The Watchtower Society’s use of the “Two Witness Rule” to avoid punishing Jehovah’s Witnesses who commit child abuse is provably unscriptural, and is not a sound biblical basis to shield pedophiles.
September 17, 2014
For some time, the policies of Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Watchtower Society regarding the handling of child abuse have been problematic and troubling to many.
Watchtower claims that they cannot take action against an abuser when only one witness (the abused) makes an accusation, on the grounds that doing so would be in conflict with Bible principles requiring two witnesses to an act of wrongdoing. The key verses cited in this regard as are follows:
Moreover, if your brother commits a sin, go lay bare his fault between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. 16?But if he does not listen, take along with you one or two more, in order that at the mouth of two or three witnesses every matter may be established. 17?If he does not listen to them, speak to the congregation. If he does not listen even to the congregation, let him be to you just as a man of the nations and as a tax collector.
2 Corinthians 13:1
At the mouth of two witnesses or of three every matter must be established.
1 Timothy 5:19
Do not admit an accusation against an older man, except only on the evidence of two or three witnesses.
No single witness should rise up against a man respecting any error or any sin, in the case of any sin that he may commit. At the mouth of two witnesses or at the mouth of three witnesses the matter should stand good.
In the case of child abuse, the obvious dilemma is that when an adult commits a crime against a child, the adult will see to it that there are no witnesses present, because such witnesses would almost certainly stop the adult from committing the criminal action. (There is, of course, a possibility that multiple adults might jointly carry out the abuse of a child in a criminal conspiracy, but that is a much less likely scenario.)
Watchtower has been severely criticized for their approach, which has been depicted as legalistic and needlessly biased in favor of wrongdoers, to the detriment of children. The Watchtower response has been that, as an organization dedicated to God and to upholding Bible principles, it would be unscriptural to accept the word of a single abused child, since doing so violates the biblical passages cited above.
Up until now, this stance has led to a stalemate. Watchtower says, in effect: ‘You can disagree with our religion all you like, but we are a Bible-based organization, and we stand for upholding the Bible. What we are doing is simply being consistent with Bible laws and principles, and as much as you dislike the outcome, we have told everyone of our stand, and you can’t fault us for being consistent.’
Those who oppose the Watchtower (some on account of the child abuse issue, and others because of more fundamental doctrinal disagreements) have had little ‘ammunition’ with which to respond, other than making life difficult for the Watchtower by exposing their policies (thus applying adverse publicity and public pressure) and by seeking to establish and enforce stricter laws and court decisions that might bring additional pressure to bear. So far, the results have been mixed. The Candace Conti verdict was a significant setback for the Watchtower, but is merely one of many cases, none of which have had the same dramatic outcome.
There is, however, another approach that both sides have, so far, evidently failed to consider, and that is that there is an additional biblical principle that has a direct bearing on this debate.
The passage in question is found in Deuteronomy 22:23-29:
In case there happened to be a virgin girl engaged to a man, and a man actually found her in the city and lay down with her, 24?YOU must also bring them both out to the gate of that city and pelt them with stones, and they must die, the girl for the reason that she did not scream in the city, and the man for the reason that he humiliated the wife of his fellowman. So you must clear away what is evil from your midst.
25?If, however, it is in the field that the man found the girl who was engaged, and the man grabbed hold of her and lay down with her, the man who lay down with her must also die by himself, 26?and to the girl you must do nothing. The girl has no sin deserving of death, because just as when a man rises up against his fellowman and indeed murders him, even a soul, so it is with this case. 27?For it was in the field that he found her. The girl who was engaged screamed, but there was no one to rescue her.
28?In case a man finds a girl, a virgin who has not been engaged, and he actually seizes her and lies down with her, and they have been found out, 29?the man who lay down with her must also give the girl’s father fifty silver shekels, and she will become his wife due to the fact that he humiliated her. He will not be allowed to divorce her all his days.
This law establishes a vital principle that can be applied to the matter of child abuse. How so? In that a virgin girl engaged to a man, and child, have a comparable legal standing. That is, the community in general is legally constrained against sexual contact with both an engaged girl and with a child.
In the case of the engaged girl, her husband-to-be had certain rights under the Mosaic Law that were almost as strong as if the two were already married. In the case of a child, the legal constraint is the common knowledge and prevailing law that a child is incapable of giving consent to sexual contact, and any attempt to do so would be statutory rape on the part of the adult. This is contrasted with a girl who was not engaged (but presumably was not a child either), who was not legally constrained in the same way an engaged girl was; even though sex relations in such circumstances was still frowned upon, it did not have the same legal gravity as the other cases.
What is significant about the account in Deuteronomy 22 is that it makes a distinction between an event happening “in the city” and one happening “in the field”.
When occurring in a city, there would presumably be witnesses nearby who might have seen or heard it occur. If the girl had screamed, the incident would be considered as rape, as someone would have heard and (hopefully) come to her rescue; whereas if she did not scream, it would have been seen as a case of willing infidelity on the part of the engaged girl, an act of disloyalty to her soon-to-be husband.
However, when an assault occurred ‘in the field’, in some isolated place where no witnesses are likely to be found, the man was to be put to death, while no action was to be taken against the girl. Since the event took place in a field, the precise motives of the girl are uncertain, since no one observed this taking place to verify it was done without consent. But, the account suggests that it was a violent encounter. Note that in the first instance where the event took place in a city, the two were simply “found” together, whereas in the field, the man is said to have “grabbed” the girl. This certainly suggests that a measure of force was used, and thus the intent of this verse strongly suggests the matter at hand was not indiscriminately any sort of sexual contact, but one of sexual assault.
