A little problem rears its ugly head in the Protestant world:

The similarities in the sermons are unmistakable.

“I don’t think I’ve given you this before,” the pastor in North Carolina tells his congregation. He goes on to list “five selfs” that signify hostility to God: self-will, self-glory, self-gratification, self-righteousness and self-sufficiency. Cut to an older pastor in Alabama, at a lectern a year later: “Let me give you five selfs,” he says. He rattles off the same list.

A video comparing the two sermons has racked up thousands of views online in recent days, partly because the two men are not just any church leaders: The first, who delivered his sermon in 2019, is J.D. Greear, the departing president of the Southern Baptist Convention. The other is Ed Litton, who was elected as Mr. Greear’s successor just a couple of weeks ago by a thin margin at an unusually contentious meeting. His sermon was delivered in 2020 and did not credit Mr. Greear.

Mr. Litton’s critics are calling it “sermongate.”

And the dust-up has revealed a dirty little secret of the preaching life: Many pastors borrow from one another in the pulpit, and the norms around the practice are fuzzy at best.

Over the past week, anonymous YouTube accounts have posted multiple side-by-side comparisons of the two men preaching, highlighting nearly identical metaphors, anecdotes and turns of phrase. Mr. Litton’s church removed sermons from 2017 through 2019 from its website and YouTube, attributing the deletions to both a website redesign and a response to people “going through sermons in an attempt to discredit and malign our pastor.” Mr. Litton declined an interview request through a spokesman.

In a statement, Mr. Litton said he had asked Mr. Greear for permission to borrow from at least one sermon and apologized for not crediting him; Mr. Greear confirmed his account. But accusations of lying and stealing — and plenty of memes skewering Mr. Litton — are flying fast. Some of the same Baptists who opposed Mr. Litton’s election are now calling for his resignation.

“This is an issue of morality, and it’s an issue of Christian virtue,” said Tom Ascol, a high-profile Florida pastor who has been critical of Mr. Litton and Mr. Greear. “It’s something that as recently as 10 years ago, everyone in conservative evangelical circles would say, ‘Of course pulpit plagiarism is wrong.’”

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