Of Pastors and Judges – innocent until proven guilty

My response to Doug Wilson’s uncalled for and unpastoral satire on dealing with abuse allegations:

The Presumption of Innocence

“Innocent until proven guilty” isn’t merely a high-sounding phrase; it’s a legally binding presumption in criminal cases. Even the word “presumption” has legal significance. In jurisprudence (the philosophy of law) a presumption is a limitation or a requirement placed on a particular type of case or procedure within a case. When it comes to presuming innocence it governs the evidence in a criminal trial.*

If not proved otherwise, the presumption means that the presumed prospect – in this case innocence – prevails and the person is conclusively (no longer presumptively) considered innocent. The judgment must be to acquit the accused person of the charge. (The presumption of innocence should not be mistaken for a finding of factual innocence, though.** That finding can be achieved through another process in court but not by way of jury verdict.)

Of course, if the charge is proven then the jury is to find the person guilty, the presumption having been overcome by the weight of the evidence. This is how evidentiary presumptions work in court.

The presumption of innocence applies to trials, though, not to earlier hearings such as setting bail. Bail is set on the type of charge the person is facing, the person’s record, public safety and the risk of flight. These factors don’t need to be proved beyond a reasonable doubt but merely to be considered as to whether there is some evidence supporting a conclusion one way or another. Judges apply a lesser standard in these pretrial matters than at trial.

Why hold a short lesson on the jurisprudence of presumptions? To differentiate courtroom procedure from the pastoral role in the kingdom of God.

Pastors Who Presume

Joseph suffered one of the most striking false accusations recorded in the Bible. Potiphar’s wife wanted to bed him, he refused her, and in retaliation she told everyone that Joseph tried to rape her. Potiphar, Joseph’s master, threw him in prison on his wife’s word alone. (Genesis 39.)

This is how it works when one is a slave. There is no presumption of innocence. There’s accusation and imprisonment.

The point of Joseph’s story, though, is not about false accusers but about how God sustained Joseph through it all and brought him to a place of greater influence and responsibility because of it. What Joseph told his brothers about their own betrayal of him might as easily have been said of the false accusation of attempted rape: You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. (Genesis 50:20.)

Rather than focus on the point of the account in Genesis 39, Pastor Doug Wilson recently wrote a blog post turning it around on the accuser. (Potiphar’s Wife, Survivor.) It is a satirical piece that presents Potiphar’s wife as a blogger posting her story in the same style of victims of physical, sexual, emotional and spiritual abuse whose experiences are reported on blogs in the present day.

While this may be satire, there is no hint of humor in it. Mr. Wilson is hitting back at those who bring false accusations and at those who believe them to the further detriment of the falsely accused.

Is there no place to call out false accusations? Sure there is. Is it a pastor’s place to do so by relying on a passage with a different point entirely?


First, as noted, the point of Genesis 39 is not to focus on the false accusation but on what God did in Joseph’s life and what God did for all of Israel through Joseph.

Second, by writing this satire in language so closely copying true accounts as to be indistinguishable from them Mr. Wilson invites his readers (whether inadvertently or not) to see all accusations as suspect and untrustworthy.

This isn’t even how it works in court. A presumption of innocence doesn’t say the accuser is considered a liar until proven otherwise. It merely provides that once the case gets to trial the side bringing the charge – the prosecution – has to prove it beyond a reasonable doubt before the accused can be convicted. That is, the evidence must overcome the presumption at trial in a court of law.

A Pastor’s Study Is Not a Courtroom

If someone who has been abused or sexually assaulted decides to seek help from a pastor, the last thing they’d want to read on that pastor’s blog is a post like Mr. Wilson’s. How could the person already feeling overwhelmed help but wonder if they will be met with an expectation they prove themselves before help is given.

It’s not that pastors must assume every person claiming to have been harmed is actually a victim. Pastors have to exercise discernment just as anyone else would. Yet pastors must be pastoral in how they deal with the people God has put in their congregations.

Also, today Mr. Wilson wrote a defense of his post on Potiphar’s Wife, saying its purpose was to reveal certain dangers. He writes at one point:

Now if an ordinary victim of a crime is seeking for some reason to have her status upgraded to priestess-victim, one of the tell-tale signs is that she will demand to have her story automatically believed. (No Goddess Can Ever Save Us.)

Again, there is nothing pastoral in this defense. He does not reach out to the “ordinary victim” (whatever he means by that) who expects to be believed and receive pastoral care. He doesn’t seek out how to care for someone who is hurt and expresses herself in a way that perhaps he does not understand. He does not urge pastors to get the training they need to understand such expressions from people who have been hurt in unimaginable ways. No, he calls them priestess-victims.

