[A special thanks goes out to contributing writer, Tadua, whose research and reasoning are the basis for this article.]

In all likelihood, only a minority of Jehovah’s Witnesses have viewed the proceedings that took place over the past couple of years in Australia. Still, those few courageous ones who dared to defy their “superiors” by viewing outside material—particularly the interchange between Counsel Assisting, Angus Stewart, and Governing Body member Geoffrey Jackson—were treated to a bizarre scene, at least to the mind of a faithful JW.  (To view the interchange for yourself, click here.) What they saw was a “worldly” lawyer, a representative of a secular authority, debating a point of Scripture with the highest authority in the Witness world, and winning the argument.

We are told in the Bible that when we are hauled before the superior authorities, the words we need will be given us.

“And you will be brought before governors and kings for my sake, for a witness to them and the nations. 19 However, when they hand you over, do not become anxious about how or what you are to speak, for what you are to speak will be given you in that hour; 20 for the ones speaking are not just you, but it is the spirit of your Father that speaks by you.” (Mt 10:18-20)

Did the Holy Spirit fail this member of the Governing Body of Jehovah’s Witnesses?  No, because the spirit cannot fail. For instance, the first time that Christians were hauled before a government authority was just shortly after Pentecost 33 CE. The apostles were brought before the Sanhedrin, the High Court of the nation of Israel, and told to stop preaching in the name of Jesus. That particular court of law was at once secular and religious.  Yet, despite its religious underpinnings, the judges did not reason from the Scriptures.  They knew they had no hope of defeating these men using the Holy Writings, so they simply pronounced their decision and expected to be obeyed.  They told the apostles to cease-and-desist from preaching on the name of Jesus.  The apostles answered on the basis of the Scriptural law and the judges had no reply save to reinforce their authority with physical punishment. (Acts 5:27-32, 40)

Why was the Governing Body not similarly able to defend its position on its policy of handling cases of child sexual abuse in the congregation?  Since the Spirit cannot fail, we are left to conclude that the policy is the point of failure.

The point of contention before the Australia Royal Commission was the Governing Body’s rigid application of the two-witness rule in both judicial and criminal cases. If there are not two witnesses to sin, or in this case a sinful criminal act, then—failing a confession—witness elders are directed to do nothing. In tens of thousands of both alleged and confirmed cases of child sexual abuse around the world and over the decades, officials of the Organization continue to not report unless compelled to by a specific law. Thus, when there were not two witnesses to the crime, the alleged perpetrator was allowed to maintain whatever position he held in the congregation, and his accuser was expected to accept and put up with the findings of the judicial committee.

The basis for this seemingly peculiar, ultra-rigid stance are these three verses from the Bible.

“On the testimony of two witnesses or of three witnesses the one who is to die should be put to death. He must not be put to death on the testimony of one witness.” (De 17:6)

“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.” (De 19:15)

“Do not accept an accusation against an older man except on the evidence of two or three witnesses.” (1 Timothy 5:19)

(Unless otherwise noted, we will be quoting from the New World translation of the Holy Scriptures [NWT] since this is the one version of the Bible that Witnesses will universally accept.)

The third reference in First Timothy is particularly important as support for the Organization’s position on this question, because it is taken from the Christian Greek Scriptures. If the only references for this rule came from the Hebrew Scriptures—i.e. the Mosaic Law—an argument could be made that this requirement had passed away together with the Law code.[1]  However, Paul’s injunction to Timothy convinces the Governing Body that this rule still applies to Christians.

A Brief Hope

To a Jehovah’s Witness, this would seem to be the end of the matter. When again called before the Australian Royal Commission in March of this year, the representatives from the Australia branch office demonstrated the intransigence of their leadership by rigidly adhering to a literal application in all circumstances of this two-witness rule. (While Counsel Advising, Angus Stewart, did seem to have raised doubts in the mind of Governing Body member Geoffrey Jackson that there might be a Bible precedent which would allow for some flexibility to this rule, and while, Jackson, in the heat of the moment, did acknowledge that Deuteronomy 22 provided grounds for a matter to be decided on the basis of a single witness in some cases of rape, this testimony was reversed shortly after the hearing when the Organization’s counsel provided a document to the commission in which they clamped back down on their application of the two-witness rule. – See Addendum.)

