The witnesses in “the rule of Matthew 18”

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… if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother. But if he will not hear, take with you one or two more, that ‘by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.’ And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church. But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector” (Mt 18:15-17).

Recently a friend asked me about witnessing an admonition. As we discussed the matter it became evident that we had quite differing views on what it means to be a witness in applying the ‘rule of Matthew 18’. The issue was this: Does the additional witness(es) need to have witnessed the sin that took place or is he merely witnessing the admonition? One of us said yes, the added witness needs to have witnessed the sin, because if the accused person denies what happened it’s just the accuser’s word against the accused person’s word; the other said no, the additional witness is there merely to witness the admonition. So, who’s right?

When asking others, it became evident that these two differing views are quite widespread in our church community. Such divergent views are also held by consistories, and that could mean that a course of action is followed which is not really in accordance with the Scriptural norm and which could, despite good intentions, do an injustice to the accused person. Commentaries also reflect these different views.

One view

For example, Hendriksen says that the extra witnesses are there to confirm that the accuser’s account “is indeed as stated by him: that firm but brotherly methods were used to try to persuade the erring brother of his fault and to bring him to repentance and confession, but that these efforts failed”.[i] This begs the question, however, of how the witness(es) can confirm the accuser’s account if the accused person denies it. After all, the witness hasn’t seen the sin being committed and is relying on the accuser’s account.

Like Hendriksen, John Legg in his commentary on Matthew implies that the added witness(es) does not need to have seen the actual sin but is there to help persuade the erring brother. “Perhaps he will listen to the two or three, where a single approach is rejected. This of course assumes that you are correct. Indeed, the prospect of having to make the case before these brothers tends to make us more cautious about accusing the sinning brother. Many issues will be seen to be ‘not worth the candle’ if we have to do this”.[ii] Whilst this explanation is a little more nuanced, it still seems inadequate. Why should the witness(es) help the accuser persuade the accused person if the latter denies any wrongdoing and the added witness hasn’t actually witnessed the sin?

Calvin is more circumspect. Like Hendriksen and Legg he says that the added witness is there to witness the admonition. However, he concedes that if the first step (just between the accuser and accused) results in the accused person flatly denying his sin, there is no point in bringing further witnesses. Calvin adds that the extra witness(es) is there at the second step because it often happens that the transgressor doesn’t actually deny the sin but evades the admonition or makes excuses. In such situations having one or more others there to witness the admonition gives “greater weight and impressiveness to the admonition”.[iii] This would seem to make a lot of sense.

However, there’s another difficulty: what are we to make of the words “against you”? Both Hendriksen and Calvin place stress on the sin being committed “against you”. In other words, it directly affects the individual and is ‘secret’ because it is against you personally. Hence the witnesses can only be there to witness the second attempt to persuade the sinner to confess his sin.

But others say this interpretation of the sin “against you” is far too limiting. They say that the sin to be admonished cannot be restricted to you personally but that a ‘secret’ sin could be a transgression against any commandment. These, if known but ignored, affect the whole congregation. As Ridderbos says: “’If your brother sins’ probably does not refer to sins against a particular individual but about offensive deeds in general that defile the church at large”.[iv] Our Church Order also has a broader view when it says the rule of Matthew 18 applies to anyone who “departs from the pure doctrine or is delinquent in conduct” (CO 70). Any sin against God indirectly affects every church member, as we see, for example, in the account of Achan (Joshua 7).

Moreover Ridderbos implies that the additional witness(es) does not need to have witnessed the actual sin but was “called in so that there will be no room to doubt about what was discussed privately”.

The other view

Rev Van Oene holds a different view. He is acutely aware that many hold the view that the witnesses don’t need to have seen the sin because he says: “It is customary to envision the course of events among us as follows: There is a secret sin, the sinner is admonished but refuses to repent, the brother takes one or two with him who then can testify that the sinner refused to listen, and the matter is then given into the hands of the consistory to continue the admonitions and, should they remain fruitless, to excommunicate the sinner.”[v] However, Van Oene sees something inherently wrong with this view.

