Church Discipline in the Absence of Witnesses
In a fallen world, disciplinary matters are rarely neat and tidy, or easy to navigate through. Most of the time, when we are dealing with sin, we find ourselves shoveling through some pretty large piles of scat in order to get to the bottom of things. Occassionally, those under investigation will decide to be honest and forthright, understanding the gravity of their sin and the necessity of genuine repentance. I say occassionally — I don’t have any statistics to back that up. “Rarely” might be the better word. Certainly the word “usually” would not be the case. When men sin, they want to hide it. There are plenty of reasons for this, but those reasons lie beyond the scope of this brief foray into Scriptural Church Discipline, so we will leave that alone for the time being.
By all appearances, Eddie‡ was a faithful father, husband, and church member. He was a gifted businessman as well, and a generous filler of offering plates in his local church. Eddie seemed to addict himself to the ministry, and was a faithful witness both through the ministries of the church and in his workplace. From all appearances, Eddie genuinely loved his pastor , his church, and the ministries that he was involved in.
So, it was a great surprise to Eddie’s pastor when, one day, Eddie’s wife Carol called in tears, and accused Eddie of having an affair. Pastor Flint immediately set up a meeting with Carol, and then called his wife and asked her to come right over to the church office. What Carol described to Pastor and Mrs. Flint in that meeting was beyond belief for Pastor Flint. After all, he had known and even become close friends with Eddie. Or at least, he thought of Eddie as a close friend. He thought he knew Eddie — if the pastor knew anyone in the church, he thought he knew Eddie. Could these things be true? If they were, then Pastor Flint realized that he never really knew Eddie at all, that Eddie had been living a lie. Could that be?
Pastor Flint considered himself a pretty good judge of character. He figured that, all things being equal, he would be able to tell if Eddie was lying to him. So, after the meeting, Pastor Flint asked Carol to allow him time to meet with Eddie before she said anything to him. Before Pastor Flint left his office that afternoon, he put in a call to Eddie, and fifteen minutes later, Eddie showed up at the pastor’s office alone.
An hour later when Eddie left, Pastor Flint was not sure what to think. Eddie had denied any wrongdoing whatsoever, and had done so in convincing fashion. And yet, Carol had been just as convincing in her accusation. Certainly, her tears were genuine. The details that she had given as evidence were certainly damning. But Eddie had an answer for every detail. And Eddie’s denials seemed to be just as genuine as Carol’s charges.
Before Eddie left the office, Pastor Flint insisted on setting up counselling sessions for the two. Eddie agreed gladly. “If it’ll help restore my marriage, I’m all for it,” he said.
And so, the very next night, Pastor Flint found himself sitting in the office once again, this time with Carol and Eddie together. Once again, Carol was open and adamant with her accusations, and Eddie was equally adamant in his denials. Carol even brought up things that Eddie had told her not to bring up in front of pastor. But once again, Eddie had a legitimate explanation for everything.
After the meeting, Pastor Flint spent some time in prayer, and then decided that, lacking evidence, the best course of action would be to probe the root of the problem between Eddie and Carol. For the next two months, Pastor and Mrs. Flint met with Eddie and Carol on a weekly basis. Sometimes, Pastor Flint kept the couple together in order to deal with a particular issue. Other times, Mrs. Flint took Carol in one office while Pastor Flint met with Eddie in another office. After each meeting, Pastor and Mrs. Flint would compare notes and discuss what they were finding. But these meetings got them nowhere. And both Pastor and Mrs. Flint began to get a nagging suspicion — Carol was right.
But they had no proof. No matter how incriminating the charges seemed to be from Carol, Eddie seemed to always have an answer, and that answer always seemed sufficient. Pastor Flint wondered what to do. Short of hiring a Private Investigator, something that he felt was unthinkable when it came to a member of his own church, Pastor Flint could find nothing else to do.
Then late one night, or more accurately early one morning, at about 2 a.m. to be exact, Pastor Flint’s phone rang. It was Carol. “Pastor Flint, I have the proof I need. I have been going through my husband’s phone records, and there is a phone number on here a number of times — a phone number that I don’t recognize. That is the woman he is having the affair with. I’m sure of it. I even called the number, and a woman answered.”
It took Pastor Flint a moment or two to gather his senses about himself, and when he did, he asked Carol if she had asked the woman for her name. She hadn’t. He asked Carol if she had asked the woman about Eddie. She hadn’t. “But I think you need to ask Eddie about this.” Pastor Flint agreed. He promised to talk to Eddie about it. In the morning. After the sun came up in the morning, that is.
