A Christian Approach to Plagiarism IV: Punishment & Forgiveness


In my previous post, I focused on ways to prevent plagiarism through instruction. I argued that students have a right to make mistakes while they are practicing a skill, and this includes the right to make mistakes in references to someone else’s writing as part of the learning process.

On the other hand, at some point in the learning process, students may already know what plagiarism is and how to avoid it, but they do it anyway. Rights are not respected, and trust is broken. Sin happens, and that’s not okay. In the Christian tradition, there are different ways of responding to sin. In the Bible we see God responding to wrong both with terrible wrath and incomprehensible forgiveness. If we follow God, what are we supposed to do? Do we imitate his wrath? Do we let the plagiarizer off the hook?

In Justice in Love, Nick Wolterstorff outlines three possible objectives of punishment: retribution, reprobation, and deterrence or habilitation (2011). Retribution is vengeance. It’s done in anger. When someone gets “nailed” for plagiarism, the punishment is retribution. Retribution is, however, not an option available to those who follow the Sermon on the Mount. By replacing “an eye for an eye” with “turn the other cheek,” Jesus tells us to leave behind retribution. Evil is not rectified with another evil. Retribution is not compatible with forgiveness. Forgiving means forgoing retribution.

Punishment as reprobation is a statement about the moral status of the act. In a case of plagiarism, punishment as reprobation sends a message that plagiarism is not permissible. Wolterstorff argues punishment is not necessary for condemning the misbehavior. It is possible to take the misbehavior seriously without punishment. This is the case when we choose to forgive. Forgiveness does not mean excusing the offence or forgetting about it. Forgiveness means condemning the wrong while withholding punishment.

In the case of plagiarism, treating the wrongdoing with moral weight means helping the student to understand why plagiarism is wrong. Threatening the student with the possible consequences of plagiarism in the professional world is not enough to explain why it is wrong. To show students why plagiarism is wrong, teachers should help the student understand who his hurt through plagiarism. Teachers might talk about the trust that is broken when one person tries to trick another person. They also might try to help the student develop empathy for the author.

The third role of punishment is forward-looking. It seeks to prevent future problems through deterrence or to help the wrongdoer learn how to “go and sin no more.” This type of punishment is compatible with forgiveness because its goal is the well-being of the wrongdoer. Requiring a rewrite of a plagiarized assignment would be this sort of punishment because it would reinforce the student’s plagiarism-avoidance skills.

A Christian response to a willful act of plagiarism neither ignores the problem nor delights in revenge. Instead, a Christian response will seek to help the student overcome the weakness by understanding the hurt that is caused by plagiarism and practicing the skills necessary for avoiding plagiarism.


Wolterstorff, N. (2011) Justice in Love. Emory University Studies in Law and Religion. Kindle Edition

Heidi Nam1

Heidi Vande Voort Nam (MA TESL/TEFL University of Birmingham) teaches in the Department of English Education at Chongshin University in Seoul. She is co-facilitator of the KOTESOL Christian Teachers SIG and was the Chair of CELT Seoul 2016.


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