“Please, please, please, the next time someone comes to you with a “story” about someone, don’t be so foolish as to believe it without asking for the other side. Instead, say, “I know you would not want me to be a Proverbs 18:13 fool, so would you mind if I asked this person for his/her side of the story?”
If there’s one thing that would transform our churches, it’s the application of the simple principle in these two proverbs:
He who answers a matter before he hears it, it is folly and shame to him (Proverbs 18:13).
The first one to plead his cause seems right, until his neighbor comes and examines him (Proverbs 18:17).
What does this mean in practice? Here’s an example:
When your elders are dealing with a dispute or a case of discipline, they are bound to confidentiality. The person or people who are at the center of the controversy often do not exercise such self-restraint and will talk to others inside and outside of the church, presenting their side of the story and their opinions about how the elders have been dealing with them.
What should you do if you are one of the people that hears just that one side of the story?
You should start by saying this to the person: “If I express an opinion about this without hearing the other side of the story, the Bible says that I am a fool and a disgrace. You don’t want me to be that, do you?”
(I’d like to add that Q&A to every catechism that exists and make memorization of it compulsory).
You then have a choice between two options about what to say next:
Option 1: ”I trust the elders to get this right and I would encourage you to plead your cause before the elders rather than going around pleading your own cause in their absence. If I hear of you continuing to present only one side of the story, I will have no option but to inform the elders that this is happening.”
Option 2: “Would you free the elders from their commitment to confidentiality so that they can share with me the results of their examination of your case? That way I will avoid falling into folly and disgrace by expressing an opinion without knowing both sides.”
If we actually followed the Bible’s teaching on this, so many churches would have so much more peace.
Elders should also make clear to anyone in dispute with them, or in the midst of a disciplinary process, that they will maintain confidentiality and expect the person to to the same. However, they should also warn the person that if they abuse the benefit of that commitment, they forfeit the privilege of it.
This Proverb also applies to less formal situations — ordinary, everyday relationships. For example, I once had a Christian friendship that was growing increasingly close and mutually beneficial (I thought). And then it suddenly went cold. Stone cold. It was so painful and I just couldn’t understand it. I probed gently to see if I had offended him in any way but made no progress. There was clearly no desire on his part to maintain the relationship.
Some months later I found out that a Christian I had crossed swords with many years before had poisoned the brother’s mind against me with lies. Yet my “friend” never asked my side of the story. I thought about trying, but then remembered Proverbs 18:13 and concluded that it was not a “friendship” worth having.
So, please, please, please, the next time someone comes to you with a “story” about someone, don’t be so foolish as to believe it without asking for the other side. Instead, say, “I know you would not want me to be a Proverbs 18:13 fool, so would you mind if I asked this person for his/her side of the story?” That wouldn’t just be church-transforming; it would be world-transforming.
David Murray is Professor of Old Testament & Practical Theology at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary. This article first appeared on his blog, Head Heart Hand, and is used with permission.