And true to his word, Pastor Flint called Eddie first thing the next morning. Eddie apologized for his wife’s behavior, and told the pastor that he had been disputing that phone bill with the phone company for a couple of weeks. He did not know who the phone number belonged to, he said, nor had he ever called that number even once. Once again, Pastor Flint asked Eddie the question that he had asked over and over before. “Are you having an affair with any woman, either physically or emotionally, or are you fantasizing about any woman other than your wife?”
And, like all the other times before, Eddie once again gave a straightforward answer: “no.”
That day, when Pastor Flint arrived at his office, he told his secretary that he was not to be disturbed. Then, he went into his office, shut the door, got down on his knees and began to pray. From eight in the morning until well past noon, Pastor Flint prayed and asked God what to do. He asked God to reveal what was going on. He asked God to make His perfect will known. He sought direction. He sought deliverance from this awful thing. He poured out his heart to God in prayer .
Finally that afternoon around three or four o’clock, Pastor Flint began to get some direction. But what came to mind seemed troubling. The answer that seemed to be coming to the pastor was this, “Have Eddie swear an oath in the name of God that he is telling the truth.”
Pastor Flint wrestled with this idea for some time. Is it Scriptural? The first passage that came to mind was Matthew 5:33-37. The Bible says,
Again, ye have heard that it hath been said by them of old time, Thou shalt not forswear thyself, but shalt perform unto the Lord thine oaths: But I say unto you, Swear not at all; neither by heaven; for it is God’s throne: Nor by the earth; for it is his footstool: neither by Jerusalem; for it is the city of the great King. Neither shalt thou swear by thy head, because thou canst not make one hair white or black. But let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil.
Was the Bible here forbidding the swearing of oaths in all cases? If so, that would mean that it would be wrong, in a court of law for instance, to hold up the right hand and solemnly swear to tell “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God.” If this passage forbid swearing in every case, then wedding vows would be wrong as well.
We subject our practices to the Bible, and not the other way around. If this passage forbid swearing at all, then it would be unlawful for the Christian to swear an oath at any time. Pastor Flint dug a little deeper. Christ is speaking here about telling the truth, about the value that we should place on our word. In order to be telling the truth, it should not be necessary for us to swear out an oath. We should tell the truth, and perform all our vows, and it should never be required for us to swear out an oath in order for us to tell the truth.
But the fact that it should not be necessary does not mean that swearing an oath is never necessary. Nor does it mean that swearing an oath is unlawful. It simply means that we should always tell the truth, even without swearing “on a stack of Bibles.” Pastor Flint continued to dig deeper in the Word.
God swears oaths in order to confirm the seriousness of His own Word (Deut 7:8; 29:12-15ff; I Chr 16:16; Ps 105:9; Acts 2:30; Heb 6:16-18). We are told in Scripture of cases when men lawfully swore an oath in order to confirm the seriousness of their word. In fact, Numbers 30 gives us God’s laws concerning these sorts of vows. And the first thing we notice is that “If a man vow a vow unto the LORD, or swear an oath to bind his soul with a bond; he shall not break his word, he shall do according to all that proceedeth out of his mouth.” These kinds of oaths are especially binding.
Furthermore, Deuteronomy 23 teaches us that there is no sin in choosing not to vow, but if we vow a vow, we are bound by it… “When thou shalt vow a vow unto the LORD thy God, thou shalt not slack to pay it: for the LORD thy God will surely require it of thee; and it would be sin in thee. But if thou shalt forbear to vow, it shall be no sin in thee.”
Pastor Flint studied further. He began to understand that there are times when swearing an oath is lawful. In fact, he was amazed to discover that God actually intended for the swearing of an oath to be used in cases where a lack of evidence would prevent the commission of justice. For instance, Exodus 22:8-11 taught that the accused should take an oath of the Lord in order to reinforce his claim he is not guilty of the crime that he has been charged with. And if the defendent takes that vow, his vow is to be accepted as true.
