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Controversial issues involving Jehovah's Witnesses

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Jehovah's Witnesses are no strangers to controversy. On the contrary, they have frequently been involved in controversies over their stands on many issues. Witnesses accept such conflict as inevitable, believing that the values embraced by society as a whole differ greatly from the principles of the Bible as they understand them.

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Controversial political issues

Although in general respecting the law of the land, Jehovah's Witnesses refuse to salute flags, sing national anthems, or pledge allegiance to states or nations. This is not intended as disrespect for any particular nation or for governments; Witnesses recognize the legitimacy of political leaders, believing that they are the 'superior authorities' referred to by the Apostle Paul in Romans 13:1, and are therefore to be respected. Indeed, in many places, the Witnesses have been commended for their law-abiding stance. They make a distinction, however, between a show of respect and what they consider to be a manifestation of worship. Jehovah's Witnesses feel that saluting a flag or singing a national anthem crosses the dividing line between the two. This is because they believe they owe allegiance solely to Jehovah (God); that he alone may be worshipped.

In this regard, Jehovah's Witnesses feel that their position is similar to that of the early Christians, who refused to sacrifice a few drops or wine or a few grains of incense to the Roman emperors, and were therefore executed.

Among the results of this belief in the United States are several cases of Constitutional law regarding the Pledge of Allegiance. The early cases establishing that government schools cannot mandate the Pledge, or the salute to the flag, all involved Witness students punished or threatened for their refusal.

Some courts in other countries have also protected the Witnesses' right to abstain from patriotic ceremonies. For example, in 1986, the Supreme Court of India held that no one can be forced to join in the singing of the national anthem, if the person has a genuine, conscientious religious objection.

In a decision handed down on March 1, 1993, the Philippine Supreme Court ruled unanimously in favor of Jehovah's Witnesses in a case involving Witness youths who were expelled from school because they respectfully declined to salute the flag.

Additionally, Jehovah’s Witnessses refuse to serve in military organizations, citing the principle they call Christian Neutrality. They understand Jesus' words in John 17:14, "They are no part of the world, just as I am no part of the world," to mean that they should take a neutral stand concerning political and military controversies. They further cite Jesus' words that "all those who take the sword will perish by the sword" (Matthew 26:52) and the prophecy of Isaiah (chapter 2, verse 4): "Nation will not lift up sword against nation, neither will they learn war any more."

Historically, this refusal to join the military has created serious difficulties for Jehovah's Witnesses, particularly in war time. During World War II, young Witnesses in a number of countries were executed for their conscientious objection[?] to war; even in more democratic countries they were generally refused exemption from conscription and have often been imprisoned.

Currently, there is less conflict between Witnesses and governments over this matter, as many countries have abolished conscription, whereas others have recognized the views of conscientious objectors and thus instituted the right to alternative civilian service[?], which Witnesses generally accept. In certain republics of the former Soviet Union, however, as well as in Singapore, young Witness males continue to serve prison terms in connection with this issue.

Jehovah's Witnesses are not pacifists[?], that is to say, they are not opposed to the use of violence in all circumstances. They recognize, for instance, the legitimacy of the wars between the ancient nation of Israel and surrounding nations, and point out that passages in both the Old and New Testaments refer to God's using warlike methods at times

In harmony with the principle of Christian neutrality, referred to above, Jehovah's Witnesses do not vote in elections, or run for political office. On the other hand, they do not seek to prevent or discourage others from doing so, if they so desire.

Controversial medical issues

Witnesses do not reject medical treatment and in general avail themselves of the full range of medical care. Since 1945, however, Jehovah's Witnesses have refused to receive blood transfusions. This is because they consider blood to be sacred, representing life. They point to Bible texts such as Acts 15:29, which enjoins Christians to "keep abstaining from blood." [1] (http://www.watchtower.org/library/hb/?article=article_06.htm)

Because of this, some Witnesses have died, including minor children. Critics consider it child neglect - or even murder - for parents to refuse to permit their children to receive transfusions. In practice, however, such situations are very rare indeed, because in most cases the state will take action to order a blood transfusion on a minor child if the parents refuse consent.

Although their stance regarding blood transfusion is rooted in the Bible, rather than medical reasons, many Witnesses are highly critical of those who attempt to paint a picture of "life giving blood transfusions" versus "death due to refusing a transfusion." They emphasize that no surgeon gives guarantees and point out that 'dying after refusing blood' is not necessarily the same as 'dying because of refusing blood'; after all, no-one can state with certainty whether the patient would have survived if he had received blood. Such 'either-or' reasoning ignores other possibilities, such as the use of blood substitutes[?], meticulous surgical techniques, as well as the many dangers of blood transfusion, including mismatch of blood types, blood-borne diseases such as AIDS and Hepatitis, and the more frequent recurrence of cancer in patients who have been transfused during operations.

To allow for surgery without violating their belief against transfusion, the Watch Tower organization has set up "Hospital Liaison Committees" to enrol doctors and surgeons who will practice "bloodless surgery" for Witness patients. Currently there are some 1600 such committees in 200 different countries of the world, and over 110000 doctors and surgeons who have agreed to treat Jehovah's Witnesses without making an issue of blood transfusions.

"Hospital Information Services", a department of the World Headquarters of Jehovah's Witnesses researches medical literature on the subject and translates medical-journal articles into dozens of languages. These may be sent by fax to any Hospital Liaison Committee. The provision of the most up-to-date information about a certain condition has often obviated the need for a blood transfusion. Recently, the Hospital Information Services received an award from the Society for the Advancement of Blood Management (http://www.jw-media.org/region/global/english/releases/health/021118.htm).

The Witnesses' attitude to vaccination and organ transplants was initially critical, their literature at first condemning vaccination (until 1952) and organ transplants (until 1980). Currently both procedures are generally accepted in the Witness community.

Differences from the rest of Christianity

Unlike the bulk of Christian churches, the Witnesses reject the doctrine of the Trinity (http://www.watchtower.org/library/ti/), holding it to be out of accord with the Scriptures. As this doctrine is essential to most Christian sects' definition of "Christianity", these sects do not regard the Witnesses as Christian. Jehovah's Witnesses, in turn, do not consider trinitarian religious organizations to be authentically Christian.

Although Witnesses are often classed as Arians, their doctrine differs from that of the fourth-century priest Arius, who was condemned as a heretic by the First Ecumenical Council in 325 A.D. Arius taught that God was essentially unknowable, a premise that Jehovah's Witnesses do not accept. Furthermore, Arius viewed the holy spirit as a person, whereas Jehovah's Witnesses do not attribute personality to the spirit.

Witnesses consider themselves Christians, and that their belief regarding the nature of the Godhead is more closely in agreement with the Bible than that of the trinitarian churches. In short, Witnesses believe that Jehovah God (the Father) and Jesus (the Son) are distinct spirit persons, and that the holy spirit is non-personal, God's active force.


Jehovah's Witnesses are a close-knit community and as such many are not inclined to socialize with non-members, particularly in areas where they are treated with hostility. Such association is strongly discouraged by the organization.

What interactions there are with people outside of the religion are often used as opportunities for starting conversations about their beliefs, "informal witnessing," as they call it. Some of the training and study that goes on during the three weekly meetings involves the proper way to "witness" to a non-member. Since a Witness has social interactions while on the job or at school, he is encouraged to use these times for witnessing to non-members.

The male elders who are appointed in a congregation often influence the socialization between members of the religion. If the body of elders deems that a social event is healthy then these events are encouraged, since it strengthens the bonds of the congregation.

However, if elders deem a social event to be inappropriate then it is likely that some action would be taken to preserve the group's identity and values.

For example, in 1983, 'The Watchtower' discussed the matter of masquerade parties where Christian men dressed up as women, clearly indicating that such conduct is out of harmony with the principles the group espouses. In cases such as this, elders are likely to bring published information to the attention of those who to a greater or lesser degree have deviated from the group's standards.

It is not, however, the role of elders to make decisions for the congregation's members. In 1995, 'The Watchtower' gave the following direction to elders: "In matters of conscience, therefore, elders do not make decisions for those under their care. They explain the Bible principles involved in a matter and then allow the individuals involved to use their own powers of reason to make a decision. This is a serious responsibility, yet it is one that the individual himself must bear."

Of course, just as the members of the congregation all have different backgrounds and consciences, and thus range from super-zealous in their application of the group's teachings and standards, through to those who view compliance with all the details as less than critical, with a host of shades in between, the same can be said about congregation elders. Some are more successful in fulfilling their role than others.

Sociologist Rodney Stark notes: "Jehovah's Witnesses are expected to conform to rather strict standards, [but] enforcement tends to be very informal, sustained by the close bonds of friendship within the group. That is, while Witness elders can impose rather severe sanctions (such as expulsion and shunning) on deviant members, they seldom need to do so -- and when they do, the reasons for their actions will be widely-known and understood within the group. Moreover, even if leaders are not always very democratic, the path to leadership is. As a result, Witnesses tend to see themselves as part of the power structure, rather than subjected to it. It is this, not 'blind fanaticism' (as is so often claimed by outsiders and defectors), that is the real basis of authority among Witnesses." (Journal of Contemporary Religion) (http://lsb.scu.edu/econrel/Downloads/JWGrow-O.pdf)

Most young witnesses engage in casual recreational sports, but the group encourages its members to avoid giving undue importance to sports or recreation.

Members under the age of 18 are strongly discouraged from dating, which, the Witnesses believe, is for those considering marriage only and should be avoided until both members are prepared for marriage. Little research has been done on the average age at which Witnesses marry. A 1994 survey in which all Jehovah's Witnesses in the Federal Republic of Germany were invited to participate, revealed that only 4.9% of them are divorced or separated, and many of these were already in this state before becoming Witnesses.


Jehovah's Witnesses practise shunning, or disfellowshipping, as they call it for three main reasons: (1) They feel that to tolerate violations of the Bible's standards in their ranks would bring reproach on the God they serve, (2) Shunning keeps the congregation free of possible corrosive influences (leaven, as the Apostle Paul calls it in 1 Corinthians 5), and (3) They hope that such a serious measure will motivate the person in question to re-evaluate his course of action and repent.

A person might be disfellowshipped from the Jehovah's Witness organization for a number of reasons, all of which involve serious violations of the group's moral standards. These would include fornication, adultery, homosexual activity, abortion, theft, recreational use of drugs or tobacco, drunkenness, and teaching false doctrines.

Disfellowshipping is not automatic, even when a person is accused of one of the above transgressions. Allegations must be substantiated by at least two witnesses (unless the person confesses voluntarily). In these cases, a committee of elders examines the evidence and seeks to determine whether the person has ceased the questionable activity and repented. If they find that this is not the case, the person is likely to be disfellowshipped.

Because of the strong rules on association, being shunned can isolate a member in a very powerful way. Being "disfellowshipped" can be devastating if everyone in a member's social circle participates in the shunning. Witnesses are not, however, expected to shun family members living in the same household. In these cases, social contact and normal family ties continue as before, with the exception that the remaining Witness members of the family will not share in Bible study, prayer, or discussions of faith-related matters with the disfellowshipped member. Parents, though, are encouraged to continue to study the Bible with their minor children who have been disfellowshipped.

The organization discourages association with disfellowshipped family members living outside the home, but recognizes the need for a certain degree of contact, for instance, to discuss necessary family business, or to provide care for aged parents who are disfellowshipped. In practice, most disfellowshipped persons continue to have a limited degree of association with family members who remain in the organization.

Disfellowshipping is not always permanent. If a disfellowshipped person repents of his former conduct, he may be received back into the congregation. No specific period of time is prescribed before this can happen; in most cases, at least six months pass, in many cases, much longer. Statistics would appear to show that about one third of those disfellowshipped eventually return to the group.

Jehovah's Witnesses point to a number of Bible passages to defend their practise of disfellowshipping, most notably 1 Corinthians 5:10-13, which reads: "I am writing you to quit mixing in company with anyone called a brother that is a fornicator or a greedy person or an idolater or a reviler or a drunkard or an extortioner, not even eating with such a man. ... "Remove the wicked [man] from among yourselves."

Another passage often quoted in the Witnesses literature with reference to disfellowshipping is 2 John 10, 11: "If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, never receive him into your homes or say a greeting to him. For he that says a greeting to him is a sharer in his wicked works."

For a detailed explanation of the practise, see the official Watchtower website. (http://www.watchtower.org/library/w/1988/4/15/article_01.htm)

Preaching or Proselytizing?

Jehovah's Witnesses are perhaps best known for their intensive witnessing, or, as some would have it, proselytizing, efforts. Indeed, this practice is tightly associated with the religion's name. All members who are healthy enough are strongly encouraged to go from door to door, participating in this activity. Even children are encouraged to participate, accompanied by their parents. Each witness is encouraged to participate to the extent his circumstances allow, every week if at all possible. Some witnesses commit to spending 70 hours per month in witnessing activites; they are known as pioneers.

