Both in the Hebrew Scriptures and in the Christian Greek Scriptures there is a requirement for two or three witnesses in order to prove that a person is guilty of serious sin.
Jehovah’s Witnesses have accepted this requirement, and in all situations except one, the elders will not take judicial action if there are not at least two eyewitnesses. The only exception is when two persons stay in the same house during the night under what is said to be “improper circumstances.” If this stay is established by two witnesses, there is, according to the Shepherd book, strong circumstantial evidence that the two have committed sexual immorality. And even if they deny that this has happened, they can be disfellowshipped.
I compare a situation where there is strong circumstantial evidence of a brother’s abuse of a child, but where this circumstantial evidence is not accepted by the elders and two witnesses are demanded, with a situation where two persons spend the night together in the same house, and where circumstantial evidence is accepted as a basis for disfellowshipping.
The conclusion is that accepting strong circumstantial evidence in the mentioned situation is a blatant violation of the laws of Jehovah God.
In 2015, the Royal Commission in Australia made a thorough investigation regarding sexual abuse inside the denomination of Jehovah’s Witnesses. The court questioning of Geoffrey Jackson of the Governing Body shows the weakness of using circumstantial evidence.
TWO OR THREE WITNESSES — AND THE EXCEPTION
In ancient Israel, two or three witnesses were necessary to prove a situation of wrongdoing. The same is true in the Christian congregations, as I will show in the discussion below. The lexicon of Jehovah’s Witnesses, Insight on the Scriptures II, page 511 says:
Two witnesses, or even three, were required to establish a matter before the judges. This principle is also followed in the Christian congregation. (De 17:6; 19:15; Mt 18:16; 2Co 13:1; 1Ti 5:19; Heb 10:28) God adhered to this principle in presenting his Son to the people as mankind’s Savior. Jesus said: “In your own Law it is written, ‘The witness of two men is true.’ I am one that bears witness about myself, and the Father who sent me bears witness about me.”—Joh 8:17, 18.
The requirement of two or three witnesses has been applied during the 56 years when I have served as an elder. The Watchtower of 15 August 1997, page 29, says:
At least two witnesses are required to establish a charge of wrongdoing. (John 8:17; Hebrews 10:28) If the person denies the charge and your testimony is the only one, the matter will be left in Jehovah’s hands. (1 Timothy 5:19, 24, 25) This is done in the knowledge that all things are “openly exposed” to Jehovah and that if the person is guilty, eventually his sins will “catch up” with him.—Hebrews 4:13; Numbers 32:23.
An article in The Watchtower of May 2019, page 12, discusses the sexual abuse of children. If a person is accused of this very bad sin, the authorities will be notified if that is the requirement of the law, regardless of whether there is evidence of the sin or not. But as regards the congregation, two witnesses are necessary to declare that the accused person is guilty of the abuse. We read:
In the congregation, before the elders take judicial action, why are at least two witnesses required? This requirement is part of the Bible’s high standard of justice. When there is no confession of wrongdoing, two witnesses are required to establish the accusation and authorize the elders to take judicial action. (Deut. 19:15; Matt 18:16; read 1 Timothy 5:19.) Does this mean that before an allegation of abuse can be reported to the authorities, two witnesses are required? No. This requirement does not apply to whether elders or others report allegations of a crime.
Sexual abuse of children is a serious form of porneia, and when at least two witnesses are required in this situation, we would expect that two witnesses would be required in other forms of porneia as well. But strangely enough, this is not the case. The book for elders “Shepherd the flock of God” 12.7 says:
Strong Circumstantial Evidence of Sexual Immorality (Pornei’a): lf at least two eyewitnesses report that the accused stayed all night in the same house with a person of the opposite sex (or with a known homosexual) under improper circumstances, judicial action may be warranted. (w18.07 p. 32) The elders cannot apply one rule to every case; each situation has unique circumstances. After two elders have thoroughly investigated, the body of elders must use good judgment in discerning whether serious wrongdoing has occurred. lf the elders are unsure how to proceed, they should consult with the Service Department.