The response is not to be “Prove it and then I’ll help” or “I’ll help you but I better not find out you’re making this up.” The pastoral response is “How can I help? Let’s talk this through so I understand better what you need, since I have some professional resources for people facing what you’re talking about.” And if appropriate, the response can include “Do you mind if I talk to your spouse?” Sometimes the appropriate question, though, is “Have you called the police yet?”

Judges don’t counsel people who claim to have been abused nor those who claim they’ve been falsely accused. Judges provide a neutral forum for the charges to be presented, evidence heard, and a judgment rendered. At times that judgment will be a conviction and at times an acquittal because sometimes the charges are true, sometimes they’re not, and sometimes the evidence doesn’t clearly show one way or the other.

A pastor provides a different forum, though, where the pastor is ready to listen, to guide and to protect if necessary. A pastor’s study is where all receive pastoral care: those who are wronged and those who wronged them, as well as those who are falsely accused and those bringing false accusations. I fear a post such as Mr. Wilson’s does little to invite anyone into such a forum.

It’s just not pastoral.


*There are other legal presumptions as well. For example, a person not heard from for a particular number of years (the length varies among jurisdictions) might be presumed dead unless there is evidence to the contrary. Of course, there must be evidence proving the person has not been heard from to then create the presumption the person is dead.

**Scottish courts allow three verdicts: Guilty, Not Proven, and Not Guilty. The first verdict is a conviction, the intermediate verdict is meant to convey a lack of evidence, while the third is a statement that the jury considers the person innocent of the charge; the second and third verdicts are both acquittals.


Please do not discuss past or present court cases or investigations in the comments, thanks. (I’ll be monitoring the comments carefully on this point.) Today’s post is about pastors being pastoral. Here’s one explanation of how being pastoral requires credulity at times: Begin with Belief.


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49 Responses to Of Pastors and Judges – innocent until proven guilty

  1. tiquatue says:

    Mr. Wilson is not a pastor. He may call himself one. He may occupy a pulpit. But a pastor needs compassion and he has none. His words have proven this lack again and again.

    Thank you, Tim, for pointing out the flaws in his argument.

  2. Addressing this from the angle of contrasting pastoral and judicial approaches is very helpful. Wilson’s post is repugnant — and his smugness makes it all the more so. I can’t fathom how a CHRISTIAN PASTOR (!!!!!) could click “Publish” and send that garbage out into the world. It would be better for him to hang a millstone around his neck and be drowned in the depths of the sea than to have written that.

    Oh well, maybe next time.

  3. Reformed Ink says:

    Hi Tim, it’s been a while. Doug’s post was so out of place and so inappropriate that if anyone else would have done it, they’d probably get fired at the next counsel meeting. It’s the first time I’ve witnessed a professing Pastor give the middle finger through satire.

  4. dswoager says:

    It is striking to me just how little I know about this situation, but how obvious the target of his ‘satire’ was. I just happen to be friends with or follow a few people that have resulted in me scrolling past some information in my social media feeds… and that was enough for that post to turn my stomach.

    Piggybacking on another commenter – where does one purchase a millstone these days?

    • Tim says:

      It’s inexplicable the hold he has on people after reading this nonsense. The comments to his post show a multitude of followers who lap it up like a litter of kittens around a milk saucer.

      • dswoager says:

        I’m unfortunately long past being surprised by such things. I have seen it happen and heard stories of these little (and not so little) cults of personality so often that I’m more surprised when someone actually is held accountable for their ugliness.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:


  5. Cassie says:

    Thank you so much for this. I was having a very hard time with humanity this morning regarding this exact issue and it heartens me to see someone pointing the way back to good pastoral practice.

  6. Lea says:

    >The presumption of innocence should not be mistaken for a finding of factual innocence, though.**

    This is a thing that drives me crazy when people commonly talk about ‘presumed innocent’ in a church situation. That doesn’t mean a person is innocent, even if it made non-legal sense!

    A person is innocent or guilty, their legal status changes that not at all. We all know innocents have been convicted and guilty have gone free. And yet this phrase is wielded as if people should simply turn off their brains until some official designation has been made.

    • Tim says:

      People shouldn’t allow a legal process – a presumption that places the burden of proof on the prosecution – and try to make it fit church life.

  7. Lea says:

    Apologies for the twice in a row comments, but I had a thought about responses here.

    It might be useful to think of things in terms of triage. If someone comes to you and says a terrible thing has happened, the first thing you do is not a legal assessment. The first thing you do is offer comfort, or first aid of a sort. Then call the police, if appropriate. Or what have you. Any fact finding comes much further down the line (if it is your responsibility at all, which it quite likely is not).

    Support first. Call the police or go to the hospital first.

