It’s clear that there are times that Christians seemed entrenched in a difficult version of conflict. There are two sides to a story, and Christians find themselves having to decide which side to believe. Well-meaning, Godly Christians probably will seek to apply Proverbs 18:13 to these types of situations. They don’t want to make a judgment before investigating and listening to what’s going on.
Even more so, Christians have probably learned the truth of Proverbs 18:17. We can’t just listen to one side of the story. And if we do, the first person we listen to can likely make a good case that they are right.
Even in applying Proverbs’ wisdom, many Christians might still seem to struggle with understanding a situation. Both sides might present good points. There may be a 1 Corinthians 1 type bias in play as well that complicates the matters. We might be invested in one side of an argument. Maybe we have something to gain or lose by “choosing” either side. But we are not told to determine truth on the basis of a bias in the Scriptures.
What if there was a specific method that the Scriptures give us for being able to determine the truth of a situation? There certainly is, but before we look at that, we need to stop and adopt a whole new approach to these types of “pick and choose” conflicts.
Whose Side Are You On?
I’m thoroughly convinced from years of conflict resolution counseling that the right approach to these disputes is not to pick a side except the Lord’s. I’m struck by the fact that if we’re really honest, most conflicts in these situations come down to a choice between two individuals or two groups (possibly more). This is a false choice.
I’ve even seen conflicting situations where the name of Jesus is not mentioned as the primary party to whom we are to ally ourselves. One passage of Scripture that rules my thinking on this issue is Joshua 5:13, 14
“When Joshua was by Jericho, he lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, a man was standing before him with his drawn sword in his hand. And Joshua went to him and said to him, “Are you for us, or for our adversaries?”
— (Joshua 5:13 ESV)
This actually seems like an easy question to answer. Joshua is asking someone if he’s either for the Israelites or the inhabitants of Jericho. The answer would seem obvious especially considering that the Person Joshua addressed is the pre-incarnate Jesus Christ.
The command is for the Israelites to conquer Jericho. Surely the side that Jesus would pick would be Joshua’s. But His answer is surprising (and extremely helpful):
“And he said, “Neither; because I am the commander of the army of the LORD. Now I have come.” And Joshua fell on his face to the earth and worshiped and said to him, “What does my lord say to his servant?”
— (Joshua 5:14, emphasis added)
The side that we pick is always the Lord’s side. His side is far more important. And if the conflict has become so embittered that we find ourselves in the position of having to choose between two opposing entities, the choice is clear. Pick the Lord’s side.
Thomas Manton explains some of the dangers of picking sides. He states,
As long as charity and mutual forbearance remaineth, there is hope of doing good to one another; but when men break out into opposite parties, they are prejudiced against all that light that they should receive one from another, suspecting every point as counsel from an enemy
Why is this Important?
One specific reason why this is important is that we as humans can easily err in the “choice” that we pick. Another reason is that it’s not about making a choice but establishing the truth for the glory of God.
In line with this last point, it’s also important to remember that sin is an issue for both sides. The only real choice is between someone who is perfect and someone who is in the wrong. Both sides in a conflict contribute sin that leads to a conflict. It is possible for someone to have a greater sin in a conflict, but the issue is exposing what’s going on that leads to the conflict in the first place. Being on Christ’s side means that we’re committed to Him and His rule and will within the Church. The only choice that we have to make is:
Now therefore fear the LORD and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness. Put away the gods that your fathers served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the LORD. And if it is evil in your eyes to serve the LORD, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD.”
(Joshua 24:14–15 ESV, emphasis added)
It’s amazing how the principle that the Lord taught Joshua in Joshua 5:14 is recapped in John 24:15, this time by Joshua. The choice was clear.
What is the One Way Christians Learn the Truth in Conflict?
We’ve already learned that there is no such thing as making a choice to pick sides in a conflict. The only real choice to be made is choosing the Lord to serve Him. It still remains, however, that if there is an ongoing conflict, how is it that Christians can know the truth in order to serve God rightly?
Biblical Backing for Two or Three Witnesses
Perhaps it would be helpful to start with the Old Testament backing for this. Notice what the law of God says:
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. If a malicious witness arises to accuse a person of wrongdoing, then both parties to the dispute shall appear before the Lord, before the priests and the judges who are in office in those days. The judges shall inquire diligently, and if the witness is a false witness and has accused his brother falsely, then you shall do to him as he had meant to do to his brother. So you shall purge the evil from your midst. And the rest shall hear and fear, and shall never again commit any such evil among you. Your eye shall not pity. It shall be life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.