The reference in the Shepherd book is to The Watchtower of July 2017, page 32, where we read:
If an unmarried couple spend the night together under improper circumstances, would that constitute a sin meriting judicial action?
Yes, if there are no extenuating circumstances, a judicial committee would be formed on the basis of strong circumstantial evidence of sexual immorality.—1 Cor. 6:18.
The body of elders carefully evaluates each situation to determine whether a judicial committee is warranted. For example: Have the couple been pursuing a romantic relationship? Have they been previously counseled regarding their conduct with each other? What circumstances led to their spending the night together? Did they plan ahead to do so? Did they have a choice in the matter, or were there extenuating circumstances, perhaps an unforeseen occurrence or genuine emergency that left them with no choice but to spend the night together? (Eccl. 9:11) What were the sleeping arrangements? Since each situation is different, there may be other relevant factors that the elders will consider.
After the facts are established, the body of elders will determine whether the couple’s conduct warrants judicial action.
EXCURSUS: THE BASIS FOR ACCEPTING CIRCUMSTANTIAL EVIDENCE
The biblical reference that is used as a justification of accepting circumstantial evidence instead of two witnesses is 1 Corinthian 6:18 (NWT13):
The comments in the online New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures (Study Edition) are:
Grammar and syntax
The reference to Joseph is logical, for even if Paul did not allude to him, Joseph is a good example of one who fled from sexual immorality. The observation that the verb “flee” is Greek present is correct.
But the comment on the meaning of Greek present betrays a lack of understanding of the force of Greek verbs. Greek present is imperfective, which means that progressive or continuous action is made visible. But Greek present can never on its own make visible habitual action. In order to make habitual action visible, an author must use present together with an adverbial showing that the action was done over and over again. But there is no such adverbial in the verse.
The NWT translators do not distinguish between the aktionsart (the nature of the action) of a verb and its aspect (what aspect of the action is made visible). Durativity (progressive or continuous action) represents aktionsart. Verbs that are not punctiliar or instantaneous indicate progressive or continuous action. The verb “flee” has a durative aktionsart; the feet of a person fleeing are moving rapidly. And the verb “flee” indicates progressive or continuous action both in Greek present and in Greek aorist.
The difference is that Greek present (the imperfective aspect) makes visible the progressive or continuous action for the readers. But Greek aorist (the perfective aspect) does not make the progressive or continuous action visible. The rendering “Flee from sexual immorality!” is a typical example of the perfective aspect (aorist) because the progressive or continuous action is invisible. But the rendering “Be you fleeing from sexual immorality!” is a typical example of the imperfective aspect (present) because the progressive or continuous action is made visible. A translation that scrupulously conveys the nuances and subtleties of the Greek text would use the imperfective rendering.
Contextual meaning and the use as proof
The reference to 1 Corinthians 6:18 is a typical example of the superficial use of biblical references in the Shepherd book and in the Watchtower literature in general. In connection with the 37 disfellowshipping offenses listed in the Shepherd book that has no biblical basis, different scriptures are referred to. But most of these have nothing to do with the particular disfellowshipping offense.
In some cases, a scripture contains words that mirror the words or sentiments contained in the Governing Bodys’s description of a claimed disfellowshipping offense. But these scriptural references do not prove that the action is a disfellowshipping offense.
For example, in 1 Corinthians 6:18, “sexual immorality” is mentioned, and this is also the focus of cases where circumstantial evidence is accepted. The Greek word that is translated with “sexual immorality” is porneia. In the Christian Greek Scriptures, this word only refers to sexual intercourse between two persons who are not married to each other. But because there also is right sexual intercourse, the words “sexual immorality” can be used. A footnote could explain the real meaning of porneia.
It can be argued that the conclusion a Christian should draw from the words “Be you fleeing from sexual immorality!” is not to be alone with a person of the opposite sex if at all possible—and absolutely do not be alone with one of the other sex in a house during the night, which of course is good scriptural advice.
However, even though two persons of the opposite sex stay together in a house during the night, that scripture does not justify side stepping Jehovah’s explicitly stated rule that “two or three witnesses,” and not strong circumstantial evidence, are required in order to establish a person guilty of sexual immorality.
