Jehovah’s Witnesses believe the Bible is their constitution; that all of their beliefs, teachings, and practices are based on the Bible. I know this because I was brought up in that faith and promoted it throughout the first 40 years of my adult life. What I didn’t realize and what most Witnesses do not realize is that it isn’t the Bible that is the basis of Witness teaching, but rather the interpretation given to scripture by the Governing Body. That is why they will blithely claim to be doing God’s will while carrying out practices which to the average person seem cruel and completely out of step with the character of the Christian.
For example, can you imagine parents shunning their teenaged daughter, a victim of child sexual abuse, because the local elders demand that she treat her unrepentant abuser with respect and honor? This is not a hypothetical scenario. This has happened in real life…repeatedly.
Jesus warned us about such behavior from those claiming to worship God.
(John 16:1-4) 16 “I have spoken these things to YOU that YOU may not be stumbled. Men will expel YOU from the synagogue. In fact, the hour is coming when everyone that kills YOU will imagine he has rendered a sacred service to God. But they will do these things because they have not come to know either the Father or me. Nevertheless, I have spoken these things to YOU that, when the hour for them arrives, YOU may remember I told them to YOU.”
The Bible does support expelling unrepentant sinners from the congregation. However, does it support shunning them? And what about someone who isn’t a sinner, but simply chooses to leave the congregation? Does is support shunning them? And what about someone who happens to disagree with the interpretation of some men who have placed themselves in the role of leaders? Does it support shunning them?
Is the judicial process that Jehovah’s Witnesses practice scriptural? Does it have God’s approval?
If you are unfamiliar with it, let me give you a thumbnail sketch.
Witnesses consider that some sins, like slander and fraud, are minor sins and must be dealt with in line with Matthew 18:15-17 at the sole discretion of the injured party. However, other sins are considered to be major or gross sins and must always be brought before the body of elders and dealt with by judicial committee. Examples of gross sins are things like fornication, drunkenness, or smoking cigarettes. If a Witness has knowledge that a fellow Witness has committed one of these “gross” sins, he is required to inform on the sinner, otherwise, he becomes guilty as well. Even if he is the only witness to a sin, he must report it to the elders, or he may face disciplinary action himself for concealing the sin. Now, if he is witness to a crime, like rape, or child sexual abuse, he is not required to report this to the secular authorities.
Once the body of elders has been informed of a sin, they will assign three of their number to form a judicial committee. That committee will invite the accused to a meeting held at the kingdom hall. Only the accused is invited to the meeting. He can bring witnesses, though experience has shown that the witnesses may not be granted access. In any case, the meeting is to be kept secret from the congregation, allegedly for reasons of confidentiality on behalf of the accused. However, this is not really the case as the accused cannot waive his right to such confidentiality. He cannot bring friends and family as moral support. In fact, no observers are allowed to witness the proceedings, nor are any recordings or any public record of the meeting to be kept.
If the accused is judged to have actually committed a gross sin, the elders determine whether he or she has demonstrated any signs of repentance. If they feel sufficient repentance has not been demonstrated, they will disfellowship the sinner and then allow seven days for an appeal to be filed.
In the case of an appeal, the disfellowshipped one will have to prove that either no sin was committed or that true repentance was indeed demonstrated before the judicial committee at the time of the original hearing. If the appeal committee upholds the verdict of the judicial committee, the congregation will be informed of the disfellowshipping and proceed to shun the individual. This means they cannot so much as say a hello to the individual.
The process for being reinstated and having the shunning lifted requires the disfellowshipped one to endure a year or more of humiliation by regularly attending meetings so that he publicly faces the overt shunning of all. If an appeal was filed, that will usually lengthen the time spent in a disfellowshipped state, since appealing indicates a lack of genuine repentance. Only the original judicial committee has the authority to reinstate the disfellowshipped one.
According to the Organization of Jehovah’s Witnesses, this process as I’ve detailed here is righteous and scriptural.
Yes indeed. Everything about that is wrong. Everything about that is unscriptural. It is a wicked process and I’ll show you why I can say that with such confidence.
Let us start with the most egregious violation of Bible law, the secret nature of JW judicial hearings. According to the secret elders handbook, ironically titled Shepherd the Flock of God, judicial hearings are to be kept secret. The boldface is right from the handbook often called the ks book because of its publication code.
