I was greatly encouraged by the positive engagement I received in response to my series on the mistreatment of ministry staff in churches. It is unfortunate that what I wrote resonates with the experience of so many people in addition to those whose experiences originally led me to write on this topic. This has reinforced to me that this truly is a serious and widespread problem. That should not surprise us. Indeed, we should prepare for this to continue to be a problem from now until the Lord Jesus returns to end sin forever.
One response to what I wrote was repeated so frequently that I thought it worth engaging directly. This is the notion that in these situations of abuse and relational breakdown “both people are always to blame”. Many readers were very insistent (even dogmatic) that ministry staff who were mistreated by their bosses were most likely, even necessarily, guilty themselves. Both parties sinned. Both parties “contributed”. Both parties share responsibility for what happened. Both parties are always to blame.
I strongly disagree. The idea that ‘both parties are always to blame’ is profoundly harmful, unjust, unbiblical, and simply untrue. The sooner we jettison this ghastly idea from the church, the sooner we can engage these matters in a genuinely Christian way.
The response I am criticizing comes out of a deep-seated problem with the way that evangelicals often talk about sin. We all agree that all people are sinners. However, it does not follow that all people sin in all situations. Nor does it follow that in an abusive relationship both parties are to blame for what occurred. The facts of what actually occurred must be established on a case-by-case basis. We can only justly assert that both parties are to blame if we are able to point out the specific, blameworthy actions that each party committed. (Even then, the proper response to each individual’s actions might be very different). If we can’t specify what a person did wrong then we must never assume their guilt. There is enough sin in the world to deal with without fabricating it.
All people are responsible for their own actions. That’s the point. We can only be responsible for what we actually do. By insisting that all parties are guilty in every situation we will, in many cases, cover up the truth, defend the guilty, and lump the innocent together with the guilty. We will treat victims as though they are as guilty as their persecutors.
It’s also unbiblical. Applying this principle to various Biblical passages produces some peculiar results:
- In Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son, when the son returned to his father to confess his sin, the father should have replied “I’m equally to blame son. Both of us contributed to our relational breakdown. Clearly my behavior was partly to blame for you taking my money and squandering it.” But that is not what happened. (Luke 15)
- When Peter asked Jesus “how many times should I forgive my brother who sinned against me?”, Jesus should have said “the first thing you must recognize is that you are both to blame for what happened, not just him!” But that’s not what happened (Matthew 18:21-22).
- Joseph should have admitted some responsibility for what his brothers did to him. Yes, they threw him into a pit and told their father he was dead, but Joseph was a big-mouthed little brother (Genesis 37:2-11). So when they met Joseph as the second-in-command in Egypt and repented of their great sin against him, Joseph should have answered “let’s put it in perspective guys. I was an arrogant jerk who contributed to what you did…”. But that is not what happened (Genesis 50:17-21).
- David’s Psalms need revising. David cries out to God against his enemies, pleading that he has remained righteous in his conduct whilst his enemies seek to do evil against him. Of course, we modern Christians know better – reality isn’t so black and white! Clearly David needs to consider what he did to provoke such hatred from others. David’s self-righteous assumption that he is right and they are wrong probably contributed to making his enemies so angry in the first place! But that’s not what those Psalms teach (e.g. Psalm 109, 140).
“Both parties are always to blame” makes nonsense of the Bible’s teaching and leads to great injustice. It insists that people who are innocent own up to guilt that they don’t actually bear. It makes incidents of abuse out as though they were just mutual disagreements, and therefore nobody needs to be called to repentance or disciplined. This slogan undermines the process of genuine forgiveness and reconciliation. Relationships cannot be restored without recognising the truth of what actually happened and dealing with it in accordance with the gospel.
In short, “both parties are always to blame” is a lazy, thoughtless excuse for failing to do the difficult work of taking sin seriously. And yet it is far too common a sentiment among Christians today. Whenever we hear this sentiment brewing in our minds or reflected in our conversations we need to ask why that is. Are we trying to avoid dealing with difficult issues and ugly realities? Are we trying to excuse our friends? Are we trying to excuse ourselves? My fear is that at least some who insist that “both parties are always to blame” are seeking to cover up their own sins instead of repenting of them.