Jehovah's Witnesses object to the use of the word proselytism or proselytizing to describe their work, since the word now has almost exclusively negative overtones. They point out that their activity does not involve coercion, as anyone who does not wish to listen can merely shut the door or walk away. No financial or material rewards are offered for conversion. Terms frequently employed by the witnesses include "preaching," "disciple-making", "service," "the ministry," and, more formally, but less frequently, "evangelizing."

Changing doctrines

It is often asserted that Jehovah's Witnesses have changed their doctrines many times over the past century. The Witnesses' point of view is that the Bible, their sole source for doctrine, does not change, but their imperfect human understanding of the Bible constantly improves over time. Often, Proverbs 4:18 is quoted: "The path of the righteous is like the light that is getting brighter and brighter until the day is firmly established." Therefore, what some others may perceive as significant doctrinal changes are considered as relatively unimportant by most Witnesses.

Critics of the Jehovah's Witnesses say that official Jehovah's Witness books rewrite history to deny that any doctrinal changes have ever taken place. In actual fact, Watch Tower literature has frequently published information about beliefs that the group held in the past. A case in point is two articles in The Watchtower of May 15, 1995, which listed over 20 doctrinal changes that have taken place. Furthermore, evidence regarding changes to their beliefs are readily available to Witnesses as well as the public. In fact, far from hiding the facts about their past doctrines and practises, a tour of their Canada headquarters in Ontario (which is available to the public) shows pictures of their Christmas parties (which are now not held, as Christmas is no longer celebrated). A similar photograph appears on page 200 of their book "Jehovah's Witnesses - Proclaimers of God's Kingdom." This book outlines dozens of adjustments in viewpoint, organizational procedures, etc. In actual fact, rather than hiding the fact that doctrinal changes have been made over the years, the organization actually presents them in a positive light, as evidence of the fact that God is blessing their efforts to understand the Bible better.

Past editions of The Watchtower and Awake! are available to Witnesses in book form (bound volumes). These mostly remain unchanged are therefore a historical resource on the details of what the Witnesses believed at the time of their publication, including doctrines that are no longer taught.

If there is little doubt that Jehovah's Witnesses have changed some of their doctrines over the past century, there is considerable controversy over the significance of the changes.

In general, Witnesses recognize that adjustments in viewpoint take place, and generally welcome them. A new explanation of some verse or matter in 'The Watchtower' magazine is likely to generate enthusiasm and interest, as well as considerable discussion. It is expected that further study of the Bible will result in an improved understanding, which of course necessitates alteration in viewpoints.

In general, the main framework of the Witnesses' teachings was in place by the 1930's; much of it already existed at the start of the century.

Doctines in place since the 1870's:

  • Inerrancy of the Bible.
  • God's name is Jehovah.
  • No Trinity.
  • Jesus a created being.
  • Holy spirit not a person
  • Soul not immortal
  • No hell fire
  • Ransom sacrifice of Jesus Christ
  • Belief in Jesus necessary for salvation.

Changes that took place up to 1939:

  • Celebration of Christmas abandoned (1925)
  • Adoption of the name 'Jehovah's Witnesses' (1931)
  • Application of restoration prophecies to Christian congregation, rather than to the literal Jews (1932)
  • Identification of "great crowd" of Revelation chapter 7 with those who will live forever on earth (1935).
  • Abandoned use of the cross in worship. (1936)
  • Neutrality in worldly affairs (1939)

Significant Changes in Doctrine 1940 - present.

  • Disfellowshipping (1944)
  • No tobacco use (1973)
  • Identification of "this generation" referred to by Jesus at Matthew 24:34. (1995; This is probably the most significant doctrinal change in living memory.)

Some 'doctrinal changes' are really little more than differences in the interpretation of a particular verse, with few practical implications. For instance, in 1962, The Watchtower identified the 'superior authorities' of Romans 13:1 as the worldly governments, rather than God and Christ as had previously been stated. However, this had little practical effect, as the Witnesses both before and after this change always considered it necessary to obey the laws of the land, unless these conflict with God's laws. In 1988, The Watchtower reevaluated the Bible texts referring to Sodom and Gomorrah, and concluded that the inhabitants of those cities would not be resurrected. This position differed from what had previously been published. Most Witnesses would not however feel that this made a great difference to their lives or to their relationship with God.

Those wishing to investigate the doctrines of Jehovah's Witnesses, past and present, can research bound volumes of The Watchtower and Awake! as well as a host of books published by the Watch Tower Society over the decades. Most Kingdom Halls have a library of these publications.

Much of the material has been published as a CD ROM known as the Watchtower Library; however, the latter is made available only to members.

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