Rules vs. Principles

If you are a Jehovah’s Witnesses, does that put an end to the matter for you?  It shouldn’t unless you are unaware of the fact that the law of the Christ is based on love. Even the Mosaic law with its hundreds of rules allowed for some flexibility based on circumstances. However, Christ’s law surpasses it in that all things are based on principles which are built upon the foundation of God’s love. If the Mosaic law allowed for some flexibility, as we will see, the love the Christ goes even beyond that – seeking justice in all cases.

Nevertheless, Christ’s law does not depart from what is stated in Scripture. Instead, it is expressed through Scripture. So we will examine all the instances where the two-witness rule appears in the Bible so that we can determine how it fits within the framework of God’s law for us today.

“Proof Texts”

Deuteronomy 17:6 and 19:15

To reiterate, these are the key texts from the Hebrew Scriptures that form the basis for deciding all judicial matters in the congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses:

“On the testimony of two witnesses or of three witnesses the one who is to die should be put to death. He must not be put to death on the testimony of one witness.” (De 17:6)

“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.” (De 19:15)

These are what are called “proof texts”.  The idea is that you read a single verse from the Bible that supports your idea, close the Bible with a thump and say: “There you go.  End of story.”  Truly, if we do not read further, these two texts would lead us to the conclusion that no crime was dealt with in Israel unless there were two or more eye-witnesses. But was that really the case?  Did God make no further provision for his nation to handle crimes and other judicial matters beyond giving them this simple rule?

If so, then this would be a recipe for mayhem.  Consider this: You want to murder your neighbour.  All you have to do is make sure not more than one person sees you.  You can have the bloodied knife in your possession and a motive big enough to drive a camel caravan through, but hey, you’re scot free because there were not two witnesses.

Let us, as freed Christians, not fall again into the snare laid by those promoting “proof texts” as the basis for doctrinal understanding.  Instead, we will consider the context.

In the case of Deuteronomy 17:6, the crime being referred to is that of apostasy.

“Suppose a man or a woman is found among you, in any of your cities that Jehovah your God is giving you, who is practicing what is bad in the eyes of Jehovah your God and violating his covenant, 3 and he goes astray and worships other gods and he bows down to them or to the sun or the moon or all the army of the heavens, a thing that I have not commanded. 4 When it is reported to you or you hear about it, then you should investigate the matter thoroughly. If it is confirmed to be true that this detestable thing has been done in Israel, 5 you must bring the man or the woman who has done this evil thing out to the city gates, and the man or the woman must be stoned to death.” (De 17:2-5)

With apostasy, there is no tangible evidence.  There is no dead body, or stolen booty, or bruised flesh to point to so as to demonstrate a crime has been committed.  There is only the testimony of witnesses.  Either the person was seen offering a sacrifice to a false god or not.  Either he was heard persuading others to engage in idolatrous worship or not.  In either case, the evidence exists only in the testimony of others, so two witnesses would be a minimum requirement if one is contemplating putting the evildoer to death.

But what about crimes like murder, assault and rape?

A Witness elder would likely point to the second proof text (Deuteronomy 19:15) and say, “any error or any sin” is covered by this rule.  The context of this verse includes the sin of murder and manslaughter (De 19:11-13) as well as theft. (De 19:14 – moving boundary markers to steal a hereditary possession.)

But it also includes direction on handling cases where there was only one witness:

“If a malicious witness testifies against a man and charges him with some transgression, 17 the two men who have the dispute will stand before Jehovah, before the priests and the judges who will be serving in those days. 18 The judges will thoroughly investigate, and if the man who testified is a false witness and has brought a false charge against his brother, 19 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. 20 Those who remain will hear and be afraid, and they will never again do anything bad like this among you. 21 You should not feel sorry: Life will be for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.” (De 19:16-21)

So if the statement in verse 15 is to be taken as an all-encompassing rule, then how could the judges “thoroughly investigate”?  They would be wasting their time if they had no option other than to wait for a second witness to turn up.

