The Folly of the “Two Witness” Rule

SilencedRecently I read through a Watchtower apologist’s long defense of the Watchtower’s two-witness rule and its handling of pedophile cases in general. The defender, of course, painted the Watchtower in the best possible light and claimed that everything is done that possibly could be done while still holding to the Scriptural rules.

According to this defender all of the accusations about failing to protect children are simply lies told by apostates and opposers (despite the fact that impartial judges and juries, being presented with both sides of the arguments, have awarded the victims millions of dollars in damages based on the Watchtower’s negligence.)

He likewise dismisses the testimony of thousands of “silent lamb” victims as “noisy goats.” When considering such evidence, he tells us: “Ask yourself why should I believe every word they say? Am I willing to believe the words of ones trying to discredit the Watchtower Society but not believe factual documentation and the words of the ones who help me to see the truth of the Bible?” It doesn’t seem to occur to him that the Watchtower has never told the truth about the Bible, and has instead rewritten and misinterpreted it to fit their own self-aggrandizing agenda. They have a “theocratic war strategy” in which truth does not need to be told.

When it comes to truth-telling, here is an interesting statement from the defender’s site: “we can assure you that no cases have actually been won by the plaintiff forcing the Watchtower Society to pay millions of dollars as has been the case with other religions.” The kindest thought I have is that maybe this was written years ago; because in fact, the courts have awarded millions to victims of the Watchtower’s policies in recent years.

After reading the defender’s article, I came to the conclusion that it is important to understand the Watchtower’s whitewashing arguments and not inadvertently exaggerate the failures of the Watchtower’s policies. They are bad enough as they are without that.

Sufficient protection for children?

For instance, the WT defender states that it isn’t true that “nothing is done” when there are not two witnesses. In this case, he tells us, if there is a local law mandating the reporting of sex-crime allegations to the authorities, then the elders will obey the law and report it to the authorities. Also, the alleged perpetrator’s name gets written down and placed in a sealed envelope, and a form is filled out and sent in to the local Watchtower branch office (the same branch office that gets to decide whether the matter should be reported to the authorities.) And I guess he expects us all to consider this sufficient protection for children when a known child molester is in their midst.

people-315908_640But wait; there’s more! If the elders have good reason to suspect that the perpetrator is still continuing to abuse children they “may assist in allowing the victim to warn the congregation” (of course, they just as well may not.) So, one can imagine, at most, an elder stating: “And now we’ll hear from brother Smith.” Then an 8-year old little boy gets up in front of the congregation and accuses an elder of having committed a sex crime against himself. But isn’t this just adding to his trauma?

A more fitting punishment.

And one more thing we are told: “It may be advisable for the brother who has been accused not to be used for assignments until the matter is resolved.” So, at the elders’ discretion they may decide not to let elder Pedophile conduct a Watchtower study, give a public talk, or conduct a Theocratic Ministry School lesson. I’m thinking the penalty doesn’t fit the crime here. Nothing is said about prohibiting the man from going “out in service” with children of the congregation, or having a “private word” with them in the back room of the Hall. It is only in the case where there are two witnesses that these penalties become mandatory.

To be accurate then, we should not say “nothing is done” but rather: “nothing effective is done.”

But do you start to see the problem here? It’s not that Jehovah’s Witnesses or the Watchtower approves of pedophiles, or wants to harbor them in its midst; no one thinks that. It’s that they try to micro-manage it using rules that have been out-dated for millennia! Their rule books can’t possibly cover every possible scenario, and the poor elders who have been trained to hang on the Watchtower’s every word and apply it in a strictly literal, pharisaical manner are left scratching their heads in wonderment at the ambiguities and gaping loopholes when faced with a true-life tragedy.

Instead, an elder (like any other civilized human being) should immediately report any such accusations to the authorities. They should do this whether or not it is legally mandatory in their area. Why? Because it is the morally correct thing to do. They would know this (as everyone else does) if they weren’t distracted by what the Watchtower tells them the Bible demands in such matters: the “two-witness rule.”

So, we’re going to take a good hard look at just exactly what the Bible in fact has to say about this.

The Watchtower quotes four Scriptures in support of the two-witness rule. True to form, the verses are quoted out of context. But we’ll consider them in context.

