[ Author: Kathy Petersen ]
The Bible repeatedly makes the point that a person is not to be condemned by only one witness, but at least two or three witnesses are required in order to convict someone of something. This is said in both the Old Testament as part of the Law of Moses, and in the New Testament.
Matt. 18:15 Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother.
16 But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.
17 And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican.
1 Tim. 5:19 Against an elder receive not an accusation, but before two or three witnesses.
The misapplication of scripture
This requirement for at least two witnesses has caused some groups (most notoriously Jehovah’s Witnesses) to require two witnesses even in the case of an accusation of rape or child sexual abuse! They point to verses such as the above as their Biblical basis for their policy, and at first glance, it might appear that they are on solid Biblical ground. But are they? After a closer look at the relevant Scriptures, I think the answer is a strong and resounding, “NO!”
We can probably all agree that the New Testament instruction is based upon the Old Testament Law. What does the Law say about requiring witnesses? The specific verses are in Deut. 17:6 and 19:15; here is the former, in context:
17:1 Thou shalt not sacrifice unto the Lord thy God any bullock, or sheep, wherein is blemish, or any evilfavouredness: for that is an abomination unto the Lord thy God.
2 If there be found among you, within any of thy gates which the Lord thy God giveth thee, man or woman, that hath wrought wickedness in the sight of the Lord thy God, in transgressing his covenant,
3 And hath gone and served other gods, and worshipped them, either the sun, or moon, or any of the host of heaven, which I have not commanded;
4 And it be told thee, and thou hast heard of it, and enquired diligently, and, behold, it be true, and the thing certain, that such abomination is wrought in Israel:
5 Then shalt thou bring forth that man or that woman, which have committed that wicked thing, unto thy gates, even that man or that woman, and shalt stone them with stones, till they die.
6 At the mouth of two witnesses, or three witnesses, shall he that is worthy of death be put to death; but at the mouth of one witness he shall not be put to death.
7 The hands of the witnesses shall be first upon him to put him to death, and afterward the hands of all the people. So thou shalt put the evil away from among you.
Deut. 19:15 is similar, except it requires two or three witnesses for conviction of any crime: “One witness shall not rise up against a man for any iniquity, or for any sin, in any sin that he sinneth: at the mouth of two witnesses, or at the mouth of three witnesses, shall the matter be established.” The verses before speak of a man seeking asylum in a “city of refuge”, and the verses after continue as follows:
16 If a false witness rise up against any man to testify against him that which is wrong;
17 Then both the men, between whom the controversy is, shall stand before the Lord, before the priests and the judges, which shall be in those days;
18 And the judges shall make diligent inquisition: and, behold, if the witness be a false witness, and hath testified falsely against his brother;
19 Then shall ye do unto him, as he had thought to have done unto his brother: so shalt thou put the evil away from among you.
Collecting the evidence
In the surrounding context of both of these verses, is a slightly more detailed explanation of how the two-witness rule works. It is not a simple matter of a person needing to commit a crime in front of multiple witnesses, or else he can never be convicted! See how that the context shows that the judges are to make diligent inquiry, and then act on the results of their investigation. Let us look at two more examples, both from Deuteronomy 13, to drive the point home:
6 If thy brother, the son of thy mother, or thy son, or thy daughter, or the wife of thy bosom, or thy friend, which is as thine own soul, entice thee secretly, saying, Let us go and serve other gods…
8 Thou shalt not consent unto him, nor hearken unto him; neither shall thine eye pity him, neither shalt thou spare, neither shalt thou conceal him:
9 But thou shalt surely kill him; thine hand shall be first upon him to put him to death, and afterwards the hand of all the people….
12 If thou shalt hear say in one of thy cities…
13 Certain men, the children of Belial, are gone out from among you, and have withdrawn the inhabitants of their city, saying, Let us go and serve other gods, which ye have not known;
14 Then shalt thou enquire, and make search, and ask diligently; and, behold, if it be truth, and the thing certain, that such abomination is wrought among you…..
