Benefit of the Doubt: A Christian Virtue

I’m not going to blog any more about what happened around here last week, at least not for a while. But this thought did occur to me over the weekend:

I nominate benefit of the doubt as a Christian virtue.

In this era in which the communication between those of us who’ve never personally met is increasing exponentially every year, we are more than ever confronted with the ideas and opinions of others. I submit the the Christian posture toward the other should always be the benefit of the doubt that the other has beneficent ends.

Whaddya say, can we commit to giving one another the benefit of the doubt?

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  • I’ll second that.

  • Absolutely. (But you know that.)

  • Thank you, thank you! AMEN!!

  • Jackie

    It’s not just a virtue, it’s a commandment! (at least if you believe Luther’s explanation of #8.)

  • Jennifer

    Sounds wonderful!

  • Please! I want to move in that direction, for sure!

  • Rachel

    as someone has already seconded, I’ll call for a motion. Aye.

  • Carla


  • Amen.

    I work with a lot of social workers, and something they talk about a lot is that we should always (if possible) “assume positive intent.”

    This kind of approach can literally change ones life.

  • Craig

    I agree. But should Eve have given this benefit of the doubt to the serpent? Should Jesus have given this benefit of the doubt to the moneychangers? Was there really no room to doubt in these cases? I wonder what other Bible stories might cast doubt on this virtue.

    • Eve “before the Fall” evidently did have this virtue, wrongly or not or without applying better reasoning. It’s only “after the Fall” that we tend to not. At least the way I see your question taking shape on this.

  • Yes. +1. Amen.

  • I’m in!

    I’m not Jesus and I’m not Eve and if there’s room to read tone into the text, I’ll read the tone of a friend and fellow journeyer. I’ll try understanding and grace before judgement. I’ll seek for clarification and I’ll remember that we’re all moving along a path together. Nothing, not even an opinion, is the end of the story. So let’s keep talking. Openly. Carefully. And kindly.

  • Intellectual charity, combined with honesty, humility and tentativeness will keep us on the path to truth.

  • jenya


  • Madison

    This isn’t a new thing. It’s in Aquinas. It’s called charity; it perfects the will. You could also appeal to Ricouer’s “hermeneutic of charity” for a more modern read on it. But if we’re gonna use the word “virtue,” we might as well not try to reinvent the wheel, even if the nomenclature is an attempt at reinvigorating a very ancient concept.

  • KRS

    Thanks Jackie for bringing in Luther. Nice to have some historical perspective. I wonder if he ever had to assume positive intent in dialogues with others after posting the 95 These. Looking forward to future posts representing a wider perspective.

  • I dunno. Sounds suspiciously like mercy to me.

  • Thom

    It depends on the inividual doesn’t it? Would I agree to offer someone whom has a past of racist, unjust acts simply because they want to have coffee or comment on a blog? Thru process yea but right off the cuff, probably not. The scenario of doubt here is that it would be profitable for those involved in the dialogue right? So as I am thinking out loud, it would take time for me to give and take or find out where push comes to shove. Then ther would be the non-credal commitments that we could agree to disagree on. The issue that may be paramount is how can you “know” someone via twitter or any other communicating device where a face to face is not the norm? To offer the benfit of the doubt to someone may be a bit to idealistic for me within most parameters.

    • Craig

      Undoubtedly there are considerations that could countervail. But barring special countervailing considerations (many of which simply won’t apply), I interpret the idea to be something like this: whenever possible, regard the comment as posed by someone with good will and good faith (who perhaps didn’t have the time, skill, or care to express himself/herself in a way that would convey that tone). And, if necessary, make a real effort to do this. That seems attractive to me.

    • It doesn’t mean changing your belief or accepting something that is not true. Facts can always be challenged, just don’t assume someone is intentionally lying. If someone is consistently disagreeable you are not obligated to interact with them. You will have to judge for yourself what constitutes sufficient effort to understand. That’s all I ask.

  • i wholly support assigning positive intent (and it goes both ways). i also believe that, operating within own humanity, sin, and privilege, we unintentionally (or even with good intention) hurt each other and perpetuate a status quo that can be harmful. so i’m for extending the benefit of the doubt and accountability both. i really hope you will address this conversation later. you are in a position to change things for the better.

  • Because intent erases hurt automatically and those who are hurt are just being bitter and unforgiving and uncharitable rather than having actual real complaints and problems! YAY!!!

    That was sarcasm, for the uninitiated. Benefit of the doubt goes both ways, Tony, and I certainly didn’t feel I received ANY of that charity from you last week.

    • Eric E

      As a bystander in this, I was going to ask Tony who he thought I should give the benefit of the doubt … him or the women who were expressing the problems they’ve experienced.

      I was struck by the difference in reaction between Tony and the gentlemen at another theology blog recently:

      “In the interest of what we can learn from this here, is there something we can do to our comment policy that would help women feel safe here?”

      I wonder how the comment section would have been different if that was how Tony approached it rather than the defensive posture he actually took.

  • Starfish

    Good intentions don’t negate pain. I can believe you don’t intend to harm or alienate people. I generally believe most people aren’t out to harm others, but those good or neutral intentions don’t negate that people are being harmed or alienated. So, fine. You have the benefit of the doubt. Now, how are you going to address the unintentional harm you’ve caused others? Because if you refuse to address it, then you lose the benefit of the doubt and I’m putting you down as untrustworthy.

    • Craig

      Hey, one virtue at a time. 🙂

    • Asking someone to address things that they didn’t intend leaves a lot of room for interpretation. If the harm can be easily identified, that’s one thing, but let’s be careful to not confuse “refuse to address” with “I don’t know what I did”. I don’t know what specifically you are referring Starfish so I am not commenting on anything specific. I’m not judging you or Tony either way. I’m suggesting that if the harm was unintentional, let’s work on the understanding before moving on to the judgment about how it is handled.

  • James

    I would suggest that the onus of extending the benefit of the doubt is on those in positions of privilege, who are accustomed to receiving the benefit of the doubt as a matter of course themselves. Benefit of the doubt, in other words, is itself a privilege that not everyone can take for granted.

    • Craig

      James, maybe the onus falls heavier on some (including, perhaps, those of us who don’t comment under our full or real names), but don’t you think that, generally speaking, the onus falls on us all? Rather than say that receiving the benefit of the doubt is a privilege, why not say rather that we each start with a legitimate claim on it, a claim that individuals might, e.g., through persistent bad behavior, lose and have to regain?

      • Gayle

        Craig, I don’t understand, “the onus falls heavier on some (including, perhaps, those of us who don’t comment under our full or real names).” Can you please explain what you meant.

        • Craig

          Gayle, even if all have some responsibility to practice the virtue in question, there may be various reasons why some people have that responsibility to a greater extent, or have additional reasons to be more vigilant with respect to its practice. Commenting anonymously, or quasi-anonymously, may make it easier to comment like an irresponsible ass. You just have less at stake, as far as reputation is concerned, which can sometimes be bad (which is not to deny that it can also sometimes be very helpful, rendering insults and perceived slights less personal and significant). Does this help?

          • Gayle

            It does help if one assumes that commenting without ones full name could only ever be about being an ass and not about the fear of further abuse. An alias is often used by a survivor in order to prevent further abuse and to suggest otherwise is to speak from a place of privilege.

          • Craig

            Gayle, I never doubted that you–or James or anyone else here–had fully legitimate reasons to preserve anonymity, or some degree of it. My observation is that, even when our reasons for preserving anonymity are fully legitimate, this doesn’t take away from the fact that anonymity still tends to weaken our natural, social inhibitions against behaving like asses. This, I take it, is an observation about human beings. As human beings. it therefore makes sense to be more vigilant about not behaving like asses when acting under the veil of anonymity–even when we have very good reasons for using that veil.

            Notice that I’m also not denying that special responsibilities also attach to positions of social privilege.

          • Gayle

            I agree that people generally feel free to be more dismissive or asinine when they are anonymous. People also tend to feel more inclined to be an ass when they are in a position of power. Like telling a person who’s story they don’t know that their comments are “nonsensical.” I don’t have a problem with people who want to be abrasive asswipes. I have a problem with people who want to be a spiritual authority and are then dismissive of the legions of people who have been fucked sideways by the Church.

          • Craig

            I wholeheartedly agree with all of that. On the benefit of the doubt thing, I’d just say that a person with an entirely sensible–and very important–thing to say can sometimes express it poorly, and we might excuse another person for not grasping one’s important point because of its less-than-articulate expression. I still suspect that Tony Jones might yet be a good ally for you, even if he’s not come around yet. But (and it is very likely) you may know a lot more than I about the prospects of this.

      • Simon

        James, maybe the privileged have a heavier burden to extend the benefit of the doubt, but I would add that it is also a privilege to give someone the benefit of the doubt. While there is always a danger of further abuse, giving the benefit of the doubt (have faith?) can also be transformative for oppressor and oppressed alike. I say, don’t do anything to take this antidote to cynicism away from either the privileged or the wounded.

        • James

          Simon–yes, I think you’re right to say “it is a privilege to give someone the benefit of the doubt.” That’s really my point. Not everyone occupies that place of privilege. Those who take it for granted assume (wrongly) that everyone occupies a place where benefit of the doubt can be assumed and granted. Not everyone has experienced this; some people routinely experience the opposite. I would add, further, that the women who commented in response to the original question, did in that very act of commenting, extend benefit of the doubt, and many of them did not receive the same in return. It can indeed be transformative, as you point out, but extending the benefit of the doubt from a position of risk is significant;y different than doing the same from a position of safety and privilege. That’s all I’m saying.

        • James

          Or, skip the above and read Elizabeth Rawling-Wright’s comment below; she expressed very well what I’m trying to say here.

    • @James such an important point!

  • KB

    Once, perhaps twice, but not incessantly.

    Take Driscoll as an example. Never met him. Could forgive a few of his rants. But not with that consistency. And that’s important. If you keep giving the benefit of the doubt, you’re not learning, not listening. And that’s plain foolish.

    • I don’t have any doubts about Driscoll. I know he is a ….
      But seriously folks. At some point, the only “benefit of the doubt” I can give is that they are a human being, subject to flaws and they have a heart and somehow believe that what they are doing is right. But there is a point, the obvious and extreme example being sociopaths, where you have to set boundaries. It is a question of degree, “once or twice” seems kinda a low bar to me, but I don’t know what you’re thinking, so I think we agree in princple.

