God’s Rules of Evidence are Often Misapplied, to the Harm of Abuse Victims
A single witness shall not suffice against a person for any crime or for any wrong in connection with any offense that he has committed. Only on the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses shall a charge be established. (Deuteronomy 19:15)
I want to expose in this article how God’s rules of evidence (two or three witnesses) are quite frequently misunderstood, misapplied, or distorted in cases of abuse. Churches and pastors and church members very often demand of the victim a higher body of evidence to prove her case than the Lord Himself does!
Here is how it goes.
We see that this teaching of “two or three witnesses” to confirm a matter is taught in both the Old and New Testaments. The most familiar New Testament passage is of course, Matthew 18 (which we at ACFJ do not recommend for abuse cases. Use 1 Corinthians 5). Jesus said:
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. (Matthew 18:15-16)
As I said, the instruction given in 1 Cor 5 (put the scandalous, wicked man out from among you) fits the abuser’s case more accurately than the Matthew 18 procedure. But you see this two or three witnesses standard of evidence here again.
Human courts have rules of evidence. Hearsay, for example, is not generally admissible in a court of law. The witness, firsthand, must be there to give their own testimony. There are some exceptions to this. A dying declaration is one example and in some civil case proceedings hearsay is admissible as well. Another rule of evidence concerns the “chain of evidence.” To be admissible, physical evidence (like a gun or drugs) must be shown to have been protected from any tampering. Rules of evidence, you see.
So the Lord gives us His rules of evidence – two or three witnesses. Two is sufficient. Three is better. And here then is where we go wrong.
With alarming frequency, Christians jump to the conclusion that this means “two or three human beings who are eye-witnesses in every case.” Now, think about this. That means then that the abuse victim is essentially stripped of any ability to prove her case. I mean, we all know about the deceitful nature of the abuser. How often is he, especially if he claims to be a Christian, how often is he going to pull off his evil right smack in front of two or three witnesses in such a way that his abuse is obvious to them? Zip. Zero. Isn’t going to happen.
What we need to realize is that the Lord’s rules of evidence permit the admission of evidence that is a witness to the abuse but is not necessarily a human being. The Lord’s two or three witness standard surely includes physical evidence and, I also suggest, even credible circumstantial evidence.
Think carefully now. What is required in a criminal investigation and court proceeding for justice to be done in regard to a criminal? Well, for one thing, the investigators — the police, the prosecutor, the judge and yes, even the jurors, need to be educated in the nature of that particular genre of crime. If they are, then they will recognize the typical tactics and methods of the criminal. He won’t get away with deceiving them. This is, as we know, a HUGE problem in the family court system or even in criminal cases of domestic violence. Abusers often pull the wool over everyone’s eyes and get off the hook.
If Christians and pastors and elders — if the church — would educate themselves about the mentality, nature, and tactics of abuse, suddenly they would begin to see a very large body of evidence staring them right in the face. In addition to the victim’s testimony, they would have:
- Financial records showing how the abuser used financial abuse
- Psychological, emotional, and physical injury to the victim, or to property, the signs of which ARE observable (that hole punched in the wall, for example)
- Medical records if the victim has disclosed injuries to doctors or hospitals
- Typical behaviors and thinking in the children that evidence abuse
- The abuser’s attitudes and mentality evidenced in his behaviors
- Phone records, letters the abuser has written, text messages he has sent, computer records, evidence of his use of pornography, etc.
- The diary of the victim in which she has recorded events soon after they happened, and which lines up with and adds more detail to her verbal testimony
For example, if a woman comes to her church asking for help because her husband is abusing her, church leaders who are wise about abuse will be able to talk to the abuser (if that is possible without compromising the victim’s safety) and they will observe in him attitudes that support the victim’s charges. Let’s say he really likes Douglas Wilson’s teaching that a man is superior to a woman because it is the man who “plants and colonizes” while it is the woman who “receives” (and Wilson here is very largely speaking of sex). If the abuser, I suggest, quite agrees with this and evidences other patriarchal attitudes, then that is a second witness that is admissible in church discipline. Because this is how abusers think. It is who they are. When we see the wolf’s fangs behind the wool cloak, we know who he really is.
Churches then who dismiss an abuse victim’s case because “she lacks two or three witnesses” are not even good students of Scripture. They are guilty of going beyond God’s Word, and demanding a standard of evidence that God Himself does not require.