Why is this matter important? It is because in the case of an engaged girl that was sexually assaulted in the field, no witnesses were present. Yet, the man in question was held legally liable and put to death. His guilt, and his liability to being punished, were just as certain as a man who murdered someone while they too were ‘in a field’ away from witnesses (since the murderer would have killed the only witness to the crime).
In the case of a murder, the evidence might take time to come to light, while in the case of the girl, authorities would have had to take the girl’s word. What is the significance of this? It shows that the two-witness rule does not shield from punishment those guilty of sexual assault.
The modern day import of this should be clear. The Watchtower cannot shield themselves, or child abusers, on the grounds that bringing abusers to justice would violate the Bible’s two-witness rule, because the principles in Deuteronomy 22 show that such rules do not act as a shield. This means that the Watchtower’s legalistic stance, in the name of upholding Bible principles, is flawed and misleading. Scripturally, they don’t have a leg to stand on.
It is important that all parties to this ongoing debate understand this. It is no longer a question of whether the Watchtower is properly upholding Bible principles in citing the two-witness rule, because it is clear they are not. What matters is what people are going to do now.
It should be noted that, in general, the principle of seeking multiple witnesses to a matter under dispute is certainly a sound one. It prevents ‘trouble makers’ and persons in the midst of angry disputes from making unfounded accusations. It acts to discourage slander. However, such matters are things that involve adult-to-adult interactions, not criminal acts perpetrated by adults on innocent children.
Some may be concerned that a child might make up stories, or lie, about being abused, and that any relaxation of the two-witness rule might ‘open the floodgates’ to unsubstantiated accusations and slander. That is certainly a valid question and deserves a considered reply. However, as the Awake! magazine of October 8, 1993 (page 6) observed under the subject of “Common Misconceptions” about child abuse:
Misconception: Children fantasize or lie about sexual abuse.
Under normal circumstances children lack the experience or sophistication in sexual matters to invent explicit claims of abuse, although some small children may become confused about details. Even the most skeptical of researchers agree that most claims of abuse are valid. Consider the book Sex Abuse Hysteria—Salem Witch Trials Revisited, which focuses on false claims of abuse. This book admits: “Genuine sex abuse of children is widespread and the vast majority of sex abuse allegations of children . . . are likely to be justified (perhaps 95% or more).” Children find it enormously difficult to report abuse. When they do lie about abuse, it is most often to deny that it happened even though it actually did.
It is thus seldom the case that a child would, of their own volition, make up a story about being abused. It is true that at times, a separated or divorced parent might coach or coerce a child into making a false accusation against the other parent, for the purpose of seizing custody. While possible, it is far less likely to occur than actual incidents of abuse.
If the Watchtower were to change their policies, what would be the outcome? Perhaps those accused of child abuse by a single victim would have their congregation privileges removed and be prevented from serving in any position of authority, while possibly avoiding excommunication. Only time will tell what effect, if any, a full consideration of the matters discussed herein may result.
It is not implied or assumed that an application of the principles of Deuteronomy 22 will answer all outstanding questions or concerns about child abuse. It is one thing to discuss laws and principles in a quiet academic or legal setting, and quite another to deal with the fear, trauma and distress of being a victim of child abuse or being affected by it. This is a terribly difficult problem, and if someone had all the answers, it would have been solved by now.
However, having said that, it is time for the Watchtower, and everyone else, to be completely honest about this problem. Child abuse is both a crime and a sin. Persons in the Watchtower organization are imperfect and as vulnerable to committing sins as any person on earth. No amount of Bible education can “teach the sin” out of someone. We all have to make choices, and some people make bad ones. Opposers of the Watchtower should not presume or imply that Jehovah’s Witnesses as people are necessarily any worse, in general, than non-Witnesses. By the same token, Jehovah’s Witnesses should not presume that they are any better. Perhaps they “ought” to be better, but that is another question entirely.
The primary way in which the Watchtower has proved itself “worse” than average is that its policies have protected and propagated wrongdoing. They should have known better, as the admonition in Ecclesiastes 8:11 reminds them:
Because sentence against a bad work has not been executed speedily, that is why the heart of the sons of men has become fully set in them to do bad.
Wrongdoers in the Watchtower, especially elders and others in positions of authority, have become ‘fully set in their ways’, because policies that act to that protect abusers, without the certain consequences of punishment, restrictions, or public scrutiny, give them little incentive to change.
One can only wonder how Watchtower authorities, standing before the judgment of God, would answer for their actions. Which sin would be more reprehensible and harder to confess? “I allowed a child to be abused and did nothing” or “I failed to uphold the two-witness rule in a judicial hearing” ? To claim that upholding legalities is somehow preferable to protecting an innocent child is simply inexcusable, in view of the preceding discussion that makes clear that their legalistic defense of wrongdoers is biblically unjustified.
A final point of significance regarding Deuteronomy 22 is to note how its language is clear, concise and easily understood. It does not require a theologian or Bible scholar to grasp its meaning, but is easily comprehended, both by people in general and by persons in positions of responsibility, such as police, courts and lawmakers. No one could claim this passage is vague, symbolic, obscure, or says anything other than what it says.
The typical reaction by non-Witnesses about the stand of the Watchtower regarding this policy is one of disbelief. They can’t understand, much less accept, that an organization could be so heartless and callous about such a serious matter. It “rubs them the wrong way” and bothers their conscience, because even without an insight into the many biblical and legalistic arguments, “it just seems wrong”.
This presentation about Deuteronomy 22 shows that such intuitive pangs of conscience are justified. It “seems wrong” because it is wrong. Now, we have the scriptural basis for saying why it’s wrong, in a way that the Watchtower cannot ignore – not if they still wish to be taken seriously as an organization that stands for God and Bible principles.