But what about Proverbs 18:17?

“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?

 Final Thought.

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.”

Learn More

To learn more about the dynamics and impact of domestic violence as well as how your church can respond well consider joining a PeaceWorks coaching group. Visit http://www.chrismoles.org/training for more details.

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34 Responses to But what about Proverbs 18:17?

  1. Tony says:

    I think if someone comes to you for support that you should support them first, then I believe you are obligated to attempt to speak to the other party and see how the church can assist them as well. It is obvious that both parties will need religious help, either with being abusive towards people or being a victim of abuse. I don’t believe you make a victim prove their case first before you support them, because it puts everything back onto a victim when, if they are being abused, now the church is abusing them again while trying to convince people of their abuse. Maybe with a little support, they will open up more about their abuse. Something to think about definitely.

  2. Right on Tony. We, as the church, to often have re-victimized individuals while trying to remain neutral. I appreciate your comments on this.

  3. Harlan Casto says:

    Awesome instructions Pastor!

  4. Jeff Crippen says:

    Chris- Your point about us being willing to assume the woman is lying is a very powerful one. It reveals our (most of the time) male bias. All of us as pastors and elders need to acknowledge that we can tend to talk down to a woman who comes to our office for advice or help, or with a question, and we need to treat her as a sister. One further point we might consider is that in the vast majority of cases, an abuse victim (especially a Christian victim) is VERY hesitant to come and ask for help. She is afraid she will sin in doing so by disrespecting her husband, or afraid (with justification) no one will believe her. In addition, the fog of abuse has her so confused as to what is really going on that she wonders if she isn’t most of the problem herself! So it takes real courage for a victim to come and talk to us. If a wife really wanted to do harm to her husband, falsely accuse him, etc., there surely are less humiliating ways of doing it than inventing an abuse scenario.

    • Thanks for your insight Jeff. The “fog of abuse” can/does envelope pastors as well. We can easily misread her fear, fatigue, and frustration as the problem instead of a symptom of his abuse.

    • Anonymous says:

      Hi Jeff,

      Not only are people biased about a woman’s ability to tell the truth, they also make biased judgments about perpetrators, believing that they don’t lie. I have not come across a single counselor, minister or leader who questioned the story of perpetrators I knew of. They were assumed to be telling the truth. If they claimed they were innocent, and if they claimed that their wives were mentally unstable, then that was accepted without question. But if their victims claimed abuse, they were told outright that they were lying. Slight bit of bias there?

    • AJ says:

      Also in my experience I have only seen one case where the abuser didn’t go to the church leadership many times to tell his story before the victim has been able to ask for support. In each case by the time the victim asks for support church leadership has not bothered to check facts and has fully supported the abuser.

      Love the new blog Chris!!

    • Suzie says:

      Thank you Jeff! I that “fog” of abuse is real! I got enough corage up to seek help and the pastor I sought out “accidentally” told my abusive husband I was seeing an attorney! I was chained in fear and confusion for 13 more years. I finally got free. It was women who helped the most. I didn’t go to my current pastor because of my past experience. My current pastor supported my getting out but, really didn’t “get it” and actually was being pressured by my husband.

  5. Tim says:

    Hey Chris, your article is spot on when you identify how we tend to misinterpret the proverbial wisdom of the Bible’s OT wisdom literature as well as the tendency of male leadership to “not believe the woman” because of the failure of church leadership to not recognize or understand the dynamics of emotionally destructive (abusive) relationships and it’s impact on the victims. Please continue to speak out for those whose voice is often silenced.

  6. Chris, I just found your blog! Well done with this post!

    I actually used Proverbs 18:17 on the Anglican minister of the church my husband was going to after separation — I’d obtained a protection order against my husband which resulted in him being put out of the home some months before this. This minister was believing my husband’s story 100% and had not attempted to hear my point of view at all.

    You are right that the sayings of Proverbs need to be applied with wisdom and its is foolishness to apply a given verse from Proverbs in each and every circumstance. I think it was reasonable of me to confront this minister with Proverbs 18:17. All I did was send him a brief note explaining my experience of my husband’s abuse and the fact that a protection order had been given by the court to protect me from him. And under my signature I wrote “Prov. 18:17.” It was my mild way of rebuking the minister without being too obstreperous. Because I knew full well that if a woman appears *angry* or *obstreperous* she is likely to be discounted . . . that double standard of male privilege. . .

    The minister never acknowledged my letter.

    • Barbara, thanks for the encouragement. I’m sorry you never heard back from that minister. Speaking of Anglican priests, have you read Justin and Lindsey Holcomb’s new book, “Is it My Fault: Hope and Healing for Those Suffing Domestic Violence?”

      • No Chris, I haven’t read that book. Do you recommend it? Would you like to review it for A Cry For Justice? I’m so busy at the moment with family matters and I’m a perennial delegator anyway . . .

