Every once in awhile I get an email from readers questioning why I write about Jehovah’s Witnesses. For example, one correspondent wrote:
Stop beating on the JW’s so much! Why the anti-JW propaganda?
Of course, part of why I write on themes relating to the Witnesses deals with my own spiritual journey. Additionally, as an Orthodox Christian, I have disagreements with the Jehovah’s Witnesses on several doctrinal issues which I feel are important and directly relate to the meaning of Christianity.
However, often when I’m asked what’s wrong with the Witnesses I focus on some rather significant problems that membership in the religion poses for their members. These issues are not so much theological but demonstrate how being a Jehovah’s Witness can negatively impact one’s life in three areas. This criticism of the Witnesses, I believe, is not just comparing one religion to another or the result of an embittered experience. In this piece, I am trying to move beyond theological controversy and show how the Witness movement fails its members on a human level. The three areas I have chosen to critique are:
1) Youths being discouraged from seeking a university education or making career plans
2) The ban on blood transfusions
3) Shunning of ex-member family and friends
Discouraging a college education
For many years young members of Jehovah’s Witnesses were discouraged from seeking higher education. I remember reading this advice given in the May 22, 1969 Awake! magazine while in my first year of high school:
“If you are a young person, you also need to face the fact that you will never grow old in this present system of things. Why not? Because all the evidence in fulfillment of Bible prophecy indicates that this corrupt system is due to end in a few years. Of the generation that observed the beginning of the ‘last days’ in 1914, Jesus foretold: ‘This generation will by no means pass away until all these things occur.’ Therefore, as a young person, you will never fulfill any career that this system offers. If you are in high school and thinking about a college education, it means at least four, perhaps even six or eight more years to graduate into a specialized career. But where will this system of things be by that time? It will be well on the way towards its finish, if not actually gone! This is why parents who base their lives on God’s prophetic Word find it much more practical to direct their young ones into trades that do not require such long periods of additional schooling… True, those who do not understand where we are in the stream of time from God’s viewpoint will call this impractical. But which is really practical: preparing yourself for a position in this world that soon will pass away? or working toward surviving this system’s end and enjoying eternal life in God’s righteous new order?” (page 15)
At the time this was written, the Watchtower Society was in the midst of emphasizing the date 1975 as the probable time for the Battle of Armageddon. It was also held that there would only be one generation of people from the year 1914 to the End. All this, of course, has been re-interpreted.
Of all the Witness youths I knew from that era, none went to college or university. Two of my best friends were valedictorians of their high school classes and both turned down offers of scholarships for higher education. Both became full-time “pioneers” (door-to-door evangelists) as this was held out as the most desirable course for young Witnesses to pursue. Both later went on to work at Watchtower headquarters in New York though they have now returned home to the area where they grew up and are now raising families. (What I know about them I have gleaned from others as they faithfully obey the shunning policies of the religion to ex-members like me.)
Jehovah's Witness youths are discouraged from seeking higher education. Instead of making normal career plans, Witness youths are encouraged to devote the majority of their time to door-to-door preaching.
Time has proven false what the Watchtower Society told my friends and I back in 1969:
Therefore, as a young person, you will never fulfill any career that this system [world] offers.
Nearly forty years later, many of our classmates are making retirement plans. Some of us who left the religion without any college later tried to do “catch up” by becoming non-traditional college students. In my own case, I started college classes for the first time back in the summer of 2007 at just over fifty years of age.
From 1992 until 2005 there was a liberalization of sorts on this issue of higher education for Jehovah’s Witness youths. A 1992 Watchtower article indicated it was up to the parents to decide what was best for their children in this regard. Full-time pioneering (volunteer door-to-door evangelism) was still suggested as a goal but higher education was viewed as a possible means for Witness youths to obtain employment that would permit them to do that:
If Christian parents responsibly decide to provide their children with further education after high school, that is their prerogative. The period of these studies would vary according to the type of trade or occupation selected. For financial reasons and in order to enable their children to get into the full time service as quickly as possible, many Christian parents have chosen for them short term study programs in vocational or technical schools. In some cases youths have needed to be apprenticed to some trade but always with a full life of service to Jehovah as the goal.
