[There are some insightful and thought-provoking comments under the post “The Devil’s Great Con Job” which got me thinking about what congregation membership really entails. This post is the result.]
“Membership has its privileges.”
This is not only the advertising slogan for a popular credit card, but it is a key part of the JW psyche. We are taught to believe that our salvation depends on the continued good standing of our membership within the Organization. This has been the case since the days of Rutherford.
How urgent it is in the short remaining time for one to identify himself with the New World society within the arklike new system of things! (w58 5/1 p. 280 par. 3 Living Up to the Name)
Will you remain in the ark-like spiritual paradise into which you have entered? (w77 1/15 p. 45 par. 30 Facing the “Great Tribulation” with Confidence)
For the security and survival of true worshipers, an arklike spiritual paradise exists. (2 Corinthians 12:3, 4) To be preserved through the great tribulation, we must remain in that paradise. (w03 12/15 p. 19 par. 22 Our Watchfulness Takes On Greater Urgency)
‘Membership has its privileges, foremost of which is salvation.’ That is the message.
Of course, the concept of the organization acting as a sort of modern-day Noah’s ark is a fabrication found only in our publications. We use the simile found in 1 Peter 3:21 which compares the Ark to baptism, and by some theological sleight of hand transform it into a metaphor for the protection that membership affords.
The idea that simply staying inside the organization is a guarantee of salvation is a most appealing one. It is a sort of paint-by-numbers route to salvation. Just do what you are told, obey the elders, the traveling overseers, and of course, the direction from the Governing Body, participate regularly in field service, attend all the meetings and your salvation is pretty much assured. Like walking into the ark of Noah’s day, it’s really quite simple. Once inside, and as long as you remain inside, you’re safe.
This idea is not new. C.T. Russell wrote in Studies in the Scriptures, Volume 3, p. 186: “It is begotten of the false idea, first promulgated by Papacy, that membership in an earthly organization is essential, pleasing to the Lord and necessary to everlasting life.”
He also wrote on the following page: “But no earthly organization can grant a passport to heavenly glory. The most bigoted sectarian (aside from the Romanist) will not claim, even, that membership in his sect will secure heavenly glory.” Hmm…. “The most bigoted sectarian (aside from the Romanist [and the Jehovah’s Witness]”, it would seem. How very ironic those words now seem in light of the above excerpts from our publications.
He also eschewed the naming of a religion, which is why under his term we were known simply as Bible students. That didn’t suit brother Rutherford, however. He worked from the beginning of his presidency to get all the congregations under centralized control. What he liked to call a theocratic arrangement. Under Russell, congregations of Bible Students were loosely affiliated with The Watchtower Bible & Tract Society. Rutherford needed to give us an identity, just like every other religion out there. Here’s how that came about just days before the 1931 Columbus, Ohio convention, according to A.H. Macmillan.
“…Brother Rutherford told me himself that he woke up one night when he was preparing for that convention and he said, ‘What in the world did I suggest an international convention for when I have no special speech or message for them? Why bring them all here?’ And then he began to think about it, and Isaiah 43 came to his mind. He got up at two o’clock in the morning and wrote in shorthand, at his own desk, an outline of the discourse he was going to give about the Kingdom, the hope of the world, and about the new name. And all that was uttered by him at that time was prepared that night, or that morning at two o’clock. And [there is] no doubt in my mind—not then nor now—that the Lord guided him in that, and that is the name Jehovah wants us to bear and we’re very happy and very glad to have it.” (yb75 p. 151 par. 2)
Be that as it may, the basis for the name is Isa. 43:10 as every Jehovah’s Witness knows. However, that was directed at the Israelites. Why was he adopting a name that predates Christianity? Were Christians in the first century known by that name? The Bible says they were referred to as “the Way” and as “Christians”, though it appears that the latter was given them by divine providence. (Acts 9:2; 19:9, 23; 11:26) Was our name also given by divine providence as brother MacMillan claims?[i] If so, why weren’t first century Christians known by it. In fact, why didn’t we go with a name for which there might be a basis in the Christian era.
(Acts 1:8) “. . .but YOU will receive power when the holy spirit arrives upon YOU, and YOU will be witnesses of me both in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the most distant part of the earth.”
It might be argued that if we need a unique name, we can call ourselves Jesus’ Witnesses based on Acts. 1:8. I’m not advocating that for a moment, but simply showing that our basis for calling ourselves Jehovah’s Witnesses is simply not to be found in the Christian Scriptures which are, after all, the basis for the Christianity.