Further evidence that this rule was not the “end all and be all” of the Israelite forensic process can be seen when one considers another passage:

“If a virgin is engaged to a man, and another man happens to meet her in the city and lies down with her, 24 you should bring them both out to the gate of that city and stone them to death, the girl because she did not scream in the city and the man because he humiliated the wife of his fellow man. So you must remove what is evil from your midst. 25 “If, however, the man happened to meet the engaged girl in the field and the man overpowered her and lay down with her, the man who lay down with her is to die by himself, 26 and you must do nothing to the girl. The girl has not committed a sin deserving of death. This case is the same as when a man attacks his fellow man and murders him. 27 For he happened to meet her in the field, and the engaged girl screamed, but there was no one to rescue her.” (De 22:23-27)

God’s word doesn’t contradict itself.  There have to be two or more witnesses to convict a man and yet here we have only one witness and yet a conviction is possible?  Perhaps we’re overlooking a rather critical fact: The Bible wasn’t written in English.

If we look up the word translated “witness” in our “proof text” of Deuteronomy 19:15 we find the Hebrew word, ed.  Besides “witness” as in eye-witness, this word can also mean evidence.  Here are some of the ways the word is used:

“Now come, let us make a covenant, you and I, and it will serve as a witness between us.”” (Ge 31:44)

“Laʹban then said: “This pile of stones is a witness between me and you today.” That is why he named it Galʹe·ed,” (Ge 31:48)

“If it was torn by a wild animal, he is to bring it as evidence. [ed] He is not to make compensation for something torn by a wild animal.” (Ex 22:13)

“Now write down this song for yourselves and teach it to the Israelites. Have them learn it in order that this song may serve as my witness against the people of Israel.” (De 31:19)

“So we said, ‘Let us by all means take action by building an altar, not for burnt offerings or sacrifices, 27 but to be a witness between you and us and our descendants after us that we will carry out our service to Jehovah before him with our burnt offerings and our sacrifices and our communion sacrifices, so that your sons may not say to our sons in the future: “You have no share in Jehovah.”’” (Jos 22:26, 27)

“Like the moon, it will be firmly established forever As a faithful witness in the skies.” (Selah)” (Ps 89:37)

“In that day there will be an altar to Jehovah in the middle of the land of Egypt and a pillar to Jehovah at its boundary. 20 It will be for a sign and for a witness to Jehovah of armies in the land of Egypt; for they will cry out to Jehovah because of the oppressors, and he will send them a savior, a grand one, who will save them.” (Isa 19:19, 20)

From this we can see that in the absence of two or more eye-witnesses, the Israelites could rely on forensic evidence to reach a just decision so as not to let the evildoer to free.  In the case of the rape of a virgin in Israel as described in the foregoing passage, there would be physical evidence to corroborate the victim’s testimony, so a single eye-witness could prevail since the second “witness” [ed] would be the evidence.

Elders are not prepared to gather this type of evidence which is one of the reasons God gave us the superior authorities, which we are so reluctant to utilize.  (Romans 13:1-7)

1 Timothy 5:19

There are several texts in the Christian Greek Scriptures which mention the two-witness rule, but always in the context of the Mosaic Law.  So these cannot be applied perforce since the Law does not apply to Christians.

For example,

Matthew 18:16: This is not speaking of eye-witnesses to the sin, but rather witnesses to the discussion; there to reason with the sinner.

John 8:17, 18: Jesus uses the rule established in the Law to convince his Jewish listeners that he is the Messiah. (Interestingly, he does not say “our law”, but “your law”.)

Hebrews 10:28: Here the writer is merely using an application of a rule in the Mosaic Law well known to his audience to reason on the greater punishment that accrues to one who tramples on the name of the Lord.

Indeed, the only hope that the Organization has of carrying this particular rule forward into the Christian system of things is found in First Timothy.

“Do not accept an accusation against an older man except on the evidence of two or three witnesses.” (1 Timothy 5:19)

Now let’s consider the context.  In verse 17 Paul stated, “Let the older men who preside in a fine way be reckoned worthy of double honor, especially those who work hard in speaking and teaching.”  When he said “do not admit an accusation against an older man” was he therefore making a hard and fast rule that applied to all older men regardless of their reputation?

