#3 The Fault Does Not Always Lie With Both Parties
The evil that is often done to many people who are escaping abuse is that they are accused of sin simply because they are in some mutual relationship with this person. Many leaders believe they have some form of a “safeguard” against wrong judgement, and it’s to believe that both people have done wrong. But this idea is not supported by Scripture: certainly David didn’t sin against Saul and therefore cause or have some equal blame in the relationship. While there absolutely can be equal sins in relationships, the great mistake for many leaders is assuming that abuse is two sided. They do not understand the difference between marital conflict and an abusive relationship. In the case of the first, generally there will be two sides to the conflict, but again, not always. In the case of the second it will almost always be from one person, but again, not always. The leader has to discern in each situation what is the case, there is no simple “safe” rule. In the case of David and Saul, did David have his own sin outside of this relationship? Certainly—and God has much rebuke for him in this! But did David have sin within this relationship? Absolutely not. David’s Words in 1 Samuel 24:12 were perfect and just, “May the LORD judge between me and you, may the LORD avenge me against you, but my hand shall not be against you.”
Leaders must realize how evil it is to falsely accuse people of sin. Remember, this is what the devil does, not God. If a leader is not careful they can absolutely be used by the devil for his purposes in this matter, either by falsely accusing those who have not done wrong, or by failing to give right judgement so that those who are wronged can have some form of justice. Many leaders are foolish in this matter! They assume it’s somehow safe to just accuse both people of sin, failing to realize that this is like closing their eyes and firing a gun at random. Nor do they perceive how this cruelty drives desperate people to the edge. It is a great evil because it is done on top of some of the greatest suffering in a person's life. The cruelty of Job’s friends was extreme precisely because Job’s suffering was already so extreme: his loss, pain, and confusion was miles high and yet his friends further afflicted him with accusations.
#4 Neglect Is Injustice Not Mercy
Many leaders act as if the fact that an “oppressed” person has their own sin somehow means there should be an overall “cancelling out” of all sins against them. It’s not the case of two wrongs make a right, but they do believe that two wrongs make no wrongs! And they use this awful thought to cancel out the truth of the wrong being done to those oppressed. They say, “You also have your own sin.” And this is true, but the implication here is an attempt to deny them right justice and to deny the leader’s duty to rebuke the “oppressor” and call them to repentance.
For clarity on this point we can look at Nehemiah 5:1-13. When the people came forward to Nehemiah crying out because of the wrongs being done to them, did he turn them away with long-winded lectures on forgiveness or on how they too were sinners? No, he charged the oppressors with wrongdoing: “I was very angry when I heard their outcry and these words. I took counsel with myself, and I brought charges against the nobles and the officials. I said to them, ‘You are exacting interest, each from his brother.’ And I held a great assembly against them.” (v6-7) This is perhaps the most simple point, and yet, still, it has to be said!
How terrible would it have been if Nehemiah had said instead, “Well, I know that you’re starving, and that your daughters are slaves, but you should go home and pray for these nobles, and really work on your own heart to be forgiving toward them.” If he had done so, he would have oppressed them far more than they already were. Yet this is exactly the danger when our ideas of mercy exceed what the Bible teaches us they are to be!
What is really going on here at a deeper level with our little ideas of “mercy” is that they are making self the basis of this rule. The thought is, “I don’t want to be judged for my sins so I will not expect others to be judged for theirs”. This is the wrong interpretation of “judge not” that has too long existed and gone unchecked. The basis of “judge not” is that we are not hypocrites when we do judge. It is not that we refrain from judging rightly, but that we judge all people correctly, including ourselves. It is not so that we escape judgement and are therefore liable to allow others to escape judgement, it is so that we are all judged under the truth. This is the very great difference between a mercy that is based upon lawlessness (and this most certainly comes from the world) and a mercy that is based upon the fulfilling of the law in Christ and repentance.
The basis of our failure to give right justice to the poor and oppressed is that we have a very wrong view upon what mercy is. And that is because we have a very wrong view of what God’s mercy is. We fail to perceive the essential detail of God’s mercy: that Christ was the substitution for us. He bore the full weight of God’s wrath on our behalf. This means that sin was not just removed, it was paid for by the death of God Himself. There is therefore an extreme difference between this false mercy that is based upon lawlessness and that which is based upon paying for the sins done.
God speaks very clearly about this difference in His declaration of His name: “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty…” (Exodus 34:6-7) What God shows us here is the distinction between man’s mercy and God’s mercy. Man’s mercy is based upon the removal of Law, and God’s mercy is based upon the fulfillment of the Law. Man’s mercy permits a person to live “free” from God; God’s mercy commands man back to a right relationship with Himself. Man’s mercy does not call him to holiness, but God’s mercy frees us from sin so that we now live in holiness before a holy God (Eph 1:4).