… This magazine has placed emphasis on the dangers of higher learning, and justifiably so, for much higher education opposes the “healthful teaching” of the Bible. Further, since the 1960’s, many schools of advanced learning have become hotbeds of lawlessness and immorality. “The faithful and discreet slave” [Witness leaders at headquarters] has strongly discouraged entering that kind of environment. It must be admitted, however, that nowadays youngsters meet up with these same dangers in high schools and technical colleges and even in the workplace. (November 1, 1992 Watchtower, pp. 16, 20)
One Witness emailed me back in 2005 regarding this temporary liberalization in attitude towards higher education.
On the subject of higher education: the [Watchtower] Society has “loosened up” somewhat. A few years back there were some articles on taking a few years of college to enable one to spend less time working and more time in the ministry.
He continues to explain why Witness leaders returned to the anti-higher education stance in 2005:
Well, you know what happens when you crack a door open? The kids were signing up for four years or more. Many were forsaking the Truth for lucrative careers. Or staying “witnesses” only to be doing the bare minimum. Not alot of Pioneering [full time door-to-door evangelism] going on by our college bound brothers and sisters. Our Tower two weeks ago [October 1, 2005 Watchtower] more or less reversed that thinking.
He further commented on the problems this sudden reversal in policy posed for some Witnesses and his own reflection on not having pursued higher education himself:
What’s ironic is my Presiding Overseer [now known as "Coordinator of the Body of Elders"] is halfway through an engineering course at XXX. He was not a happy camper with that study article. He and I are real close so he vents with me rather than someone that can do something about it.
Here’s a hard fact about this system [world]: you can pay now or you can pay later. Later costs more. A business course at XXX in XXXX would have cost me probably $10,000 back then. Learning to run a business the hard way probably cost me 10 times that. Not to mention the stress and pain along the way.
Basically, the pre-1992 discouragement of higher education for Jehovah’s Witness youths was re-instituted with that October 1, 2005 Watchtower. There are continual warnings against going to college or university given at Witness assemblies, such as this one by Governing Body member Gerrit Lösch at an assembly in Milan, Italy:
Being encouraged to seek higher education is viewed as a temptation like drugs or pornography.
The result is college education is regularly demonized in Watchtower publications. Instead of setting up a support system for Witness youths who might be attending a college or university, Witness youths hear testimonies from other members who have forsaken college so that they could devote their lives to preaching door-to-door. Audio lectures have been archived online from Witness conventions where higher education is portrayed as a “crafty act” of the Devil and Witness youths are encouraged not to pursue a university education but to devote themselves to the door-to-door preaching work.
This anti-higher education stance still continues. A 2008 Watchtower classified as a serious temptation to youth when:
A well-intentioned teacher urges you to pursue higher education at a university.
The May 2010 Our Kingdom Ministry (an internal newsletter issued from headquarters for members) asked this question of youths in high school:
4. What should youths nearing graduation consider?
4 Youths: While you are finishing your basic education, have you given careful thought to your future? Until now, your schoolwork largely determined your schedule. How will you fill that vacuum after graduation? Instead of pursuing a secular career, why not prayerfully consider the goal of regular pioneering? The skills you will learn-witnessing to people of different backgrounds, overcoming personal obstacles, cultivating self-discipline, and developing teaching ability-will benefit you throughout life.
Normal life goals (education & career) are discouraged for Witness youths as well as many hobbies (sports, music, etc.)
Sadly, Witness youths today face the same sort of pressure against higher education and making career plans as did W.C. Stevenson, a Witness from the United Kingdom over fifty years ago. He initially went against the advice of both his father and the Watchtower Society and had enrolled at Cambridge. He tells how he conformed to the pressure:
Many young people in the movement with promising careers in front of them have in the past had such abruptly terminated by this insistent demand that they must pioneer [become a full-time evangelist]. The writer is a case in point. Despite the [Watchtower] Society’s insistence on withdrawing from the pursuit of further education, which was repeated with great emphasis by my father, I gained a place at Trinity Hall, Cambridge, where for a year I read English literature. However the pressure of ‘theocratic conscience’, the feeling that I was misusing dedicated time, enforced by a continuous flow of counsel from the publications of the Society and from the talks given at the Witnesses’ meetings, resulted in my leaving Trinity Hall after only a year of study. I could have had no peace of mind until the decision was made. I reasoned according to my theocratic training, that I was either for God or against Him. If I was lukewarm, God would spew me out of His mouth. I was a dedicated servant of God, and I felt that this could only be fulfilled by full-time preaching for the Society. And so, to ensure a complete severance of myself from Cambridge, when the examinations came round, I just sat through the several three-hourly sessions, writing nothing on the papers but simply passing them in blank. The last words of my tutor to me as I left Trinity Hall were, ‘Well, Stevenson, I hope you never regret what you have done’. I am quite sure now that this was the worst mistake of my life. But an even bigger mistake, of course, would be to allow myself to become embittered by the experience. However, I must say that I cannot deprecate too strongly the Society’s attitude towards further education. (The Inside Story of Jehovah’s Witnesses by W.C. Stevenson, pp. 102-103)
The Blood ban
Blood card carried by Jehovah's Witnesses (from the 1960s)
It is well known that Jehovah’s Witnesses refuse blood transfusions and that some have died in obedience to this belief. It is not as well known that Witness members have contributed to the growth of bloodless medicine. Many new procedures and treatments have arisen in the past couple of decades that do not use blood. In this regard, Witnesses have rendered a valuable service to others.
Still, there seems to be what could almost be termed a Witness “urban legend” that all medical procedures requiring blood can adequately be covered by these bloodless techniques, even in emergency situations. This has even been expressed in Witness publications. For example, the February 22, 1976 Awake! told of one Witness spokesman who responded to a student questioning the ban on blood transfusions during a question and answer period at a presentation made at a Canadian university:
People often question the refusal of Jehovah’s witnesses to accept blood transfusions. During the questioning, a student raised hypothetical emergency situations in an effort to bypass the Scriptural prohibition mentioned in Acts 15:20, 29.
Student: “Well, suppose somebody was just coming to the hospital. They’ve got a few seconds to live. The only possible way out is a blood transfusion. Well, what’s your answer to that? I mean, that’s murder if you don’t let them accept that.”
Witness: “That situation doesn’t exist. Wherever there are cases where a person . . . let’s say comes in off the highway here . . . and there is extreme loss of blood. Every emergency room, in every hospital, has a plasma volume expander which can . . . “
Student: “Plasma doesn’t replace blood, though.”
Witness: “The need there is to keep the volume up in the system. It’s not the blood so much that’s needed then, but the volume that must be replaced. These expanders will do it. They are used in emergency situations; they are recommended by Civil Defense organizations when blood is not available. Obviously it works—it has worked on thousands of Jehovah’s witnesses.” (page 15)
[An audio of this exchange can be heard here at 30:14 minutes. The speaker is identified as Eugene Rosam, who at the time was a Circuit Overseer (a traveling representative of the Watchtower Society) and is now a director of one of the Watchtower Society legal corporations.]
This overconfidence in alternative treatments is also mentioned in an article by Kerry Louderback-Wood in the Journal of Church and State. She notes that the emphasis given on these new alternative treatments by Watchtower leaders give the wrong impression. Referring to a Watchtower publication on blood, she says:
It builds a case that other doctors wish all surgeons would become bloodless surgeons, when in fact those doctors recognize the benefits of blood transfusions for those who are in desperate need.
2006 worksheet to determine acceptable blood fractions
The situation where blood might be the only thing that will save a life certainly does exist. Despite the heightened concerns for safety with regards to blood management, there is no movement in the medical community to close blood banks. Sadly, however, many Witnesses who face critical care situations in hospital emergency rooms have a false confidence that their refusal to accept blood can be overcome with some form of alternative non-blood treatment. Sometimes it can; sometimes it can’t. While contemporary society recognizes the right of adults to make the choice to refuse potentially life-saving treatment and risk death, most countries take a different view when young children are involved.
An excellent refutation of the Witnesses’ biblical interpretation on blood by the late Raymond Franz also points out some of the contradictions in the Witness blood policy. Nowadays, Witnesses are permitted to use fractions made from blood but still are not permitted to use “red blood cells, white blood cells, platelets or plasma.” (November 2006 Our Kingdom Ministry) The amount of blood (as long as it has been fractioned from blood) allowed to the conscience of Jehovah’s Witnesses these days by their leaders is a major change from years ago. Witnesses now face a worksheet to note their choices regarding what blood fractions they will accept and what they will not. (One surprising allowance are products made from Hemoglobin such as Hemopure, made from blood from cattle. Additional “blood substitutes” are being prepared, all of which are permissible by the newly adopted “fractions” policy by Witness leaders, and all of them start by using blood–either from cattle or humans–as their base.) This is in stark contrast to the earlier identification cards that Witnesses carried (pictured above) which objected to “blood in any way, shape or form.” However, Witnesses who take the forbidden major components of blood are viewed as having voluntarily resigned from the religion and are shunned.