Pastor Flint began to feel a sense of direction. In prayer, God began to direct his steps. As he searched further, Pastor Flint discovered that the Bible prescribed the swearing of an oath in cases where a spouse is overcome of the spirit of jealousy. The Bible says in Numbers 5,
Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them, If any man’s wife go aside, and commit a trespass against him, And a man lie with her carnally, and it be hid from the eyes of her husband, and be kept close, and she be defiled, and there be no witness against her, neither she be taken with the manner; And the spirit of jealousy come upon him, and he be jealous of his wife, and she be defiled: or if the spirit of jealousy come upon him, and he be jealous of his wife, and she be not defiled: Then shall the man bring his wife unto the priest, and he shall bring her offering for her, the tenth part of an ephah of barley meal; he shall pour no oil upon it, nor put frankincense thereon; for it is an offering of jealousy, an offering of memorial, bringing iniquity to remembrance. And the priest shall bring her near, and set her before the LORD: And the priest shall take holy water in an earthen vessel; and of the dust that is in the floor of the tabernacle the priest shall take, and put it into the water: And the priest shall set the woman before the LORD, and uncover the woman’s head, and put the offering of memorial in her hands, which is the jealousy offering: and the priest shall have in his hand the bitter water that causeth the curse: And the priest shall charge her by an oath, and say unto the woman, If no man have lain with thee, and if thou hast not gone aside to uncleanness with another instead of thy husband, be thou free from this bitter water that causeth the curse: But if thou hast gone aside to another instead of thy husband, and if thou be defiled, and some man have lain with thee beside thine husband: Then the priest shall charge the woman with an oath of cursing, and the priest shall say unto the woman, The LORD make thee a curse and an oath among thy people, when the LORD doth make thy thigh to rot, and thy belly to swell; And this water that causeth the curse shall go into thy bowels, to make thy belly to swell, and thy thigh to rot: And the woman shall say, Amen, amen. And the priest shall write these curses in a book, and he shall blot them out with the bitter water:
This is the law of jealousies, when a wife goeth aside to another instead of her husband, and is defiled; Or when the spirit of jealousy cometh upon him, and he be jealous over his wife, and shall set the woman before the LORD, and the priest shall execute upon her all this law. Then shall the man be guiltless from iniquity, and this woman shall bear her iniquity.
Pastor Flint thought about this passage and prayed over it for a long time. “Lord, is this the answer?” As he thought about what he was reading here, one thing became very clear — God takes these charges very seriously. In matters of jealousy, the jealousy is not to be ignored.
Pastor Flint began to understand that in these sorts of cases, the wife or husband is not to be told simply to “get over it.” Rather, the accused spouse should be required to swear out an oath in the name of God that they have not sinned against their wife through infidelity. If the accused will take this oath, then the accuser is to accept it as fact.
Pastor Flint searched further. Wouldn’t it be easy for the accused spouse to simply lie? Certainly, in a human sense. But as he understood the Bible, the man who swore out his oath was appealing to God as his witness. In other words, all parties involved would be appealing to God by faith, to expose the truth. If the accused was guilty, but swore an oath of innocence, then as surely as God is in the heavens, that lie would be exposed. And if the accused really was innocent, then God would make that clear as well.
When Pastor Flint had finished his study, that inexplicable peace of God settled over him. And along with that peace came a resolve to pursue the issue to the end. First, he called together the deacons, and then he asked Eddie and Carol to come and join them. The pastor explained the gravity of the issue to all those involved . He then presented the charges that Carol had made against her husband, and asked her if she still stood by those charges. When she confirmed it, the Pastor then led the deacons in prayer, asking God to oversee the proceedings of the meeting. When he had finished this, Pastor Flint took out his Bible and explained what he had found in Scripture on how to resolve this issue. He gave the deacons, along with Carol and Eddie, time to ask any questions that they had.
When the issue was clear, and the solution apparent, Pastor Flint then turned to Eddie. “Eddie, you have been charged with a very serious crime – the crime of infidelity towards your wife. Do you swear in the name of God that you have been and are now faithful to your wife, that you are innocent of her charges of infidelity?”
The question was raised, “If the original offense is denied by the accused, and if when the 2nd confrontation occurs the accused still denies that anything took place, and the two or three witnesses to the confrontation are unable to gather enough facts to determine the case one way or the other, what then?”
I believe that the Biblical answer is this — to require the accused to swear out an oath in the name of God that they are innocent of the charge. I believe that the church has sufficient warrant to require such a thing, and that a refusal to swear out the oath should be considered an admission of guilt. And furthermore, if the accused swears out his oath and continues to deny the allegations, then I believe that the church is duty-bound to accept this denial until such time as God reveals otherwise. In other words, we leave the matter in the hands of the Righteous Judge, who already knows the answer. He will reveal the truth in such cases.
‡ All names are ficticious.