An Aspect of the Legalism of Jehovah's Witnesses

Alan Feuerbacher


Jehovah's Witnesses like to think that their organization goes entirely by the Bible, and that because of following the Bible they are not tied to following every "jot and tittle" of some "Law." They contrast themselves with the first-century Pharisees who were indeed so concerned.

This essay shows that in the matter of the relation between the individual Jehovah's Witness and "the congregation," the Watchtower Society has made and enforces a number of legalistic rules. Furthermore, these rules are not clearly stated to people who become Jehovah's Witnesses. Instead, the prospective convert is given a sanitized and idealized view, so that if he gets into difficulty with the congregation the real rules come as a shock.

We will examine these matters by looking at the baptismal vows Jehovah's Witnesses have made when joining the religion. Until 1985, these vows were seen as a dedication of the individual to his God, whereas in 1985 the Society changed them into an agreement to follow the rules and regulations of the Watchtower Society.

According to statements published by the Watchtower Society, Christians are not dedicated to an organization. From the October 1, 1966 Watchtower, pp. 603-4:

Jehovah is the giver of life. "For with you is the source of life." (Ps. 36:9) We cannot keep everlasting life in view without staying close to Jehovah, the source of life.... This is what we mean when we dedicate our lives to Jehovah. We do not dedicate ourselves to a religion, nor to a man, nor to an organization. No, we dedicated ourselves to the Supreme Sovereign of the Universe, our Creator, Jehovah God himself. This makes dedication a very personal relationship between us and Jehovah.

The January 15, 1970 Watchtower, pp. 37-41, asked the question, "Which Comes First -- Your Church or God?" Speaking mainly to Catholics and Protestants, the article said, in part:

With some, God comes first and their church is merely a means used to worship him. With others, their church has become an end in itself, taking priority over God and his Word, the Bible. Where do you stand? In your own heart and mind, which comes first -- your church or God?

The article then described what the French weekly news magazine, Le Nouvel Observateur, said about three categories of believers:

"The first man is the one who feels at ease within the traditional structures of the Church; the second would like to see some changes made in these structures; as for the 'third man,' he has left the Church, but quietly, without making a fuss. He still believes in the Gospel values, but he expects no more help from the Church. He has quit, and the Church's problem has ceased to interest him, once and for all."

The article went on to say, under the sub-title "Questions for the 'First Man'":

The "first man" represents the believers who remain faithful to their church out of loyalty to the religion they were brought up to believe in. Their attitude is: Right or wrong, it is my religion! Is that the way you feel? If so, you are certainly a loyal person. But to whom do you owe the greater loyalty -- to your church, or to God? With so much disbelief rife throughout the earth, you are to be commended for maintaining your faith, but where should your faith be placed -- in a religious organization, or in God? Why do you go to church? Basically, is it not because you believe in God? Do atheists go to church? Is not the very purpose of churchgoing to worship God and gain his approval? So if it became clear that your church was not fulfilling its basic purpose, where would your first duty lie?

"But," you may reply, "how can one tell if one's church is fulfilling its purpose?" Well, is your church drawing more and more people to God and helping them to serve him? Or are its best and most sincere members disappointed, disillusioned and disheartened?....

The article next shows how certain practices merit God's displeasure, and then says:

Furthermore, to be pleasing to God, should not a church teach the truth?.... "God is spirit, and those who worship must worship in spirit and truth." -- John 4:21-24, JB.

Notice that worship in "truth" is a must! It is therefore impossible to worship God acceptably without a deep love of the truth. The true Christian religion must be founded on the truth, not on traditions, creeds, dogmas and articles of faith that are often hard to understand because they defy all the faculties of reasoning with which God created us. Now what is the Christian standard for measuring truth? Is it not the Bible? So if there should prove to be contradiction between the tenets of a church that claims to be Christian and the plain statement of truth found in the Holy Scriptures, which should come first in your worship -- your church or God's Word, the Bible? What will be your answer if you sincerely desire to be "the kind of worshipper the Father wants"?

The next sub-title was "Reasoning Things Out with the 'Second Man'", which said:

The "second man" mentioned in the Nouvel Observateur represents those Catholics and Protestants who stay with their church because they do not know where else to go. They have been taught that their church represents God, and they do not want to turn away from him. They disapprove of many church practices or doctrines, but they hope to reform their church from within.

Typical of these are the 744 French Catholics who, in November 1968, sent a long open letter to the pope. In it they stated: "Today the Christian needs to live in a 'true' church ... Therefore all that is false, contrary to the Gospel and scandalous within the Church today wounds the Christian." Then followed a long list of grievances against the Catholic Church and its current teachings and practices. Yet, toward the end, these Catholics expressed their unconditional adherence to their church by alluding to John 6:68 and stating: "Who could we go to? In her [the Roman Catholic Church] we find the One who has words of eternal life."

But can Christ dwell in a church where so much is admittedly "false, contrary to the Gospel and scandalous"? Did not the apostle Paul write: "What participation hath justice with injustice? Or what fellowship hath light with darkness? And what concord hath Christ with Belial?"....

