THE ROLE OF WITNESSES UNDER OUR JUDICIAL PROCEDURE
By: J.L. Hall and David K. Bernard
In October, 1991, the United Pentecostal Church International adopted a new judicial procedure to handle grievances, complaints, and charges against its ministers. Central to its process, and indeed to any such procedure, is the role of witnesses. The new procedure retains the same fundamental role of witnesses that existed under the old procedure, but it provides further definition and clarification. Because of its importance, the subject deserves careful attention.
What Is a Witness?
Our judicial procedure defines a witness as “someone who has personal knowledge of facts relevant to the truth of a complaint or charge. Each witness must be able to testify to a fact that establishes truth about the alleged violation. A witness may testify to the character of the accused on issues related to the complaint or charge.”
This definition emphasizes two fundamentals concerning the role of witnesses: personal knowledge and relevance. The requirement of personal knowledge excludes the offering of rumors as evidence. It also bars a witness from presenting his opinion when he does not have direct information. The requirement of relevance excludes potentially prejudicial information that is not pertinent to the case.
Our procedure explicitly allows character witnesses. Thus someone who did not witness any of the events in dispute may still present his personal knowledge of the accused minister’s character and habitual conduct, but he cannot give his opinion of what happened regarding the complaint.
The judicial procedure relies on I Timothy 5:19 for guidelines concerning witnesses. The Greek word for “witnesses” in that verse is martus, which means “1. in the legal sense; 2. of anyone who can or should testify to anything” (Bauer’s Lexicon). Legally, a witness is “one who gives evidence in a cause before a court and who attests or swears to facts or gives ” or bears testimony under oath” (Gifis’s Law Dictionary).
These definitions show that a witness is not necessarily an eyewitness to the event under discussion but simply someone who has personal knowledge relevant to the allegation. In the specific case of an eyewitness, the New Testament uses different words, autoptes and epoptes, which mean a witness who sees with his own eyes, or a spectator. (see Luke 1:2; II Peter 1:16.) Thus a witness can corroborate or discredit a previous witness on a certain point, although the second witness may not be a primary eyewitness to the event. Our judicial procedure follows this universal principle by saying a witness must be able to testify to “a fact,” not “all facts,” and by allowing character witnesses.
All legal systems allow witnesses who offer corroborating or circumstantial evidence. Corroborating evidence substantiates,
buttresses, or lends credence to other testimony. Circumstantial evidence consists of indirect, secondary facts by which a principal fact may be rationally inferred. For example, a woman may testify that she committed adultery with an accused minister at a certain motel room on a certain night. A motel clerk could corroborate her testimony by stating that he saw them rent the room. Someone could submit as evidence a document that substantiates this testimony. A bystander who saw the two people enter the room together also could testify.
The jury must still decide if the witnesses are credible, and if so, what their testimony proves. For example, it may conclude that all the witnesses are lying, or that the evidence supports only a charge of conduct unbecoming to a minister and not adultery. The jury may find the accused innocent, guilty of the charge as stated (such as adultery), or guilty of a lesser included violation (such as conduct unbecoming to a minister). In the case of guilt, the jury then decides the appropriate sentence: warning, disciplinary action, probation, or loss of credentials.
The accused minister may be a witness. The jury may believe or disbelieve his account. To avoid the danger of incriminating himself, the accused can refuse to testify, but if he exercises this right, “he shall not voice himself in any manner during the trial.” When an accused chooses not to testify, he still must be presumed innocent until proved guilty, but he must realize that his choice could work against him. Opposing counselors may question his credibility by pointing out to the jury that he has not personally denied the allegations to them or submitted to questions about his conduct.
Two or Three Witnesses
I Timothy 5:19 states, “Against an elder receive not an accusation, but before two or three witnesses.” Some scholars hold that the word translated “before” means “in front of,” as the King James Version suggests, but most say it means “on the testimony of,” as other translations suggest. In other words, there is some disagreement about whether this verse simply forbids a trial to be secret, or whether it states a rule of evidence. While the Greek wording would allow either interpretation, the verse apparently builds on Deuteronomy 19:15, which supports the latter view: “At the mouth of two witnesses, or at the mouth of three witnesses, shall the matter be established.”
Our new judicial procedure, like the old, follows the latter view, requiring all complaints and charges to be supported by evidence from two or three witnesses. “Such complaint must be signed by two or three accusers who state they have personal knowledge of the alleged misconduct. (See Matthew 18:16; II Corinthians 13:1; I Timothy 5:19.)… The district board must determine that each charge can be supported by evidence from two or three witnesses.”
Before a minister can be judged guilty, then, at least two witnesses must support the charge. Even then, a jury does not have to find an accused minister guilty; it simply has the right to do so if it finds the witnesses credible. If there is only one witness, however, a minister cannot be charged and a jury cannot find him guilty.
This rule is stricter than what other judicial systems require. In secular courts, a person can be charged and convicted on the unsupported testimony of one witness. William Kennedy Smith went to trial because of one accuser, and Mike Tyson was convicted on the testimony of one accuser. The challenge to Clarence Thomas’s Supreme Court nomination stemmed from one accuser; he ultimately won confirmation only because a narrow majority of the Senate believed him instead of his accuser.
How completely must the second witness support the testimony of the first one? Must both be eyewitnesses to the entire event, or to all events, in question?
The clear purpose of the biblical injunction is to prevent a minister from being judged guilty in a matter of his word against one other person’s word. In such a case, the evidence is equally balanced, and we must presume that the minister is innocent. If a second person supports the credibility of the first accuser, however, then the situation warrants further investigation.