  • Yes, the benefit of the doubt is like trust in that regard: a given until it is lost or betrayed. The tricky thing in online communication is that most of us do not have real-life relationships with each other or social capital built up to draw on – so while I agree that it is absolutely ideal to offer generosity of spirit to each other first and ask questions later, it may be that some in this place cannot be so generous with every commenter (or, perhaps, with Tony) because of past experience. Again, the ideal is seventy times seven – but y’all might be better at the forgiveness thing than I. To clarify, I have no issue with Tony; I’ve talked with him, heard him speak, read his books/blog. I do think his regular and vocal presence in the conversation taking place in the comments would be very welcome. The commenter last week who likened it to setting the table and then not attending to/enjoying the feast or guests was apropos, time be damned. We are taking the time; Tony, you can, too.

    • Craig

      The commenter last week who likened it to setting the table and then not attending to/enjoying the feast or guests was apropos, time be damned. We are taking the time; Tony, you can, too.

      I’ve an easier time if I think of Tony as going back to just work in the kitchen. But if he keeps dishing out the same shit that everyone knows is shit, well then that’s a real problem. But I don’t know that that’s what’s happening.

    • Jane, I read every comment. I comment several times per week. I also read about 400 other blogs. Plus I have kids, a job, and many other interests. I engage as much as I can. Some days more, some days less, depending on my schedule.

      • In the conversation last week, you noted that you would reconsider your presence in the comments section, perhaps particularly to defuse ugly situations in progress – which I took to mean you’d think about being more frequently present. That position is what I meant to encourage by my comment. I’m aware you have a job, kids, “400 blogs” to read. But we all have jobs and kids and read 400 blogs – and we’ve all shown up to read *your* blog, and even taken time to comment. My point was that your willingness to add your figurative light to your blog community would be a great gesture of goodwill.

  • Monica

    I will go with what the dissenters are saying.

    That goes both ways. It’s easy to say “let’s just assume they meant well” when it happens once. When it happens over an extended period of time and folks require therapy….

    No more doubt. You or the person who shall not be named are causing some damage. This is not weakness, rebellion, or them being used by the devil.

    It’s damage. Irreparable harm. And the refusal of the offending party is why people leave churches/cell groups/add your group here.

    Don’t try and shame the hurt person into forgiving you. How about being an adult and taking responsibility for your actions? Having a heart to heart?

    Or how about just using your ears first and mouth last?

    I’m not sure, but I’m frustrated with believers right now. I don’t expect perfection. I just expect maturity and respect. The same thing our parents taught us.

    • Honestly, Monica, there are so many weird unspoken euphemisms and allusions in this comment that it’s nonsensical. Can you just say what you mean, and use names?

      • Karla

        I don’t buy that you think Monica’s comment is “nonsensical,” and I’m not a little disgusted that you would choose to insult her instead of responding to the general message of her comment, which I thought was pretty clear.

        Scratch that. Insulting WAS your response. Very classy of you to lash out when a person hits a nerve.

        • Karla, feel free to be insulted on Monica’s behalf. I truly have no idea what she means in this post. I don’t know who she’s referring to or what she’s trying to say.

          It seems that some of you are getting ginned up in another conversation somewhere, then bringing it over here as though we all know what you’re talking about.

          And, once again, no one has been banned from commenting for disagreeing with me. And I’ve demanded an apology from no one.

          • Karla

            I’m not insulted. I’m angry that you’re continuing to play disingenuous. Why would you slam her comment as “nonsensical” if it hadn’t, somehow, hit a nerve? Why not just say “I’m not sure what you’re referring to. Could you say more?” if you didn’t understand her?

            At any rate, I think it’s at once arrogant and cowardly of you to attempt to project last week’s events – in which you were rude and dismissive to many people – through the scrim of Christian virtue because you’re all butthurt.

        • Kathleen

          Calm down, Karla. Don’t get your panties in such a wad. Give Tony the benefit of the doubt. I’m sure he had only the VERY BEST INTENTIONS in calling Monica’s perfectly understandable, reasonable post “weird” and “nonsensical.” Perhaps he has a reading comprehension disability, or something.

          • Karla

            You’re right, Kathleen. I need to work on having a meek spirit and a quiet heart. 🙂

          • Tess

            Thanks for the best laughs I had today, Kathleen. 🙂

      • Gayle

        I understood what you said, Monica. I have a slightly different communication style than Monica has so let me give it a go. I can give someone the benefit of the doubt until there is no longer any doubt. You are pompous and pretentious and you don’t appear to have an ounce of humility. So – no – you get no benefit of the doubt. You get a hearty such my kiss. XX

        • Great. Thanks, Gayle. I would then suggest that you stop reading this blog. To continue visiting this space would seem like some form of literary masochism.

          • Kathleen

            You shouldn’t make it so damn easy for the rest of us.

          • Gayle

            You say “masochism” like it’s a bad thing. I don’t read much of your misogynistic tripe. But you insulted my friend. And you should be called to task by people who are not always blowing sunshine up your ass. You don’t like women like me because we don’t just roll over and take it. Take a look at yourself, dear. You are an ass. Go with it. Just don’t pretend that you care about what Jesus said.

        • I just don’t think this blog is good for people who recognize that feelings matter. It’s about that simple.

      • Kathleen

        Made perfect sense to me. I don’t think she’s referring specifically to the meta-drama referenced in the original post, but to the idea of forgiveness in general.

