The Right to Be Believed
Social media has been ablaze (once again) with people weighing in on the latest scandal to hit the church: Allegations of abuse within the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and the inaction of some of its pastors. The report makes for sorry reading; the responses to it make for sorrier reading.
Let me be quite clear that this post is aimed at neither the writer of those articles nor those written about in the articles. The question before us is this: What do the likes of you and me—those not intimately involved in the actual facts of the matter, or the judicial cases that may or may not arise from said allegations—what do we do and think when allegations of abuse arise?
I want to make a few observations before I answer this question.
First, we ought to acknowledge that abuse happens. In speaking with Ministerial colleagues from time to time, one of the constant battles we face is counseling (predominantly) men who struggle with addiction to pornography. Harvey Weinstein may be in jail, but he is very much in our homes as well. Even a cursory glance at many of today’s movies will find an appallingly low view of women, treating them largely as sex objects. Those movies and far worse are in the homes of church members. And in truth they are in the homes of ministers.
Should we be surprised when we see men, having been raised on a diet of sexual immorality of one sort or another, struggling in their own lives to maintain a holiness appropriate to their calling as Christians? In light of this, do not be surprised that unholy behavior comes from unholy men.
Second, what happens if these kinds of allegations should happen in our church? This matter ought to be clear to all, and a non-negotiable in the lives of church leaders: Every allegation of abuse, sexual, emotion, physical or other, ought to be treated with the utmost seriousness. There is no room for equivocation, there is no room for procrastination, and there may well be a great urgency to provide protection (of various kinds) to those in need. There may be pressing matters at hand:
- Is there immediate risk to the victim if they return to their home?
- Do law enforcement agencies need to be involved immediately?
- Does your state require the reporting of alleged abuse, especially in the case of minors?
- Can you commence the Matthew 18 process, or do you need to take more radical action first (extractions from homes etc.)?
In short, we must all take such matters seriously and be prepared in advance.
Third, wherever abuse takes place, churches ought to deal with it as a matter of urgency. Whether in ecclesiastical courts or the criminal courts, and where they are prosecutable (not all are!), charges should be brought especially against ministers, providing the biblical requirements can be met. Moreover, there needs to be a pastoral rallying-around those injured by abuse. It’s not simply that we can and should prosecute such matters in the courts of the church; rather, we need also to minister to those who are injured.
However, in the church of the Lord Jesus Christ, we do not want to resort to the standards of the world. As much good as the Me Too movement did (and as Christians we ought to rejoice when wickedness is uncovered and overthrown), it also created injustices. For some, indeed for many, an allegation of abuse is an immediate assumption of guilt on the part of the accused. Equally for others, accusations are not given sufficient weight because of their apparent frequency, or the manner in which they are raised. Furthermore, both sides, when questioned regarding the authenticity of their position, often resort to the same argument: “You're part of the problem.” Does accusation equal guilt, or does accusation equal “trouble maker”?
The public show at the confirmation hearings of Brett Kavanaugh to the US Supreme Court confirmed this reality. Even before Mr. Kavanaugh had been questioned on the allegations at hand, his accuser was told by certain committee members “you have the right to be believed” and “we believe you”. That is not to say the accusations were false. They may have been true. Am I prepared to believe them to the point that I can act on them judicially as a churchman? Of course, provided that certain well-established procedures—some of which Scripture itself lays before us—are observed.
This leads me to the main point: The world tells us there is a right to be believed. Some in the world tell us an accusation is a sign of guilt, while others tell us accusation is a sign of gossip. And we are told that any who question either of these positions are part of the problem.
Frankly, Christians ought to be above such behavior.
Is there, for those who allege they have been abused, a right to be believed? Do we, as onlookers, presume the truth of their allegations? Let me cut to the chase: I’ll concede the right to be believed, so long as we also concede the right to be disbelieved. Since when did any sensible person—let alone a Christian, who ought to have a huge stake in establishing the truth—believe the word of one party without speaking to the other party in question?
Scripture has much to say on the matter, and for Christians, that ought to be enough. Consider Proverbs 18:13: “If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame”. This passage makes three things clear:
- Rendering judgment before you have heard all the necessary information is deeply unwise. Indeed, it is folly, and that is proverbial language for how the unbeliever thinks and acts.
- It is folly, because it will likely lead to an unjust judgment, and God hates unjust judgment (Is. 10:1; Prov. 19:2).
- Such judgments bring shame on the one who makes them.