Thus, honest Catholics and Protestants are beginning to recognize the necessity of choosing between the church and Christ, the church and the Gospel. What about all you 'second men,' who hope to reform your church from within? Which comes first with you -- your church or God? Indeed, what is the church of God? After the words quoted above, Paul wrote to sincere anointed Christians: "For you are the temple of the living God; as God saith: I will dwell in them, and walk among them; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people...."....

What example did Paul himself set?.... Did Paul remain within the traditional church, the Jews' religion, and attempt to reform it from the inside? No! He considered that the only way to worship and serve God acceptably henceforth was to 'go out from among' the Pharisees and become a part of God's true church which, at the time, was a small despised sect....

Consequently, if your church teaches and does things that are contrary to the Bible and displeasing to God, your duty as a Christian is clear: Imitate Paul and 'serve the Father and your God' within the true religion which, not surprisingly, the churches often "call a heresy."

The final sub-title, "Reassuring News for the 'Third Man'" said:

This brings us to the "third man," representing the disillusioned who have ceased practicing their religion altogether, yet still maintaining their belief in God. Although this article is not written primarily for them, since they have already chosen to abandon the church systems of Christendom, nevertheless we have some good news for them.

The article then concludes with an invitation for the 'third man' to become one of Jehovah's Witnesses.

While the Society has said that Christians do not dedicate themselves to an organization, it tells Witnesses that salvation does not come apart from the Watchtower organization. For example, the March 1, 1979 Watchtower stated (p. 18):

Devoted Witnesses have kept their faith in Jehovah's organization. They know which one of all organizations on earth the Almighty God has used to give the greatest witness to his name and kingdom in all Christian history... Is there any cause for us to lose faith in Jehovah's visible organization because of mounting difficulties in this world? Those who believe that Jehovah will never desert his faithful witnesses answer, "Absolutely not!" In demonstration of such faith, we will keep on sticking to it and working with it without slacking the hand. Our unwavering faith will be rewarded with victory and the crown of life!

In line with these sentiments, in 1985 the Society changed the baptismal vows such that new Jehovah's Witnesses dedicated themselves, not only to God as had been done for a century before, but to the Watchtower Society itself. This is evident from the baptismal vows published up through 1985:

Baptismal questions from the August 1, 1966 Watchtower, p. 465:

(1) Have you recognized yourself before Jehovah God as a sinner who needs salvation, and have you acknowledged to him that this salvation proceeds from him, the Father, through his Son Jesus Christ?

(2) On the basis of this faith in God and in his provision for salvation, have you dedicated yourself unreservedly to God to do his will henceforth as he reveals it to you through Jesus Christ and through the Bible under the enlightening power of the holy spirit?

Baptismal questions from the May 15, 1970 Watchtower, p. 309:

(1) Have you recognized yourself as a sinner and needing salvation from Jehovah God? And have you acknowledged that this salvation proceeds from him and through his ransomer, Christ Jesus?

(2) On the basis of this faith in God and in his provision for redemption have you dedicated yourself unreservedly to Jehovah God, to do his will henceforth as that will is revealed to you through Christ Jesus and through God's Word as his holy spirit makes it plain?

Baptismal questions from the May 1, 1973 Watchtower, p. 280:

(1) Have you repented of your sins and turned around, recognizing yourself before Jehovah God as a condemned sinner who needs salvation, and have you acknowledged to him that this salvation proceeds from him, the Father, through his Son Jesus Christ?

(2) On the basis of this faith in God and in his provision for salvation, have you dedicated yourself unreservedly to God to do his will henceforth as he reveals it to you through Jesus Christ and through the Bible under the enlightening power of the holy spirit?

The newest baptismal questions, from the June 1, 1985 Watchtower:

On the basis of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, have you repented of your sins and dedicated yourself to Jehovah to do his will?

Do you understand that your dedication and baptism identify you as one of Jehovah's Witnesses in association with God's spirit-directed organization?

Contrast these latest questions with the statements above, from the October 1, 1966 Watchtower.

Finally, compare these statements to those made in the October 15, 1992 Watchtower, p. 19:

So for the Christian, baptism following dedication establishes an intimate relationship with Jehovah God, his Son Jesus Christ, and the holy spirit...

By recognizing God's authority, we draw close to him and enter into a relationship with him... We become God's property as his slaves, bought with the price of Jesus Christ's ransom sacrifice... The apostle Paul also told first-century Christians that they belonged to Jesus Christ, not to any men who might have taken the truth to them... Baptism in the name of the Son implies recognizing this fact, accepting Jesus as "the way and the truth and the life."...

At the time of dedication and baptism, therefore, we need to reflect prayerfully on what is involved in our new relationship. It requires submission to the will of God, demonstrated in the example and ransom provision of Jesus Christ, to be carried out through holy spirit as it directs all of God's servants in love and unity worldwide.