Staying together in the same house during the night is the only situation where the Governing Body allows circumstantial evidence to be used to disfellowship a Witness. The law of Moses required two or three witnesses, but the Mosaic law is no longer valid. However, Jesus indicated that this principle is still binding in cases of wrongdoing when he said at Matthew 18:16 says:
But if he does not listen, take along with you one or two more, so that on the testimony of two or three witnesses every matter may be established.
The apostle Paul provides a second testimony, though in a different situation, that the “two or three witnesses” rule was still in effect and binding up Christians in his day, as we see in 1 Timothy 5:19 (NWT13):
Do not accept an accusation against an older man except on the evidence of two or three witnesses.
Jesus spoke these words before the Christian congregation was established, but all the words in the Christian Greek Scriptures are written for the sake of the Christian community (Romans 15:4). Jesus also knew that his words in Matthew 18:16 would be included among ‘all the things that he had commanded’ to be taught to his future Christian disciples (Matthew 28:19, 20). And the words of Paul were uttered after the Christian congregations were established. This means that the requirement of two or three witnesses is a Christian requirement.
When the Shepherd book and The Watchtower of 2017 declare that a Witness can be pronounced guilty by the elders, even when he denies that he has done anything wrong, on the basis of circumstantial evidence, this is a blatant violation of the Holy Scriptures!
I will illustrate the situation in the following way: An elder has a young female secretary. On several occasions, he and the secretary have worked overtime, and the elder’s wife has become suspicious of these occasions of overtime and of a possible romantic relationship between the elder and his secretary. One day the elder tells his wife that he and the secretary have to work overtime for many hours in connection with a big contract. So it may be late before he comes home. After several hours, the wife and another sister drive to the office, and outside are the cars of her husband and the secretary. The wife returns home and the other sister returns her home, but the husband does not come home that night. Early in the morning, the wife and the sister return to the office, and the two cars are still there.
Some hours later, the husband returns home, and his wife asks if the husband and his secretary had a sexual relationship since they spent the whole night together in the office. The husband denies it and says that the work took several hours more than expected, and when they were finished in the middle of the night, they slept on two different couches, but there was no sexual relationship between the two.
The wife does not believe him, and she goes to the elders. They form a judiciary committee, and the two sisters confirm that the two spent the night at the office. The husband also confirms this, but he denies that there was any wrongdoing. The wife previously had contacted the elders with her suspicions, and the elders had admonished their fellow elder, the husband, not to work overtime together with his secretary. In spite of that counsel, the man had worked overtime with his secretary on several occasions. Because of this, the elders decide to disfellowship their fellow elder on the basis of the circumstantial evidence.
But the action of the elders, albeit adhering closely to the instruction in the Shepherd book, is a clear violation of Paul’s words, “Do not accept an accusation against an older man except on the evidence of two or three witnesses.” I used the example of an elder because Paul’s words mention an elder. But the situation would have been exactly the same with a Witness who was not an elder. If we take the Bible as the final authority, the requirement of two or three witnesses is absolute. When the members of the Governing Body annulled this requirement, they annulled a part of the Word of God.
I will use another illustration: A brother says he is very fond of children, and he volunteers to babysit for several couples in the congregation. Two children from different families say they do not want the brother to babysit them any longer because they do not like the way he hugs them. On one occasion, the brother is babysitting a 10-year-old girl. When the parents arrive home, the girl is very quiet and does not want to speak. They ask if something happened. After some time, the girl reveals that the brother touched her between her legs and exposed his stomach and private parts to her. The parents ask more questions, and the girl says that the brother has a scar on his stomach.
The parents ask two elders to come to their home, and the girl tells them the same story. The elders speak to the brother, and he denies any wrongdoing. Because the law requires that all possible abuse of children be reported to the police, the elders advice the parents to contact the police. But what happens to the brother? If the brother has a scar on his stomach, circumstantial evidence for wrongdoing exists, but there are not two witnesses to the reported wrongdoing. So, no judicial committee will be formed. But because of the accusation from the girl, the elders will admonish the brother not to be alone with children anymore.