  8. Nancy2 says:

    I dunno. I read the PWS mess. I wonder if DW is trying to turn the tables and just poke fun at women who really have been victims. I wouldn’t put it past him!

  9. Seth says:

    Hi Tim,

    Two questions. From when I first read Pastor Wilson’s account, the point seems to me to be “Some women who are abusers paint themselves as victims.” The point of the second satire was “Some men who are abusers paint themselves as victims.” Are either of those propositions incorrect?

    Also, let’s say you had a church elder who was accused of rape by a female congregant. You have no reason to disbelieve her (she seems sincere), but she unfortunately has no corroborating evidence. The elder denies it, but provides an alibi that cannot be confirmed. So she can’t provide proof that it happened beyond the accusation, but he can’t provide proof that he didn’t do it besides his denial. What do you do, given that “A man’s case seems right until the other comes and examines him.” Prov. 18:17 and “Do not admit a charge against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses.” 1 Tim. 5:19?

    Seth B.

    • Tim says:

      The issue is whether he writes so as to promote people coming in for pastoral care or not. He does not.

      As for what to do in that situation you describe, I can’t advise or surmise on a hypothetical situation but hope the church was a place where people felt that problems like this will be handled the right way.

      • Seth says:

        I’ve come to him concerning abusive situations before. Nothing in the article made me think twice about doing it again. I really do think those two propositions were the main points of the satires. So are they true or false?

        What is the right way to handle such a situation then? Paul says don’t admit a charge against an elder with only one witness. Can’t we believe the victim, and yet not pursue discipline against the elder since there is only accuser? Can you provide any thoughts on what those two verses mean?

        I read Claire’s article. She said, ‘We will NOT try to get “the other side of the story.”’ How do we obey Prov. 18:17 then?

        • Tim says:

          I think we’re mixing apples and oranges here. An accusation against an elder is not necessarily an abuse accusation. As for not admitting a charge against an elder without more than one witness, that is not the same as saying you shouldn’t investigate such charges unless more than one person has complained.

          And let’s take your question to an extreme. Suppose as elder is accused of sexual assault and the only witness is the accuser. Then suppose the elder is convicted of that crime in court beyond a reasonable doubt. Do you think that passage prevents the church from taking disciplinary action since there is still only one witness? What should a church do in such a situation?

    • Tim says:

      Here’s a short resource from Claire Rose on how a church can initially address the situation you mention, Seth, and why Wilson’s approach is so wrong:

      • Seth says:

        The website won’t let me reply to your other comment for some reason.

        “An accusation against an elder is not necessarily an abuse accusation. As for not admitting a charge against an elder without more than one witness, that is not the same as saying you shouldn’t investigate such charges unless more than one person has complained.”

        Right. Investigate, which involves getting both sides of the issue (Prov. 18:17).

        “And let’s take your question to an extreme. Suppose as elder is accused of sexual assault and the only witness is the accuser. Then suppose the elder is convicted of that crime in court beyond a reasonable doubt. Do you think that passage prevents the church from taking disciplinary action since there is still only one witness? What should a church do in such a situation?”

        Sure, remove him from eldership. If he does not repent, then excommunicate him.

        Still don’t have an answer to my question about the satire itself though. Jesus frequently did things that “turned people off from the gospel” (John 6:60) and yet He still said them, because they were true. “Some women who are abusers paint themselves as victims” is true statement, correct?

        • Tim says:

          And the church, then, would be disciplining the elder on one witness, which seems right to me.

          As for what Jesus said on occassion, he never did so at the expense of the oppressed.

        • Seth says:

          Disciplining the elder on the evidence of one witness? That’s not what I’m saying should happen. If he’s criminally convicted in court, a civil trial would require more than a simple accusation. But let’s say there was only one witness (the accuser) and there was not enough evidence for a civil trial? What would you do then?

  10. I’m not going to click the link to read the thing. It would probably upset me too much. I will say this: victims of abuse are very often told that they will not be believed if they try to tell someone what is happening. This happened to me, first by my brother and then by my first husband. Different types of abuse, same tactic. So the very first thing a genuine victim may well do is insist that the hearer believes them. It is so hard to be made to feel like whatever you say will be taken for a lie, even when you know that you don’t tell lies.
    Of course there are those who make up stories of victimhood for attention. But the facts still stand that the vast, vast majority of sexual crimes go unpunished because the legal system requires ‘proof’ (as it must), and proof beyond a reasonable doubt is very hard for a victim of a crime that occurs behind closed doors to come by. Also, too often it is left up to the victim, who is already extremely emotionally vulnerable, to prove what happened.
    I want to thank you, Tim, for standing up for righteousness, not just what is right, in your job and here on your blog. It means a lot to me to know that there are people like you out there.