Ultimately, God will judge, but as we await that Day it is of great importance that those in positions of leadership use their authority to truly shepherd His people well. And while justice without mercy does not reflect His heart, neither does mercy without justice. We might not take a bribe in a dark alley to pervert justice, yet we pervert justice for our ideals that oppose God. When leaders are not correctly taking responsibility to rebuke, discipline, or excommunicate people, that responsibility doesn’t just magically float away on the wings of some imagined “grace”. That responsibility lands somewhere, and it too often falls onto the victim. They are burdened with false responsibility after responsibility to do things they are not responsible for. Too many leaders fail to see that putting off their responsibility to judge is not merciful; it has great cost and does further violence to the afflicted. Responsibility flows down. This means that when we do not do our duty, it doesn’t just vanish, it lands somewhere else and brings harm.
This is the great cost of neglect. If a parent neglects their responsibility to feed their child, will the child be unaffected? No, this has great cost upon the child. The effect of neglect is the same in any sphere, regardless of whether or not we perceive it. So, choosing to neglect justice in the name of a perverse mercy is not a powerful “righteousness”; it is a deep cruelty and corruption. Yet rebuking people for their need of justice and their deep pain would be the same as a parent shouting at their child for withering away from their failure to feed them.
This is the fallout of failing to have right church discipline: those who do evil are not disciplined and those who have had evil done to them are further burdened with “responsibilities” that are not their own: “Have you tried being more forgiving… Have you repented of your own sins in the relationship…” This is a great weakness in the church, yet, foolishly, many people think this is their strength! “Oh, look at how wisely we guide people to do what is right.” In reality their advice is cruel and works further harm rather than truth. They fail to rightly deal with sin and evil, and yet they imagine this to be mercy. I say it again, it comes at the cost of the oppressed and it is the work of the devil. It can drive them away from the church, and it is a great injustice.
#5 Failure to Judge Is the Sin of Presumption
On the other hand, many people who are oppressed do often fail to understand their own sins. However, this point is used like Job’s friends upon them, wrongly placed so that they are accused of having done wrong where they haven’t done it. This is a great evil and hindrance to them! And it keeps them from seeing their sin; it doesn’t help them. Depending on the circumstance a person finds themselves in with an oppressive person, there is a significant chance that they didn’t sin against this person. There is such an evil assumption that circulates where people almost immediately seek out where the oppressed person’s sin is in the matter. This is a great cruelty to those who have done no wrong but are having wrong done to them and are seeking help in getting away from it. While we are all sinners, this never means that we all have sinned in all areas of our lives or against all people. The people who accuse others of this, falsely, are just as Job’s friends were to him.
In light of this, though, many people who have suffered under oppressive/abusive people fail to go on to see outside of this particular circumstance where they do have their own sins. It is easy here for these people to think that they are the “good, meek, oppressed” ones, and that others are the sinners. This is the real danger. Sin should always be rebuked where sin is. The matter here is that we should profoundly avoid accusing people of having sin where they do not, and not fail to call out sin where it is.
Truth Rightly Placed
One of the most needful things for people who are suffering is to be dealt with according to the truth. Job suffered a great many things and yet only the first two chapters detail these. Yet the next thirty chapters detail his suffering in being falsely accused by his friends. It is a great evil. And it is one of the greatest evils that the church can do when people who are truly oppressed come to them—to burden them with lies and responsibilities that are false. Yet this is so often what so many leaders do. They do violence to the oppressed, yet they write it off as a mere error of judgement. There are great challenges in being able to discern the truth, because not everyone who says they are a victim truly is, but we are responsible to rightly judge, “Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment.” (John 7:24)
We are called to judge, and to judge correctly. The trouble is not judgement, but wrong judgement. Yet it is in the name of fearing this that so many people fail to act. They believe they are hugging a “safety” by not giving judgement at all. They think they can escape being accountable to God and being judged for failure if they bury the talent in the ground (Matt 25:14-30). It is the doing of this that is violence to the oppressed. When you say things like, “I don’t want to take sides… It’s not my place to get in the middle of things… Judge not.” When people cry out to you for help, obeying the structure given by God in Matthew 18:15-17, you do violence to that person. You commit evil against them. You join with oppression rather than with righteousness. We need to understand the difference between not being a busybody and the excuse of “not taking a side”.
We do need to be careful to discern what is true in a circumstance. Many people falsely accuse others of things, claiming to be the victims when they themselves are the ones abusing. We cannot judge on the surface of people’s words. But this is no excuse. We must make it our duty to always be joined with the truth. To stand with those who are truly oppressed, and oppose those who oppress them. You “not picking sides” is picking a side, it is picking the side of the oppressor over the oppressed, because you choose to put off your responsibility to oppose evil. We must realize that people who do violence choose it. And while we pray for our enemies we should never be so wicked as to fail to act for the right of the poor. “A righteous man knows the rights of the poor; a wicked man does not understand such knowledge.” (Prov 29:7)