Discernment,  Musings

Lessons Learned: Guilt By Association

As noted in the first post in this series, I’m taking time to reflect on some of the experiences God has graciously given me and the extremely practical lessons I’ve learned from them. This isn’t meant to serve as a personal journal, but rather as a source of encouragement and application for the reader.

Guilt By Association Is Not a Valid Argument

I have friends who are Roman Catholic. They know I am not. They’ve heard the truth of the gospel. I do not refrain from mentioning Christ or Scripture when the conversation allows it. Still, they remain content in their loose association to the Roman Catholic Church. To some professing Christians, the mere fact that I am on friendly terms with these individuals would be evidence that I am a Roman Catholic sympathizer.

Sound ridiculous? It is. These individuals would have no way of knowing my private conversations with my friends, yet they would still condemn me and make assumptions based on the mere fact that I dare even speak to them in a friendly way.

You’ve likely heard this argument in another context.

Mr. Doctrinally Sound Preacher (hereinafter Mr. DSP) is speaking at a conference. Ms. Not-Nearly-As-Doctrinally-Sound Teacher (hereinafter Ms. NNADST) is speaking at the same conference. When Mr. DSP was invited to speak, he did not know that Ms. NNADST would also be speaking. When he learned of her invitation, he was disappointed but still eager at the prospect of being able to present truth to a crowd that would desperately need to hear it, particularly with Ms. NNADST’s presence. He honored his commitment to speak, did not share a stage with Ms. NNADST, and exalted Christ with his message. God was glorified.

Still, some weren’t happy. You see, to these individuals, Mr. DSP should have backed out of his commitment because his presence in the same auditorium at the same event as Ms. NNADST meant that Mr. DSP ultimately endorsed Ms. NNADST.

Crazy, isn’t it? Yet this is how some people think. This is how they reason. This is how they “discern.” It’s called guilt by association (GBA) and it’s a terrible foundation for any argument.

The Oxford dictionary defines GBA thusly:

guilt ascribed to someone not because of any evidence but because of their association with an offender.

“Not because of any evidence.” That’s important because that is where the senselessness begins. I am friends with Roman Catholics. Since these people do not hate me, the “obvious” conclusion (in the mind of the GBA-er) is that I must never have shared Christ with my friends. Some GBA-ers might go so far as to presume that I have, in private conversations, affirmed Roman Catholic beliefs. Either way, their conclusion is that I have compromised the gospel.

Similarly, Mr. DSP must naturally be okay with the teachings of Ms. NNADST since they were invited to speak at the same event and they were both there at the same time.

If the GBA-er would take his assumptions to their logical conclusion, and enlist his GBA mindset consistently, nobody would be off limits. Everybody would somehow become loosely tied to a heretic (or someone they consider a heretic), and therefore everybody would be worthy of shunning. Perhaps that’s why some who employ this method end up as lone ranger Christians. They condemn even the most doctrinally sound teachers for the most ridiculous and unfounded transgressions and ultimately end up as the only ones who are “right.”

It must be lonely out there on I’m Right Island.

Scripture exhorts us to be mindful of our companions (1 Corinthians 15:33), but it also warns us not to bear false witness against our neighbor (Exodus 20:15; Deuteronomy 5:20). Fabricating a connection between two people that simply doesn’t exist is one way of bearing false witness. Ascribing motivations to someone without factual evidence is another. Both of these occur in instances of GBA and neither is acceptable for the person who claims to know Christ.

Utilizing GBA is an easy way to write engaging headlines and draw a readership, but it’s a terrible way to reflect Christ. I learned early on in my blogging career to be mindful of not founding a story merely on GBA. Though I wasn’t always successful, I’m thankful that ultimately the majority of my early stories were fully supported by evidence. Today, having moved far away from such “discernment” reporting, I regret to say that I see many others consistently engaging in shameless GBA. What is more shameful is how many others I see hopping on the bandwagon, ready to pick up and throw a stone at Mr. DSP for something he never did, said, or thought, but for what someone else surmised that maybe perhaps he did think once.

The Apostle Paul urged the Corinthians to imitate him as he imitated Christ (1 Corinthians 11:1; cf. 1 Corinthians 4:16). Let’s pause and remember that the next time we ready ourselves to throw a stone at a sin that doesn’t actually exist.

Share this post: