After my father died at 94 years of age, family members emptied out his home. I had never before peeked into his office den desk. I came across a heavy leather belt and I thought of keeping it because it was heavy and it was leather, not the cheap junk they sell today that falls apart in no time at all. “You know what that is, don’t you?” said my brother. “It’s THE BELT!” Gasp!!
It didn’t happen like clockwork, but it wasn’t an especially rare thing, either. “Just wait until your father gets home!” my outmaneuvered mother would say. She’d tell on me the moment he walked through the door and then it was one sore rear end for me!
It was reassuring to my sense of history to see that belt, for the revisionists try to rewrite the past to pretend that corporal punishment was phased out in the civilized world eons ago. In fact, it was an absolutely unremarkable aspect of child-rearing just a few decades ago. It was not necessarily a belt. Usually a sound spanking sufficed. Some had it worse than a mere belt. My older friend’s dad had him cut his own switch from a tree, and if it wasn’t big enough, dear old dad would cut one himself the size of a two by four.
It was days of long ago. Don’t misunderstand. I make no argument for its return. Don’t think that I do. Having said that, it is by no means clear that today’s children are happier and better adjusted because of its disappearance.
The etymology of the word ‘discipline’ reveals that it has to do with primarily with training.1 It can incorporate punishment, but that is only a footnote. “Train the young in the way they should go; even when old, they will not swerve from it,” says Proverbs 22:6. This is the verse that Valery Novik cited in accepting the Order of Parental Glory Award from President Putin. Discipline, as presented in Scripture, is primarily instruction and repetition. “Take to heart these words which I command you today. Keep repeating them to your children. Recite them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you get up,” says the Torah.2
How can one not commend Russia for simply having an ‘Order of Parental Glory’ award? presented by the president himself, no less. Public policy caters much less to family here; it certainly stops far short of honoring fine examples publicly. There is much of contemporary policy that would undermine family life. It is too bad that President Putin does not read the marriage and family sections of JW.org and watch the cartoons for the children and whiteboards for the teenagers. He would confer the Parental Glory award upon the Governing Body of Jehovah’s Witnesses, even though most of them are not parents.
It is a shame that the Novik family is now forbidden to speak about their faith, since they have credited that faith with making them the glorious family they are in the first place. Indeed, one cannot even say with certainty that they still have custody of their children, since the Supreme Court has authorized the removal of children for involving them in activities of a sect or extremist organization.3 Everyone knows it is Jehovah’s Witnesses they have in mind, unless they are thinking of the community-minded ISIS family down the street, the other designated extremist group. It is a satanic ruling that equals anything of Stalin’s era. There can be little doubt that Russian Witnesses call to mind the loyal ones’ retort to the ancient king’s threat to hurl steadfast Jews into the flames: “If our God, whom we serve, can save us from the white-hot furnace and from your hands, O king, may he save us! But even if he will not, you should know, O king, that we will not serve your god or worship the golden statue which you set up,” the three brave lads told him.4 Imagine imposing such a trial on family heads today; even if they were those whom Putin did not give the prize to, it is unspeakable.
For some time after this writer became one of Jehovah’s Witnesses in the 1970s, he would tell persons that marriage lasted among Jehovah’s Witnesses and that divorce was unheard of. It was not true. But it wasn’t that far from not true. ‘One never heard of divorce?’ No, it was I who never heard of divorce among the Witnesses and thus assumed it didn’t happen. For a new person to think that in a population where everyone quickly comes to know everyone else, they had to be as scarce as hen’s teeth, and they were. But they did happen. They even accelerated later amidst an overall explosion of divorce in the greater world that jettisoned away the very concept of permanent monogamous relationship as though something archaic—something to ‘move on’ from.
Witnesses were then the ducks emerging into the raging current that were slowed down but did not give up. They continued on course. Actually, the literal ducks I witnessed on a recent visit to Canada did give up; they emerged from the shelter of a bridge abutment into an unexpectedly raging current following heavy downpours, paddled valiantly for a few seconds and then thought better of it, turning about and going with the flow. Many church members did likewise regarding marriage when confronted with the flood of a new morality. Unsupported in meaningful ways by their own church, they soon yielded to the current. The Governing Body of Jehovah’s Witnesses doubled down with supplying the right biblical education at the right time, and determination to abide by Bible standards in this regard was, and is ever, continually fortified among the congregations.
It is by not taking a firm stand that illicit conduct is entrenched. God singles out adultery as illicit conduct. It is not a passing phase with him, but it is among the Ten Commandments of Moses.5 Jesus even expands upon it to advise that lustful longing for another’s wife is the same as adultery ‘within one’s heart.’6 It is not hard to see why man’s Maker would dislike it. It breaks up families on a scale to make the most sinister cult look like a beneficent marriage counselor. Adultery is not something a marriage readily gets over. Unfailingly it corrodes families, the bedrock of any society. Not only do children in the household suffer, but married children out of the household suffer; their own marriages are imperiled as they wrestle with the question: ‘If my own parents could not make a go of it, what chance have I?’7 You do not, in any way, want to normalize adultery. It is a malady like those Paul speaks of that spreads like gangrene.
