The Benefit of the Doubt: The Ethics of Confrontation

Benefit of DoubtIt is a strange concept, but scripture actually instructs us to approach different people differently.

We are an egalitarian society. Some call it a “low power” culture. We like our relationships to be on equal footing. We believe, because “all men are created equal,” we should be able to approach all men (women) equally.

But, though God has indeed created all men to be equally responsible in his sight and they have all equally been born with a sin nature, we are not all equal.

But I am not talking about authority structures. Some people, of course, are in authority and some under authority. I am talking about how we engage in relationships when a person has sinned against us.

We are not equal when it comes to approachability.

How do we confront people when they sin against us?

I have been taught that giving the benefit of the doubt is the most biblical response to sin. I have been taught and have received, as my own, the adage that we should always, I mean always, give the benefit of the doubt when someone offends me. There is much in scripture to support this response to conflict.

Though it may be hard to tell from my writing, I have the gift of mercy. That gift is closely associated with giving the benefit of the doubt. But in this article I want to show that when it comes to confronting abusive individuals, giving the benefit of the doubt is not necessarily biblical.

Proverbs and Confrontation

Beginning with the wisdom found in Proverbs, it is evident the wise one had experienced individuals who were abusers. Some of the normal character traits of an abuser are:

  • Extreme self-centeredness [entitlement] – they are always the most important person in the relationship.
  • Lack of humility – inability to receive any kind of criticism. They are never wrong.
  • Blame-shifting – because they are never wrong, someone else is.

Proverbs 8:13 says, “The fear of the Lord is hatred of evil. Pride and arrogance and the way of evil and perverted speech I hate.”

If you love the Lord, you will hate evil. And the wise one notes what that evil is: “pride and arrogance, the way of evil, and perverted speech.” These are all related and build upon one another, pride being the foundation.

As one who follows Christ, it is wise to hate pride…one of the most basic character traits of an abuser. This is a self-centered, entitled pride. It is a focus on self. Stay clear of it. “Hate it,” says the wise one.

Do Not Reprove a Scoffer

That hatred of the pride of the abuser may drive you to confront it. They may have hurt you deeply. They may be causing harm to others…in fact, likely are causing harm to others. They may be making your job miserable.

Or you may just want to give them the benefit of the doubt. Give them a chance to explain their actions.

But there are real difficulties in confronting their entitlement.

Moving ahead one chapter in Proverbs, the wise one says, “Whoever corrects a scoffer gets himself abuse, and he who reproves a wicked man incurs injury.” [Proverbs 9:7] The “scoffer” can be defined as one who scorns, talks arrogantly, or boasts.

This passage is of immesurable worth to those oppressed by toxic leaders at work or at home with an abuser. But the wisdom presented is seemingly contrary to all we have heard from our pulpits and in Bible studies: Give the benefit of the doubt. Always go to those who sin against you [Matthew 18 principle]. Always forgive and forget.

However, the Bible does not present a cookie-cutter method for engaging the sinful behaviour of others. Different people respond differently. And scripture tells us this:

You will incur injury if you confront a scoffer.

Note what the wise one goes to say:

8 Do not reprove a scoffer, or he will hate you;
      reprove a wise man, and he will love you.
9 Give instruction to a wise man, and he will be still wiser;
      teach a righteous man, and he will increase in learning.

This is very different than the Matthew 18 steps:

  1. Confront the one who sins against you one-on-one.
  2. Brings someone with you if he doesn’t respond.
  3. Take it to the church if he doesn’t respond to this.
  4. Treat him as an unbeliever if he doesn’t respond to the church.

It is as if, in the case of the “scoffer,” you jump to step four. Whereas you can go to your “normal” sinner and challenge him for his sin (one-on-one), the abuser will cause injury and hate you.

What happened to the benefit of the doubt. What happened to “process” as presented by Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel?

People are different and the abuser (toxic leader) is not approachable. And Jesus does not expect or command you to approach him (or her) in the same way as those who are normal sinners. There are a number of reasons for this.

