“In a lawsuit the first to speak seems right, until someone comes forward and cross-examines.”
Among the most common questions I receive from pastors and ministry leaders involves this simple verse. The concern is that so many of us who teach and speak on domestic violence prevention insist that pastors and ministry leaders believe victims who come to them for help. This, some may contend, contradicts the wisdom of Proverbs 18 by “taking a side” without first hearing the entire story. “Shouldn’t we first gather more information before we assume that someone is an abuser?” some have asked. While there is much that can be said here please allow me to address just a few concerns.
1. How we read the book of Proverbs.
Most of us would agree that the Proverbs are a wonderful tool in ministry, shepherding and counseling ministry in particular. After all, they are wisdom literature. The caution is that these tokens are written as general observations. In other words, they ring true in almost every situation, but there are exceptions. For instance, I have heard parents claim Proverbs 22:6 as a promise only later to experience the disappointment of a rebellious child. Wisdom literature may offer wisdom but may also require wisdom in how we apply them. Could abuse be one of those instances?
2. How we read this proverb.
Proverbs 18 is a collection of twenty-four sayings that may be applied to a variety of situations including relationships or business dealings. Verse seventeen is addressing the reality that it can be difficult to discern the truth, in a dispute or conflict. (It should be noted here that I do not believe abuse to be a “dispute” or simple “conflict” but the use of power to control another). Verse seventeen offers no solution; it only speaks to the problem. That is why I would suggest including verse eighteen in your interpretation and application. Proverbs 18:18 states, “Casting the lot settles disputes and keeps strong opponents apart.” To many of us this would seem foolish, as if flipping a coin would somehow help us believe or put aside an accusation. If we literally apply verse seventeen to abuse cases, always hearing “both sides” before we are free to trust one’s account, then should we not heed verse eighteen and just cast lots in a search of the truth? I hope that sounds silly and I pray we are not bound “iron-clad” to a literal Proverbs 18:17 approach when confronted with abuse.
3. Trust God, not chance.
Thankfully, the wisdom of verse eighteen is not found in a game of chance, but the sovereignty of God. You see, to cast a lot was to leave the outcome to God. This practice seems to protect the weak, as they had less to lose, prompting a settlement rather than the powerful risking loss or embarrassment. In the Spirit of Proverbs 18:17-18 I suggest we listen to the cries of those who suffer. As pastors and ministry leaders, we come alongside the weak and the vulnerable and, above all, we trust God with the outcome. Experience tells us that among the things victims need in moments of disclosure is support and trust. Can we move toward a reliance on God that is so strong that it allows us to put off our assumptions? To offer faith and hope while also relying upon his truth to guide us?
I shared earlier that a common component to the Proverbs 18:17 question is a desire not to make an assumption regarding the one being accused. In my personal experience, this concern is voiced after a wife has disclosed her husband’s abuse and the pastor is fearful of accepting her claim as the truth. While we may not want to assume that the husband is abusive, for some reason we are willing to assume, or suggest by our actions, that the wife is either a liar, overreacting, or ignorant of what constitutes abuse. I’m not sure why we continue to do this, in particular with women. Perhaps it’s a form of male privilege that still resonates in our hearts, a fear of being wrong, or a belief in the myth of pervasive false accusations. Whatever the motive this is precisely why we encourage each other to believe the victim and offer comfort and help in the moment of disclosure and beyond. After all Proverbs 18:5 warns: “It is not good to be partial to the wicked and so deprive the innocent of justice.”