The definition of a witness according to Scripture, law, and our judicial procedure shows that the second witness can be one who
corroborates a fact upon which the charge rests. He does not have to be a witness to the entire event or series of events.
Since the purpose of the two-witness rule is to ensure corroboration, clearly the witnesses must testify to the same offense. If they merely gave evidence of two unrelated violations, then the testimony of one would not be relevant to that of the other, and so could not provide corroboration. For example, if one witness testifies that a minister stole money and another testifies that he spoke against an article of faith, the two witnesses do not support each other.
Thus our judicial procedure requires two witnesses to support each complaint or charge. It describes a charge as an allegation “that a minister has failed to abide by the ministerial rules and obligations, broken his ministerial trust, violated ministerial ethics, deviated from a tenet of faith, or exhibited conduct unbecoming to a minister of the gospel.”
Our procedure allows multiple charges to be submitted at the same trial “if they are based on violations of the same nature or if they arise from the same events.” For example, a minister could be accused of deviating from two different tenets of faith. Since the charges are of the same nature, they could be brought at the same trial. Each charge would need two witnesses, and the jury could convict the accused person of one, both, or neither charge. An example of violations that “arise from the same events” would be a minister accused of drunkenness and adultery on the same occasion. He could be tried on both charges at the same trial. However, each charge would still need two witnesses.
It does not follow that the two witnesses have to testify to the same event. Two witnesses can corroborate each other by testifying to the same violation on different occasions. For example, a complaint that a minister violated a tenet of faith could be sustained by two witnesses who heard him speak against an article of faith on the same occasion, or by one witness who heard him on one occasion and a second who heard him on another occasion.
A complaint that a minister failed to abide by a ministerial rule or obligation would be handled similarly. For instance, two witnesses could say they simultaneously saw a television in the minister’s home. Or one witness could say he saw one there at one time, and a second witness could say he saw one there at a different time. They would not have to prove that it was the same television both times. Since the alleged violation is the same, the two witnesses could support one complaint and one charge.
Either way, the two witnesses corroborate each other. When one person testifies, it is his word against the minister’s. But when a second person testifies to the same violation, whether on the same occasion or a different one, there is greater reason to believe the first witness. This is especially true when two witnesses come forward independently, not knowing of each other’s similar experience.
Similarly, if one woman accuses a minister of adultery but there is no supporting witness, then no complaint can be processed. But if two or three women each accuse the minister of adultery on separate occasions, then a charge can be filed, because each witness lends credence to the other.
To hold otherwise would be to require two eyewitnesses for a single act of adultery. This would mean that, as a practical matter, no guilty minister could be charged with a serious moral offense, since people do not normally commit such sins in the presence of third parties. Moreover, such an interpretation would run counter to biblical language, definitions, and principles.
Of course, the fact that two or three witnesses sign a complaint does not necessarily mean that a minister is guilty. The district board still must determine by an investigation and hearing whether there is sufficient evidence to warrant a trial. Even if the district board decides that sufficient evidence exists, the jury in a trial will determine innocence or guilt, and in the case of guilt, determine the sentence.
In I Corinthians 5, Paul rebuked the Corinthian church for not judging a member who was guilty of incest. While there is no indication that two or three eyewitnesses on the same occasion observed him having sexual relations with his father’s wife, there was enough supporting evidence to find him guilty.
The judicial procedure requires two or three witnesses to give evidence relevant to a charge. These witnesses must testify about the same charge; they may testify about the same occasion or they may testify about different occasions involving the same charge. This requirement conforms to biblical teaching, legal principles, common sense, and practical considerations.
To make this requirement clear to the accused minister and to those who serve as counselors, witnesses, jurors, and officers as stated in the judicial procedure, the General Board of the UPCI adopted in January 1992 the following explanatory statement: “A complaint or charge must be supported by the evidence of two or three witnesses. A single charge can be supported by two witnesses who testify to a violation on one occasion. A single charge can also be supported by one witness who testifies to a violation on one occasion and a second witness who testifies to the same type of violation on another occasion. ” This statement enunciates the historic position of the UPCI under its various judicial procedures. This explanation by our highest judicial body and court of final appeal is the guideline for implementing our procedure.
God does not desire the innocent to be punished or the guilty to go free. In His eyes it is just as detestable to exonerate the guilty as it is to punish the innocent (Proverbs 17:15). He placed authority in the church to keep both the laity and ministry clean so that no reproach would come upon Him or His people. If a minister breaks his ministerial trust, he is to be removed from the ministry or restored according to the guidelines in the Bible. God’s Word lists qualifications for the ministry that we are to follow, and several of these qualifications deal with moral questions (I Timothy 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-11). We are to mark and avoid those who cause offenses (Romans 16:17-18). We are to judge and put away unrepentant fornicators in the church (I Corinthians 5:1-13).
To abdicate our God-given responsibility will cause the church to suffer in its mission to evangelize our world. Our judicial procedure is a scriptural approach to fulfilling God’s requirements for a person to be a minister of the gospel.
Our judicial procedure goes beyond the secular legal system and implements biblical principles by requiring two or three witnesses to support a complaint or a charge against any minister. Even when this requirement is met, the accused must still be presumed innocent until proved guilty by the evidence. Juries ultimately have the responsibility and authority to judge the guilt or innocence of the accused and to decide upon an appropriate sentence for the guilty.
By adopting the new judicial procedure, the UPCI has provided a fair, clear, thorough process to resolve grievances and complaints. As the judicial procedure states, let us as a church body handle these matters with “firm, competent hands, governed by truth and holiness, and clothed with respect, brotherly kindness, and love.”
(The above material appeared in the July/September 1992 issue of FORWARD.)
Christian Information Network