        I subscribe to and not too long ago read a jaw-dropping account of sexual abuse in Amish culture. Sexual abuse and rape, often by close family members, are apparently rife in many of these communities, but they go seriously underreported because the church elders insist that there is no need for state or county involvement, that the problems can be handled within the community. And how are they usually handled? The abuser repents and does some kind of penance, and then his victim is expected to forgive him. (And it’s almost always a “him.”) No, not expected–required. Refusing to forgive, even for something so horrible as being sexually assaulted by a family member, is considered just as much a sin as the assault itself. And the young women who withhold their forgiveness, or who report the assault to outside authorities, are often permanently shunned as a result from the only community they know and from which they draw their identities. (One might say, “Good riddance,” but an older adolescent girl deprived of her mother, friends, home, and church, not to mention what the church has taught her is necessary to receive God’s grace, might find this excruciatingly painful or unthinkable.) And, of course, it doesn’t deter the abusers one bit. Big deal. Get caught, confess, repent, repeat. I don’t know whether this forum supports links, but here’s one to the article:

        There is something very, very seriously effed up about that, and it’s one reason why forgiveness should *never* be required or forced.

        Of course it’s an ideal. We think of Pope John Paul II forgiving his would-be assassin, and that’s why we admire and respect people like him. Or of the families of murder victims who fight to prevent their loved ones’ murderers from getting the death penalty, because they hate the idea that such a horrendous, violent act should result in yet another, perpetrated by the State. And of course, it is easier when the perpetrator is found to have been mentally ill or in a state where he didn’t know what he was doing. And when he expresses sincere, thoughtful remorse. But forgiveness is as much for the benefit of the person doing the forgiving as it is for the person who committed the trespass. Perhaps even more. And if one is not at a point where one can experience the benefit of peace and serenity from the act of forgiveness–and sometimes that simply never becomes possible, especially in some truly horrible circumstances — one shouldn’t in any way be pressured or guilt-tripped or otherwise manipulated into forgiving the wrong. It just causes it to fester into something even more toxic and damaging.

        And, of course, it sure doesn’t help if forgiveness is seen as a license for going out and doing the same thing all over again, secure in the knowledge that one will always be forgiven because it’s expected.

        • Kathleen

          Whoops, I just realized how irrelevant my previous comment was to the circumstances at hand. (But it was so well-thought-out! Story of my life.)

          But really, when one has been burned more than a few times, and someone says something suspiciously familiar that sure sounds hurtful and insulting, or racist, or misogynist, or whatever, then one can be excused, I think, for not granting the benefit of the doubt.

          In these days, it sure seems like it’s a greater evil to call out someone’s words as racist or sexist or just plain moronically rude and clueless and insulting than it is to actually utter those words. And, as in the Amish example above, somehow the wronged person becomes the bad guy, and the person who did wrong becomes the persecuted victim.

      • Tony, I’m so glad you said something. I read Monica’s post 3 times and I have no idea what she is trying to say.

      • Rebekah

        Tony, I’m trying to give you the benefit of the doubt here. I believe that Monica’s comment was baffling to you. While I would have worded things differently, I understood what she was saying. But don’t you see how calling it weird and nonsensical comes across as hostile? Couldn’t you have given her the benefit of the doubt by saying, “Monica, I’m trying to understand what you’re saying. What I think I’m hearing is _____, but I’m confused by _____. Instead, you’ve basically implied she’s a freak who is incapable of communication. This is a prime example of why women don’t feel welcome here.

        • Rebekah

          Unfortunately, I can’t edit my comment, but in case it isn’t clear, there should be a close quote after “Confused by ____.”

        • Gayle

          Well said, Rebekah.

  • Bill Hewett

    When you market your values and expertise as a commodity to be bought and sold, you simply cannot be given the benefit of the doubt. If you weren’t making money from your books, speaking engagements, etc. you could justifiably expect this Christian extension to be extended your way. But as long as you have economic gain blustered from your ever-expanding audience, this is a virtue that simply cannot be afforded. It’s simply the dynamic of the consumer relationship you have established. You would hold any other business to the same standard. And yes, you’re a business, whether you want to admit it or not. Some of the craftiest businesses have been shaded under ecclesial umbrellas since the beginning of the Church. I’m not calling you a snake oil salesman; I’m simply requesting that you accurately identify your context.

    • Craig

      Bill, I assume the same applies to every professionally employed church leader?

      • Bill Hewett

        You are correct in this assumption. The primary difference is the nature of local congregational ministry. A professionally-employed church leader can, over time, develop trust with face-to-face relationships and pastoral care among congregants that Tony cannot. If a local minister expects blind trust, or “benefit of the doubt” because of the nature of their work, I believe she/he gravely underestimates the congregational mindset, especially in our American consumer-driven society. Bottom line: expect skepticism and work through it to build trust. The medium of Tony’s work, especially over the internet, makes this trust-building exponentially more difficult. He needs to understand that element as one of the difficulties of his ministry and work with it rather than against it. He’s gotta play by the social rules, just like the rest of us. His audience is just much broader, and the social rules infinitely more complicated.

        • I get it, Bill. It’s more difficult. But it’s not impossible.

          • Bill Hewett

            Exactly. But it is not a granted. I believe that you are capable of doing it. “Benefit of the doubt as a Christian Virtue” could perhaps be a doctoral thesis because of the intricacies of the paradigm it creates. Extended toward whom? Every blogger or person who works for the sake of the Church? Perhaps a study of “how to be pastoral in an online faith community” could be beneficial here. I pray that you are able to strike that balance. You won’t be able to win everyone over, but you can one person at a time. Your response here is a good start. Stay cautiously optimistic.