      • I’d love to give it a shot. I’ll have some time next week to relax. Maybe I’ll try and put something together. Thanks.

  7. Tony said:
    “I think if someone comes to you for support that you should support them first, then I believe you are obligated to attempt to speak to the other party and see how the church can assist them as well. It is obvious that both parties will need religious help, either with being abusive towards people or being a victim of abuse.”

    If I may, Tony, I would like to point out something to you.
    If a victim discloses abuse seeking support from the pastor, and the pastor then goes and speaks to the abuser to ascertain ‘the other side of the story’ and ‘how the church can assist this party as well,’ this is going to be recipe for BIG TROUBLE. Here is why.

    The likelihood is that the abuser will lie, tell half-truths and cleverly manipulate to make the pastor think that it’s not that bad. . . it’s not really abuse. . . both parties are partly to blame, etc. And if the pastor asks the abuser how the church can assist, the abuser is going to do any or all of the following: pose as the victim to reap sympathy from the church; make a partial confession and fake apology and phoney repentance; win the moral high ground; point out his wife’s ‘mental issues’; be willing to go to marriage counseling so long as it is couple counseling; ask the church to help the marriage reconcile. This results in the victim being disbelieved and pressured into unsafe reconciliation and unwise forgivness when the abuser has not really repented and reformed. Some victims have even been disciplined and excommunicated for refusing to reconcile and for divorcing when their husband (read “Anti-Husband”) is the one who “wants the marriage to continue”.

    True repentance from abusers is rare, and true reformation takes a long time and a lot of hard work on the abuser’s part, as I’m sure Rev Chris will testify from his experience of facilitating men’s groups.

    So Tony, if you as a pastor start from the premise that you need to talk to the other party (the alleged abuser) and ask how to assist him, then you need to bear front and central in your mind these two important facts:
    1. ABUSERS LIE.
    2. Abusers do not need ‘assistance’ or ‘support’; they need to be HELD ACCOUNTABLE.

    Sorry for the all caps. I’m not shouting at you; I’m just trying to make the take-home message memorable but blog comments don’t provide for italics. Thank you so much for being willing to engage in a discussion of this kind. It’s a challenging subject, especially for pastors.

    • Tony says:

      Sorry Barbara for the delay in a response. I totally understand where you are coming from, I work with victims of abuse and batterers on a daily basis. Of course, batterers lie and are very manipulative. I do not work as a pastor, but as a concerned Christian and law enforcement officer specializing in violence against women crimes. I see abusers manipulate police officers not well trained in abuse all the time. I have heard the stories of victims trying to convince their church leaders that they need support. I teach law enforcement about domestic crimes, but have also attempted to offer church leaders training on recognizing domestic abuse in the church and the wily ways of abusers. The response I got on offering the training was underwhelming, only about 10% participation in my community. I totally agree with abusers needing to be held accountable and I think that is the way a pastor should approach the abuser. I pray daily for our community church leaders because they have a hard job and abuse makes it that much harder. I greatly appreciate the work you do and thank you. I try and learn from these blogs on better ways to communicate with pastors about abusers and victims. I have read A Cry For Justice that Jeff sent me, which is wonderful and will continue to offer the training to our local faith community.

      • Tony, as they say in blog-land — I heart you!

        in other words, mate, I love what ya said!
        So glad you working hard at trying to chip away the ignorance, indifference and misunderstandings on this issue.

  8. Suzanne says:

    It’s always more difficult to deal with a problem after it happens. I suggest that parents and youth leaders need to give as much attention to the prevention of spousal abuse as they do to premarital sex. Design a program that first and foremost tells young women (again because they are more likely to be victims) that they never have to accept physical abuse and should take action immediately after the first occurrence, and that means calling the police as well as physical separation from the abuser. No victim should ever be counseled by her parents, pastor or other church leader to stay where they are in danger. No abuser or incident of abuse should ever go unpunished. The victim should be the first priority and not the marriage, family reputation, etc. If this was done many children would not have to be born into a home or attend a church where violence is tolerated and kept secret. It’s equally important when raising boys to make it plain that violence against a woman is a thing never to be done or tolerated. And each of us should begin immediately to inquire about the way our church deals with abuse, whether physical, verbal, or emotional.

    • So true Suzanne. My dad is a huge influence on me and taught my brother and I the importance of respecting my mom, as well as, women in general. My dad literally had conversations with us about respect. I will poll our groups occasionally and have yet to have one our guys share a similar experience. Most men do not talk about this, and sadly most fathers are not intentional with their sons regarding gentleness, respect, and self control. Peace.