    • Tim says:

      Thanks, Sandy. While criminal procedure may say “Prove it” before there can be a final conviction, a church should say “How can we help?” as an initial response.

  11. The DW reign of the goddess (feminism) rant has a point. However, equally the reign of the god (machismo) – which is not addressed in the post.

    May the God of Heaven and Earth, Creator of men and women, reign.

    In 2016 Carter did a TED talk which recognized the preeminent human rights (yes, that Carter) issue of our time is that of women, globally. He backs this up with facts and figures, worldwide, and several reasons why this is so, including misappropriation of religion. http://bit.ly/1HsCFNY

    That is why when this Train blog discusses women and engagement from a Biblical point of view, it is much needed truth.

    • Tim says:

      If Wilson could make his points without denigrating people, I’d see it as progress. Not that I’d then agree with his points – his doctrine is still wrong – but at least it would be progress.

  12. Pingback: In Advocacy: Begin with Belief | Claire Roise

  13. I am no feminist. I affirm servant-headship and mutual submission. And complementarianism (Sorry, Mr. Piper, this is still not officially a word after all these years, according to my spell-checker!) remains anti-scriptural. One of the main pastoral comes when we over-stress the conflict the Fall sets up between spouses, and also the sexes. Feminism seeks to usurp men. Masculinism seeks to usurp women. In a Patriarchal world, women must remain suspect… though, those women who enable unscriptural distinctions rule along-side their men. Every one turns paranoid and at war with each other. My own marriage suffers after over a decade in such a church. I regret this deeply. DWs comes across as a tiny outraged ‘god’ getting perturbed because his turf becomes threatened by ‘goddesses’. This man does not display the image of Christ, the Good Shepherd(seeking out the one lost) nor does he act as one charged to serve ‘the least of these’. He only serves himself. Not a pastor at all…

    • Tim says:

      True. There’s nothing pastoral in how he presents himself at all.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      Feminism seeks to usurp men. Masculinism seeks to usurp women.

      And the rules of Power Struggle go into effect. Where the only two possible states are His Boot Stamping on Her Face or Her Boot Stamping on His. Nothing else, nothing in-between.
      “A crown based on lies,
      Game of Thrones!”

  14. *one of the main pastoral pitfalls comes when we over-stress the conflict… sorry!

  15. From the Post: “Here’s one explanation of how being pastoral requires credulity at times: Begin with Belief.” Link – http://bit.ly/2lmMfu8

    Followed the link and looked at the blog a bit – excellent. Thanks for sharing this link. Good find. Claire Rose does good work.

  16. Actually, if you read Potiphar’s wife carefully, she’s a predator. Joseph repeatedly said, “No”, and she kept violating his boundaries. Plus, *she* had the power, with Joseph’s being a slave. In other words, she would, in my view, be closer to Wilson and the like, and Joseph closer to the victims. (But, Wilson likely doesn’t understand “consent”.)

  17. Lianne Simon says:

    Another great pastoral post, Tim.

    I actually went to a pastor once to request a legal ruling from my church. A Reformed scholar whom I respected told me that I was in willful disobedience against God because I changed my legal status from male to female. He said I couldn’t even be a Christian except as a man. I didn’t doubt that I was a woman, but his statements made me question my right to be one. I realize that some people don’t like the idea of submitting to the church’s authority, but I intended to listen to what they had to say about God’s Law and my status under it. Their answer was more pastoral than I expected and led me closer to Jesus.

  18. Sandra J. says:

    Are you a pastor, Tim? What church do you belong to? I wish there was better teaching near me.

  19. Julie says:

    I was abused as a small child but blocked out the memory. I was in my late 40’s before I figured out that I had been abused. (I’m not going to go into details, but there was evidence that could not be denied.) A few days later I went to my pastor, who had known me for several years and told him what I had figured out. I was blown away that he said, “I believe you,” while blinking back tears. I wasn’t even sure I believed myself at that point, because the memory had been blocked. I expected to have to cite the evidence to make him believe me. I did not have to. He just believed me. I cannot tell you how much that meant to me, how much of a healing balm that was. And because he believed me, he pointed me to a good therapist who had the credentials and experience to help me.

    • Tim says:

      Your pastor and that therapist sound like God’s blessings in your life, Julie.

      • Julie says:

        Yes, indeed. It also blew me away that he had tears in his eyes. I didn’t. I was dry-eyed and talking rather matter-of-factly at that moment, though I had done a lot of crying in the days before that. I have since learned from my therapist that I compartmentalize very well — more so than anyone else she has had in therapy — and that is probably a big reason I was able to survive and keep going as a small child when I got no help or counseling at all.

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