— (Deuteronomy 19:15–21, ESV)
God established both the quantity and the quality of the witnesses. There needs to be at minimum two, preferably three, and they need to be credible. This is repeated in Numbers 35:30. There, it’s even more severe. The charge of two or three witnesses leads to a person’s death.
Paul applies these two Old Testament passages in 2 Corinthians 13:1 to the Corinthian church. The principle of two or three witnesses did not go away. It was not abolished. And it’s a great advantage for the church to determine what’s true.
Paul says, “This is the third time I am coming to you. Every word must be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses” (2 Corinthians 13:1). Paul didn’t say that truth is established by our feelings. He didn’t say that truth is established by our own personal experience or assessment of a situation. Paul said that two or three witnesses prove what’s true. What’s also interesting is the fact that Deuteronomy indicates that you know a malicious witness is malicious because he acts alone. He doesn't have other witnesses who can corroborate his charge. This helps us to begin to separate fact from fiction. When you have multiple credible witnesses, the fact is established.
Procedural and Protective
One of the issues that we are well aware of as Christians is the fact that people can be malicious. There are such things as false accusations, lies, and gossip. The decree to use multiple witnesses isn’t just a procedure that Christians are to follow. It’s also what’s protective. When you don’t have multiple credible witnesses, then the accusation is safely disregarded. In fact, Deuteronomy proclaimed discipline on the false witness.
When conflict arises, multiple witnesses are the Biblically prescribed way to deal with false accusations or lies. This also means that it’s unbiblical to dismiss the accusations when you have multiple, credible witnesses. The multiple, credible witnesses establish the charge as a fact. This is especially significant when it comes to elders.
These two issues are the reason why 1 Timothy 5:19-21 teaches us to not even entertain charges that are leveled without two or three witnesses. Elders are particularly public individuals who are usually in the spotlight in some sense. It’s extremely common for people to want to falsely accuse elders for various malicious reasons. The multiple witnesses decree is a means of protecting elders from false accusations. You know there’s a false accusation when it’s leveled by one person or by someone who isn’t a witness. The difficulty is when the witnesses clause is followed. Which means the charges are established. Then we need to respond to those charges Biblically and appropriately.
Where Two or Three Are Gathered
There’s been a lot that people have done to recognize that this phrase exists in the context of church discipline (Matthew 18:20). We know that there are a lot of people who have taken it out of context, and I agree, it has been.
However, the context of Matthew 18:20 isn’t just establishing that Christ is present during church discipline. It’s the fact that Christ is present in a special way when the two or three witnesses have gathered.
This is extremely significant because it demonstrates that Christ is present in approval of the two or three witnesses. He is present then as the ultimate witness, offering his stamp of approval for the truth that is revealed. This is why the matter can go before the church, if necessary, and can ultimately result in a person being removed from the church. Jesus Christ is the Judge, the Ruler, the Head of the Church who is the authority overseeing these incredibly serious steps of discipline.
This is also confirmed by the fact that two or three witnesses are said to come in Jesus’ name. It’s full circle back to Joshua. The witnesses who establish facts are the ones who have the authority of Jesus Christ to present the truth, with Jesus’ stamp of approval.
That’s why two or three witnesses are incredibly important. That’s how you find out what’s true in a conflict where you are faced with an either/or decision. It turns out that you don’t make either/or choices. You choose Jesus Christ and His method of establishing facts.
This is a Path to Restoration and Peace
Twice in 2 Corinthians 13, the Apostle Paul indicates that the goal is restoration. Not only that, but Paul lays this out as a path to peace. When a church ignores the process of two or three witnesses, it shouldn’t expect peace as the outcome. The conflict that arises when two or three witnesses come forward cannot be resolved without taking the established charge seriously.
2 Corinthians 13:11-13 explicitly commands that the goal needs to include restoration, comfort, agreement, and peace. If we’re stuck in the “pick a side” approach, we will never have peace and comfort (let alone agreement) until one side gives up. Rather, if both sides surrender their agendas to the Lord, side with Him, and aim at maintaining the integrity of the Gospel, then both sides can focus on the real issues at hand. The issues that are established by the witnesses need to be addressed. You cannot have peace, and you cannot have restoration until this takes place. Anything that seeks to resolve the issues pragmatically is only hiding the issues. Hidden issues have a tendency to resurface if they are not dealt with. I’ve known people who have tried to move on from issues that have not been dealt with just to be recaptured by those issues again.
Praise be to God that in situations of an “either/or” or “pick a side” type conflict that the Scriptures have not left us without a means of finding out the truth: the testimony of two or three witnesses establishes every fact.
' 1 Corinthians 1:12, “What I mean is that each one of you says, ‘I follow Paul,’ or ‘I follow Apollos,’ or ‘I follow Cephas,”’ or ‘I follow Christ.’”