    • Peter Forest

      Amen to that. You cannot dodge something that challenges the very legs you stand on – granted it might be harder for you for whatever reason. You are subject to criticsm and critique – from all levels and from anyone, because that is why this blog exists. To be progressive theological thoughts for anyone and everyone. If you cannot receive reproach from the community and try to hide in some ecclesial safe-zone – why should we listen to you at all? What if we finally figured out you are just selling us your snake oil and we can see right through it?

      • Craig

        What if? Maybe it’s a dodge, but maybe it’s not. But why the former interpretation? What’s the threat of granting the benefit of the doubt? (Are you joking?)

        • Bill Hewett

          Pascal’s Wager much? He’s got to earn trust. He can’t expect it as a granted, especially in his context. If there is a chance that he could be exploiting, some will rightfully doubt his motives. He should reasonably expect that. I, personally, do not doubt his authenticity. I offer this criticism to him as an ally.

          • Craig

            I don’t think anyone here is advocating blind trust and allegiance. The idea, I take it, is simply to grant the benefit of the doubt. Now that’s an appeal to a colloquialism that turns out to carry a quite a lot of nuance. What it surely doesn’t mean is this: in every case, if there is some conceptual space for doubt regarding a person’s motives, then always assume that there person has purely beneficent motives.

      • Yes, criticize and critique. That’s my stock and trade. I’m all for it.

        I’m talking about attributing personal malice to someone (in person or in the written word). It seems to me that you should not attribute malicious intentions to someone until you have good reason to do so.

        But criticize my ideas and proposals all day. Please.

        • Bill Hewett

          I would not take some people’s malice as personally, Tony. Perhaps their malice is rather directed at a history of church profiteering, or the history of your context. The nature of the internet has amplified that to a significant degree. Those who have made blatant personal attacks on you are not excused, but those offering healthy skepticism are reasonable. If the first category is the one to which you refer, explicitly state that and move on. If you are criticizing the latter, this post will likely instigate their speculations further. Please hear me, though, that I am not personally questioning your motives. I am saying, however, that someone could reasonably do so in your context. And if they do, they should approach you with basic human decency with all acknowledgment of your dignity. Those are ethical lines upon which you will find more agreement.

          • It’s pretty clear that someone could reasonably question my motives (or yours) on just about anything.

          • Bill Hewett

            Tony, you’re exactly right. If someone can reasonably question your motives, I do not believe that they would be classified as “un-virtuous.” You attract a skeptical audience because of your own skepticism, as you have previously said. So in this context, I believe that the premise of this specific blog misses the mark a bit. Perhaps, “I wish people would give me the benefit of the doubt” would be a more reasonable statement than casting the proposal into the lofty realm of virtue.

            That being said, in your local context, with those you know and love personally, you should expect this sentiment and begin to build such a conversation. It’s really all about context. Thanks for this discussion. I hope you are able to regain some stability after this taxing endeavor. It takes a strong person to dive into these waters.

            • Thanks, Bill. Maybe I am asking too much of the internet.

              And, yes, I’d like to be afforded the benefit of the doubt. When and where I’ve lost that, I deserve to be pilloried. But where I haven’t, I don’t.

  • Scott

    In that exact spirit, how about you unblock and unban those with whom you disagreed (since of course you believe in the good faith of their possts while they did not share your views)?

    • Since 2004, I have banned only three persons from commenting on this blog. Each of them was poisonous to the community. I owe no explanation further than that. You either trust me to protect this space, or you do not.

      But I have never banned a commenter because they disagree with me. You only have to read about one post (this one, for example) to see that in spades.

      • Gayle

        “You either trust me… or you don’t.” Do you honestly not know how narcissistic you sound?

  • I try to think that most people are doing the best they can most of the time. That might be more than a bit naive at times, but I’d much rather be naive and allow myself to be hurt than be bitter and hurt others unintentionally.

    So, yeah, I’m all for benefit of the doubt. Very few people are probably as mean and nasty as we’d suppose anyways. Heck, I’ll even give Driscoll a break if he wants one. 🙂

  • John Toten

    And you will know they are Christians by their good intentions.

  • Monica

    I wasn’t trying to be nonsensical. If what I said confused you, please tell me. I’ll go into detail.

    As for names, there are too many. And that’s the problem.

    I really believed I had a point. Which was “if you’re being called a dick by a lot of people, do not blame the victim. Look at yourself.”

    I’m not being oblique. At least, I’m doing my best not to be.

    But your response further proves my point. Which grieves me deeply. But I’m used to insults.

    So lets talk this out.

    • I’m being called a dick by a few people, not a lot. I’ve seen their names. If that’s who you’re referring to, then I know exactly what you’re talking about.

      • Monica

        *sighs deeply*

        When I say “you”, I mean it in the idea of not JUST YOU. But any of us. And the situation that you’re talking about I just found out about only minutes ago. I’m not joking. I had to take a xanax because that was some grade a manipulative junk going on that day. And today Tony. You say that I wasn’t making any sense, and that is because you were possibly reading my comments with your own baggage.

        So when I say:

        That goes both ways. It’s easy to say “let’s just assume they meant well” when it happens once. When it happens over an extended period of time and folks require therapy….

