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 been included in the UK’s Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse launched in May 2019.[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. https://www.iicsa.org.uk/news/inquiry-announces-new-investigation-child-protection-religious-organisations-and-settings

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

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