Mayella Ewell falsely accused Tom Robinson of sexual assault, but Tom was found guilty. While making an attempt to escape prison, Tom was shot dead. Do you remember Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird? It was one of my favorite books growing up. In the novel Mayella truly had been assaulted; she was a survivor. But Tom was not her attacker and she knew it. Atticus Finch, Tom’s Lawyer, could do little to reconcile Tom before the court. Lee wrote, “Atticus had used every tool available to free men to save Tom Robinson, but in the secret courts of men’s hearts Atticus had no case.”
As the #believewomen movement grows, To Kill a Mockingbird puts an important question before us:
How do we protect the abused, while maintaining a presumption of innocence?
Harper Lee’s 1960 fiction shines a light on 2018 issues. When Tom Robinson was accused, he was considered guilty because of his race. If the court of public opinion is mistaken as a court of justice, the innocent are often destroyed. So how should the church respond in cases like the one presented in To Kill a Mockingbird?
This question isn’t a mere hypothetical. As recent events have proven, even the church is not exempt from both abuse and false accusations. When accusations come forward, and those who have been abused should feel safe coming forward, who should the church believe: all the accusers or all the accused?
Even the attempt to answer such a question inherently alters the role of the church. The church is no longer the Bride of Christ but assumes the gavel of the Judge. In doing so, she assumes a role reserved for her Bridegroom, Jesus (Matt 28:18, Acts 10:42). Only God knows the secret courts of men’s hearts. In a world full of hurt and pain, Jesus assures both the abused and falsely accused a just heavenly court where sin will be punished. Meanwhile, God gave the church a specific role: healing wounds—not judging them.
The Judge or The Bride?
All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation.
2 Corinthians 5:18
When accusations arise, the question for the church isn’t “who should we believe” but rather, “how can we bring about reconciliation—how can we make things right?” In such cases we would do well to remember the church is the Bride and not the Judge. As the Bride, the church points to the only True Judge—Christ. He alone is the truly Just Judge. His Bride, the local church, seeks to restore the abused in him; in her, the abused find a empathetic embrace. Women who have been sexually assaulted and abused ought to find care in the church. The Bride of Christ can and does provide shelters, safe places, and counsel for assaulted women.
Having addressed those who are abused, we must also talk about protecting those falsely accused. False accusations are the minority of cases, but they need reconciliation too. We must remember that Jesus was falsely accused, sentenced and executed before a court largely influenced by public opinion. The Bride, therefore, must be very judicious before making public statements concerning any accused party. Premature public declarations of innocence or guilt threaten to change sanctuaries into courtrooms and altars into witness stands. In order to refrain from putting on the judge’s robe, the church should allow for outside investigation for accusations against her ministers.
In God’s court, all truth will be established. Yet here on earth, some of the guilty will go free. Lamentably, not all of the abused will receive earthly justice. Some of the innocent will be punished. Therefore while the Bride points to God’s ultimate justice, she must embrace and bring healing to the children of God. The local church—the embassies of God’s kingdom—must offer the healing balm of the gospel to the deepest wounds of the heart.
Pastor Summerville First Baptist, married to Danielle, father of five, PhD student @SWBTS, MDiv SWBTS 2012, BA Theatre OSU