      • Suzanne says:

        As I read your post it occurred to me that fathers need to take a greater role when they give their daughters away in marriage. If a father knows his child is being abused even after marriage he should step in and tell the abuser in no uncertain terms that it has to stop. Better yet he should get his child out of harms way immediately. Too many parents assume that their adult child no longer needs their protection. How I wish that my maternal grandfather had stepped in to protect my Mom from my father!

    • Suzanne. I agree with you, I’d just like to add that it is not only physical violence that is the deal breaker. There are many victims of abuse who are never touched in anger their abusers, but the gaslighting, the emotional abuse, the verbal abuse, the financial abuse, the isolation are incredibly destructive to the victim. I believe that church leaders need to know and preach and teach what abuse is — in a very robust definition that makes it clear that physical violence need not occur to make it *qualify* as “abuse”. It is the pattern of control and mindset of entitlement in the abuser that makes it abuse

      At A Cry For Jusitce, and likewise at the Domestic Violence Hotlines, masses of people testify that “My husband/spouse never hit me!” And sadly, most of them have laboured under the misconception for years that because ‘he never hits me’ they are not victims of abuse. Or ‘he never hit me so I got broken bones or needed medicat attention.’ Or “he never beat me up!’. Or “he never punched me with a closed fist, he just slapped me once and pushed me against the wall a few times. . . ”

      You can imagine the endless variations on this theme of “he’s not an abuser because he didn’t do _____” And it’s not only victims who tell themselves this. It’s the abusers as well. They almost invariably say “I’m not an abuser because I don’t do _____ to my partner.”

    • Teresa says:

      I heartily agree with Suzanne’s suggestion and Barbara’s addition. This is absolutely something that the youth in our churches (and everyone, for that matter) should be taught about relationships and is every bit as important as discussions about sexual purity. Why would we not do this?!!

  9. Cheryl says:

    God bless all of you for your comments about HOW important it is to believe victims of abuse; when they get the strength & courage to come forward for help! I also was a victim of abuse; not only from my husband; but from the ‘church’ I was attending during my marriage. Am SO, SO very thankful for blogs; support groups, and real Christians who are standing up against abuse; and are willing to step out and protect the innocent women & children who need help! I echo & agree with everything that’s been posted here! Praying for more doors of understanding to be opened in many ‘church’ settings today about what abuse REALLY is ~ thanks again to all of you who are willing to keep standing up against abuse of any kind toward women & children!

  10. Forrest says:

    When first contacted by somebody presenting as a victim it is important to refrain from judging. Accept what they say as legitimate and really listen to them. Encourage them to share their concerns. If they are acting as a false witness (although I have never come across anybody doing that) it will come out. If they are being true, then they need protection now. They also need more than anything else to be heard. That will help them.

    It is incredibly important to get past the Adam-type response of making it the woman’s fault. (Gen 3:12)

  11. Chris – so proud of you. You’re going to be an important voice out there. I’ll also plug you in my blog this Wednesday.

  12. Pingback: Good men: please denounce the Permanence View of Marriage that denies any reason for divorce. | A Cry For Justice

  13. Wayne Borean aka The Mad Hatter says:

    Should pastors or ministry leaders believe what they are being told, or are they obligated to investigate first?

    Pastors or ministry leaders should NEVER investigate. Unless they have experience working as a police officer who investigated abuse and/or sex crimes, they don’t know how to investigate.

    What they should do, is on a report (or even a suspicion) of abuse, call in the police. The police are trained in investigation, and render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s.

    Of course if you have a small town, relatively untrained police force, this may not work. That’s one of the reasons that our province amalgamated all the small police forces into one, large, and very professional force. The Ontario Provincial Police is a large, well trained, and extremely professional police force.

  14. Teresa says:

    Another thing that we should be aware of is the tendency of abusers to undermine the credibility of those they are mistreating in case word of their abuse gets out, and even after. As a teenager, I acted up in choir and then said negative things to my parents about the choir director so that they would already think negatively of him in case he came to them. An abuser’s undermining of his abuse victim may be so subtle that you don’t even pick up on it. Never underestimate the deviousness of an abuser!

  15. Joy Forrest says:

    Absolutely! Proverbs contains great principles for living, but there are exceptions– especially in cases of abuse! I remember telling myself that if I would just respond calmly to my abusive husband, he would surely calm down. After all a gentle answer turns away wrath (15:1). Not only did my gentle responses fail to turn away his wrath, they actually seemed to anger him even more. As a young Christian, it was very confusing. I needed someone to explain that these are principles and not promises.

  16. healingInHim says:

    Excellent post and comments.
    I’ve long given up on the church helping me. What made my situation so difficult is the promiscuous life style of so many within the church. I felt that my ‘sexual abuse’ probably wouldn’t be taken seriously and sadly, when I attempted to seek counsel, I was right. Even years later it is difficult to admit that I was indeed sexually and in many ways physically abused. ‘His’ public wholesome demeanor is what everyone wants to believe is the truth.

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