Thursday, August 20, 2009

Gossip, 2 or 3 Witnesses

Two or Three Witnesses

8/20/2009 By Eric Rauch
The old adage of "not judging a book by its cover" is not only a common-sense concept, but a biblical one. Proverbs 1:5 tells us that the wise man "hears and increases in knowledge." Increasing in knowledge does not just mean getting more information, but also analyzing and comparing the knowledge one already has with the new. In other words, it is a caution of putting too much emphasis on first impressions.
Gossip—by its biblical definition—is related to slander, which is a violation of the ninth commandment (bearing false witness). Gossip is usually not as deliberate as slander in bearing false witness against a neighbor, but it does so just the same. Gossip is almost always shared on the first hearing, and the subject of the gossip is never consulted for his side of the story. Leviticus 19:15-16 "lumps slander together with legal injustice and even false testimony in a capital case, but Proverbs uses the same word to condemn the talebearer and to warn the wise not to associate with gossips (11:13; 20:19). The NT also lists both as sins (Romans 1:29-30)." [1]
There is always more to see than what first meets the eye. We seldom, and I would go so far as to say we never, get the full picture from our own perspective. Seeking to understand things from another person’s point of view is the first step toward empathy and true understanding. Gossip is the willful denial of this fact, and slander is the willful spreading of untruths (or misinterpreted truths) about a person. This is why the Bible commands two or three witnesses be present before any case can be lawfully heard in a court. "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" (Deuteronomy 19:15). Only one point of view (one witness) is not enough to condemn a man. At least two—three is preferred—must be able to come forth in order for the case to even be heard.
Some commentators on this text indicate that having two or three witnesses assures a fair trial. God is no fool. He knows very well that men are only too happy to collude in their sinfulness. If getting two or three witnesses is all that is required, surely a group of men who have much to gain by accusing a man of wrongdoing will do just that. Paul assures us that one day every knee will bow and every tongue will confess Jesus as Lord (Philippians 2:9-11), but until that day men will continue to deny that God will bring judgment upon them for their sins. God is ultimately the Judge of both the witness and the perpetrator. Having two or three witnesses does not guarantee that the trial will be fair, but it does place a great amount of responsibility on the witnesses. Their testimony is a legal oath in the earthly court, but more importantly it is a covenantal oath in the heavenly court. "By your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned" (Matthew 12:37).
Sin is seldom private. In fact, Jesus quotes Deuteronomy 19:15 when he discusses church discipline in Matthew 18. "If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses" (Matt. 18:15-16). The first stage of winning a brother is going to him in private. Restoration is the goal, not public humiliation. Each stage of the restoration process becomes more and more public though, moving from private discussion, to two or three, to the whole church. If the final step does not win him, he is to be excommunicated as an unbeliever. The implication is that there is no fear of God before his eyes, because he does not wish to reconcile with his brothers in the church.
This is also true in the civil realm. If two men have a dispute and are able to settle it between themselves without involving the courts, this is preferable. Two or three witnesses are only necessary when a matter cannot be solved amiably, or when others are directly involved, as in a capital offense. Fairness, or getting what one deserves is not the primary point of the two or three witness law. God's judicial precedence—in both the church and the civil realm—is for disputes to be settled on the lowest level possible.
But some may protest by saying if only one witness is present to a heinous crime then we must allow this case to be heard; one is certainly better than none. But God's law is clear on this, as Deuteronomy makes obvious. God has specifically mandated that one is not better than none when it comes to fallible witnesses who don't see everything properly from a limited point of view. But even if no earthly witnesses are present we must always keep in mind that three heavenly eyewitnesses are always watching. We may not be able to convict in an earthly court, but the heavenly court—with its triune Judge—is never lacking the necessary number of witnesses. In fact, the heavenly court always has the preferred amount.
Proverbs 18:17 reiterates the Deuteronomic law when it states: "The first to plead his case seems right, until another comes and examines him." How often has this been the case in your own life? If your experience is anything like mine, you know the answer is more times than you would like to admit. We are quick to judge and quicker to condemn, even when we don't know half of the story. Proverbs later tells us: "By wise counsel you will wage your own war, and in a multitude of counselors there is safety" (Prov. 24:6). In our sinfulness, we ignore wise counsel and wage our own private wars of gossip and slander, but the Bible tells us that there is safety from this battle plan in a multitude of points of view (counselors). Proverbs 1:7 says that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and instruction. Ignoring the Bible's command to seek safety in the multitude of counselors, we become fools when we willingly despise "wisdom and instruction." Rather than heeding God's law, we become laws unto ourselves (autonomy). And it is this very sinful, self-referential state of autonomy that the law of God is meant to destroy.

[1] Paul J. Achtemeier., Harper's Bible Dictionary (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1985).

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