Two and Three Witnesses

It has been rightly pointed out that Matthew 18 is not talking about what many people assume it is talking about. Jesus is talking about one application of the biblical principles of justice; He is not talking about all of them. Not even close.

For example, the situation He describes is limited to someone who sinned against you, not someone who sinned generally. For example, if you saw someone from the church shoplifting at the mall, Matthew 18 does not, strictly speaking, apply. The central principles still apply, but the sin was not “against you.” Moreover, the witnesses that are brought (in Matt. 18) are not witnesses of the original offense; they are merely witnesses of the second confrontation. If the person refuses to hear it, then the accusation is brought to the church. Further, there is no assumption that the elders of the church are involved in this before it gets to the level of the entire church.

So we misunderstand Matthew 18 if we try to make it the template for every form of church discipline. It is the template for one kind of situation calling for church discipline. But this does not remove the need for two and three witnesses in all forms of church discipline. The requirement is an ancient one for God’s people, and goes back over a thousand years before this particular application of it by Christ.

“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” (Dt. 17:6).

“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” (Dt. 19:15).

This fundamental principle is carried over into the New Testament, and not just in the application of it made by Christ. “This is the third time I am coming to you. In the mouth of two or three witnesses shall every word be established” (2 Cor. 13:1). “Against an elder receive not an accusation, but before two or three witnesses” (1 Tim. 5:19).

So what is Jesus talking about? It appears that He is talking about what in modern parlance would be called “an intervention.” Let us say that there is a man who drinks way too much, and everyone who knows him knows about it. He is putting away a couple six packs a night. One person goes to him about his drinking problem. If he hears that person (as he ought to do), then that person has gained a brother. But if refuses to hear it, then the first person to confront him ups the ante, and takes two or three witnesses. As said before, these are not witnesses to some “original” offense, they are witnesses of the reception (or lack of reception) to a well-deserved admonition or rebuke.

Now suppose it is an “intervention” over something that is perhaps culpable, but far less serious. Let us say that the recipient of the Matt. 18 visits is someone who does not ask for paper bags at the supermarket, even though his wife has told him that she is trying to save them. He keeps bringing home the plastic. He keeps forgetting. Is this something that you want to start such a process over? Is this something that should end by “telling it to the church”? Of course not, not unless you want the whole church staring in disbelief at the accusers who brought the charge. “And so we tried warning our brother, but he wouldn’t take us seriously.” I dare say.

Jesus is talking about resolution of personal problems between individuals, and it is clear that He is talking about serious problems, the factualness of which are not disputed, or which cannot be disputed. “Somebody is drinking a couple of six-packs every night, and it isn’t me. Everyone who knows us, knows this.”

So where should we look in Scripture when someone is accused of committing a particular crime or sin, and he disputes it? He says he wasn’t there; he was on the east coast at the time the murder occured. Suppose that someone accuses someone else of lying about something, and the one accused says that he was not lying. The claim he made is the truth. Now what? When the claim is legitimately and reasonably contested, what passages do we look to? Clearly, whatever process we adopt, we must include the biblical criterion of two and three witnesses so that the facts of the dispute may be settled and confirmed. And it is equally clear that the passages from Deuteronomy are the ones that would apply. And Corinthians. And 1 Timothy. Otherwise, the process of accusation becomes the ultimate weapon — a weapon which false witnesses are willing to use, given their willingness to sit loose to the truth. In such a battle, godly Christians are restrained in their responses, unwilling to fight dirty as they fight back. But in some instances, they might be provoked into “fighting dirty” in a hypothetical way, simply in order to make a point. “The person who is accusing me in this situation is doing it because he found out that I knew he is wanted for child molestation in three states. That is why . . . excuse me? I have to prove that? Oh. Never mind.”

If the testimony of just one man will be received, when the charge is denied by the accused, those who are willing to receive it are well out of the biblical realm and into a realm worthy of Lewis Carroll. In fact, people who are willing to receive one witness like this are so far gone that they will no doubt receive (and defend) the testimony of anonymous accusers as well. Since the accused is “a tyrant,” well, of course, the witnesses have to be anonymous because they are afraid of the tyrant. Verdict first, trial afterwards. Ready, fire, aim!

But of course, when disobedience is an emotional necessity, excuses are always available.

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