In connection with accusations of wrongdoing, there will often be circumstantial evidence. But because the Bible requires two or three witnesses, circumstantial evidence cannot be considered as a Scriptural basis for forming a judicial committee. In view of this, it is strange indeed that there is one situation where circumstantial evidence can be used to find a person guilty and disfellowship him. This is a clear example of a human commandment that violates a Bible requirement.
Interestingly, purely from a human standpoint, one would think that if an exception to the “two or three witnesses” rule was going to be attempted, it would be in the case of abused children, because of their inherent intimidation of testifying against an adult. And yet, humans are not authorized to change Jehovah’s clear directions on accepting testimony even in these delicate and controversial situations. So, if the Governing Body was going to make an exception to Jehovah’s law, one would have expected it to be in connection with the protection of innocent children. Nevertheless, in child abuse cases, the members of the Governing Body strictly adhere to the “two or three witnesses” rule, as they should. Therefore, that the Governing Body would make an exception to that rule in the case of two adults in a “circumstantial” situation where the accused could conceivably be innocent is all the more baffling. Scripturally speaking, the “two or three witnesses” requirement is binding in all situations where an accusation of wrongdoing is involved, Jehovah has not authorized any exceptions to this rule.
The Royal Commission of Australia illuminated the issue
In the year 2015, the Royal Commission in Australia made a thorough investigation of Jehovah’s Witnesses in connection with sexual abuse of children. And between August 3 and 14, witnesses were examined in a court session. One of the witnesses was Geoffrey William Jackson, who is a member of the Governing Body. In his examination, Counsel Assisting, Angus Stewart, used the example of the acceptance of circumstantial evidence in connection with porneia, and he asked whether circumstantial evidence could be used in connection with the sexual abuse of children as well. The exchange between the two is interesting because it illuminates the issue of circumstantial evidence.
Stewart. Well, it is hypothetical in a sense, but really what I’m driving at is, is the scriptural basis ‐ and you are the scholar, I’m not ‐ to the two‐witness rule really so solid or is there not space for your Governing Body to recognize that in cases of sexual abuse it need not apply?
Jackson. Again, if I could just mention the fact that we’ve already acknowledged that circumstances can also be one of the witnesses.
Stewart. Well, I will come to that, but my question is a different one. It’s whether the scriptural basis to thetwo‐witness rule in relation to cases of sexual abuse has a proper foundation?
Jackson. We believe it does because of the number of times that that principle is emphasized in the scriptures.
Stewart. You will be aware, of course, in the case of adultery, so long as there are two witnesses to the circumstances of opportunity, that will be sufficient?
Stewart. So, in other words, there need not be two witnesses to the act of adultery itself, but only to the circumstances of opportunity?
Jackson. Sorry, you would need to walk me through that a little further. I’m not quite sure.
Stewart. I was trying to do it by a shortcut, but I will take you to the document. It is in the same Shepherd the Flockbook, which is tab 120, at page 61. So you will see in – do you have paragraph 11 there?
Jackson. Paragraph 11 ‐ yes, I do.
Stewart. This is also in the chapter dealing with determining whether a judicial committee should be formed:Evidence (testified to by at least two witnesses) that the accused stayed all night in the same house with a person of the opposite sex (or in the same house as a known homosexual) under improper circumstances. That’s the heading. Then it goes on to say:
Elders should use good judgment in assessing the situation before forming a judicial committee. And in the second dot point it says: If there are no extenuating circumstances, a judicial committee would be formed on the basis of strong circumstantial evidence of porneia.
Stewart. You will see at the foot of the page there is an example of a married brother spending an inordinate amount of time with his female secretary, and two lines from the bottom it says: Later, when he claims to be leaving overnight for a “business trip”, his suspicious wife and a relative follow him to the secretary’s home. They observe the opportunity for adultery to have taken place. Then those two witnesses will be sufficient to establish the case. Do you see that?
Jackson. I do see that.