- Hear only those witnesses who have relevant testimony regarding the alleged wrongdoing. Those who intend to testify only about the character of the accused should not be allowed to do so. The witnesses should not hear details and testimony of other witnesses. Observers should not be present for moral support. Recording devices should not be allowed. (ks page 90, Item 3)
What is my basis for claiming this is unscriptural? There are several reasons that prove this policy has nothing to do with God’s will. Let’s start with a line of reasoning Witnesses use to condemn the celebration of birthdays. They claim that since the only two birthday celebrations recorded in scripture were held by non-worshippers of Jehovah and that in each someone was killed, then evidently God condemns birthday celebrations. I grant you that such reasoning is weak, but if they hold it to be valid, then how can they ignore the fact that the only secret, middle-of-the-night meeting outside of public scrutiny in which a man was judged by a committee of men while being denied any moral support was the illegal trial of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Does that not speak of a double standard?
There is more. For real Bible proof that a judicial system based on secret meetings where the public is denied access is wrong, one has only to go to the nation of Israel. Where were judicial cases heard, even ones involving capital punishment? Any Jehovah’s Witness can tell you that they were heard by the old men sitting at the city gates in full view and hearing of anyone passing by.
Would you want to live in a country where you could be judged and condemned in secret; where no one was allowed to support you and witness the proceedings; where the judges were above the law? The judicial system of Jehovah’s Witnesses has more do with the methods practices by the Catholic Church during the Spanish inquisition than anything found in Scripture.
To show you just how wicked the judicial system of Jehovah’s Witnesses really is, I refer you to the appeal process. If someone is judged as an unrepentant sinner, they are allowed to appeal the decision. However, this policy is designed to give the appearance of righteousness while ensuring that the decision to disfellowship stands. To explain, let’s look at what the elders handbook has to say on the subject. (Again, the boldface is right out of the ks book.)
Under the subtitle, “Objective and Approach of the Appeal Committee” paragraph 4 reads:
- The elders chosen for the appeal committee should approach the case with modesty and avoid giving the impression that they are judging the judicial committee rather than the accused. While the appeal committee should be thorough, they must remember that the appeal process does not indicate a lack of confidence in the judicial committee. Rather, it is a kindness to the wrongdoer to assure him of a complete and fair hearing. The elders of the appeal committee should keep in mind that likely the judicial committee has more insight and experience than they do regarding the accused.
“Avoid giving the impression they are judging the judicial committee”!? The “appeal process does not indicate a lack of confidence in the judicial committee”!? It is just “a kindness to the wrongdoer”!? It is “likely the judicial committee has more insight and experience”!?
How does any of that lay the groundwork for an impartial judicial hearing? Clearly, the process is heavily weighted in favor of supporting the judicial committee’s original decision to disfellowship.
Continuing with paragraph 6:
- The appeal committee should first read the written material on the case and speak with the judicial committee. Afterward, the appeal committee should speak to the accused. Since the judicial committee has already judged him unrepentant, the appeal committee will not pray in his presence but will pray before inviting him into the room.
I’ve added the boldface for emphasis. Notice the contradiction: “The appeal committee should speak to the accused.” Yet, they do not pray in his presence because he has already been judged as an unrepentant sinner. They call him “accused”, but they treat him as one who is only accused. They treat him as one already convicted.
Yet all of that is trivial by comparison with what we are about to read from paragraph 9.
- After gathering the facts, the appeal committee should deliberate in private. They should consider the answers to two questions:
- Was it established that the accused committed a disfellowshipping offense?
- Did the accused demonstrate repentance commensurate with the gravity of his wrongdoing at the time of the hearing with the judicial committee?
(The boldface and italics are right out of the Elders Manual.) The hypocrisy of this process lies with the second requirement. The appeal committee was not present at the time of the original hearing, so how can they judge whether the individual was repentant at that time?
Remember that no observers were allowed at the original hearing and no recordings were made. The disfellowshipped one has no proof to back up his testimony. It is three against one. Three appointed elders against someone already determined to be a sinner. According to the two-witness rule, the Bible says: “Do not accept an accusation against an older man except on the evidence of two or three witnesses.” (1 Timothy 5:19) If the appeal committee is to follow the Bible rule, they cannot ever accept the word of the disfellowshipped one no matter how credible it may be, because he is only one witness against not one but three older men. And why are there no witnesses to corroborate his testimony? Because the rules of the Organization prohibit observers and recordings. The process is designed to guarantee that the decision to disfellowship cannot be overturned.