Despite the bloodless medicine advances and allowed fractions from blood, there are still times when Witnesses fly foul of doctors and courts. No doubt alternative treatments can be successful in many situations but it’s undeniable that sometimes blood is the only real treatment — especially in cases of extreme hemorrhaging as in this recent case in Britain. In these cases, Witnesses are expected to still refuse blood and risk death.
Witness leaders make no exception for underage children and lead members to believe that the eternal destiny of their children requires the continued rejection of blood, even if it would be the only thing to prevent death. Witness youths are encouraged by their leaders to resist a court-ordered blood transfusion as if it were rape. Witness youths as young as 10 years old (as in this recent case in Australia) repeat objections to blood that they’ve been taught. A 1994 Awake! article quoted favorably a 12 year old Witness girl with leukemia as testifying that if a court ordered a blood transfusion she:
would fight and kick the IV pole down and rip out the IV no matter how much it would hurt, and poke holes in the blood. (May 22, 1994 Awake!, p. 13)
This type of attitude has led to cases where at times Witness children who receive a court-ordered blood transfusion have been whisked away into hiding to evade the order.
Former Witnesses Paul and Pat Blizard faced pressure from elders in his congregation to remove his daughter from a hospital after he and his wife were served with a court-ordered blood transfusion:
Then a group of elders arrived, took Paul off to one side, and asked, “Has your daughter gotten the blood yet?” When Paul replied that the hospital staff were still matching the blood, an elder said, “Great, we still have time to get her out of the hospital. We can sneak her out in the middle of the night. We can hire a helicopter. Just unhook the tubes and we’re gone.” Paul answered, “Wait a minute — you can’t do that. It’s against the law. I’m under court order. I would be charged with murder.” The elder said, “That’s a chance you’re going to have to take. You must obey God rather than men.” “Look, I just can’t let my child die in that way, ” Paul appealed. “We have made the decision that we would not give our permission for her to receive a transfusion. We are willing to let her die. But you can’t force me to take her out. That would kill her for sure. I just can’t do it.” (Witnesses of Jehovah by Leonard & Marjorie Chretien, pp. 196-197)
The Witnesses in the Blizards’ congregation viewed them as having compromised the faith because they had not resisted the court-ordered blood transfusion more than they had. Once they refused to sneak their daughter out of the hospital to evade the court-ordered blood transfusion they were left all alone by Witness friends and relatives.
As I said earlier, there are many situations (perhaps the greater majority these days) where alternative non-blood treatments work successfully even in some emergency situations. But, in those situations where only blood will save a life many Witnesses (both young and old) make the ultimate sacrifice in obedience to the current interpretation of their leaders as to what blood is permissible for medical science to use and what is not.
Witness leaders proudly quote court cases which have confirmed the right of their members to shun ex-member friends and family. For example, a Federal Court of Appeals ruled:
Shunning is a practice engaged in by Jehovah’s Witnesses pursuant to their interpretation of canonical text, and we are not free to reinterpret that text . . . The defendants are entitled to the free exercise of their religious beliefs.
Even though legal, such shunning can be traumatic for both the ones being shunned and the ones doing the shunning.
Wikipedia gives a succinct explanation of shunning among Jehovah’s Witnesses:
Jehovah’s Witnesses practice a form of shunning which they refer to as “disfellowshipping.” A disfellowshipped person is not to be greeted either socially or at their meetings. Disfellowshipping follows a decision of a judicial committee established by a local congregation that a member is guilty of a “serious sin”, including “fornication, adultery, homosexuality, greed, extortion, thievery, lying, drunkenness, reviling, spiritism, murder, idolatry, apostasy, and the causing of divisions in the congregation.” Watch Tower publications cite sexual immorality as the most common reason.
