Values and Commitments

Understanding how moral values and a sense of obligation can come from beliefs and experience;

 

Evaluating their own and others’ values in order to make informed, rational and imaginative choices.

 

 

Individual and Social Responsibility

Jehovah’s Witnesses are a law-abiding community providing the laws of the country do not conflict with their interpretation of Biblical teachings. Jehovah’s Witnesses respect the authority of secular governments but their allegiance is with ‘God’s Kingdom’, which is understood as a government in itself and as such takes precedence over all ‘earthly’ or secular governments. It is for this reason that Jehovah’s Witnesses remain politically neutral and do not engage in such activities as saluting a national flag, voting, running for office, joining the armed forces or displaying patriotic symbols, even under threat of death as in the concentration camps of Nazi Germany. They claim that such a position of political neutrality was practised by Jesus and the apostles. Neither do they join civic groups such as the Scouts or Guides. This is also why they do not engage in any interfaith work or participation in any other charitable organisations with a religious connection, in the belief that working with other religions jeopardies the purity of the Jehovah’s Witness community. Similarly, the Jehovah’s Witnesses uphold human rights law where it does not conflict with Biblical interpretations. Despite having few professionals among their number, they have several highly trained expert lawyers who fight their legal battles throughout the world. As noted above, they are also happy to use the legal systems of different countries in order to set legal precedents which might ensure their future benefit in the area of religious freedom.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses can be seen as having a great sense of social responsibility to members of their community, over and above to members of the public and to society in general – remembering that all other forms of Christianity are considered ‘nominal’ and hence as ‘Babylon the Great’. All members are active in helping others in their community through such acts as building and maintaining Kingdom Halls; liaising with hospitals on the issue of blood transfusion and/or visiting Witness patients in hospital; and engaging in social programmes such as disaster relief. Thus whilst ‘sharing in disaster relief’ is considered to be an act of worship, mandatory for members, it is primarily Jehovah’s Witness communities who are helped first. Their literature states that during disasters, practical relief and emotional and spiritual support is given to both members and non-members, “but especially toward those related to us in the faith.”[13] The literature is critical of major relief organisations for paying their directors large salaries and for failing to ensure that a large enough proportion of the contributions reaches victims.

13. https://www.jw.org/en/jehovahs-witnesses/faq/assist-with-disaster-relief/

Moral Issues

Jehovah’s Witnesses place great importance on living a moral life, derived from a close reading of the Bible – ‘the Bible’s moral code’. They use the concept of ‘Bible trained conscience’ to refer to ethical decision-making using Biblical principles. They also place great stock in raising their children and teenagers in a moral lifestyle and many of the materials on the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ websites are geared towards teaching children ethics and morals using stories and characters in the Bible. For Jehovah’s Witnesses, a moral lifestyle includes modest dress; moderation in all things related to diet, consumption and finances (for example, alcohol is not forbidden but should not be consumed to excess; the majority of Witnesses have a low to middle income due to their choice of trade-related professions and the accumulation of wealth is not encouraged); and a modest character (competitiveness is not encouraged, nor is seeking praise).

Jehovah’s Witnesses tend to have a socially conservative worldview with the patriarchal family held as the ideal. There is not gender equality in the movement but rather a belief in gender complementarity. The husband is the head of the household, the wife submits to him, and the children obey their parents as authoritative figures. Women cannot be elders or ministerial servants within the movement as women are not permitted to teach.

Marriage is considered to be a sacred and permanent bond between one man and one woman for the purpose of procreation. Witnesses oppose both abortion and euthanasia, but the use of contraception is permissible as it is not prohibited in the Bible. Adultery is the only reason for which divorce is permitted within the movement. Those who have divorced because of adultery are permitted to remarry, as are widows. Sexual relations before marriage are forbidden as are all homosexual relations. Jehovah’s Witnesses interpret the Bible to say that ‘sexual immorality is prohibited’, by which they understand all heterosexual sex outside of marriage and all homosexual sex. They recognise that some people are homosexual, and claim to accept them, providing they remain celibate. Not only should people not engage in sexual relations outside marriage, but they should avoid any cultural elements (music, films, books etc) that “promotes sexual conduct that offends God.”[14]

Jehovah’s Witnesses consider the physical body as God’s creation and therefore have a responsibility to keep it as fit and healthy as possible. Suffering, illness and disease are believed to be the result of Adam and Eve’s sin in the Garden of Eden and the subsequent primacy of Satan in the current world. However, Witnesses make recourse to secular, ‘allopathic’ medicine and do not have a healing ministry, believing that the “gifts of the spirit” largely died out with first generation of Apostles (Chryssides 2016: 185). The exception to the use of secular medicine is the issue of blood transfusions, which Witnesses prohibit. Former practices of prohibiting vaccinations and organ transplants have now stopped, as not addressed in the Bible, and Witnesses now can receive both (Chryssides 2016: 188). The use of alternative therapies (complementary and alternative medicine) is a matter of individual choice.