Nonetheless, it is normalized today. When I worked on a job with mostly young people, I let slip that I had been married over twenty years. It was as though I told them I was from another planet. Products of broken homes, most of them, they had never heard of a marriage lasting so long. What chance is there that they will put trust in a model they have never seen work? Adultery is among the reasons God cast aside his ancient people of the Old Testament, summoning Babylon to scatter them. They were as lustful stallions back then, ‘neighing’ after another’s wife.8 In words more mundane than Jeremiah, but dealing with the same time period, Ezekiel lambastes a disobedient nation: “Each of you has defiled his neighbor’s wife.”9 One wonders how literal it can be? ‘Each of you?’ Don’t open the door to that sort of behavior, because the herd will stampede through. Others who never would have thought of such a thing will entertain the idea once they see it has become in vogue.
Adultery is seriously dealt with in Witness congregations. It is not shrugged off as one of those things. It is the one recognized grounds for divorce that the Bible allows. Many an unrepentant person has been disfellowshipped for adultery. Almost always it involves some scheming so that immediate claims of repentance are taken with a substantial grain of salt. Some eventually make their way back into the congregation, for God is the ultimate judge. Others never do. This policy of no tolerance for adultery was used against the Witness organization at the April trial, presented as evidence of extremism. A summary of one day’s testimony included: “The essence of [one witness for the prosecution’s] statement came down to what she said was the existing ‘complete and total control of life by the Administrative Center.’ Responding to a request from the judge to cite instances of control, [she] reported that an example was her expulsion from the congregations after she ‘began her close, but not officially registered, relations with a man,’”10 The acceptance of such ‘evidence’ is but another way of declaring religion should exist so long as it does not do anything meaningful.
On the mild end of congregation discipline, which usually suffices, there are reminders, elucidation, and admonition. But discipline reserves the right to coerce, to rebuke, and to punish. “Do not withhold discipline from youths; if you beat them with the rod, they will not die,” says the proverb, and then even recommends that course as a means to save them from death, continuing: “Beat them with a rod and you will save them from Sheol.” [Hebrew, meaning the grave]11
So unpopular has corporal punishment become in the West that even Jehovah’s Witnesses refrain from acting upon these verses. When the Western media covers spanking now, it tells of a fundamentalist church member who unrelentingly spanks his child until he dies, trying to elicit choice words of contrition from the lad that he refuses to say.12 In the face of uncontrollable conduct in the schools, a few administrators have gingerly allowed that corporal punishment might have a tiny place after all. In this new world, a child is occasionally spanked a single time or two with a paddle, and there are teachers, sometimes parents and principal, to witness it, to ensure it does not get out of hand. The American Civil Liberties Union regards it as a major affront to human dignity.13 What was once as routine as breathing air has now nearly gone extinct. Middle Eastern refugees, some of whom respond to the kingdom message, are dumbfounded that perfectly acceptable child-rearing practices from back home are absolutely taboo in their new home. We tell them that it is not just they, but old-time American parents feel similarly disempowered. What was once allowed and even encouraged can now land them in serious legal hot water.
History rewritten does not mean the old did not exist. The constant refrain of my youth and the generation prior was of how persons hated physical discipline as youngsters but became glad of it later. Even those graduating from Catholic schools, where corporal punishment could be draconian, where ruler-wielding nuns whacked knuckles for the slightest infraction, would often reflect (rightly or wrongly) that they had benefited from it. But times have changed, and ‘corporal punishment’ today is a pejorative phrase.
Discipline in the Bible, which can include physical punishment but does not defer to it first, is portrayed as a good thing, even a necessary thing in raising children. “Discipline your children, and they will bring you comfort, and give delight to your soul,” says Proverbs 29:17. “At the time, all discipline seems a cause not for joy but for pain, yet later it brings the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who are trained by it,” adds Hebrews 12:11
Neglecting discipline is painted as a bad thing. “Whoever loves discipline loves knowledge, but whoever hates reproof is stupid.” (Proverbs 12:1) “Whoever spares the rod hates the child, but whoever loves will apply discipline.” (Proverbs 13:24) “If you are without discipline, in which all have shared, you are not sons but bastards.” (Hebrews 12:8)
The model of family discipline can be extended to illustrate how Jehovah deals with his worshippers in general. “So you must know in your heart that, even as a man disciplines his son, so the LORD, your God, disciplines you.” (Deuteronomy 8:5) “Besides this, we have had our earthly fathers to discipline us, and we respected them. Should we not [then] submit all the more to the Father of spirits and live?” (Hebrews 12:9) “Endure your trials as ‘discipline’; God treats you as sons. For what ‘son’ is there whom his father does not discipline?” (Hebrews 12:7)
It benefits them: “Happy the one whom God reproves! The Almighty’s discipline do not reject.” (Job 5:17) Discipline is not to be rejected even though it can sometimes be severe, as follows: “We cried out in anguish under your [God’s] discipline.” (Isaiah 26:16) Also: “I will continue in my hostile rage toward you, and I myself will discipline you for your sins sevenfold.” (Leviticus 26:28)
One can also extend the model of discipline to illustrate how God deals with those of the Christian congregation. Of Israel, we read: “Then these city elders shall take the man and discipline him.” (Deuteronomy 22:18) In the Christian congregation, discipline was mostly general: “For the command is a lamp, and the teaching a light, and a way to life are the reproofs that discipline.” (Proverbs 6:23) “Fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and discipline.” (Proverbs 1:7) Yet those who taught in the congregation would teach such discipline publicly and privately—it could be individualized. “Brothers, even if a person is caught in some transgression, you who are spiritual should correct that one in a gentle spirit, looking to yourself, so that you also may not be tempted,” says Galatians 6:1. It could escalate in severity: “Reprimand publicly those who do sin, so that the rest also will be afraid.” (1 Timothy 5:20*) It could even become in severe cases: “Purge the evil person from your midst.” (1 Corinthians 5:13)