The Greek word translated “admit” in the NWT is paradexomai which can mean according to HELPS Word-studies “welcome with personal interest”.

So the flavor conveyed by this scripture is ‘Do not welcome accusations against a faithful older man who presides in a fine manner, unless you have good strong evidence such as the case with two or three witnesses (i.e. not frivolous, petty, or motivated by jealousy or revenge). Was Paul also including all congregation members? No, he was specifically referring to faithful older men of good repute. The whole import was that Timothy was to protect faithful, hard-working, older men from discontented members of the congregation.

This situation is akin to that covered by Deuteronomy 19:15.  Accusations of bad conduct, like those of apostasy, are largely based on eye-witness testimony. The lack of forensic evidence requires that two or more witnesses be used to establish the matter.

Dealing with Child Rape

The sexual abuse of children is a particularly heinous form of rape. Like the virgin in the field described at Deuteronomy 22:23-27, there is usually on one witness, the victim.  (We can discount the perpetrator as a witness unless he chooses to confess.)  However, there is often forensic evidence.  Additionally, a skilled interrogator can “investigate thoroughly” and often unearth the truth.

Israel was a nation with its own administrative, legislative and judicial branches of government.  It had a law code and a penal system which included capital punishment.  The Christian congregation is not a nation.  It is not a secular government.  It has no judiciary, nor does it have a penal system.  That is why we are told to leave the handling of crime and criminals to the “superior authorities”, “God’s ministers” for dispensing justice. (Romans 13:1-7)

In most countries, fornication is not a crime, so the congregation deals with it internally as a sin. However, rape is a crime.  Child sexual abuse is also a crime. It seems that the Organization with its Governing Body seems to miss that important distinction.

Hiding behind Legalism

I recently saw a video of an elder in a judicial hearing justifying his position by saying that “We go with what the Bible says.  We make no apology for that.”

It seems in listening to the testimony of elders from the Australia branch as well as that of Governing Body member Geoffrey Jackson that this position is universally held among Jehovah’s Witnesses.  They feel that by holding rigidly to the letter of the law, they are winning God’s approval.

Another group of God’s people once felt similarly.  It did not end well for them.

“Woe to YOU, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because YOU give the tenth of the mint and the dill and the cumin, but YOU have disregarded the weightier matters of the Law, namely, justice and mercy and faithfulness. These things it was binding to do, yet not to disregard the other things. 24 Blind guides, who strain out the gnat but gulp down the camel!” (Mt 23:23, 24)

How could these men who spent their lives studying the law have missed out on its “weightier matters”?  We must understand this if we are to avoid being infected by the same thinking. (Mt 16:6, 11, 12)

We know that the law of the Christ is a law of principles not rules.  These principles are from God, the Father.  God is love.  (1 John 4:8)  Therefore, the law is based on love.  We might think that the Mosaic Law with its Ten Commandments and 600+ laws and rules was not based on principles, not based on love.   However, that is not the case.  Could a law that originates from the true God who is love not be based in love?  Jesus answered this question when asked about which commandment was the greatest.  He replied:

“‘You must love Jehovah your God with your whole heart and with your whole soul and with your whole mind.’ 38 This is the greatest and first commandment. 39 The second, like it, is this: ‘You must love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 On these two commandments the whole Law hangs, and the Prophets.”” (Mt 22:37-40)

Not only the entire Mosaic Law, but all the sayings of the Prophets depends on obedience to these two simply commandments.  Jehovah was taking a people who—especially by modern standards—were barbaric, and He was moving them toward salvation through the Messiah.  They needed rules, because they were not yet ready for the fullness of the perfect law of love.  So the Mosaic Law became like a tutor, to guide the child to the Master Teacher. (Gal. 3:24)  Therefore, underlying all the rules, supporting them and binding them together, is the quality of God’s love.