Jehovah’s Witnesses’ opposition to blood transfusions is due to their belief that blood is sacred, as the life force of living things, and its ingestion is prohibited in several Biblical passages (Genesis 9:3-4, Leviticus 17:14 and Acts 15:8-29) (Chryssides 2016: 192). In the Leviticus passage, God warns that anyone eating blood will be ‘cut off’. The Biblical prohibitions have been interpreted as including taking blood into the body intravenously. Jehovah’s Witnesses reject transfusions of whole allogeneic blood (blood from a different individual) and its primary components (red blood cells, white blood cells, platelets and plasma). It is also prohibited to accept one’s own blood donated prior to surgery as blood should not be stored: “He shall even pour out the blood thereof, and cover it with dust.” (Leviticus 17:13). Blood-based medication is also prohibited as is the consumption of blood-based foods such as black pudding.

A Jehovah’s Witness who accepts a blood transfusion may be disfellowshipped (cut off from the community). There are several exceptions where Jehovah’s Witnesses are permitted to accept blood, including dialysis, haemodilution (a technique in which equipment is linked to the patient’s circulatory system), and intra-operative blood salvage.

Witnesses carry a ‘No Blood’ ‘advance decision document’ with them at all times so that in cases of emergency, medical staff will know their position. Witness children carry an ‘identity card’ which has been signed by their parents. However, Witnesses do accept numerous forms of alternative treatment, including the use of non-blood volume expanders. Witnesses have been proactive in advocating these alternative treatments and have established Hospital Information Services responsible for education on and facilitation of bloodless surgery. Designated elders also visit their local hospitals to ensure they have the necessary information, consent forms and professional contacts to ensure bloodless treatments. The Jehovah’s Witness website also has an area for clinicians with numerous downloadable resources, links to peer-reviewed articles and more. Jehovah’s Witnesses claim that bloodless alternatives are safer and more sustainable in the long term.

Needless to say there have been cases where Witnesses have died rather than accept a blood transfusion. Beliefs about blood transfusions are especially problematic in the case of children who find themselves in life-threatening situations or medical emergencies. In Britain and the USA, most medical professionals are willing to explore non-blood options in the treatment of children at the request of their legal guardians. However, some state laws require that doctors administer blood-based treatment to minors if it is their professional opinion that this is necessary to avoid imminent death or severe and permanent damage. In the UK, doctors can have recourse to the High Court to make the child a ward of court.

There is an organisation called the Advocates for Jehovah’s Witness Reform on Blood (AJWRB) which claims that the Jehovah’s Witness position on blood is doctrinally wrong. AJWRB consists of Jehovah’s Witnesses who want to remain members and have completely free choice of medical treatment.

14. https://www.jw.org/en/publications/magazines/g201309/is-premarital-sex-wrong/

Rules and Ethical Guidelines

As stated above, Jehovah’s Witnesses follow relatively strict ethical and moral guidelines based on readings of Bible passages which are then explicated through Watchtower materials and study guides. As Chryssides has written (2016: 248), there is little room for individual creativity or interpretation – all members are expected to adhere to the interpretations outlined in official literature. Furthermore, members must adhere to certain rules of behaviour and belief set down by the Governing Body. If they do not, they face judicial-like proceedings which could result in disciplinary measures.

One of the more well-known, and controversial, disciplinary methods that Jehovah’s Witnesses use is the practice of disfellowshipping, that is cutting off or expelling the individual from the community. This does not happen automatically if a member sins – only if she or he is unrepentant of that sin. This is because removing the unrepentant sinner is believed to maintain the purity of the congregation and is commanded in the Bible.