In the first section, we are dealing with something that has occurred secretly – this means, it was done not in front of witnesses! Your friend or brother has pulled you aside privately, without other witnesses, and has tried to get you to join in idolatry with him. Notice that the Law did not say, “if this happens, try to get him to ask you again, but this time in front of witnesses, so that you can apply the two-witness rule.”
It said that you personally were to turn that person into the authorities so that he could be executed by the people. [Some may object that that is not what the text explicitly says, and thus that I’m reading into the text by saying that the single witness was to turn the person over to the authorities; however, considering that Deut. 17 & 19 both explicitly say that nobody is to be executed or even convicted of a non-capital crime based on a single witness, and the formula of legal execution by stoning being “witnesses first, followed by all the rest of the people”, and we see this formula followed in Deut. 13, then I think it is clear that the single witness will contact the authorities and not execute vigilante justice.]
In the second section, about a town having given themselves over to idolatry, again we see it explicitly said that before judgment is carried out, that the people are to diligently inquire and seek the truth, and only if they confirm that it is true, are they to carry out judgment.
So, we see that this is the only pattern given in the Law of Moses, and thus would be what the New Testament understanding would be based on. Namely, a single witness goes to the authorities, and they thoroughly investigate the matter, and convict and punish the accused only if there is corroborating evidence.
A proper investigation
So, was Jesus or Paul teaching that if a child says that she was raped, that the church leaders are to ignore that accusation unless the child can produce witnesses to the crime? Obviously not! Who rapes children in front of witnesses?! Rather, the way church leaders are to deal with such accusations is right in line with the Law of Moses, which is, that if they hear the accusation, they are to go to those who can thoroughly investigate the matter. Under the Law of Moses, the village elders could do that, but we’re not living in a theocracy, and church elders simply do not have the necessary authority that village elders of old would have had, so they cannot make a proper investigation into criminal matters, thus should relate it to those who can do that.
When Paul told Timothy not to “receive” an accusation except on the basis of two or three witnesses, note that it specifically says “against an elder”, so if one were to argue that this “receiving of an accusation” means that the accuser must have corroborating witnesses before an accusation is even heard (rather than in the sense of passing judgment), that still wouldn’t apply to the common person in the pew, but would apply only to an elder. Elders would have been previously approved by the congregation as having been of high moral character, plus they might have “a big target on their backs” as it were, because of their high position, so it makes sense that a higher standard is used for accusations against an elder.
Even in this case – if an elder (rather than an average church member) was the one who stood accused of child molestation, and the charge against one elder was presented to the overseer(s) as the accusation of only one witness, we might argue that while the overseer(s) ought not to accept that accusation (on the basis of 1 Tim. 5:19), that doesn’t mean it should just be ignored, or even worse, suppressed. [Many former Jehovah’s Witnesses have testified that they were threatened with disfellowship (which meant being shunned, being treated as dead by all their JW friends and family), if they took the accusation of child molestation or other similar crime to the police.]
Contacting the police
So even if the overseers don’t immediately accept the accusation, they should note the seriousness of the charge and then require the single witness to get other witnesses, so that the accusation can be accepted. Indeed, this would include encouraging the accuser to go to the police for a proper and thorough investigation, since that would provide sufficient substantiation – the “two to three witnesses” – in order to accept the accusation.
Besides, while a church may excommunicate a criminal, that is not in and of itself sufficient punishment for the crime, so the police should be involved anyway. The response from an overseer to an accusation of a crime could be, “That is a serious charge! You need to go to the police straight away, so that this can be thoroughly investigated, since we do not have the proper authority to investigate a criminal matter. And of course, if there is sufficient evidence to substantiate that charge, we also will act to remove him from our membership immediately.”
The Biblical requirement for the two-witness rule was never about letting crimes go unpunished, but instead about justice being served (since, let’s face it, it is possible for a person to falsely accuse another of a crime – it happens all the time), so that a person is not wrongly convicted and punished for a crime he didn’t even commit. As such, churches everywhere ought to have that as their goal, and work with the proper authorities (as in the Law of Moses) to seek justice, whether that’s conviction or exoneration of the accused.