Bold Love

Dan Allender, a Christian clinical psychologist who has written much on abuse, gives very helpful wisdom gained from years of experience caring for those who have been abused. He masterfully handles the application of the Gospel to those situations in his book, Bold Love.

He builds a strong Biblical case for understanding the abuser as “evil.” And he says, building on Proverbs, “Evil can never be overthrown through rational, reasonable argumentation.” [page 243]

The steps taken, beginning with one-on-one confrontation, in Matthew 18 are founded upon rational, reasonable argumentation. In approaching a brother who has sinned against us, we take for granted they will be rational and reasonable and hear our struggle with their sin…and hopefully repent. We have well-founded hope that he will respond. It may take a couple (or three) confrontations with expanding forcefulness (adding more people to the mix as Jesus instructs), but in time we have the hope he will turn from his sin.

We give some benefit of the doubt.

However, the abuser “regularly and masterfully, portrays his motives and behavior as innocent. Others just do not understand. He is deceitfully gifted in making the victim of his abuse feel like the perpetrator of the harm.” [page 236]

He turns up the abuse, shifting the blame as Allender says. He is not safe.

He will hate you

The wise one in Proverbs 9:8 says the “scoffer will hate you” if you approach him. Note, this is not just a hatred expressed in disagreeing with you and ignoring you. It is a hatred found in Matthew 7 where Jesus says the “dog” will “turn and attack you.”  If he were to just ignore your confrontation, no problem.

But the wise one says it is dangerous and he helpfully tells you to turn around and walk the other way. Allender says,

Evil has a keen smell for false gods. It will sense what our heart truly loves and worships, and threaten the weakest, most ungodly chinks in our armor in order to keep love mute. [page 244]

Abusers (scoffers) do not just turn heals and run from confrontation. They do not just disagree with you. They will find your weakness and exploit it. They are master manipulators and will do all they can to bring you down while placing themselves on the pedestal.

So, how do you apply the Gospel to abuse?

Because abuse can never be won over by rational argument, Allender says abusers must simply be held accountable. He says,

If evil consistently wins, it will see more evil as the only strategy for keeping its victory spoils and gaining new rewards. One of the greatest gifts one can give a person inclined to evil is the strength to frustrate their attempts to dominate. [page 243]

You apply the Gospel by not letting toxic individuals get away with manipulation. You apply the Gospel by holding them accountable and stopping them. It is important for those in authority to stand in for the oppressed. [Isaiah 61:1-2]

The church can play a major role in this process. If the leadership understands abuse they can help each other not be taken in by the abuser’s tactics to control and manipulate. And they can set boundaries to hold him accountable for his actions. They can confront him as presented by Jesus in the third step of the Matthew 18 principle.

In addition, the church can provide safety for those who have been oppressed by an abuser…an ear to hear the target’s struggles and a place for healing. A place where they can be believed and given the benefit of the doubt.


Allender, Dan B., and Tremper Longman III. Bold Love. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2014.

4 thoughts on “The Benefit of the Doubt: The Ethics of Confrontation

  1. A series of thoughts come in response:
    2 Thess. 3:13-15 Tale note … and have nothing to do with him…
    1 Thess. 2:14b-15 We were torn away from you brothers for a short time, in person not in heart…
    Coloss. 3:15. Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts…
    Coloss. 4:6. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.
    Romans 12:18. If possible, so far as depends on you, live peaceably with all.
    Titus 3:9-11. But avoid … have nothing to do with him…
    Psalm 109 is imprecatory, yet I “give myself to prayer” and ultimately “praise Him in the midst of the throng.”
    Psalm 123:3-4. I have had “more than enough of contempt.”
    Psalm 35:11-18. I went about as though I grieved for my friend or my brother… How long, O Lord will you look on? V.24. Vindicate me, O Lord…

    What is our responsibility? (1) Don’t respond in kind. (2) Accept hurts & pain as part of the fallen world we live in. (3) Turn to the Lord. In Him is ultimate resolution – either on repentance or in judgement. (4) Sometimes the wisest course is walking away and grieving to the Lord, asking him to bring restoration, knowing that I have been ostracized from the restoration process. Restoration and healing must come through someone else. So in grief we “have nothing to do with him.”

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