The appeal process is a sham; a wicked sham.
There are some fine elders who try to do things correctly, but they are bound by the constraints of a process designed to frustrate the leading of the spirit. I know of one rare case where a friend of mine was in an appeal committee that overturned the verdict of the judicial committee. They were later chewed out by the Circuit Overseer for breaking ranks.
I left the organization completely in 2015, but my departure began decades earlier as I grew slowly more disenchanted with the injustices I was seeing. I wish I had left much earlier, but the power of indoctrination dating back to my infancy was too powerful for me to see these things as clearly then as I do now. What can we say about the men who make up and impose these rules, claiming they speak for God? I think of Paul’s words to the Corinthians.
“For such men are false apostles, deceitful workers, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for Satan himself keeps disguising himself as an angel of light. It is therefore nothing extraordinary if his ministers also keep disguising themselves as ministers of righteousness. But their end will be according to their works.” (2 Corinthians 11:13-15)
I could go on showing all that is wrong with the JW judicial system, but that can be better accomplished by showing what it should be. Once we learn what the Bible really teaches Christians about dealing with sin in the congregation, we will be better equipped to distinguish and deal with any and every deviation from the righteous standard laid down by our Lord Jesus.
As the writer of Hebrews said:
“For everyone who continues to feed on milk is unacquainted with the word of righteousness, for he is a young child. But solid food belongs to mature people, to those who through use have their powers of discernment trained to distinguish both right and wrong.” (Hebrews 5:13, 14)
In the organization, we were fed on milk, and not even whole milk, but the watered down 1% brand. Now we will feast on solid food.
Let’s start with Matthew 18:15-17. I’m going to read from the New World Translation because it only seems fair that if we are going to judge JW policies we should do so using their own standard. Besides, it gives us a good rendering of these words of our Lord Jesus.
“Moreover, if your brother commits a sin, go and reveal his fault between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take along with you one or two more, so that on the testimony of two or three witnesses every matter may be established. If he does not listen to them, speak to the congregation. If he does not listen even to the congregation, let him be to you just as a man of the nations and as a tax collector. (Matthew 18:15-17)
Most versions on Biblehub.com add the words “against you”, as in “if your brother commits a sin against you”. It is likely these words were added, since important early manuscripts like the Codex Sinaiticus and Vaticanus omit them. Witnesses claim that these verses only refer to personal sins, such as fraud or slander, and call these minor sins. Major sins, what they categorize as sins against God such as fornication and drunkenness, must be dealt with exclusively by their three-man elder committees. Therefore, they believe that Matthew 18:15-17 does not apply to the judicial committee arrangement. However, do they then point to a different passage of Scripture to support their judicial arrangement? Do they refer to a different quotation of Jesus to demonstrate that what they practice is from God? Nooo.
We are just supposed to accept it because they tell us and after all, they are the chosen of God.
Just to demonstrate that they can’t seem to get anything right, let’s start with the idea of minor and major sins and the need to deal with them differently. First off, the Bible makes no distinction between sins, categorizing some as minor and others as major. You may recall that Ananias and Sapphira were killed by God for what today we would categorize as “a little white lie”. (Acts 5:1-11)
Second, this is the only direction Jesus gives the congregation concerning how to deal with sin in our midst. Why would he give us instructions on dealing with sins of a personal or minor nature, but leave us out in the cold when dealing with what the organization calls “gross sins against Jehovah.”
[For display only: “Of course, loyalty would keep one from covering over gross sins against Jehovah and against the Christian congregation.” (w93 10/15 p. 22 par. 18)]
Now, if you are a long-time Jehovah’s Witness, you will probably balk at the idea that all we need to do when dealing with sins like fornication and adultery is to follow Matthew 18:15-17. You will likely feel that way because you have been trained to see things from the viewpoint of a penal code. If you do the crime, you must do the time. Therefore, any sin must be accompanied by a punishment commensurate to the gravity of the sin. That is, after all, what the world does when dealing with crimes, isn’t it?