However, there is another problem with the name. It focuses all our attention on witnessing. The premise is that we are bearing witness to the righteousness of Jehovah’s rulership by our conduct and our way of living. By these things we demonstrate that human rule is a failure and divine rulership is the only way to go. Moreover, we refer to our preaching work as the “witnessing work”. This witness work is done from door to door. Therefore, if we don’t “witness” in the field service we are not real “witnesses”.
Here is where this thinking leads.
If a publisher fails to report his or her time for six consecutive months, he (or she) will be deemed “inactive”. At that point, the publisher’s name is to be removed from the congregation listing of Service Groups, which is posted on the announcement board at the hall. Ostensibly, the purpose of this list is to organize the witnessing work into manageable group sizes. In practice, it has become the official congregation membership list. If you doubt that, just watch what happens is someone’s name is removed from it. I have personally seen how very upset a publisher gets when they find that their name isn’t on the list.
The fact is, the list is used when the C.O. comes and questions the elders on their shepherding activity. The elders assigned to each group are expected to pay special attention to those in their group for purposes of shepherding. In large congregations where it is hard to keep track of everyone, this arrangement helps the elders—if they are truly doing their jobs—to monitor a smaller number of sheep to ensure the spiritual health of all under their care.
If a name is dropped from the list for inactivity in the field service, there is no one charged with watching over the ‘lost sheep’. The one needing the most care is removed from sight. This demonstrates that those who do not participate in field service are not considered Jehovah’s Witnesses and are not really in the ark-like organization that ensures their salvation. I know of one sister who wrote in to me explaining how she went to get her Kingdom Ministry for the month and was told that the KMs were only for publishers. This sister was a regular meeting attender though at considerable personal difficulty and was also on the Theocratic Ministry School. All that didn’t matter. She was inactive and therefore a non-member. The unfeeling nature of the application of this ‘theocratic rule’ so upset her that she would have dropped out completely had it not been for the loving concern of one elder who, upon learning of her plight, made private arrangements to get her a KM and put her in his group. In time she was reactivated and is still active, but a sheep was almost driven from the flock because adherence to the rule was more important than an expression of love.
The whole concept of irregular publishers and inactive publishers; in fact, the whole concept of publishers has no foundation in scripture. Yet, it has become the basis for membership in the congregation, and therefore, the basis for our salvation and for attaining to everlasting life.
The fiction that the Field Service Report each of us is expected to hand in monthly is needed for the Governing Body to plan the worldwide work and the production of literature hides the real truth. Put simply, it is a control mechanism; a way of tracking who is active and how is falling behind. It is also a source of considerable stress-inducing guilt. If one’s hours fall below the congregation average, one is considered weak. If a consistently higher level of hours drops one month due to sickness or family responsibilities, one feels the need to make excuses to the elders. Our service to our God is being measured and monitored by men, and it is to men that we feel an obligation to make excuses. This makes a twisted sense, because our salvation depends on staying in the Organization, and that depends on pleasing men.
Where is the scriptural basis for any of this?
I remember many years ago at the elders meeting during the visit of the circuit overseer, he brought it to my attention that my wife was irregular, having not handed in her report for the previous month. There were a number of irregulars because we were not big on report collecting. If they missed one month, they handed in two reports the next. No big deal. But it was a big deal for the C.O. I assured him that my wife had been out, but he wouldn’t count her on his report. Not without an actual written report from her.
We obsess about these things to such an extent that brothers and sisters feel that if they do not accurately report their time, they are lying to God—as if Jehovah cares one iota for a report card.
I would love to see what would happen if a congregation full of zealous publishers decided to hand in their reports without affixing any names. The Society would still have all the information it supposedly needs, but there would be no way of updating the publisher record cards for anyone. I’m sure this simple act would be seen as rebellion. My guess is the circuit overseer would be dispatched to assess the congregation. A talk would be given, supposed ring leaders would be rounded up and questioned. It would get very messy. And remember, the sin in question is simply not putting one’s name on a piece of paper. It isn’t even a desire for anonymity, because our witnessing is public and the elders know who goes out because they go out with us.
As each of us looks back on our personal experience in the organization, it is clear that nothing in this control mechanism generates an atmosphere of Christian freedom and love. In fact, if we want to find a counterpart to it in other religions, we have to look at cults. This policy started with Rutherford and by continuing to perpetuate it, we degrade ourselves and dishonor the God we claim to serve.