Let us see how this might apply in a practical way.  Returning to the scenario painted by Deuteronomy 22:23-27, we are going to make a small adjustment.  Let us make the victim a seven-year-old child.  Now would the ‘weightier matters of justice, mercy, and faithfulness’ be satisfied if the elders of the village looked at all the evidence and simply threw up their hands and did nothing because they didn’t have two eye-witnesses?

As we’ve seen, there were provisions for situations when there were insufficient eye-witnesses, and these provisions are codified into the law because the Israelites needed them since they had not yet attained to the fullness of the Christ.  They were being guided there by the law. We, however, shouldn’t need them.  If even those under the Law Code were to be guided by love, justice, mercy and faithfulness, what reason do we as Christians under the greater law of the Christ have for returning to legalism? Have we become infected by the leaven of the Pharisees?  Do we hide behind a single verse to justify actions that amount to a complete abandonment of the law of love? The Pharisees did this to protect their station and their authority.  As a result, they lost everything.

Balance Is Needed

This graphic was sent to me by a good friend.  I haven’t read the article from which it originated, so I cannot endorse it per se. However, the illustration speaks for itself.  The Organization of Jehovah’s Witnesses has de facto replaced the lordship of Jesus Christ with the lordship of the Governing Body with its rules.  Avoiding licentiousness, JW.org has slid toward “legalism”.  We score high on all four products of this choice: Arrogance (We’re the only true religion, “the best life ever”); Oppression (If you don’t agree with the Governing Body, you will be punished by disfellowshipping); Inconsistency (Ever-changing “new light” and constant flip-flops labelled as “refinements”); Hypocrisy (Claiming neutrality while joined to the UN, blaming the rank-and-file for their 1975 fiasco, claiming to love our children while preserving policies that have proven harmful to the “little ones”.)

As it turns out, the two-witness rule embarrassment is just the tip of the JW legalistic iceberg.  But this berg is breaking up under the sun of public scrutiny.


In an attempt to retract his testimony in which Geoffrey Jackson reluctantly agreed that Deuteronomy 22:23-27 seemed to provide an exception to the two-witness rule, the legal desk issued a written statement.  Our discussion would be incomplete were we not to address the arguments raised in that document.  We will deal therefore with “Issue 3: Explanation of Deuteronomy 22:25-27”.

Point 17 of the document alleges that the rule found at Deuteronomy 17:6 and 19:15 is to be taken as valid “without exception”. As we’ve already shown above, that is not a valid scriptural position.  The context in each case indicates that exceptions are provided for.  Then point 18 of the document states:

  1. It is important to note that the two contrasting situations in verses 23 to 27 of Deuteronomy chapter 22 do not deal with proving whether the man is guilty in either situation. His guilt is assumed in both instances. In saying that he:

“happened to meet her in the city and lay down with her”

or he:

“happened to meet the engaged girl in the field and the man overpowered her and lay down with her “.

in both instances, the man had already been proved guilty and worthy of death, this being determined by proper procedure earlier in the judges’ inquiry. But the question at this point before the judges (having established that improper sexual relations had occurred between the man and the woman) was whether the engaged woman had been guilty of immorality or was a victim of rape. This is a different issue, although related, to establishing the man’s guilt.

They fail to explain how “the man had already been proved guilty” since the rape had occurred in the field far from witnesses.  At best they would have the testimony of the woman, but where’s the second witness?  By their own admission, he had “already been found guilty” as “determined by proper procedure”, yet they also allege that the only “proper procedure” requires two witnesses, and the Bible clearly indicates in this case that such were lacking.  So they admit there is a proper procedure that can be utilized to establish guilt that does not require two witnesses. Therefore, the argument they make in point 17 that the two-witness rule of Deuteronomy 17:6 and 19:15 is to be followed “without exception” is rendered null and void by their subsequent conclusion made under point 18.


[1] It could be argued that even Jesus’ reference to the two-witness rule found at John 8:17 did not bring that law forward into the Christian congregation. The reasoning goes that he was simply using a law that was still in force at the time to make a point about his own authority, but not implying that this law would be in force once the law code had been replaced by the greater law of the Christ.

Meleti Vivlon

Articles by Meleti Vivlon.
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