Stewart. So now, in the case of child sexual abuse, it should be, should it not, that a witness to an opportunity for thesexual abuse to have taken place would be the sufficient second witness?
Jackson. Yes, if it’s ‐ if there is no ‐ what does it say here?
Stewart. «Extenuating circumstances»?
Jackson. Under improper circumstances.
Stewart. So a second witness to the circumstantial or corroborating evidence would be sufficient to fulfill the second witness requirement?
Jackson. That’s a very large question and I think it’s something that we would need to consider carefully.
Stewart. Well, it’s just important as to whether the second witness has to be a witness to the abuse itself or to whatextent he or she can be a witness to circumstantial or corroborating evidence. So let me use an example. What about the trauma, evident trauma of the survivor ‐ would that be able to be taken into account as corroborating evidence?
Jackson. Yes, it would need to be taken into account, and if I could mention, Mr Stewart, these are the things that we’re interested in following up on after the Royal Commission, just to make sure that everything is in place because certainly these are the things we are interested in.
Stewart. But you will understand, Mr Jackson, what we are interested in is how much room you have to move, as itwere, to what extent you are bound by the scriptures and to what extent you have flexibility to change your processes.
Jackson. That’s right. Well, may I mention ‐ I’m sorry.
The reasoning of Stewart is logical. When two witnesses to circumstantial evidence of porneia are taken as evidence that porneia has occurred, then two witnesses to circumstantial evidence of sexual abuse of a person can be taken as proof that sexual abuse has occurred. Jackson seems to be pushed over the edge. His words indicate that he understood the logic of Stewart, and he said that this is something that Jehovah’s Witnesses will be following up on. He even says at the beginning of the exchange that “circumstances can also be one of the witnesses.”
However, any acceptance of circumstantial evidence in cases of sexual abuse was ruled out by the Governing Body. This is, of course, the right standpoint because both the Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian Greek Scriptures require at least two eyewitnesses as proof of a wrong action. So, the Governing Body should also have ruled out circumstantial evidence as proof of porneia.
The Report of Case Study No. 29 The response of the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of Australia Ltd to allegations of child sexual abuse of October 2016, pages 22 and 23, says:
Mr Jackson and Mr Spinks both accepted that the Governing Body may change its interpretation of the Scriptures from time to time. However, several witnesses, including Mr Jackson, told the Royal Commission that there was no scope for flexibility in the interpretation of the Scriptures in relation to:
- scriptural standards of proof
- the practice of shunning
- the practice of disfellowshipping (or expelling from the congregation) unrepentant individuals and reproving repentant individuals
- the reinstatement of disfellowshipped individuals who demonstrate genuine repentance
- there being no role for women as decision-makers in the organisation’s internal disciplinary process.
The Royal Commission received and heard evidence in relation to the flexibility of the two-witness rule and the scope for revision of the rule, at least in cases of child sexual abuse.
Both Mr Spinks and Mr O’Brien told the Royal Commission that the Jehovah’s Witness organisation does not have the authority to change the two-witness rule.
The Royal Commission strongly suggested a change of the two-witness-rule in connection with child custody cases. But that did not happen. Neither did the Governing Body the circumstantial-evidence-rule in connection with porneia
. The exchange is found of pages 15972 and 15973 of the Court transcript.
Jesus and Paul showed that the requirement of the law of Moses to have two or three witnesses in cases of wrongdoing also is valid for Christians. In the congregations of Jehovah’s Witnesses, there will be no judicial action if there are not at least two witnesses to the wrongdoing.
But the members of the Governing Body have created their own exception. If two persons have spent the night together in the same house under what is viewed as improper circumstances, this can be viewed as strong circumstantial evidence for porneia, and it can lead to disfellowshipping. This rule in the Shepherd book is a blatant violation of biblical principles because it rejects the requirement of at least two witnesses in cases of wrongdoing.
The Royal Commission in Australia made a thorough investigation of sexual abuse among Jehovah’s Witnesses. The examination of the Governing Body member Geoffrey Jackson in court clearly show the inconsistency in the Governing body’s acceptance of circumstantial evidence in cases of supposed porneia.