A while back, a friend of mine confided that his wife had, after a conversation with a circuit overseer’s wife, ceased to participate in certain types of marital intimacy that she now felt were wrong. He was very upset, and it was a source of stress in his marriage.
Several years back, a friend who was serving as an elder told me that a brother had confided in him that he and his wife had improved their intimate relationship and, indeed, their troubled marriage, through engaging in a practice that my friend knew to be forbidden for JWs. My pal, the elder, found himself caught between clear, organizational instructions and his own conscience.
I mention these two examples to show that what will now be discussed has had real life impact. Additionally, if you haven’t noticed already, the foregoing is not for those squeamish about discussing marital intimacy.
As far as I can tell, it all started with a Questions from Readers article in the December 1st, 1972 Watchtower. The question in question was:
Recently in the news was a court decision ruling that oral copulation by adults is no longer punishable by law in a certain state. Would such practice therefore be solely a matter for individual conscience if engaged in by a Christian couple within the marriage arrangement?
The matter seems pretty straightforward: God’s word gives no list of approved practices within the marriage arrangement, so let your conscience be your guide. A couple of scriptures on the mutual love and respect spouses should show, and we’re done here, right?
Wrong. Using the condemnation of homosexuality at Romans 1 as their guide, the authors proclaimed that practices such as oral and anal copulation were “contrary to nature” and “obscene” even if the participants were heterosexual, married and consenting. In the minds of the publishers of the Watchtower the issue was clear-cut enough to make the following statement:
But if persons willfully show disrespect for Jehovah God’s marital arrangements, then it becomes necessary to remove them from the congregation as dangerous “leaven” that could contaminate others.—1 Cor. 5:6, 11-13.
That they were willing to take such a step on a matter about which God’s Word is silent speaks volumes about the mind-set at HQ. But the decision raised an interesting secondary issue: if we’re talking about sexual behavior within the marriage that could result in disfellowshipping, could it also be the basis for a “scriptural divorce”? It was a question that should have given the policy-makers some pause. How far were they willing to go with this? The answer was “all the way”, as shown in another “Questions from Readers” article in the Watchtower of November 15, 1974:
As to Jesus’ statements about divorce, they do not specify with whom the “fornication” or por·nei′a is practiced. They leave the matter open. That por·nei·′a can rightly be considered as including perversions within the marriage arrangement is seen in that the man who forces his wife to have unnatural sex relations with him in effect “prostitutes” or “debauches” her. This makes him guilty of por·nei′a, for the related Greek verb por·neu′o means “to prostitute, debauch.”
This was really getting crazy, but since it only affected a very, very small minority – those married brothers and sisters whose intimate lives somehow became known, or who were either pious or insane enough to confess their “perversions” to the elders – its impact was likely minimal. Still, the “readers” of the Watchtower, ever interested in this subject, still had questions and in 1978, saner heads answered them:
A careful further weighing of this matter, however, convinces us that, in view of the absence of clear Scriptural instruction, these are matters for which the married couple themselves must bear the responsibility before God and that these marital intimacies do not come within the province of the congregational elders to attempt to control nor to take disfellowshiping action with such matters as the sole basis. Of course, if any person chooses to approach an elder for counsel he or she may do so and the elder can consider Scriptural principles with such a one, acting as a shepherd but not attempting to, in effect, “police” the marital life of the one inquiring. – The Watchtower, February 15, 1978.
And so an especially sordid chapter in man’s domination of man ended, with an obvious takeaway lesson on the importance of not going ‘beyond what’s written’ in God’s Word, and the dangers of yielding to the corrupting effects of power.
Not likely! If you believed that last paragraph, your optimism is commendable, but misplaced. For whatever reason – and I would guess an intervening shakeup at HQ was a factor – this romance with modesty and careful reasoning came to an end just five years later:
However, if it becomes known that a member of the congregation is practicing or openly advocating perverted sex relations within the marriage bond, that one certainly would not be irreprehensible, and so would not be acceptable for special privileges, such as serving as an elder, a ministerial servant or a pioneer. Such practice and advocacy could even lead to expulsion from the congregation. – The Watchtower, March 15, 1983, p. 31.
However, the article at least shows that the GB had learned something from their earlier missteps. The offenses in question were removed from the “porneia” column and shifted over to the ever-useful “uncleanness/loose conduct” column. In the transfer, its spouse-ditching potential was reduced to zero. Further, the “if it becomes known” clause gave a ‘wink-wink-nudge-nudge’ piece of advice to the alert, namely, that the “perversions” in question weren’t punishable if they were properly kept private. And with the further statement that “it is not for elders to ‘police’ the private marital matters of couples in the congregation”, the whole matter could be left as a symbolic, if impotent, stand against perversion. Lovingly, a footnote contained the following exoneration for those who had rashly followed their advice in years past:
Those who acted on the basis of the knowledge they had at the time are not to be criticized. Nor would this affect the standing of a person who in the past believed that a mate’s perverted sexual conduct within marriage amounted to porneia and, hence, obtained a divorce and is now remarried.
Decades passed. A generation was born, came to adulthood, and began to marry without ever knowing what the rules of engagement were. The matter appeared to have died a merciful death through old age and neglect.
But appearances can be deceiving, and to paraphrase Jesus, the rules weren’t dead, they were only sleeping. A footnote to the article Responding to Your Conscience, in the October 15, 2007 Watchtower, performed an ill-advised resurrection that was likely cheered by no one:
The Watchtower of March 15, 1983, pages 30-1, offers comments for consideration regarding married couples.
In addition, the revised elder handbook of 2010 included the same reference in its list of disfellowshipping offenses, under the wide umbrella of “Brazen conduct, loose conduct”. And so the organization’s tentacles reached into the 21st century bedroom. Would reason and modesty ever prevail?
Enter the recent WT study article, Making Christian Marriage a Success, from the August study edition. (Yes, the articles mentioned above were actually placed with the public!) Paragraph 8 had this to say:
Although the Bible does not provide specific rules about the kinds and limits of love play that might be associated with natural sexual intimacy, it mentions displays of affection. (Song of Sol. 1:2; 2:6) Christian marriage partners should treat each other with tenderness.
A poll of my acquaintances and a perusal of the all-knowing internet indicate that there has been no clarifying letter to the elders. Interestingly, almost all the elders and ex-elders I’ve asked, noted the significance of paragraph 8 and took it as a “stand down” order. Perhaps the organization has decided to handle the matter in this subtle way in order to keep hard feelings to a minimum. The Circuit Overseer could give verbal instructions to the elders in a future visit, or simply field the cases as they come up. One suspects there won’t be many.
How many people’s lives were affected by this particular bit of presumptuous folly, we’ll never know. The experiences related at the outset show that it was not without real life impact. Surely, the four-decade foray into bedroom regulation has not been without victims. Were some stumbled? Were some disfellowshipped? Not even HQ knows.
Jesus knows, however. Rightly do the scriptures say, “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, knowing that we will receive heavier judgment.” (James 3:1)