        No more doubt. You or the person who shall not be named are causing some damage. This is not weakness, rebellion, or them being used by the devil.

        It’s damage. Irreparable harm. And the refusal of the offending party is why people leave churches/cell groups/add your group here.

        Don’t try and shame the hurt person into forgiving you. How about being an adult and taking responsibility for your actions? Having a heart to heart?

        Or how about just using your ears first and mouth last?

        I’m not sure, but I’m frustrated with believers right now. I don’t expect perfection. I just expect maturity and respect. The same thing our parents taught us.

        I REALLY MEAN:
        It’s not about just you. It is a problem with all Christians. To assume that I am talking about you is myopic. And I know about myopia because I wear glasses(crikey). Christianity has a bad habit of saying we should forgive those that hurt us but doesn’t say what a good boundary is. So what needs to be a Christian virtue is boundaries. And you’ve just crossed mine. I get what you are inferring now. And that’s pretty wrong.

        What happened last week should be in last week. Under the blood and honestly dealt with as Jesus and Paul suggested. Not taking it out on people who thought you were saying something cool and wanted to respond with a “I disagree yet agree”.

        And the person who you are referring to is Stephanie. She has a name. And I know her well enough to know she doesn’t need me to fight her battles. So let’s do this one more time. I will say it. I am angry because of right now, you’re lumping me with a group of people that I know and assuming stuff.

        Kind of like what Christians accuse non-christians of doing all the time.

        I thought I was being an adult by saying why I disagreed with your idea, but all it did was kick up my anxiety. Because I’ve had to be mf-ed by folks like you in the church all my life. And it took just one extra time of being demonized for me to realize that the church I was attending didn’t know love, forgiveness, or boundaries. I’ll even tell the story:

        I was a single cell leader who took what my church said seriously about dating and realtionships. I had a few male friends, but went out of my way not to lead them on or “lead them to temptation”.

        Then I met Tim. He was a cell leader, and one of my closest friends. He made no bones about the fact that he didn’t like me *in that way*, so I felt perfectly fine just being friends.

        We all know what happens. And yes. I had to fight off a rape attempt. His. To really grasp what it is like to have your trust completely obliterated, put yourself in that mindset. Then build up the courage to tell your cell pastor what happened only to hear that you “Deserved it”.

        And for good measure, have your family tell you the same thing.

        Now put yourself into a computer chair right now, with tears pouring down your face and ask yourself if I was trying to be oblique. If I was trying to control you.

        Are you completely happy at the fact that I’ve said that? Is there a thrill inside of you from knowing this?

        Because now you know what I was trying to say.

        • Notice he still hasn’t apologized for calling your well thought out comment “nonsensical.” I don’t think Tony deserves the benefit of the doubt when it comes to empathy.

          • John

            I’ve also noted with growing interest how Tony has yet to apologize for calling Monica’s comment nonsensical. Based on the time stamp on his comment, roughly 48 hours have passed now with no apology and no further engagement. This failure on Tony’s part is puzzling to me.

            Tony, we’ve never met, and I’ve only recently been introduced to your blog. I’m trying very hard not to be presumptuous here, but I simply cannot conjure any possible good reason to explain your decision not to address what was a highly inappropriate and insulting response to a commenter on your blog. Of course, you’re free to do what you wish here since it is your blog, but considering the values you profess I can’t see how you justify your inaction in this instance.

            I should point out that the further revelations on Monica’s part, while tragic and painful, have no bearing on my thinking as it regards your avoidance here, Tony. Simply put, you have demonstrated once more (and I say “once more” because it has happened more than once just since I’ve been briefly following you) that your apparent go-to response when faced with a significant challenge to your self-regard is to claim some deficiency exists in the person issuing the challenge. In this case, rather than responding by telling Monica that you simply did not understand what she was saying and trying to elicit further information so that you might understand, you call her comment weird and nonsensical. I won’t speculate about the motivation for this proclivity of yours, but I will say that it’s not helping you or anyone else here. It also fails to live up to your call to offer one another the benefit of the doubt. Rather than assuming Monica had a point worth hearing, you assumed she didn’t. That’s a very long way from granting her the benefit of any doubt.

        • Gayle

          Monica you are brave and brilliant and I appreciate your willingness to engage and your candor. You make perfect sense. I have a stiletto to the face for anyone who says otherwise.

        • James

          Monica, I want to say that your willingness to share this experience is an incredible extension of the benefit of the doubt. It shouldn’t have been necessary to lay this out in such excruciating detail in a public forum, and your willingness to extend the benefit of the doubt from such a position of risk is something to be admired. I hope that it at least is officially acknowledged, but in the meantime, here’s my own word of thanks.

          • Kathleen

            Yay for you, James. You’re one of the good ones. 🙂

          • JTB

            Kathleen, I hate to break it to you, but I’m “James.” I thought it would be interesting to follow a suggestion from one of the other threads and post as a presumed male. It has been.

  • Amen, amen, amen, Tony! By promoting the value of giving the benefit of the doubt, you are encouraging us to practice grace and graciousness. And so yes, in answer to your invitation, I will commit to doing my utmost to practice the virtue.

  • Luke Allison

    I’m pretty sure that the idea of “the benefit of the doubt” is what Jesus is talking about during his whole “don’t judge” teaching. The 1st Century context of these types of statements would indicate that Jesus is telling us to assign more to a person on the “scales of justice” than they would deserve.

