Thursday, October 01, 2015

Receiving Accusations

The internet is a great gift from God but like all great gifts, it can be badly misused. Calumny arises when accusers are assumed to be witnesses. An accuser can be a witness but witnesses and accusers are not the same thing. Thus, when accusers queue up on the internet as if they were witnesses and proclaim all sorts of evil against the accused, we need to keep calm and keep our thinking caps on.

An accuser makes the claim of a crime or a sin.
A witness is one who saw, or who has compelling first hand evidence, against the accused.
In our system of justice, as well as in the Bible, the accused is considered innocent until proven guilty.

The biblical standard for determining guilt is the credible testimony of at least two witnesses. Why do I say credible? Because witnesses must face the accused and cross examination by the accused or his counsel. Consider the Bible's admonitions about hearing only one side of a story. Prov. 18:17 He that is first in his own cause seemeth just; but his neighbour cometh and searcheth him.

The two witness threshold is clear in Scripture. Deut. 19:15 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. 

Note- This is not two accusers. It is two witnesses. Fifty accusers and one witness cannot convict. 

This post is titled Receiving Accusations. I want to address how Christians hear. We should be careful to hear with biblical ears. In Matthew 18, the discipline chapter, the Bible makes clear allowance for one brother going to another brother to set a wrong right. If someone sins against you, go to him to seek to make it right. If he will not repent, then take another brother with you TO the man. Note, it does not say to grab another brother and raise a cry on the internet. We are not to talk about the brother in question but to him. 

Furthermore, if the confrontation is racheting up from personal admonition to formal discipline, the standard rises. Bring one or two brothers. This is starting to look like two or three witnesses. In the case of a particularly unrepentant brother, the Bible requires that we take along witnesses of his stubborn rebellion. Perhaps these witnesses might also be witness to the original sin?

Matt. 18:16 But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.

The standard of two or three witnesses is not Old Testament. Paul was going to visit Corinth again and there were rumors of serious sins in their midst. He made it clear that he would use the Biblical standard of two or three witnesses to establish any accusations.

2Cor. 13:1   This is the third time I am coming to you. In the mouth of two or three witnesses shall every word be established. 

Finally, Paul tells Timothy not to receive accusations against elders but before two or three witnesses.

1Tim. 5:19 Against an elder receive not an accusation, but before two or three witnesses. 

First, this establishes the standard. One person making accusation is not only not enough to convict or depose an elder, it is not even enough to take action. We don't like this. What if the accusation was dangerous, scurrilous, serious? The problem that the Bible recognizes is that if there is only one witness and only one accused, then it is only one man's word against another. There is no way to determine the truth of the matter. That is why other witnesses are required. I have no problem with 'other witnesses' being recordings, photos, or some other clearly objective 'witness.' But one person cannot condemn another on his or her word alone. That is the Biblical standard and it is a good one.

Second, there is a requirement on Timothy about being careful what he hears. Do not 'receive' an accusation. In our day, we act as if we are free to receive accusations against anyone for any reason. Assumed victims are so sacrosanct that their word cannot be questioned without accusations of heartlessness, failed empathy, etc. I refer you back to Scripture. Do not receive an accusation against an elder, but before two or three witnesses. Are there more witnesses? Then you can hear them out and act accordingly. Are there no witnesses but the accuser? Then, you shall not receive such accusations.

Third, Before two or three witnesses. The judge or hearing party must hear the two or three witnesses. The verse seems to imply that the witnesses are in the presence of the judge and the accused. This seems only fair. The accused, or his counsel, can see and cross examine his accusers and witnesses. They do not get to be anonymous or abstracted from being present. They do not get to accuse, or even witness, from the  cheap seats of the internet, without accountability. The Bible has strong accountability for witnesses. A biblical witness can receive the sentence reserved for the guilty if they lie under oath for the sake of a conviction. We would do well to apply such a standard in our day. Being an accuser or a witness should be a really big deal.

Fourth, this text is written to Christians to give them warning about accusing and receiving accusations against elders. Why? Because elders are likely to be accused. Can elders sin grievously? Yes, they can. And when they do, they should be held accountable according to Scripture. Paul is making that clear. But they are also in a position to say and preach hard words, call out sins, and as a consequence, make enemies, both in their own churches and outside their own churches. Paul knows this first hand. He had been much accused. But being accused and being guilty are two different things and Paul states the Biblical standard for making accusations. A church member, or someone outside the church, cannot simply accuse an elder of wrongdoing and have it be taken seriously. There must be witnesses and more than one.

So, Christians must be particularly careful about what sorts of complaints and accusations are to be received. There will always be a tendency for some to criticize and even accuse godly elders and pastors but such accusations must be evaluated on their merits according to the Biblical standard of witnesses. 

Finally, false accusers and false witnesses should be held accountable. If they are Christians, they should feel the weight of their sin and repent. If they are confronted by their brothers in the Lord, or if a pastor gets involved, the false accuser should repent on threat of further or formal discipline. By the way, the Church's sanctions are spiritual, not corporal. She can suspend from the Table and as the highest form of discipline, excommunicate. But anyone who is a brother, indeed, will feel the great weight of these sanctions. The sentence of discipline is what the false accuser sought against an elder or pastor in their accusation and it is biblically just for them to be held accountable up to the same sentence. 

Be careful who and how you accuse and in what accusations you receive.

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