Grabbing a Dog by its Ears: The Role of Witnesses

Article
02.25.2010

It’s not easy to get involved in someone else’s dispute. Indeed, it’s not even safe. Proverbs says, “Like one who seizes a dog by the ears is a passer-by who meddles in a quarrel not his own” (Prov. 26:17).

Still, Jesus knows that sometimes that dog has to be grabbed by the ears because any quarrel between two members of one’s church is, in a sense, one’s own quarrel (see 1 Cor. 12:26). Thus when an offended brother confronts his offender, and the offender refuses to repent, Jesus commands, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses'” (Matt. 18:16).

So who are these one or two others? And why are they so important to the church?

WHO ARE THEY?

John Nolland suggests that they have to be witnesses of the sin committed and must be “independently aware of the problem.”[1] The text, however, gives two reasons for rejecting this view. First, Jesus does not call them witnesses. He requires that the offended brother take “one or two others along” (Matt 18:16), not that he take one or two witnesses along. Jesus expects them to become witnesses later, but they do not have to be witnesses of the offense.[2]

Second, this meeting must follow the initial, private meaning whenever the sinning brother refuses to repent. Yet, if the “one or two others” must be witnesses of the offense, then the second meeting would be conditional: it could only take place if one or two others saw the sin happen. Since many offenses have no witnesses, and since Jesus did not make the second meeting conditional, the “one or two others” do not have to be witnesses to the offense; although if the sinning brother doesn’t repent, they will become witnesses of the sin to the church, so that, as Jesus says, “every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses” (Matt. 18:16).

In a sense, these one or two others are not like witnesses to a crime, but witnesses to the signing of a Last Will and Testament. They’re not coming to testify about something that happened in the past, but to participate in the meeting between the two brothers; then they will be able testify about it before the church.

WHY ARE THEY IMPORTANT?

Since the goal is restoration, these one or two others should act more like counselors and mediators, not as hired guns for the offended brother. Although they have come to the meeting at the request of the offended brother, they must remember that they have a ministry to both sides: to help the sinning brother repent and to help the offended brother forgive. They are not advocates for the offended brother; they are advocates of the spiritual growth and true repentance of both brothers, and the restoration of the broken relationship.

The role of the “others” is not an easy one, but it is an important one.

They’re Important for the Offender and the Offended

They will deal with one person who is being confronted with his sin, and another person who has been offended by that sin. They must help the sinning brother, who might be struggling to repent. After all, most people do not respond with joy when their sins are exposed. And they must also help the offended brother, who may be too deeply hurt or too bitter to forgive right away. In his pain and bitterness, he may not have noticed that the sinning brother was ready to repent or even trying to repent at the first meeting between them. When that happens, the “one or two others” will have to help the offended brother forgive rather than help the sinning brother repent.

They’re Important for the Church

The “others” also bear a heavy responsibility to the church. If the offender refuses to repent, they must act as witnesses before the church to what they saw and heard in the second meeting. They may have to stand before the church and be an advocate of the unrepentant person’s excommunication.

Thus, those chosen must be wise counselors who can minister the gospel and help people restore a broken relationship. They must also be reliable people of good standing who have integrity in the congregation’s eyes. As wise counselors, they can help those involved to repent or to forgive and work with them toward reconciliation with God and with each other. As people of integrity, their testimony before the congregation will ensure that “every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses” (Matt 18:16). The reputation of the witnesses will allow the congregation to act without engaging in an independent, public investigation of the sin. Such an investigation is likely to harm the church’s mission of reaching out with the gospel to the excommunicated person.

Stephen Matteucci is the pastor of Clifton Heights Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky.

[1] John Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew, NIGTC (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2005), 746-47. If they know nothing about the offense until asked to participate in the second meeting, then Nolland asserts that “the appeal to multiple witnesses would not make any sense.”

[2] This is the position that Jay E. Adams takes: “The ‘witnesses’ are not merely witnesses…They are pictured as actively participating in the reconciliation process. It is when the refusal takes place, and only then, that they turn into witnesses. . . . [T]hey will become witnesses if and when the matter is formally brought before the church.” Jay E. Adams, A Handbook of Church Discipline: A Right and Privilege of Every Church Member (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1974), 60 (emphasis in original).