When significant accusations are made against a person, especially when issues of loss are involved, how do we deal with them? Do we take the modern legal motto of innocent until proven guilty? Do we use the criminal justice standard that says that guilt must be proven beyond doubt? Do we take the civil standard that guilt must be proved simply by preponderance of the evidence? Do we take the line of the #MeToo movement in which we believe all accusers regardless of evidence?
The problem here is that none of the above standards is the best standard. Why? None of those is the standard of the word of God. It may surprise you to realize that the Lord actually spoke quite clearly to his people about what must be the standard met in a case of accusation. And the Lord made it clear that there are also consequences for malicious false accusations.
Deuteronomy 19:15-21 – 15 “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. 16 If a malicious witness arises to accuse a person of wrongdoing, 17 then both parties to the dispute shall appear before the Lord, before the priests and the judges who are in office in those days. 18 The judges shall inquire diligently, and if the witness is a false witness and has accused his brother falsely, 19 then you shall do to him as he had meant to do to his brother. So you shall purge the evil from your midst. 20 And the rest shall hear and fear, and shall never again commit any such evil among you. 21 Your eye shall not pity. It shall be life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.
First, note that a charge will not be established without a witness (cf. Num 35:30; Due 17:6-7). The idea of a he said she said or a she said he said claim is simply not admissible. I’m not going to deny that, in our era of modern technology, video surveillance, DNA evidence, and all the rest perhaps this model could shift a bit. There are methods of proof that were not available to the men of the second millennium BC. But it should be a normal standard that we do not attempt to adjudicate claims of one person against another person without a witness and without any sort of physical evidence. Something other than the claim of the accuser has to point toward the guilt of the accused.
Note, in the issue of witnesses, the Scripture is also very clear that any person with evidence regarding a crime is obligated to come forward. It is a crime to conceal a crime in the biblical standard (cf. Lev 5:1).
But, if a person makes an accusation, particularly one that includes consequences for the one accused, the accuser also is to be held accountable for their actions. There is no such thing as a free pass at making a charge against someone if that charge is intended to do the accused harm. Deuteronomy 19:19-21 above shows us that one found to be bringing a false accusation was actually subject to the penalty they attempted to have imposed on the one they accused if they are found to be a malicious witness (cf. Due 5:20). Deuteronomy 17:6-7 adds the provision that one who accuses another of murder must also be the first one to begin the execution of the murderer. Thus, God intended to dissuade people from making false accusations by making it impossible for a person to simply accuse and then walk away.
You might wonder how it could be that God would speak so strongly seemingly on the side of the accused. Obviously the Lord does not want victims to not see justice. Obviously God does not want people to be afraid to speak out and tell the truth. So why would God make this seem so hard?
The answer is one of ultimate justice. When dealing with fallen humanity, we must understand that mistakes are going to be made in our criminal and civil courts. And we must make a decision as to where we err. Will we err on the side of punishing the innocent or acquitting the guilty? Obviously we want to do neither, as both are injustices. But the Lord has shown us in his word that it is better to err on the side of not punishing someone than to err on the side of wrongly punishing someone.
Why would that be? The answer lies in the truth of the absolute justice of God. Even as we are prone to error in our judgments, the Lord our God never makes a mistake. God will perfectly do justice. No one who appears to get away with a crime in their lifetime will find that their sin goes unpunished. God is just. He will always see to it that justice is done.
If we punish someone wrongfully, we can do nothing to give back to them what they have lost. But if we fail to punish a person who turns out to be guilty, the Lord will perfectly do justice. Thus, a belief in the Lord and in his word is what helps us to see exactly where to risk erring.
Let’s also remember that biblical justice, as a friend pointed out to me recently, is more than punishing the guilty. Biblical justice is about the glory of God. Justice is about restoring as much as possibly can be restored when wrong is done or crimes are committed. Justice is also about sanctifying people, preventing future crimes, bringing about purity in a land, and teaching all people to treat all people as image-bearers of God.
The hardest part of this concept given our social and political environment is that I would never want a man or woman, a boy or girl, to be afraid to tell the truth. If a person has been abused or attacked, they need to know that it is safe for them to speak out. At the same time, we must not develop a culture in which every accusation is so completely believed as to destroy a person’s career and reputation without any form of evidence.
What then must we do? IN general, we love those who accuse and love those who are accused, protecting the dignity of all humanity—people created in the image of God. We do not pretend that any person’s accusation is not a big deal. We do not make anyone think we will not take them seriously. And we counsel, and we apply the healing grace of the gospel to all our wounds. But that cannot mean that we automatically pre-judge all who are accused. As we see in Leviticus 19:15, “You shall do no injustice in court. You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbor.” We do not defer to the strong or the weak, the rich or the poor, the accuser or the accused.
We love the accused by seeking genuine, biblical justice. Are they guilty? Is there real evidence? Are there witnesses? If there are , we love the guilty best by doing justice so as to punish crimes and to call for repentance. WE preach the gospel to the guilty and point them to the Savior. That may not get a woman her job back or keep a man out of prison, but eternal life is worth far more than any loss in this present world.
But what if the accusation is proven false? Then we must consider biblical justice there too. False accusers are attempting, for some reason, to damage other people with their words. Can we discern intent? Can we find out that a person was malicious in their motivation? IF so, then we should enact just penalties for that crime.
What if we cannot discern intent? What if there may be a genuine false belief based on a problem with memory or simple misunderstanding? Or what if the one accused might be guilty but we just cannot prove it? Is justice thwarted? Of course not. In such a situation we entrust the situation to the eternal justice of God, we strive to biblically comfort the hurting and the oppressed, and we move forward knowing that, at the final day of judgment, the Lord of Heaven and Earth will do rightly.