Chryssides outlines the process of disfellowshipping (2016: 139-140). If a Witness sees another Witness engaging in prohibited behaviour, they have an obligation to discuss that behaviour with the errant individual. If their behaviour does not change, the Witness has a further obligation to report the errant individual to the elders. Individual sinners are also encouraged to come forward and admit wrongdoing to the elders. If serious misconduct is suspected, the elders appoint a judicial committee of three elders to investigate the case through interviewing the accused and witnesses. (In accordance with Biblical requirements, there must be at least two witnesses to the offence. This has caused problems with the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ handling of reported abuse cases – see below for more on this). If the accused shows remorse he will be reprimanded through loss of privileges, which include offering comments at meetings and caring for responsibilities. If he does not, he will be disfellowshipped.

Sins for which a baptised Witness can be disfellowshipped include violence, manslaughter, attempted suicide, child abuse, adultery, viewing abhorrent pornography, seriously immoral speech, tobacco use, misuse of addictive drugs, drunkenness, fraud, slander, extreme physical uncleanness and more. Deliberately persisting in association with disfellowshipped Witnesses is also a sin for which one can be disfellowshipped. When a Witness is disfellowshipped, other members – including friends and (with some exceptions) family – are expected to have no contact with the shunned individual. They are not to have any “spiritual or social fellowship” with the individual, and no communication, not even a greeting (2 John 10, 11).

Disfellowshipping is very difficult for those who have the majority of their friends and relatives within the religion, whose life has been centred within the group, and whose contact with the wider society prior to the issue would have been limited. This practice is one of the most common criticisms that former members and the relatives of members have with regard to the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Critics state that the disfellowshipped individual is treated as though they were ‘dead to God’, with no hope for salvation, and is prohibited from attending services. However, the Jehovah’s Witness website denies this is the case, saying that disfellowshipped individuals should attend services and seek spiritual counsel from an elder in the hopes that they will repent and return to the faith. In order to return to the faith, the individual must demonstrate ‘true’ repentance and the elders must be satisfied that s/he is suitable penitent. Critical information suggests that around 1% of Jehovah’s Witnesses are disfellowshipped every year and that 2 out of 3 of these never return to the movement.[16]

Although the Jehovah’s Witnesses have laid out strict guidelines to prevent the occurrence of sexual abuse of children, such abuse has occurred. There has also been controversy concerning the Jehovah’s Witnesses handling of reported cases of child and/or sexual abuse within the movement. Whilst victims and their families were not discouraged from reporting abuse to the appropriate secular authorities, elders also conducted a scriptural investigation into the sins of the alleged perpetrator. As noted above, historically a judicial committee of three elders was established to investigate claims of abuse. The committee was meant to interview the accused, the victim(s), and at least two witnesses (called the ‘two-witness rule’ in popular media). Some of the problems with this method include the fact that there are unlikely to be two witnesses to an abuse and that elders are not professionally trained to interview alleged victims. There are now numerous historical reports of young women having to recount their claims of sexual abuse before both the committee of male elders and the accused. For instance, the Jehovah’s Witnesses were one case study in the 2015 Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.[17] The Jehovah’s Witnesses have not been included in the UK’s Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse despite a campaign by critics for their inclusion.[18] In the UK in 2015, a woman won £275,000 in damages from the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society after the High Court in London ruled that they were vicariously liable for the sexual abuse she suffered at the hands of deceased ministerial servant, Peter Stewart, in Loughborough in the late 1980s/early 1990s. And in 2014, Mark Sewell, a former elder in Barry, Wales, was imprisoned for 14 years for historical sex offences including the rape of one woman and sexual abuse of minors.

In 2013, Jonathan Rose a former elder in New Moston, Manchester, was imprisoned for nine months for the indecent assault of two minors. This prompted the Charity Commission to open an investigation into both the Manchester New Moston Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, with a focus on their safeguarding policies. The 2017 Charity Commission report into the Manchester congregation found that trustees “did not deal adequately with allegations of child abuse made against one of the trustees in 2012 and 2013. The individual was subsequently convicted of 2 counts of indecent assault.” Furthermore, that “the victims of abuse were ‘effectively required’ to attend a hearing at which they had to repeat their allegations in the presence of the abuser, and the abuser was permitted to question the alleged victims.” The report concludes that the congregation’s safeguarding policies had improved as a result of the investigation.[19] The new safeguarding policies make clear that the victim and his/her guardians have the ‘absolute right’ to report an allegation to the authorities and that congregation elders will conduct a ‘Scriptural investigation’ of every allegation of child sexual abuse. Furthermore, that the victim will not have to make the allegation in the presence of the alleged abuser.

The Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Britain sought a judicial review of the Charity Commission decision to investigate, which they lost. The investigation remains ongoing in 2018.