Indeed, he considers it unscriptural because the witnesses are then merely witnessing one person’s account of what happened, and you can’t base further discipline on that. “No one may be convicted on the testimony of one witness. There must be at least two, and the second one must be just as much a witness of the sin as the first one”. He adds that “if we follow this generally accepted procedure, we would still condemn a man on the testimony of just one person, and this is totally in conflict with what the Lord commanded through Moses. We are not permitted to do this. From Deut. 17 it is evident that the witness(es) whom the “accuser” brings along must be witnesses of the sin and not just of the fruitlessness of the admonitions. Even if someone brought ten or a hundred witnesses along who can testify that he admonished the alleged sinner in vain, the condemnation would still be based on the testimony of one person, and this is impermissible.”[vi]

This is echoed by the late professor J Kamphuis when he says: “The misunderstanding that the first brother, who has issued his exhortation, calls one or two extra witnesses who then have no more to do than to observe that ‘an’ exhortation has gone out to the brother in question and who then possibly have to bear witness to this very fact – such a misunderstanding must be rooted out![vii]

Yet Kamphuis does not go quite so far as to say that the additional witnesses need to have seen the sin, but that they must be convinced that a sin has taken place so as to partake in the admonition: “It goes without saying that they not only ‘objectively’ observe that an exhortation is sent out to a brother in the congregation, but that they also allow themselves to be involved in the work of that exhortation, when it actually turns out that the exhortation according to the Word is not heeded, is not accepted”.[viii] However, this raises the question of how they become convinced that an admonition is needed. Unless they have seen it, or the accused person admits it, are they not relying on the claims of the accuser? If the accused person denies the sin, you would still have no basis for admonition since you’d be relying only on hearsay—and that’s hardly a sound basis.

It would seem that Van Oene presents the most acceptable interpretation of the Matthew 18 rule. That is, the witnesses must have been witnesses to the sin. This is in keeping with the Old Testament which says that, “Whoever is deserving of death shall be put to death on the testimony of two or three witnesses; he shall not be put to death on the testimony of one witness. The hands of the witnesses shall be the first against him to put him to death, and afterward the hands of all the people” (Deut. 17:6,7). And elsewhere: “… one witness is not sufficient testimony against a person for the death penalty” (Num. 35:30). And lest we think that this only applies to the grievous sin of murder, consider also: “One witness shall not rise against a man concerning any iniquity or any sin that he commits; by the mouth of two or three witnesses the matter shall be established” (Deut. 19:15). Van Oene’s position would therefore appear to be based on clear Scriptural grounds.

If we can accept this, the implications for the one who witnessed the sin are clear: “If there is no second witness of the sin itself, all the one can do is try to bring the sinner back and, if he refuses to listen, give it into the hands of the Lord”.[ix] That’s not an excuse to easily give up in dispair. One who witnesses a sin must in love do everything possible and Scripturally permissible to persuade the sinner to repent. Not just for the sake of the sinner but for the sake of God’s holy name and the “the preservation of the congregation in the fear of God”.[x] However, without other witnesses to the sin, the matter should (as some early ecclesiastical assemblies concluded) be “left to [the sinner’s] conscience with reference to the judgment of God, without pressuring him any further”.[xi]

As for the consistory, no consistory should accept a claim about sin, says Van Oene, unless the sin has been clearly identified as a transgression of God’s command (the CO’s reference to ‘impure doctrine’ and ‘delinquent conduct’ can be linked to the commandments), and there have been repeated brotherly admonitions which have not brought about repentance from sin. But nor should they accept a claim unless there are at least two witnesses to the sin.[xii] That would seem to be essential in view of the Scriptural passages requiring two witnesses and because the outcome is so serious.

 

[i] Hendriksen, Commentary on Matthew, ch. 18, vs 16, p. 700.
[ii] John Legg, The King and His Kingdom. Evangelical Press, Darlington UK, 2004, P. 338.
[iii] John Calvin, Harmony of the Gospels, Mt. 18:16.
[iv] H N Ridderbos, Bible Student’s Commentary: Matthew, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 1987, p. 338. (Originally published in Dutch as Korte Verklaring der Heilige Schrift—Mattheus, Kok, Kampen, 1950-1.)
[v] WWJ Van Oene, With Common Consent, Premier Printing, Winnipeg, 1990, p. 304.
[vi] Ibid.
[vii] J Kamphuis, “De kerkelijke tucht”, Om de heiligheid van de gemeente, Chapter 3, 1982, Kamphuis, J. (1982) Hst. 3 | kerkrecht.nl.
[viii] Ibid.
[ix] VanOene, P. 305.
[x] Kamphuis, P. 49.
[xi] Van Oene, p. 305.
[xii] Van Oene, p. 306.