Another Proverb comes to mind: “The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him” (Prov. 18:17). This is really the companion verse to 18:13, and it further unpacks the reality that we all know. When someone comes to us with a bad report of another, especially if the person “reporting” is a close friend, remind yourself of this: You are biblically unqualified to make judgments on the basis of their testimony alone. You are, in fact, prohibited from doing so, unless corroborating evidence is provided. The “right to be believed” is thus no right, at least through Scripture’s eyes, until such time as all the evidence has been heard.
In other words, Christians are prohibited from drawing conclusions by simply having heard one side of the matter. And, dear Christian, if you do not like that, I say with all respect, it is you that are part of the problem.
While these passages and others prohibit us from rushing to judgment on the side of the accuser, they also prohibit us from rushing to judgment on the side of the accused. We cannot demand fairness and equity for the accused, while denying the same to the accuser.
What is sauce for the goose, is sauce for the gander, as we say in the UK. That is to say, we dare not lightly dismiss any accusation of abuse, declaring the accuser to be a “trouble maker” or an “attention seeker." That would be as egregious as denying the accused his “day in court,” so to speak. Neither may we dismiss allegations because they have not been raised in the proper fashion. Few people I know who have suffered abuse are capable of dotting all the I’s and crossing all the T’s of Matthew 18 and the Forms of Government of our churches. To expect them to do so is to be cold, heartless, and simply unreasonable.
To unilaterally dismiss allegations of abuse, unless the evidence compels you, is just as appalling in the sight of God as believing a one-sided report:
“whoever oppresses a poor man insults his Maker” (Prov. 14:31);
“The Lord is near the broken-hearted and crushed in spirit” (Ps. 34:18);
“Do not rob the poor because he is poor, or crush the afflicted at the gate, for the Lord will plead their cause and rob of life those who rob them.” (Prov. 22:22-23);
“Whoever sows injustice will reap calamity” (Prov. 22:8).
Those last two Proverbs ought to wake us all up. God will not tolerate injustice. Rather, He Himself will avenge those who are wronged.
Justice for the accuser and the accused requires us all to hear all sides before we make a judgment.
And that leads me to my last point: How we treat people who have suffered abuse, or who come forward with allegations they have been abused. I’m not an expert in these areas, but I have had some pastoral experience with people who have undergone such traumas. One might argue that we should properly distinguish between those who we know have been abused and those who claim they have been abused.
I, for one am not so sure about that.
Can we not take an accusation seriously without pre-judging the case? Of course. Is there not a way for the church to affirm love, support, care, protection without saying “you have the right to be believed"? Surely there is. I think our mind ought to be the mind and spirit our Lord Jesus, who will not break a bruised reed or quench a burning wick (Is. 42:3). Ought we not also treat broken sisters and brothers with the greatest care and love possible? Let us not be unfairly censorious of those suffering the trauma of abuse when they do not get everything procedurally correct.
Please do not misunderstand. There are right ways to deal with sin, and there are right ways (at least in the PCA and the OPC) to bring charges against people. Matthew 18 is there for a divinely-appointed reason. But frankly, the Book of Discipline of the OPC is complicated enough for me to make mistakes in—and in the last five years, I have (sadly) spent plenty of time in it! I shudder to think how the layman/woman in the midst of trial would manage it.
We should be gentle and gracious. If the t’s of due process have to be crossed, cannot our brethren receive some help to do that? When people cry for help, we ought not spend time determining if they are in need; we simply ought to help there and then. The investigations can follow after they are safe and secure.
So, brothers and sisters, do not receive a bad report of a Christian and treat it like the Gospel. It matters not where or from whom this report has come; if you have no first-hand knowledge of the events, you have no right to make a judgment without hearing all the facts. Indeed, to do such is folly and shameful.
In equal measure, and by the same principle, we ought never simply dismiss out-of-hand the accusation brought to us. Isaiah 42 continues with these words:
“He [Christ] will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not grow faint or be discouraged till he has established justice on the earth; and the coastland wait for his law.” (Is 42:3-4).
May we, like our Lord, pursue justice without breaking the bruised reed.
Come Lord Jesus!
Matthew Holst is the pastor of Shiloh Presbyterian Church in Raleigh, NC.
Mortification of Spin: "How to Help When There is Abuse"
Mortification of Spin: "Touch Not the Lord's Anointed"
"A Plan for the Problem of Pornography" by Philip Ryken
Our Ancient Foe, edited by Ron Kohl
 For more Scripture passages, check out the Larger Catechism on the 9th Commandment.