1. Deuteronomy 19:15.

No single witness may convict another for any error or any sin that he may commit. On the testimony of two witnesses or on the testimony of three witnesses the matter should be established. If a malicious witness testifies against a man and charges him with some transgression, the two men who have the dispute will stand before Jehovah, the priests and the judges who will be serving in those days. The judges will thoroughly investigate, and if the man who testified is a false witness and has brought a false charge against his brother, you should do to him just as he had schemed to do to his brother, and you must remove what is bad from your midst. Those who remain will hear and be afraid, and they will never again do anything bad like this among you. You should not feel sorry: Life will be for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.
— Deut. 19:15-21

In civilized societies we do not convict someone based solely on the word of their accusers, be they one, two, or more in number. Modern courts demand evidence. But they do not wait to look for evidence until they have at least two witnesses.

The verses in Deuteronomy are part of the law supposedly given to Moses (the “Mosaic Law.”) The same law that states we must stone to death unruly children, kill witches, subject women to trails by ordeal, sacrifice goats, and never ever wear poly-blend clothing! In other words, this is a barbaric law that has nothing to do with civilized human beings. Or do we really want to go back to punishing criminals by blinding them and chopping off their hands and feet? The Watchtower does not enforce these or the other six-hundred plus Mosaic laws. Why pick on this one requiring two witnesses?

In fact, the Watchtower tells us that the Mosaic law, in its entirety is not in effect for us:

Christians are under a new law, “the law of the Christ.” (Galatians 6:2) The former Law covenant given through Moses to Israel came to an end when Jesus’ death fulfilled it. (Romans 10:4; Ephesians 2:15)
— Watchtower Feb 1, 2010 pp. 11-15.

They need to keep this in mind. In fact, Paul put it quite well when he said that such laws had all been replaced by the one simple law to love one another:

Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet,” and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.

— Romans 13:8-10

So, the verse in Deuteronomy has no relevance to our discussion: it is not a law for any of us to follow today: no more than stoning our children or making burnt offerings of animals. All we have to do is act out of love. The loving thing to do in order to protect an allegedly abused child is to report the matter to the authorities and let them investigate the matter.

2. Matthew 18:16.

If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.

Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.

Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.
— Matthew 18:15-19

Here, Jesus supposedly said something about 2-3 witnesses, and the author put it in quotes because he thought Jesus was quoting Deuteronomy. But, unless Jesus made “air quotes” when he was saying this, we don’t really know if he was quoting that book or not. What we do know is that the context of the phrase is quite different. He’s not saying “wait till you have at least two witnesses before taking action.” Quite the contrary: he says to confront the accused one-on-one with no witnesses. Then, if that’s ineffective, confront the accused again, bringing along one or two others to witness the confrontation. It is never implied that any of these people were witnesses to the sin; rather, they are witnesses to the accused being confronted with the sin.

We must also ask: what good does it do if the accused listens? Who cares if they have been “won over”? How does that help the victim? It doesn’t appear that Jesus’ words have much application to a case of child molesting.

Further, he then spoils all his credibility by stating that whatever two people ask for will be done. I’ve experimented with this and the claim does not hold. How many people do you suppose are right this minute praying for war to end and cancer to be cured? I rest my case: whoever wrote this was wrong.

3. 2 Corinthians 13:1.

This will be my third visit to you. “Every matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.” I already gave you a warning when I was with you the second time. I now repeat it while absent: On my return I will not spare those who sinned earlier or any of the others, since you are demanding proof that Christ is speaking through me. He is not weak in dealing with you, but is powerful among you. For to be sure, he was crucified in weakness, yet he lives by God’s power. Likewise, we are weak in him, yet by God’s power we will live with him in our dealing with you.
Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves. Do you not realize that Christ Jesus is in you-—unless, of course, you fail the test? And I trust that you will discover that we have not failed the test.
— 2 Cor. 13:1-6

Paul definitely quotes Deuteronomy here. But how does he apply it? Recall that Paul is the one who wrote that this old law passed away. He is not here stating that no action is to be taken unless there are 2-3 witnesses to a crime. What he is responding to is the charge that Christ is not speaking through him. His answer to this charge is that the Corinthians themselves serve as his witnesses by being Christians (and thus responding to Paul’s preaching, proving that he is speaking for Christ.) 2-3 witnesses should be more than enough to prove his case, and supposedly the Corinthian Christians exceed this number. The man who was adamant that the Mosaic Law was not incumbent upon Christians was not here making an exception for this one rule of that law; he was quoting Deuteronomy as a rhetorical flourish, as one might quote Shakespeare.

4. 1 Tim 5:19.

Do not rebuke an older man harshly, but exhort him as if he were your father. Treat younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, and younger women as sisters, with absolute purity.