15. Recent media articles include http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-40704990 and https://www.huffingtonpost.com/rodney-wilson/i-am-now-a-ghost-jehovahs_b_9764478.html

16. https://www.jwfacts.com/watchtower/disfellowship-shunning.php

17. https://www.childabuseroyalcommission.gov.au/case-studies/case-study-29-jehovahs-witnesses

18. Such as http://jwsurvey.org/child-abuse-2/support-campaign-make-iicsa-investigate-jehovahs-witnesses

19. https://www.gov.uk/government/news/investigation-leads-to-improvements-in-safeguarding-at-jehovahs-witnesses-charity

The Environment

Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that the Earth was created by Jehovah to provide a home to those faithful to him. As such, they are stewards of the earth and many members try to adhere to an environmentally responsible lifestyle. Jehovah’s Witness congregations and projects in different countries have won environmental awards such as a ‘Clean Enterprise’ certificate for printing facilities in Mexico and ‘Green Building Initiative’ awards for two buildings in New York. The Jehovah’s Witnesses’ new UK headquarters being built in Chelmsford, Essex, has been rated ‘outstanding’, “the highest rating available according to the world’s leading sustainability assessment standard, BREEAM (Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method).”[20] Numerous wildlife protection measures have also been put in place in this building project.

Jehovah’s Witness literature is keen to point out that Witnesses do not see natural disasters as a form of punishment from God. It rather points to humankind’s detrimental actions contributing to climate change as the source of many disasters, in line with current popular and scientific understandings and in contrast to some other faith traditions. Nevertheless, the literature also states that the Bible foretold that humankind would ‘ruin the Earth’ (Revelation 11:18) and hence current natural disasters are taken as evidence of the imminent end times. But as the Earth was a gift from God, it is reasoned, God will not allow the complete destruction of the planet, and intends men and women to live on the Earth forever. In the end times, God will ‘ruin’ those ‘ruining the Earth’ – that is the current government systems, which will be replaced with ‘God’s Kingdom’. “The righteous will possess the earth, and they will live forever on it” (Psalm 37:29).[21] Despite Jehovah’s Witnesses’ commitment to environmental responsibility, it is believed that ultimately only God can save the Earth.

20. https://www.jw.org/en/news/releases/by-region/united-kingdom/branch-office-breeam-rating-sustainable-design/

21. https://www.jw.org/en/publications/magazines/wp20140901/ruined-earth/

Websites

Jehovah’s Witnesses own website – www.jw.org

World Religions and Spirituality Project – https://wrldrels.org/2016/10/08/jehovahs-witnesses/

BBC Religion and Ethics – http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/witnesses/

Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance – http://www.religioustolerance.org/witness.htm

Bibliography

Beaman, Lori G. (2008). Defining Harm: Religious Freedom and the Limits of the Law. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press.

Beckford, J. A. (1975). The Trumpet of Prophecy: A Sociological Study of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Oxford, Blackwell

Côté, P., and J. T. Richardson. 2001. ‘“Disciplined Litigation and “Deformation”: Dramatic 565 Organization Change in Jehovah’s Witnesses.’ Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 40: 11–25.

Chryssides, G. D. (2016). Jehovah’s Witnesses: Continuity and Change. Surrey, Ashgate.

Chryssides, G. D. (2009). A-Z of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press.

King, Christine. (1982). The Nazi State and the Nazi New Religions. New York & Toronto: Edwin Mellen Press.

Knox, Z. (2011). The Watch Tower Society and the End of the Cold War: Interpretations of the End-Times, Superpower Conflict, and the Changing Geo-Political Order. Journal of the America Academy of Religion 79 (4): 1018-1049.

Knox, Z. (2018). Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Secular World: From the 1870s to the Present (Histories of the Sacred and Secular, 1700-2000). London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Liebster, Max. (2003). Crucible of Terror: A Story of Survival through the Nazi Storm. New Orleans: Grammaton Press.

Perkins, Gary. (2016). Bible Student Conscientious Objectors in World War Vol.1 – Britain. Charleston, SC: Hupomone Press.

Richardson, James T. (2015) ‘In Defense of Religious Rights: Jehovah’s Witness Legal Cases Around the World’ in Handbook of Global Contemporary Christianity edited by Stephen Hunt. Brill Handbooks on Contemporary Religion. Pp. 285-307.

Richardson, James T. (2017). Update on Jehovah’s Witness cases before the European Court of Human Rights: implications of a surprising partnership. Religion, State and Society 45 (3-4): 232-248.