*The extremist New World Translation is the more balanced here. It renders ‘reprimand publicly’ as the more literal ‘reprove before all onlookers.’ The Governing Body reasoned long ago that “all onlookers” will be those who know of a particular sin, which would seldom include everyone in the congregation. More often it would be just a handful of persons. Moreover, ‘reproof’ indicates an appeal to the heart: a far cry from shaming a person before all as a ‘practicer of sin.’ Reproof, when necessary within the Witness framework, is done privately between the elders and the individual before such “onlookers.”14
Discipline applied in the Christian congregation benefits individuals, but it is not administered solely for their sakes. Jehovah’s Witnesses recognize an obligation to God to present to him a clean people. The Witness Governing Body dares not treat him shabbily, for this is no passing fancy with him. In the Bible book of Acts can be found the record of a meeting to determine Christian policy: “Symeon [Peter] has described how God first concerned himself with acquiring from among the Gentiles a people for his name,” James tells the other congregation leaders. His name is what must be honored. “Hallowed (make sacred) be thy name,” Jesus instructs in the ‘Our Father’ prayer.15
The people of the congregation become, in effect, an advertisement for God and for his name. If they maintain conduct separate and distinct from that of a morally decaying world, it reflects well upon him and draws other persons of good heart. If they do not, it becomes clear to others that Christian worship does nothing for a person and is but a social and sermonizing clique. To please God, the congregation knows that it must adhere to his standards. Discipline ranging from the very mild to quite severe is part of the package. The ones who rail at congregation discipline as harmful, such as the anti-cult people and the Satanists, are invariably those focused upon individual rights. Yet not everything can be about the individual. Uncorrected bad influences spread “like gangrene.” Humans are built that way.16
Sexuality in modern times has proven itself more fluid than anyone would have imagined. It does not constrain itself to a one-man/one-woman policy. It does not respect any underage cutoff barrier. It does not respect gender lines; it goes from hetero to bi-sexual to gay and back again. Homosexual relationships, which have always existed, are now beyond edgy and have entered the mainstream in the West. Who knows why it is, but it is. There is the suggestion, from chapter 8, that ubiquitous plastic contains chemicals that interact with living tissue much as does the hormone estrogen. Romans 1:26 is not generally regarded as prophetic, but it could be taken as the Bible’s most striking prophesy: “Their females exchanged natural relations for unnatural, and the males likewise gave up natural relations with females and burned with lust for one another.” It is not the existence, but the widespread embrace that is staggering; nobody of my generation would have foreseen it. Recently a local couple had their gay pride flag stolen. It was a major news event. I do not condone stealing anyone’s gay pride flag and I have never felt an urge to do it. But the national flag can be worn as underwear and people barely raise an eyebrow.
God’s name is not honored by presenting him with a motley assortment of unruly people. This is why many become Jehovah’s Witnesses in the first place—they are not drafted against their will. Instead, they know that measuring up to God’s higher standards will only benefit them. They know instinctively that discipline is not a bad thing. Congregation discipline is usually mere public instruction that the listener takes to heart, unbeknownst to anyone. Correction is usually quite mild, though it can escalate when lesser means have been exhausted to no effect and when a given provocation is serious enough.
God will ultimately judge those outside. But as for those inside, that is for congregation shepherds to apply Bible discipline.17 To ignore God’s perceived standards is to be a false advertisement of him. It is to be “fake news” about him. Witnesses realize that God must not be thus shortchanged. ‘My people are a reflection of my high standards,’ he would say. ‘They can’t be too high, then,’ people respond, looking around in many places, but not in the Witness congregation. If Witnesses carry on about high standards, the intent is not to be self-righteous. It is a manifestation of their being unwilling to displease God by ignoring his requirements.
This newfound concern, in the case of those becoming Witnesses, is not necessarily appreciated by former friends or even family. Peter says: “For the time that has passed is sufficient for doing what the Gentiles like to do: living in debauchery, evil desires, drunkenness, orgies, carousing, and wanton idolatry. They are surprised that you do not plunge into the same swamp of profligacy, and they vilify you.”18 They don’t quite know what to make of those new concerns and ‘high standards,’ but they figure it out in a hurry, and they figure out that the proper response is to “vilify” those taking to it. Those truly living Christianity will automatically trigger some hostility from those who do not, for the latter read into it an inherent, even though unexpressed, judgement.
The Book of Romans counsels Christians: “You who preach against stealing, do you steal? You who forbid adultery, do you commit adultery? You who detest idols, do you rob temples? You who boast of the law, do you dishonor God by breaking the law? For, as it is written, ‘Because of you the name of God is reviled among the Gentiles.’”19 The Governing Body does not want to see the Name reviled on its watch. That would be an abuse of its authority, if not from the standpoint of humans, certainly from that of God. It is not management of a bake sale they are dealing with. It is the Name. Of miscreants, we read: “Furthermore, many will follow their brazen conduct, and because of them the way of the truth will be spoken of abusively.”20 The Governing Body doesn’t want that to happen, either, and they counter it to the extent of their ability.
