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.
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.
One person on Twitter mentioned that Mr. Wilson’s post might be a veiled response to those who criticize how he handled a case involving members of his church that went to court and resulted in a conviction. 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.) This post is about pastors being pastoral.