This last is a most unusual statement in that the "faithful and discreet slave" is not mentioned as directing the work. In any case, the Society has managed to get newer members to, in effect, join a worldly club from which their membership can be terminated at any time by the Society (disfellowshipping) while at the same time convincing these newcomers that they have only dedicated themselves to their Creator. Can any actions be more devious?

The fact that the Society changed the baptismal vows to protect itself legally is shown by the letters that it sends out to people who threaten with legal action for trying to enforce on them what they thought was a dedication to Jehovah alone. One such letter read:

From the date of your baptism and your joining the organization of Jehovah's Witnesses, you professed the Christian faith, agreed to adhere to the doctrine of Jehovah's Witnesses and agreed to submit to the rules and procedures of the ecclesiastical government of Jehovah's Witnesses.

Talk about legalism! It is obvious that a great many people would never have become Jehovah's Witnesses in the first place if the possible consequences to them were spelled out as above.

To further show the Society's legalistic view of baptism, here are some excerpts from a lengthy letter written in the early 1990s by a Watchtower attorney, Philip Brumley, to a person who questioned the Society's legal right to disfellowship him:

I represent Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc., the parent organization of the congregations of Jehovah's Witnesses throughout the United States. By means of your numerous letters and telephone calls to this office, I have been informed that your membership in the organizations of Jehovah's Witnesses was terminated when you were disfellowshiped from the English Congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses, [xyztown], Massachusetts....

The relationship between a congregation and its member is consensual as to both parties. A congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses is a voluntary association. Both the member and the congregation have a right to determine if they will remain united. The member has the right to disassociate himself or herself from the congregation. The congregation also has the right to separate from a member if it is determined by an ecclesiastical tribunal, which Jehovah's Witnesses call a judicial committee, that a member is not conducting his or her life according to the tenets of the religion.

A. If a member no longer wishes to be one of Jehovah's Witnesses, then the member may disassociate himself or herself from the congregation. The term "disassociation" applies to the action taken by a person who, although being a baptized member of the congregation, repudiates his or her Christian standing as such, rejecting the congregation and stating that he or she no longer wants to be recognized or known as one of Jehovah's Witnesses. A brief announcement would be made to inform the congregation that the person has voluntarily disassociated himself or herself from the congregation.

B. If a member is charged with wrongdoing and wishes to continue to be one of Jehovah's Witnesses, then such one should submit to the hearings of the judicial committee. If charges of wrongdoing are brought to the attention of the body of elders of one's congregation, then they investigate the charges. If it is established that there may be substance to the charges and evidence is produced showing that a serious sin actually may have been committed, the congregation's body of elders will assign a judicial committee, consisting usually of three elders, to handle the matter....

II. APPLICABLE SECULAR LAW

C. Relation Between the Congregations and its members. It is axiomatic that the essence of the relationship of a religious society with its members is held by the courts to be the agreement of the parties, and generally, a profession of faith, adherence to the doctrine of the religious society and submission to its government. 76 C.J.S. Religious Societies 11 (1952). A party having voluntarily assented to becoming a member of a congregation thereby subjects himself or herself to the existing rules and procedures of said congregation and cannot deny their existence. All who unite themselves to such a voluntary religious organization do so with the implied consent to this government and are bound to submit to it....

Since you did not disassociate yourself from the organization, then under the law you gave implied consent to its government, subjecting yourself to the existing rules and procedures and being bound legally to submit to it. The theocratic government of the congregation to which you legally submitted includes specifically the legal agency of Jehovah's Witnesses, known as the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc., and all their duly appointed representatives, including the elders of the congregation with which you were associated. The rules and procedures which you subjected yourself to include those of the judicial committee arrangement set forth in detail above....

Note that the above legalese says that once a person joins the Witnesses, he has only two choices if he wants to leave: disfellowshipping and disassociation. These two choices are enforced by American law. However, even if the Watchtower lawyer has correctly stated matters, he has neglected the case of the child who gets baptized and submits to "ecclesiastical law." By law minors cannot enter into legally binding contracts. Therefore by law, people who got baptized when they were children have a third legally enforceable option when they leave: to simply quit, without disassociating and without submitting to a judicial committee, or "ecclesiastical tribunal." Of course, the Society will not tell people about this.

From the above extensive discussion by the Watchtower attorney (the complete letter contained dozens of pages) it is evident that people who become Jehovah's Witnesses are not fully informed of the rules and obligations they will be expected to obey. For example, a rank-and-file member is expected to fully obey an elder, since elders are "duly appointed representatives" of the Watchtower Society.

The Society has given statements to the news media indicating that if a person wants to leave the Witnesses, all he has to do is quietly fade away and life will go on unchanged. The above letter from Mr. Brumley proves that these public statements are pure lies.

From the material presented in this essay it should be clear that the Jehovah's Witnesses parent organization, the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society, is a thoroughly legalistic, Pharasaic and deceptive organization. It recruits members under false pretenses and bullies them into remaining by deceptive, legalistic means. No one who wishes to be a good Christian should tolerate these practices.


Index