    Which, yeah…sounds an awful lot like mercy and grace.

    • I think that’s what Jesus was talking about too in those verses, as my Jewish friends have a concept of “judging favorably”. I’m guessing it’s the same thing, and should be done more often.

  • James


    I don’t mean to suggest that some are free of the responsibility of charitable interpretation, sympathetic imagination, or in Tony’s phrase, benefit of the doubt. Of course he, and you, correct to suggest everyone must do this for successful dialogue. What I want to underscore however is that in many cases benefit if the doubt is synonymous with privilege, in that some of us are accustomed to taking for granted that our actions and statements will be received accordingly–and others, sadly, are not. Tony occupies a place of privilege in discourse here first because it is his blog, and in this case, the privilege of being white, male, straight and theologically educated is also not irrelevant given the topic. Tony’s suggestion is right on; but I think it is misdirected if we think it should be directed at commenters first and foremost.

    • Craig

      That seems right, particular with regard to judgments about motives.

  • Charles

    I’ll try this benevolence thing. It’s not my strong suit. In fact, it’s probably my Achilles heal. I have a very tough time giving someone the benefit of the doubt unless I know them. I’m told by those closest to me that I’m very confrontational, abrasive even. In my purview Tony has been more than benevolent. If some of those comments had been directed at me I’d look back the next day at my responses and be embarrassed, I’m sure. That said, it’s an attribute worth pursuing. I’ll try…

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  • True. thank you, I’ve been following your blog for some time. You present one perspective that invites into deeper thoughts and conversation. I am grateful for women and men like you who put it out there.

  • A BIGGER and BETTER Christian virtue: Always know you (YOU) are right regardless of the beneficent end of “the other.” “The other” might be beneficent, but they’re not right. YOU are right, Christian.

  • One of the most poisonous things about postmodern discourse is the way that we comb each others’ words for -isms or straw men or hidden phalluses and other Freudian/Lacanian weirdness that we bring to light as the tactic for dismissing the other person’s views entirely. All of us have blind spots. Those of us who are revolting against paternalistic theologies that are articulated “charitably” are used to getting riled up when someone else seems a little too confident in how they write, especially if they’re able to do so without “getting emotional” which would at least give the reader a sense of the writer’s humanity. The result of this polemical environment is a lot of friendly fire, especially if the writer is a white guy, whom you end up reading with a hermeneutics that presumes condescension unless proven otherwise. So yes, benefit of the doubt is a crucial and legitimate Christian attitude to have. Remember what Peter said about lumping coals on other peoples’ heads if you respond with love when they’re being hateful. If I’m being snobby or otherwise immature in my writing, I’m much more likely to be convicted when a reader is gracious about calling it into a question.

  • John Toten

    The road to heaven is paved with good intentions.

  • JPL

    Sadly, Tony, at this point you could suggest that “loving one another” is a Christian virtue, and some of the people here would accuse you of encouraging group sex.

    I think you’ve been grossly mistreated by many, and I’ve seen nothing I would count as mistreatment in return. I admire your patience and generosity of spirit under trying circumstances. It’s far more than I could muster.

    Grace and peace.

  • John Toten

    The important thing is all of those women who were honest about why they don’t like commenting here probably feel way safer about it now that they are disobeying Tony’s newly appointed Christian virtue.

    • Gayle

      I need a like button for this comment.

  • I totally get where you are coming from in wanting to give and receive the benefit of the doubt. It is so hard to communicate across this screen what you mean behind your words. In person we have tone of voice, body language, eye contact, etc. to help us moderate our conversations. We can see when someone is misinterpreting what we say and change course, or others can better understand what we are trying to say. Much like we come to the Bible with different hermeneutical lenses, we also come to conversations irl and on the internet with lenses through which we interpret the words of others. When we don’t have all of that, it seems nice and appropriate to give the writer the benefit of the doubt.
    Many of the people commenting here, and on the last post, have given the benefit of the doubt before and have been very burned. Many women have given the benefit of the doubt and ended up trapped in abusive relationships (romantic, sexual or spiritual). It is difficult for women (and anyone, I focus on women because they seem to be the majority of the commenter here who are upset with you) who have had their trust abused to extend benefit of the doubt. It is scary and painful and opens all kinds of wounds — especially when a man with whom they have been arguing asks for it. There is a lot of power within that request, and giving up the benefit of doubt can feel like a giving up of power.
    When someone responds to you and is clearly offended, hurt, or misunderstands you, you can choose to not respond and keep in mind that it might be you, it might be the other person’s lens, and it might be a million other things. If you do choose to respond, it might be more constructive to take a more pastoral tack, asking what the person heard, or why they heard it, or asking for someone to clarify without using adjectives about why you didn’t understand their remark. This might build trust and lead to the ability to give you the benefit of the doubt.

    • Tess

      Well said.

    • Elizabeth, (in a whiny voice) that takes too much work.

  • Hey Tony, I haven’t read all the above comments and didn’t get through even most of the women post comments. Just wanted to say as a long time reader / listener of you and your thoughts that I’ve really appreciated who you are and what you do. If Rachel held Evans is the teddy bear of the blogosphere you are the nerf gun. You fire off all the time and might look a bit scary, “CS Lewis is a theological hack” for example, but I’ve found you to always be playful, self deprecating, genuinely interested in the ideas of others but, and keen to have your ideas challenged and refined and always happy to call a spade a spade. I’d hate for you to change.