Is it a crime for an organization to insist upon maintaining Bible-based morality among its members—particularly when members sign on exactly because they prefer that morality? Jehovah’s Witnesses have chosen to maintain congregation discipline as a buttress to good intentions, which do not alone always suffice, for we are human and swayed by many influences. Those that would deprive them of that right are those who would neuter religion. They are those who wish it to be a support club for the greater world, and nothing more. Witnesses are among the most successful at its members living Bible morality. Many groups during the past century have chosen to discard discipline. They have that option. It is hardly clear that people are better adjusted for having taken that option, however.
Witnesses keep ‘shunning’ in their tool chest of discipline as a ‘Hail Mary play.’ It is a last-ditch attempt to insist upon godly morality of voluntary members when all else has failed. At any time, ones who have joined the Witness faith are free to leave. So long as they remain, however, they must live the godly principles they have signed on for. Shunning has a place as a play of last resort. When employed it is tough on the individual, as tough discipline always is. But the individual cannot ever be the sole concern. When you hear people treating “the greater good” as a pejorative phrase, then you know the pendulum has overswung towards individual rights. Christianity is nothing if not about recognizing “the greater good,” and it starts with its founder. Did Jesus die because he wanted to assert his rights as an individual?
There was a time when most Christian denominations knew this. There was a time when most Christian denominations disciplined their own members as needed, for they dared not ignore God’s insistence of a clean people. No one had to be a biblical Christian back then, but if they chose to become one, they were to abide by ‘the rules’. While the rules make plenty of allowance for human imperfection, they cannot be blown off as nothing. “We appeal to you not to receive the grace of God in vain [miss its purpose: NWT],” says 2 Corinthians 6:1.
This is why the Witness organization takes an interest in the conduct of its members, which is now spun as a negative in a world that increasingly denigrates or seeks to redefine religion. It takes such interest, not in order to be intrusive or controlling, but in order to comply with the greater Christian requirements as laid out in the Bible. Even whatever pedophile records exist, which have blown up in the Witness organization’s face, would not have existed but for the purpose of identifying this pernicious group so that they be could punished to the degree required and thereafter monitored so that they would not slip from one congregation into another, as they can anywhere else—something no other religion attempts to do. We will visit this white-hot topic in a chapter to come.
Just as Daniel apologized for his countrymen, though he had done nothing blameworthy himself, so Ronald J. Sider bemoans America’s evangelicals, telling it all in his 2005 book, The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience.21 Sure, they believe the Bible, as they are quick to tell you. But they don’t practice the Bible. They don’t apply it in their personal lives. Some do. Some are upright. But in no greater proportion than the world in general.
It wasn’t supposed to be that way, a point which chapter two of his book makes abundantly clear. That chapter is as concise and comprehensive a discussion of the purposed application of the Bible to morality as you will see anywhere. Taking each New Testament book in succession, Mr. Sider highlights verse after verse to show that Christians were (and are) expected to live under Christ’s law, and that doing so would produce a people who lived so decently that their lives, not merely their words, would be a drawing card for the faith:
“Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.” (1 Peter 2:12 NIV. Here we will employ the translation Sider employs, the New International Version, which is also safe and legal to read in Russia. They all are, except for the New World Translation.) “The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.” (Galatians 5:19-21) “If Paul is even close to being right about what it means to be a Christian, one can only weep at the scandalous behavior of Christians today,” Mr. Sider states. “How many preachers today speak that clearly about the sins of greed, adultery, and slander?”
He quotes again 1 Peter, just as we have above, but in a different translation: “For you have spent enough time in the past doing what pagans choose to do—living in debauchery, lust, drunkenness, orgies, carousing and detestable idolatry. They think it strange that you do not plunge with them into the same flood of dissipation, and they heap abuse on you.” (1 Peter 4:3-4) Apparently, the countercultural lifestyle of these early Christians was obvious to outsiders, he notes. Not so today among the evangelical community. “Our disobedient lifestyles crucify our Lord anew,” he writes. After reviewing the evidence, “we have seen the stunning contrast between what Jesus and the early church said and did and what so many evangelicals do today. Hopefully that contrast will drive us to our knees, first to repent and then to ask God to help us understand the causes of this scandalous failure and the steps we can take to correct it.”22
Mr. Sider then does just that, and the goes on to offer some remedies. You cannot read these remedies without noting they are the very building blocks of the Jehovah’s Witness organization. They are all matters of discipline and organization. And they do, to a great degree, solve the woes Mr. Sider describes. First, says Mr. Sider, the Western world’s obsession with independence must end, to be replaced with recognition that Christians are a community belonging to, and having responsibility for, each other. Paul goes so far as to say Christians ought to be slaves to one another. Galatians 5:13 literally reads “be slaves to each other,” yet most popular translations, Mr. Sider notes, dilute the verse to a more independence-savoring “serve one another in love.”23 (but not so the New World Translation. It reads: “through love slave for one another.”)
