse when plagiarism occurs, it is a violation of the command, "You shall not steal."
It ought to bother us a lot when pastors use other peoples content without disclosing where it came from. It ought to bother us if pastors use illustrations that they indicate are their own when in fact they are not. It does not matter that pastors post their messages on the web for others to use. If one is going to use other people's content, integrity insists that the source of that content is acknowledged. A best practice is to footnote sermon notes with attribution where it is deserved.
I believe there is another issue and that is that pastor/teachers preach to a unique audience - their congregation and to simply use the content of others violates their obligation to speak to their people about issues that their people face. Paul did not write the same letters to the Ephesians, Romans, Thessalonians or Philippians. He wrote unique letters that addressed their unique situations and spoke to their situations from God's perspective. That is what good shepherds do.
To use other people's content in our preaching is plain laziness. We are influenced by others writing and our own research as we plan a text but ultimately we must speak to the audience God has given us and apply His word to the unique situations they face.
To those who regularly use others content I would ask this question. Do your leaders know and approve or would they find it problematic if they found out. To be above board one is truthful with leaders as to where one's content comes from and truthful to the congregation through proper attribution.
It is a matter of integrity. My advice to the one who wrote me would be to share his concern with his pastor and if there is still not acknowledgement as to the source of his preaching to speak to the board.
If there is not integrity in our preaching of God's truth which is a paradigm of integrity, we are in deep trouble.