Kevin T. Bauder
Sadly, accusation is part of life in a sinful world. Sinful people must sometimes be accused when they do wrong to others. Other sinful people, however, sometimes accuse those who have done no wrong at all. Accusation can be a necessary recourse for the injured, but it can also become a weapon for those who wish to do injury. How can we judge which is which?
The problem will not go away. If you are a boss, you will hear one employee accuse another. If you are a counselor, you will hear one family member accuse another. If you are a church member, you will hear other church members accuse your pastor.
As a young assistant pastor I once stopped a deacon in the middle of accusing my senior pastor. As a seminary president I have received accusations against people I was thinking about hiring. At various times I have heard accusations leveled against Christian leaders whom I had invited to speak. I have mediated situations in which church members were accusing pastors and other situations in which pastors were accusing members.
I do not recall ever being taught any method of evaluating accusations. Seminary gave me no specific criteria for determining either when an accusation ought to be entertained or when it ought to be acted upon. Consequently, I have had to develop my own principles for dealing with accusations. Here is a summary of the most important.
First, I do not have the right to listen to every accusation. Some matters are none of my business. They are not my responsibility, and I can do nothing about them. That is why, as a young assistant pastor, I refused to hear an accusation against my senior pastor. The church had a procedure for dealing with pastoral error, and I was not part of that procedure. For me, the accusation would have been nothing but gossip. If it is not within my purview to help the accused, the accuser, or the victim, then I will not listen to an accusation.
Second, accusers must identify themselves. Anonymous accusations carry less than no moral force. Furthermore, false accusers must be held accountable and must face consequences (Deut. 19:16). At the least, false accusers must stand personally shamed and discredited. Yet consequences of any sort are impossible in the case of anonymous accusations. Unless accusers are willing to put their names behind their words, their accusations must not even be entertained.
Third, the burden of proof rests upon the accuser, not upon the accused. Accusations are easy to make, and universal negatives are impossible to prove. If someone accuses me of having committed murder, I cannot prove that I never did (though I might be able to prove that I could not have murdered a particular person at a particular time in a particular place). This principle is why the Bible begins with a presumption of innocence in the face of accusation. No one could be judged on the basis of a single accusation (Deut. 19:15). Job could not be presumed to have sinned; he had to be shown to have sinned (Job 6). Any accuser must come with evidence to support the accusation.
Fourth, multiple witnesses are necessary to act upon an accusation (Deut. 19:15; Matt. 18:16; 2 Cor. 13:1; 1 Tim. 5:19). This principle underlines the quality of evidence required to adjudicate an accusation. A witness is not necessarily a person; a photograph or a recording can function in the role of witness. A witness, however, must bear independent testimony. Simply repeating the accusation of the original accuser (“he told me that she did it”) does not make one a witness in one’s own right.
Fifth, the witnesses must corroborate one another. One of the worst aspects of the bogus trial of Jesus was that the witnesses did not agree (Mark 14:56-59). These words do not necessarily mean that the witnesses contradicted each other; the witnesses simply could not agree on an accusation of a single wrongdoing. On one occasion I was asked to help a church in which one member accused the pastor of displaying unholy anger, another accused him of financial misdealing, and another accused him of (probably) viewing pornography. To corroborate each other, accusers must testify that they have witnessed the same offense.
Sixth, no accusation can be sustained until the accused has been given the opportunity to respond. In his defense of Jesus, Nicodemus made it clear that no lawful condemnation can be delivered until the accused person has been heard (John 7:51). The reason is simple: when only one side of the case is presented, that side usually seems plausible. Only when the other side is presented can an impartial evaluation be made (Prov. 18:17). I have had people ask me to help mediate disputes, only to discover that what they really wanted was for me to take their side. I always refuse those invitations unless I have the opportunity to hear both sides first.
Making accusations is easier now than it has ever been. Social media can spread accusations rapidly, and electronic lynch mobs are easy to gather. People love to hate someone who can be made to seem evil. Nevertheless, real lives, jobs, and reputations are at stake. Christians of all people should pursue justice, both for accusers and accused.
This essay is by Kevin T. Bauder, Research Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. Not every one of the professors, students, or alumni of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that it expresses.
Thomas Hardy (1840–1928)
Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.
“Now they are all on their knees,”
An elder said as we sat in a flock
By the embers in hearthside ease.
We pictured the meek mild creatures where
They dwelt in their strawy pen,
Nor did it occur to one of us there
To doubt they were kneeling then.
So fair a fancy few would weave
In these years! Yet, I feel,
If someone said on Christmas Eve,
“Come; see the oxen kneel,
“In the lonely barton by yonder coomb
Our childhood used to know,”
I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so.