Many churches today trumpet that they are “independent Bible believing,” yet the very notion is “heretical,” says Mr. Sider.24 To be part of the body of Christ, a church must align itself with a larger structure to give “guidance, supervision, direction, and accountability.” Jehovah’s Witnesses have exactly such a structure in their Governing Body. Opponents rail against it as an agency employing “mind control.”
Secondly, Mr. Sider suggests, any congregation with over fifty members ought to arrange its people into small groups, where oversight and encouragement can more effectively be offered.25 They’re called ‘service meeting groups.’ Since as long as anyone can remember, congregations of Jehovah’s Witnesses have made use of such small groups.
‘Make it harder to join’ is a third suggestion.26 Evangelical Conscience points to early Anabaptists and Wesleyans, as though no modern examples existed, Jehovah’s Witnesses being a ‘cult’ to many of them. These groups took their time admitting new members, ensuring that their conduct as well as words lined up with Christ’s teachings. They did not just settle for a quick “accept the Lord and be saved.” Jehovah’s Witnesses are well known for requiring an extensive period of Bible study and application as a prerequisite to baptism.
Lastly, “parachurch” organizations, groups like Youth for Christ, that transcend the larger church structure, have, by definition, no accountability to anybody: “Many of the worst, most disgraceful actions that embarrass and discredit the evangelical world come from this radical autonomy,” says Evangelical Conscience. Somehow, such groups have to be brought into tow, though Mr. Sider admits that he has no clue as to how to accomplish this.27 The Governing Body does and implements it, despite howls of protests from the anti-cultists.
The internal discipline now practiced by Jehovah’s Witnesses was practiced in most Protestant denominations until less than 100 years ago and was based on the same scriptures that Ronald Sider identifies. But when it became unpopular, they gave it up. As a result, the morals and lifestyle of today’s evangelical church members are indistinguishable from that of the general populace. The ones who actually apply Christianity are left unreinforced, in some ways even challenged, by their own church. Long-time Witnesses will recall circuit overseers pointing out that 60 years ago the difference between Jehovah’s Witnesses and churchgoers in general was doctrinal, not moral. Time was when there was little difference between the two groups with regard to conduct. Today the chasm is huge. Can internal discipline and the organization daring to implement it not be the deciding factor?
As a method of last resort, the Bible authorizes expulsion from the Christian community: “I wrote you in my letter not to associate with immoral people, not at all referring to the immoral of this world or the greedy and robbers or idolaters; for you would then have to leave the world. But I now write to you not to associate with anyone named a brother, if he is immoral, greedy, an idolater, a slanderer, a drunkard, or a robber, not even to eat with such a person. For why should I be judging outsiders? Is it not your business to judge those within? God will judge those outside. ‘Purge the evil person from your midst.’”28
Jehovah’s Witnesses live according to Bible morality; the fact is widely recognized. However, such living is not to be taken for granted. It does not happen without discipline to reinforce each members’ resolve to live as Christ did. Expulsion from the congregation is never taken lightly. It always represents a last-ditch effort to reach the individual in addition to protecting the congregation from corrosive influence. Is it necessary? Suffice it to say no group has succeeded in adhering to Bible morality without it. Everyone else is carried along by the winds of popular opinion—some hanging on trees for a while as though in a hurricane, and some already caught in flight hurtling along and loosening the grips, through collision, of those attempting to hang on.
Church discipline used to be a significant, accepted part of most evangelical traditions, Sider writes. “In the second half of the twentieth century, however, it has largely disappeared.” He then quotes Haddon Robinson on the current church climate, a climate he calls ‘consumerism.’ “Too often now when people join a church,” Robinson writes, “they do so as consumers. If they like the product, they stay. If they do not, they leave. They can no more imagine a church disciplining them than they could a store that sells goods disciplining them. It is not the place of the seller to discipline the consumer. In our churches, we have a consumer mentality.”29
Get this undisciplined church mob away from here! Because of their misdeeds, those who must preach the good news in all the inhabited earth suffer. Unfortunately, this is the model that the anti-cult experts today favor, those who attempt to neuter serious religion so as not to pose a challenge for the bland religion they prefer—religion that mounts no threat to their world-view. ‘Does God want a clean people? Tell him to take a hike. They’ll be ‘clean’ if they want to, but there must be no outside influence,’ say the anti-cult people. Sider’s book aptly demonstrates that they will not be clean in that circumstance.
Who would have thought that the greater world would pry into Christianity’s internal discipline in an attempt to short-circuit it? Most of religion has complied with this new normal of ‘hands off’ as to conduct. They have come to acquiesce that religion is not to be taken too seriously. It is not to get into morals. Morals in the abstract is okay, but insistence on individual morals is ‘controlling people.’ ‘We’ll handle that if we deem it objectionable—and little of it is,’ says the overall world. Discipline used to be “an accepted and significant part of most evangelical traditions,” Mr. Sider writes. ‘You cannot do it anymore,’ declare the anti-cultists; ‘We’ve moved on.’ With both hands tied behind its back, their Christianity cannot and does not deliver the moral goods, providing detractors ample reason to condemn it. The anti-cult movement is a movement to stamp out meaningful religion. One cannot state it more concisely.