    Grave and Peace


  • Andrew Priest

    I think benefit of the doubt is what “believes all things” refers to in 1 Cor. 13.

  • T.S.Gay

    As a man I appreciate Bill Hewitt’s approach. My experience in war comes to mind, please give me the benefit of the doubt for going back to it, because it was so wild is the reason it sticks and applies. When all hell broke loose in the helicopter in which I was the commander, if in those headsets we were wired, if my voice and demeanor even hinted at wavering it was like a wildfire that caused panic that couldn’t be stopped. I trained myself to hold onto the tension trying to hold onto life and letting go. To be calm and let yourself go. It was the only path through the wildness.
    In the Church, I appreciate Rachel Held Evans. She has demonstrated calmness in the liberation of biblical as an adjective and willingness to let go as evolving from having all the answers, to questions.
    It’s so true that you cannot step into the same river twice, but some pools are stagnant and not worth stepping into. You have to give the benefit of the doubt even to those that think Christianity is a shallow superstition that we have outgrown, when in truth you know it is a wild raging river the depth even those of us who get in barely fathom. I give Tony Jones the benefit of the doubt because my intuition says he is onto frontiers.
    Where are the women? Implied is that they may be excluded in large realms of Christianity, but not on this progressive blog. And there has been those pushing back about that. This blog is not as inclusive as was implied. If we can remain calm and yet let ourselves go, I believe we will come to new thresholds of inclusiveness that even the secular world will see as creative.

  • Where’s the “like” button when you really need it?

    Because in all seriousness, this is a great approach. I think Christians, like everyone else online, forgets that we are communicating in a new medium and those nonverbal cues people use to interpret nuance simply aren’t there like we’d like for them to be. And we all fall short from time to time so benefit of the doubt can go a long way, especially when offered from both sides of a discussion.

  • Even to those people who home school their children???

    • Craig

      There’s a range of people (suicide bombers, Republicans, etc.) for whom we allow exceptions to the rule. For them it’s maleficent intent until proven otherwise.

  • Bradley Pace

    I have always thought that Grace, at the very least, is something like God’s giving us the benefit of the doubt. It’s God giving is a break.

    Keep up the good work (or the autocorrected “god work”). If I read something you say that sounds crazy, awful, etc., I will give you the benefit of the doubt.

  • Carla

    Boy oh boy have I hesitated to join in on this thread. But I keep having this nagging thought so here goes: I’m a woman. I went to seminary. I have been in leadership in a few different ministries, including my church. I have had a handful of ridiculously sexist and demeaning encounters with men in those ministries. But I don’t ever want my relationships with other men–or other women for that matter–to be defined or infected by those bad apples. They did their damage to me and that was enough. I refuse to let those situations have a ripple effect on the way I interact with people. So I give other men the benefit of the doubt. I don’t presume ill intent. That, to me, is the only way to leave those past encounters behind and prevent them from defining me and my experience in the church.

    The last thing I ever want is for men to start treating me with some sort of kid gloves because some other man treated me poorly. I don’t want the men I work with or talk to to assume I’m a victim. I don’t want them to treat me with extra kindness based on a presumption that every woman has had a lousy run in with some idiot. I want them to argue with me, to tell me what they think, and let me push back with what I think. I like it when they see me as someone who is strong and smart and ready to tackle what lies ahead instead of dwelling on what’s behind. I want them to give me the benefit of the doubt, too. To me, it’s far more offensive for men to turn on some sort of “oh, there’s a girl in the room” gentleness or deference that they would never show to other men. I can handle being one woman in a roomful of men–a scenario that happens all the time for me. On those rare occasions when those men are rude to me or exclude me or worse, I know it’s a bad fit and I move on–even it it’s just emotionally.

    I have known Tony–live and in person–for more than 20 years. And yes, he can be an ass–this is not news to him. He is perhaps the most highly opinionated human being I have ever known. He can be arrogant and sharp and snarky. But all of those things are true for me as well–this is among the reasons we are friends. What I have always appreciated about Tony is that he doesn’t treat me as someone who can’t handle him. He is as much himself with me as he is with his male friends and I take that as a mighty compliment. Sometimes we step on each other’s toes. And when we do, we don’t hesitate to back up and fix it. But he is far more than the persona he takes on as a blogger. He’s a loyal friend, a wonderful father, and the kind of person you want in your corner when you’ve been wronged. And if you think he’s not taking all of these comments to heart, you’re mistaken.

  • Jim

    I do not believe Jesus was giving the benefit of the doubt (BOTD) when he confronted the pharisees in Mat. 23. Nor was Jesus giving the BOTD when he said to Peter “get behind me satan;” nor was Jesus giving the BOTD to Judas when he was selected to be one of the 12 disciples; nor was He giving the BOTD to the rich young ruler who “kept all these commands from (his) youth;” nor was Jesus giving the BOTD when He said that He knew what is in a man’s heart in John 2:24-25. The BODT humanistic philosophy is no where to be found in scripture. Instead, what is found is wisdom to discern intents and motivation of the heart with out judgementalism and attacks; the ability to discern foolishness from evil, and still respond with a powerful love that fits what is needed to bring all to humble repentance; the wisdom to apply justice, mercy, and/or grace depending on the person and the situation; and the ability to share truth in love. I am looking for a philosophy to live by that is universal, not just one to give to “good & well-meaning” people.