At this point, it is important for us to see the distinction between a sin and a crime, a distinction largely lost on the leadership of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
At Romans 13:1-5, Paul tells us that the governments of the world are appointed by God to deal with criminals and that we should be good citizens by cooperating with such authorities. Therefore, if we gain knowledge of criminal activity within the congregation, we have a moral obligation to make it known to the relevant authorities so that they can perform their divinely assigned task, and we can be free from any charge of being accomplices after the fact. Essentially, we keep the congregation clean and above reproach by reporting crimes like murder and rape that are a danger to the population at large.
Consequently, if you were to become aware that a fellow Christian has committed murder, rape, or child sexual abuse, Romans 13 puts you under obligation to report it to the authorities. Think how much financial loss, bad press, and scandal the organization could have avoided if they had only obeyed that command from God—not to mention the tragedy, broken lives, and even suicides that victims and their families have suffered by the JW practice of concealing such sins from the “superior authorities”. Even now there is a list of over 20,000 known and suspected pedophiles which the Governing Body—at great financial cost to the Organization—refuses to turn over to the authorities.
The congregation is not a sovereign nation as was Israel. It does not have a legislature, judicial system, nor a penal code. All it has is Matthew 18:15-17 and that is all it needs, because it is only charged with dealing with sins, not crimes.
Let’s look at that now.
Let’s assume you have evidence that a fellow Christian is engaged in consensual sex with another adult outside of marriage. Your first step is to go to him or her with a view of regaining them for the Christ. If they listen to you and change, you have gained your brother or sister.
“Wait a minute,” you say. “That’s it! No, no, no. It can’t be that simple. There have to be consequences.”
Why? Because the person might do it again if there is no punishment? That is worldly thinking. Yes, they may very well do it again, but that is between them and God, not you. We have to allow the spirit to work, and not run ahead.
Now, if the person doesn’t respond to your counsel, you can move to step two and take along one or two others. Confidentiality is still maintained. There is no Scriptural requirement to inform the older men in the congregation.
If you disagree, it could be you are still being affected by JW indoctrination. Let’s see how subtle that can be. Looking again at the Watchtower cited previously, notice how they cleverly subvert the word of God.
“Paul also tells us that love “bears all things.” As the Kingdom Interlinear shows, the thought is that love covers over all things. It does not “give away a fault” of a brother, as the wicked are prone to do. (Psalm 50:20; Proverbs 10:12; 17:9) Yes, the thought here is the same as at 1 Peter 4:8: “Love covers a multitude of sins.” Of course, loyalty would keep one from covering over gross sins against Jehovah and against the Christian congregation.” (w93 10/15 p. 22 par. 18 Love (Agape)—What It Is Not and What It Is)
They correctly teach that love “bears all things” and even go on to show from the interlinear that love “covers all things” and that “it does not “give away a fault” of a brother, as the wicked are prone to do.” “As the wicked are prone to do….As the wicked are prone to do.” Hmm…then, in the very next sentence, they do what the wicked are prone to do by telling Jehovah’s Witnesses that they are to give away the fault of a brother to the elders in the congregation.
Fascinating how they make it a matter of loyalty to God to inform on one’s brother or sister when it comes to supporting the authority of the elders, but when a child is being sexually abused and there is a danger of others being abused, they do nothing to report the crime to the authorities.
I am not suggesting that we should cover over sin. Let’s be clear about that. What I’m saying is that Jesus gave us one way to deal with it and only one, and that way does not involve telling the elder body so they can form a secret committee and hold secret hearings.
What Jesus says is that if your brother or sister doesn’t listen to two or three of you, but persists in his or her sin, then you inform the congregation. Not the elders. The congregation. That means that the whole of the congregation, the consecrated ones, those baptized in the name of Jesus Christ, male and female, sit down with the sinner and collectively try to get him or her to change their ways. What does that sound like? I think most of us would recognize it is what today we would call “an intervention”.
Think about how much better Jesus’ method for handling sin is than that instituted by the Governing Body of Jehovah’s Witnesses. First, since everyone is involved, it is very unlikely that unrighteous motives and personal bias will influence the outcome. It is easy for three men to abuse their power, but when the entire congregation hears the evidence, such abuses of power are far less likely to happen.
A second benefit of following Jesus’ method is that it allows the spirit to flow through the whole of the congregation, not through some select body of elders, so the outcome will be guided by the spirit, not personal prejudice.