Disfellowshipping among Jehovah’s Witnesses is last-ditch application of discipline to be applied when all else has failed. Aspects of it may be arguable. The general idea is not. The Witness governing arrangement is ever conscious of the individual, for they know that people are fragile and that this system of things appears almost designed to expose a person’s individual fragility and then exploit it to the fullest degree. God is not blind to the individual, for ‘not a sparrow falls to the ground unnoticed,’ but he is intensely jealous over the moral cleanness and exclusive devotion of the group. He shows no sign of getting over it. The Christian congregation is not to be a mere typical slice of society modified by a smiling God logo. It should truly represent morals above and beyond. It should be an oasis for those tired of today’s widespread moral decay. This result is not something that happens by chance, but it happens by members watching over themselves individually and as a group. It doesn’t happen for Sider’s people because they neglect those things.
It has been a dozen years or so since the expression ‘disfellowship’ has been heard in a Kingdom Hall. On occasion the announcement is read that so-and-so is no longer one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Let me tell you that it goes over like a dirge—it is a very sad announcement. It is a lose-lose for both parties, and the light at the end of the tunnel seems not so bright at all—by no means all a sure thing. When all provisions for correction and mercy have been exhausted, a person is no longer one of Jehovah’s Witnesses if he or she persists in conduct or speech blatantly out of harmony with Bible standards. Has expulsion ever been ‘the straw that broke the camel’s back?’ Judas was so distraught over being expelled that he committed suicide. Even so, nobody would ever think that was the fault of God, nor of his Son who declined to forget his Father’s requirements. Almost always the focus today is on the rights of people as individuals. Almost never is it the rights of people as groups, as though what they are as member of groups has no bearing on what they will be as individuals.
Detractors’ relentless condemnation of disfellowshipping in the Witness community stems from the viewpoint that a person’s immediate well-being is the issue of ultimate importance. It is the same approach of the churches who say it is all about us: all about our own personal salvation and personal relationship with Jesus. Does God want a clean people, since a soiled one, physically, morally, or spiritually, is a reflection on him and makes him ‘fake news?’ Fugedaboudit! as the expression goes. Opponents would have the world believe that it is primarily about religion not stepping on the toes—ever—of any individual. State can do it if it sees fit, but not religion, for the latter has been assigned the role of “bringing us together.”
Should congregation authority be so hard for the Russian government to understand? What of their old proverb about government? “Ask the children what they want for dinner, and they say: ‘ice cream.’ They get beetroot soup because they live under communist rule, and not a democracy.” What is democracy, H.L. Mencken says, but “the pathetic notion that individual ignorance adds up to collective wisdom?” It is not so different in the Christian congregation, which is constructed biblically along something better than democratic lines.
Upping the ante significantly is the Bible’s authorization of control over some types of speech. It is not an entirely foreign concept to the greater world today. ‘Everyone has the right to free speech, but no one has the right to yell ‘fire’ in a crowded theater,’ learned ones will nod to each other. Scriptures expand upon the list of things you can’t yell in a crowded congregation. New Testament letters to Timothy and Titus tell of some, even some named individually, who “must be silenced because they are disrupting whole households by teaching things they ought not to teach.” Some unhealthy teachings “spread like gangrene,” and “they destroy the faith of some.” Two such ‘teachers’ were “handed over to Satan to be taught not to blaspheme.” Some others were to be “rebuked sharply.” It is not exactly a mecca of free speech that is described.30
Some, described in the Second Letter of John, “pushed ahead” and “did not remain in the teaching of the Christ.” Of such a person we read: “Do not receive him into your homes or say a greeting to him” so as not to be “a sharer in his wicked works.” Persons of Western background can scarcely believe it—discipline extends to reproving those who will not control the tongue. Here we run into problems with American-styled churches, for they are so enamored with the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence that they simply assume such ideas are enshrined in the Bible. When shown they are not, they assume it anyway, as though the Bible writers would have said it had they a better way with words. It is axiomatic to them that the church should reflect Western values, the most sacrosanct of which is free speech. However, as American civil–rights advocate Joel Engardio, who was raised a Witness, recalls telling his teachers as a child (to their non-enthusiasm), that God is not an American.31
One could almost argue that the discipline over misuse of speech is the discipline of paramount importance, for the tongue can do the most damage. “The tongue is a small member and yet has great pretensions. Consider how small a fire can set a huge forest ablaze. The tongue is also a fire,” says the Letter of James. Consistently, the governing arrangement of the growing first-century congregation sought to hose down all “arguments” and “pretensions” “raising itself against the knowledge of God.”32
“Are you so easily stumbled? Is anyone?” says a proponent of unrestricted free speech, aghast that someone would discourage it. Is there a doctor who says the same to the patient’s body cells about gangrene? The doctor of ‘individual rights’ would dismiss gangrene as not a cause for concern, but not the doctor who wants to keep his license. He will not think that every cell should be able to take care of itself and not be so easily stumbled. He knows they are not built that way.
Some of what throws a wrench into this discipline for what is ultimately thought a good cause is that, in some cases, the departing one no longer troubles himself about living forever, on earth or anywhere else. He or she has gone atheistic and has come to think the remaining few decades a great bargain, with no sense of being cheated from all eternity. When the world embraces atheism many paradigms shift. One can hardly expect atheists to recognize God’s interests that a separate people be kept as clean of this world’s defilements as possible. Usually they will read that stated interest as ‘judgmental.’