The Watch Tower Society directs that those who voluntarily renounce membership of the religion are also to be shunned. The organization cites their interpretation of various passages in the Bible, such as 1 Corinthians 5:11-13, and 2 John 10-11 to support their practice of shunning. Total shunning is not enforced in the case of disfellowshipped members living in the same household, although in this case the remaining members will not usually discuss spiritual matters with the disfellowshipped person. Parents are still expected to give Bible instruction to a disfellowshipped minor. Contact with family members not living in the family home is to be kept to a minimum. Sociologist Andrew Holden claims his research indicated many Witnesses who would otherwise defect because of disillusionment with the organization and its teachings retain affiliation out of fear of being shunned and losing contact with friends and family members.
The list of offenses that can result in shunning further includes celebrating Christmas, accepting blood (but not blood fractions), smoking, worshipping with a non-Witness religious group, gambling, military service or saluting the flag. (A full list of “disfellowshipping offenses” can be read here, taken from an elders’ manual produced by headquarters. This list may be updated soon as a new manual entitled Shepherd the Flock of God — 1 Peter 5:2 is now being produced.)
But the clincher of “disfellowshipping offenses” is that if a Witness associates with an ex-member who has violated one of these rules or even has voluntarily left the religion then they themselves face congregational disciplinary action which would result in their own shunning. This helps to ensure individual compliance with the shunning policy.
The official Watchtower website explains how thoroughness of this “cutting off” in shunning.
…if the disfellowshipped or disassociated one is a relative living outside the immediate family circle and home. It might be possible to have almost no contact at all with the relative. Even if there were some family matters requiring contact, this certainly would be kept to a minimum, in line with the divine principle: “Quit mixing in company with anyone called a brother that is a fornicator or a greedy person [or guilty of another gross sin], . . . not even eating with such a man.”—1 Corinthians 5:11. Understandably, this may be difficult because of emotions and family ties, such as grandparents’ love for their grandchildren. Yet, this is a test of loyalty to God…
Understandably, the fear of such shunning among the Witnesses is great. Witnesses are encouraged not to build friendships outside the religion so the loss of the friendship of the Witness community would be devastating.
The shunning cuts across family ties. Watchtower leaders juxtapose “loyalty to God” against the natural loyalty and love to one’s family. However, outsiders would say that the Watchtower Society’s strict policy of shunning tears families apart. No doubt some Witnesses remain in the movement because they do not want to lose contact with their friends and family.
One active Witness posted this criticism of the shunning policy, albeit anonymously so as not to be disfellowshipped himself:
There is great social pressure to conform to the shunning policy by active Witnesses (especially because failure to shun results in one’s own shunning), but this is often accompanied by emotional turmoil. Shunning takes its toil on both Witnesses who obey the policy and on those who experience the silence and rejection. It is particularly traumatic in family situations: where children are forced to shun parents or parents their own children; brothers and sisters being separated; grandchildren not seeing grandparents because of the shunning rules. In the “further reading” section of this article are links to stories that show the poignancy of the Watchtower Society’s shunning policies.
These three areas (discouragement of higher education and seeking careers for their youth, forbidding blood transfusions in life-or-death situations, and shunning of ex-member friends and family) illustrate that Jehovah’s Witnesses are not just another religious group.
It needs to be emphasized that these policies are dictated by the Witness leadership–the Governing Body–currently a group of eight men in New York. Theoretically, a future Watchtower magazine could come out reversing some or all of these policies and Witnesses would dutifully comply. Such is not out of the question as the Watchtower Society has had a softer approach on disfellowshipping and shunning–from 1974 to 1981; a more open policy on higher education–from 1992 to 2005; and has already made many exceptions on their objections to blood used in medicine since the year 2000.
But, as it stands, Witnesses today live with these strict interpretations. These are what I would term distinguishing marks of a religion oppressive to its members.
For further reading:
Reading Recommendations re: Jehovah’s Witnesses
Jehovah’s Witnesses, Higher Education and Misrepresentation
Jehovah’s Witnesses and Blood Transfusions
Essay on Blood by Ray Franz (former member of the Governing Body)
Jehovah’s Witnesses and Disfellowshipping
Why Jehovah’s Witnesses Practice Religious Shunning
A House Divided
Open Letter to Jehovah’s Witnesses Regarding Shunning
Articles on Shunning at an ex-JW website
What is wrong with being a Jehovah’s Witness?