Give proper recognition to those widows who are really in need. But if a widow has children or grandchildren, these should learn first of all to put their religion into practice by caring for their own family and so repaying their parents and grandparents, for this is pleasing to God. The widow who is really in need and left all alone puts her hope in God and continues night and day to pray and to ask God for help. 6But the widow who lives for pleasure is dead even while she lives. Give the people these instructions, so that no one may be open to blame. Anyone who does not provide for their relatives, and especially for their own household, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.

No widow may be put on the list of widows unless she is over sixty, has been faithful to her husband, and is well known for her good deeds, such as bringing up children, showing hospitality, washing the feet of the Lord’s people, helping those in trouble and devoting herself to all kinds of good deeds.

As for younger widows, do not put them on such a list. For when their sensual desires overcome their dedication to Christ, they want to marry. Thus they bring judgment on themselves, because they have broken their first pledge. Besides, they get into the habit of being idle and going about from house to house. And not only do they become idlers, but also busybodies who talk nonsense, saying things they ought not to. So I counsel younger widows to marry, to have children, to manage their homes and to give the enemy no opportunity for slander. Some have in fact already turned away to follow Satan.

If any woman who is a believer has widows in her care, she should continue to help them and not let the church be burdened with them, so that the church can help those widows who are really in need.

The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honor, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching. For Scripture says, “Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain,” and “The worker deserves his wages. ”Do not entertain an accusation against an elder unless it is brought by two or three witnesses. But those elders who are sinning you are to reprove before everyone, so that the others may take warning. I charge you, in the sight of God and Christ Jesus and the elect angels, to keep these instructions without partiality, and to do nothing out of favoritism.

Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands, and do not share in the sins of others. Keep yourself pure.

Stop drinking only water, and use a little wine because of your stomach and your frequent illnesses.

–1 Tim 5:1-23

Where is the Watchtower’s list of widows? Oh, I know they have a list of pedophiles, but I’ve never heard of them keeping a list of widows in order to support those over sixty. Of course, I’ve also never heard of a widow washing the elders’ feet in order to qualify for such “generosity.”

Paul first castigates young widows for wanting to marry and “break their first pledge.” Then he counsels them to marry! Huh?

After denigrating young widows as idle, gossiping busy-bodies, the misogynist Paul turns his attention to the elders. Now, please recall that this is a letter that the highly opinionated (1 Cor. 7:12,25,40) Paul was writing to the young man Timothy. That’s why in the first verses he cautions him not to rebuke his elders harshly, but to treat them as his father or mother. In the last verses quoted, he gives Timothy advice about the “laying on of hands” and to drink wine instead of just water.

The point is: this was a personal letter to a young man. What it says was meant for him at that time and under his particular circumstances. We do not have rules here to be applied to one and all forever. As a senior citizen I am certainly not about to treat an “elder” as my father (nor, I suspect, did Timothy once he became an elderly man himself.) Nor do Witnesses believe in the “laying on of hands.” Many never touch wine (even when they are ill.)

So, out of all of this advice to Timothy, the Watchtower focuses in on one statement as a binding rule for everyone for all time, and they blithely ignores all the others!

Paul was advocating that Timothy, as a young man, use caution in dealing with his elders. Otherwise the congregation would no doubt despise him as an upstart. Part of this advice was to not rebuke an elder “harshly.” Another part was to wait for 2-3 witnesses to bring forth an accusation before acting against an elder. But again, there is no reason to assume that this one particular statement, in contrast to all of the other statements, was meant as a rule to be applied to anyone other than Timothy while he was still young.

Without a clear biblical mandate requiring two witnesses before taking action, elders should now be free (and morally duty-bound) to report such matters immediately to the secular authorities.

One thought on “The Folly of the “Two Witness” Rule

  1. jeromecoates • 2 years ago
    One charge, we go to the police. Then we handle it spiritually, usually with disfellowshipping: 1 cor 5:10

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    Steve McRoberts jeromecoates • 2 years ago
    Good for you, Jerome! Now if only you could help us convince your masters to change their policy accordingly (instead of “leaving the matter in Jehovah’s hands” as their Shepherding book clearly states.)
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    Darlene Alexander jeromecoates • 2 years ago
    If you are an elder and this is how you handle child abuse, then good for you, going to the police is what you SHOULD do. But that’s not Watchtower policy according to the Shepherding book. The 1006 cases of unreported child abuse coming from the Australian Royal Commission investigating JWs proves that.
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    Darlene Alexander • 2 years ago
    Great explanation of their unscriptural reasoning, thanks!

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