‘Remove the unclean man from yourselves,’ the Bible says. If ones do it themselves, however, no one comes after them. But it is the fury that anyone should think them ‘unclean’ that motivates some vociferous opponents of the Witnesses; the world has moved on from the notion of moral absolutes. In the West, a rapidly emerging paradigm is that if one is not seen to embrace any new cause, it indicates one is a hater of that cause, notwithstanding whether that course stems from Bible scripture or not. That circumstance may even intensify the perception.
Jehovah’s Witnesses still maintain, as many faiths once did, that not ‘all roads lead to heaven’—they are not all the same—and that, if one would survive into the new world to come, one must serve God according to his standards and his truths, not theirs. If one leaves to join another religion (for example, surely one who joins the Mormons is no longer one of Jehovah’s Witnesses), they have apostatized from the faith. Far from being an extreme interpretation, it is what every denomination should do. Mormons do it themselves, I believe. However, few people take religion that seriously. Few can imagine making such a fuss over God, though they will go for the jugular when it comes to human politics.
From their point of view, it has become: ‘Why make trouble over such things? Surely God will roll with it, especially since he may not exist anyway.’ Denomination is a difference not meaningful to them. ‘Why change horses midstream?’ they reason, ‘but if you do anyway, who cares?’ When my father, years ago, declared his intention to marry the woman who would become my mother, the Catholic Church said she would have to convert to Catholicism first. ‘Forget that!’ Pop said, and they never saw him again. Having little that is unique to offer in a world that is not too spiritual in the first place, most churches today throw away such obstacles to retain members.
Jehovah’s Witnesses, on the other hand, are absolutely unique; their combination of certain biblical teachings is to be found nowhere else, and they employ Christian correction so as to keep those teachings untainted. Churches have forsaken discipline with regard to apostatizing because they have little to apostatize from. They have fallen sound asleep spiritually and have acquiesced to the prevailing view that ‘all roads lead to heaven.’ Seen from this perspective of the believer, disfellowshipping is not cutting off a family member—so the departing one merely moves up the hour of separation which will occur anyway at cut-off time for this world. Therefore, the ultimate goal in avoiding even a family member who departs for different actions or beliefs is to help him see he must self-correct spiritually, thus re-uniting the family forever spiritually and otherwise.
Jesus pointedly says that, in some cases, choosing him will cause contention in a family, and that if one chooses him over family, it is a good thing, not a bad thing. This is not the world the anti-cultists want to see, so they attach the ‘cult’ label to those observing Jesus’ words. They say: ‘Surely, these cults use foul means wrestling converts from the mother Church.’ In so saying, they attempt to wrestle Scripture away from the ones who wrote it.
It is never a piece of cake to turn 180 degrees from previously held positions. It causes discord anywhere. “Do not think that I have come to bring peace upon the earth,” Jesus says. “I came to bring, not peace, but a sword. “For I have come to set a man ‘against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s enemies will be those of his household.’” And “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever has greater affection for son or daughter than for me is not worthy of me. And whoever does not take up his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.” Yes, religion can even tear at the family fabric. Is there anything thicker than blood ties? Jesus’ plain answer is in the affirmative.33
“I have come to bring not peace but the sword”—nearly everyone other than Jehovah’s Witnesses act as though these Bible verses do not exist. Nearly everyone thinks that Christianity should be a subset of the status quo, if not the State itself. Nearly everyone thinks that the minute popular wisdom accepts a new norm, it should be accommodated in the congregation. Nearly everyone cherry-picks, goes for the feel-good verses, and ignores the ones they don’t like. This is why their versions of Christianity do not work. This is why people become Jehovah’s Witnesses in the first place. ‘Finally,’ they say. ‘A people who actually live the scriptures and don’t use them simply to soften a quest for success in this world.’
Disgruntled family members who have found themselves on the outside looking in and yet decline to change their chosen course so as to get back in, like the aforementioned witness in the April trial, spread the view that Jehovah’s Witnesses break up families. The European Court of Human Rights, when called upon to weigh in on this charge in 2010, didn’t buy it, writing: “It is the resistance and unwillingness of non-religious family members to accept and to respect their religious relative’s freedom to manifest and practice his or her religion that is the source of conflict.”34
Discipline is a tough sell today. It is decidedly unpopular. The need for it is a constant of life, however. Let us play with the notion as we consider the prophet Malachi. Did he have teenagers? How else can one explain his style of writing? The Book of Malachi is the last book of the Old Testament, a short work of just four chapters. The entire book is read in less time than a quarter of this chapter:
I love you, says the LORD; but you say, “How do you love us?”
And if I am a master, where is the fear due to me? So says the LORD of hosts to you, O priests, who disdain my name. But you ask, “How have we disdained your name?”
“‘By presenting polluted food on my altar.’ ‘And you say: “How have we polluted you?”’
By offering defiled food on my altar! You ask, “How have we defiled it?”
You have wearied the LORD with your words, yet you say, “How have we wearied him?”
Return to me, that I may return to you, says the LORD of hosts. But you say, “Why should we return?”
Can anyone rob God? But you are robbing me! And you say, “How have we robbed you?”
Your words are too much for me, says the LORD. You ask, “What have we spoken against you?”