Finally, if the outcome is to disfellowship, then all will do so because of a full understanding of the nature of the sin, not because they were told to do so by a triad of men.
But that still leaves us with the possibility of disfellowshipping. Isn’t that shunning? Isn’t that cruel? Let us not jump to any conclusions. Let us examine what else the Bible has to say on this subject. We’ll leave that for the next video in this series.
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Hi Eric. An excellent article, to which I would add No Jew could be put to death by the Sanhedrin, unless there was someone to speak up for the accused. This is a principle of natural justice that is ignored in the JW judicial system. There is no respect for courts of law. I have known two people accused of crimes which went to court, where they were found innocent, due to lack of evidence. Yet one was d/f and the other hounded until he disassociated. Parents shunning children is unnatural. It might be understandable if the children live an… Read more »
Thanks Leonardo. You are so right about all of this.
Just thought I would add this tidbit from Insight on the Scriptures vol.1 p. 518 under Court, Judicial “The local court was situated at the gate of a city. (De 16:18; 21:19; 22:15, 24; 25:7; Ru 4:1) By “gate” is meant the open space inside the city near the gate. The gates were places where the Law was read to the congregated people and where ordinances were proclaimed. (Ne 8:1-3) At the gate it was easy to acquire witnesses to a civil matter, such as property sales, and so forth, as most persons would go in and out of the… Read more »
Great reference, Jerome. Thank you.
Less than a month after I was baptized, I became aware of a problem involving one of my friends. To the best of my knowledge, it didn’t rise to the level of violating any biblical commands, but was certainly very poor judgment on the part of the individuals involved and could have easily escalated into something very serious. I did the right thing, and it grew into a massive committee action. As best I recall, 22 witnesses were called and the proceedings went on, late into the night. At the next congregation meeting, I was requested to go into the… Read more »
Interesting experience, Chet. Thanks.
Christ did not expel, or prevent, anyone from fellowshipping with him. Neither did he refuse to speak to sinning Jews who knew the Law and deviated from it along with Tax Collectors who also knew the Law.
Matthew 18 cannot be used to support shunning or disfellowshipping.
(Matthew 18:21, 22) . . .Then Peter came up and said to him: “Lord, how many times is my brother to sin against me and am I to forgive him? Up to seven times?” 22 Jesus said to him: “I say to you, not, Up to seven times, but, Up to seventy-seven times. (Matthew 5:23, 24) 23 “If, then, you are bringing your gift to the altar and you there remember that your brother has something against you, 24 leave your gift there in front of the altar, and go away; first make your peace with your brother, and then, when you have come back,… Read more »
Nice commentary Eric. Note to supporters of the JW judicial process: this commentary does not question the validity of 1 Cor. 5 and expelling someone unrepentant from the group (congregation) as a group decision. It does however expose the fact that there is no scriptural support for the secret JW judicial process. None. How we choose to deal with those who are no longer part of the group (to shun or not to shun, that is the question)- whether they left voluntarily or otherwise- is a personal decision. Especially so when family is involved.
Thanks, Mike. The shunning question is going to be considered in the next video. “To shun or not to shun”. Indeed! That is the question. ?
We thoroughly enjoyed that, Eric. Thank you for your clear exposure of the error of the JW judicial system through scripture. It really explained the reason for my instinctive distaste for the JW system. At the same time, it made me feel a deep sense of responsibility as a Christian, when we realise that we could be the person that has to speak to someone who has committed a sin. Also, that we may be in the position of being in a congregation setting where a sin is discussed and the sinner is hopefully brought to their senses and remains… Read more »
That’s an interesting question, MarthaMartha. I think if we were talking about a congregation of the anointed, the spirit-filled children of God, things would be very different than they would be in your typical Kingdom hall. ?
What I’ve seen, with regard to JW judicial actions is unabashed cowardice. In situation after situation, I have observed elders that were outraged by injustice, but afraid to rock the boat. In my some of final dealings with the JW system, after I had moved to another area and told an elder about some of what I had seen in the place I used to live. He was outraged and said I should report it. I answered that I just had; I had reported it to him. This was a man I feel was good person and well intended, but… Read more »
I read of a report from Iceland where the authorities were going to question the wt there about its ‘judicial system’ because in Iceland there is but one system of law. I didnt see what became of it.