Enough already! Everything is challenged! Everything is hurled back in God’s face. Just for kicks, turn the page. Find yourself in the gospels. What if Mary had answered the angel that way when he announced that she would carry the Child: “Hail, favored one! The Lord is with you?” What if she had shot back: “In what way is he with me?” Had she talked back like that to the angel it might not be Mary remembered as the mother of our Lord. It might be Olga or Tatiana.
Mary did not smart-mouth the angel. She almost seems an anomaly. Paul summarizes God’s customary dealings with the Israel of that time at Romans 10:21: “All day long I stretched out my hands to a disobedient and contentious people.” In the world of Bible translation, most works list ‘disobedient’ as the first adjective when rendering that verse. The second is up for grabs. The house Bible used here, NABRE, says ‘contentious’. Others say ‘obstinate’, ‘rebellious’, or ‘stubborn’. Some older translations say ‘gainsaying’. The banned New World Translation says obstinate. But the pre-revised NWT of 1981 hit the nail on the head, by saying they ‘talk back.’ Apparently when that version was revised in 2013, someone thought ‘talk back’ was too much of a departure, but I like it best. After all, in the olde English, ‘gain’ means ‘against’, so ‘talk back’ seems not too bad an update of ‘gainsay.’
Jehovah’s Witnesses conform to discipline without too much fuss. They are not the sort to engage in political protest over what the king is doing or is not doing. Within the congregation as well, they conform to discipline. They bring to life an observation of Nathaniel Hawthorne: “People who think the most bold of thoughts have no difficulty conforming to outward norms of society.”35 Nobody thinks thoughts more bold than Jehovah’s Witnesses. By conforming to the usually minimal discipline of the king and the congregation, they enjoy a remarkable peace and unity unknown to the general world.
Though Hawthorne doesn’t say it, the reverse of his statement is also true: people who cannot conform to the outward norms of society are apt to be the most inwardly conformist of all. Totally obsessed with the petty freedoms this world has to offer, they are blind to the significant freedoms: freedom from fear of death, for example, that a relationship with God enables. One is reminded of the pigs Jesus sent rushing over the precipice, pigs blinded by the ‘demons’ of their momentary thinking—too distracted by them to notice the drop ahead.36
- Insight on the Scriptures (Brooklyn: Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania, 1988) Vol 1, 629
- Deuteronomy 6:6-7
- “The Survey Showed the Attitude of Russians Towards the Idea of Depriving Parental Rights of Sectarians,” RIA Novosti, December 4, 2017, accessed March 28, 2018, https://news.rambler.ru/sociology/38580039-rossiyane-podderzhali-ideyu-lishat-roditelskih-prav-sektantov/?updated. For English translation, see http://www2.stetson.edu/~psteeves/relnews/171204d.html
- Daniel 3:17-18
- Exodus 20:1-17
- Matthew 5:28
- Kenney, C. “Bad News for Kids of Divorce” Boston Globe, April 6, 1993, 64 as accessed March 28, 2018 at CYS Infopedia, Culture and Youth Studies, http://cultureandyouth.org/divorce/articles-divorce/bad-news-for-kids-of-divorce/
- Jeremiah 5:8
- Ezekiel 33:26
- “The Supreme Court Spent Nine Hours in Search of Extremism Among Jehovah’s Witnesses,” Caucasion Knot, April 13, 2017, accessed March 14, 2018, https://www.kavkaz-uzel.eu/articles/300950, for English translation, see https://www2.stetson.edu/~psteeves/relnews/170413c.html
- Proverbs 23:13
- Jeff Hodson, “Did Hana’s Parents ‘Train’ Her to Death?” The Seattle Times, November 27, 2011, accessed March 27, 2018, https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/did-hanas-parents-train-her-to-death/
- “A Violent Education - Corporal Punishment of Children in U.S. Public Schools,” Human Rights Watch and American Civil Liberties Union, February 2009, accessed March 27, 2018, https://www.aclu.org/files/pdfs/humanrights/aviolenteducation_execsumm.pdf
- “Giving Reproof ‘Before all Onlookers’,” The Watchtower, December 1, 1976, 14
- Acts 15:14
- 2 Timothy 2:17
- 1 Corinthians 5:12-13
- 1 Peter 4:3
- Romans 2:21-24
- 2 Peter 2:1-2
- Ronald J. Sider, The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2005)
- Sider, The Scandal, 53
- Ibid., 108
- Ibid., 111
- Ibid., 112-113
- Ibid., 116
- Ibid., 111
- Corinthians 5:9-13
- Sider, The Scandal, 114-11
- Titus 1:11, 2 Timothy 2:17-18, 1 Timothy 1:20, Titus 1:13
- Transcript: Joel Engardio, “Learning True Tolerance,” NPR – Weekend Edition Sunday, November 25, 2007, accessed March 27, 2018, https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=16505529
- 2 John 2:10-11, James 3:5-8, 2 Corinthians 10:5
- Mark 10:28-30
- Matthew 10:34-36.
- “A Lengthy Legal Struggle Ends in Victory!” The Watchtower – study edition, July 15, 2011, 8, accessed March 27, 2018, https://wol.jw.org/en/wol/d/r1/lp-e/402011522#h=27
- It is a description of Hester Prynne in ‘The Scarlet Letter.’
- Matthew 8:30-32