In part 3 of this series we turn to the Jehovah Witnesses to briefly familiarize ourselves with its founder, organization, and views of scripture, God, Jesus, and the afterlife.
A young Charles Take Russell became the founder of the Jehovah Witnesses movement when in 1870 he started a small Bible study group (1). He would become the pastor of this group. Russell also held to several beliefs that deviated from orthodox Christianity of which included the likes of hell, the soul, the trinity, and other beliefs (2). Russell was active in his writing, traveling, and preaching, and would go on to form the Watchtower Society, the governing body for the Jehovah’s Witnesses. In 1879, Russell started publishing the Zion’s Watch Tower and Herald of Christ’s Presence magazine which attempted to convince readers that the world was in “the last days,” and that Jesus Christ’s return and reign were imminent. He died in 1916 and was succeeded by Joseph F. Rutherford, who coined the term “Jehovah’s Witnesses” for the group (3). Rutherford died in 1942 and was succeeded by Nathan H. Knorr, under whose leadership the Watchtower’s own New World Translation of the Bible was produced. Knorr died in 1977 and was succeeded by Frederick W. Franz, the spokesman for the translation committee of the New World Translation.
Jehovah Witness View of Holy Scripture
Witnesses unquestionably believe in the preservation and inspiration of the Bible, and thus view it to be the inspired, inerrant word of God (4). The Bible is taken to be the final authority for all of their beliefs. Witnesses, however, differ greatly to Christians in their interpretations of certain verses, hence why they prefer to use their own Bible translation, the New World Translation (NWT) which has translated numerous verses to be friendly to their own theological interpretation (5). Witnesses will claim that the NWT is a much more accurate translation of the Bible than other English translations. Further, Witnesses have a great reverence for the materials distributed by The Watchtower society which, explains sociologist Andrew Holden,
“are almost as significant to the Witnesses as the Bible, since the information is presented as the inspired work of theologians, and they are, therefore, believed to contain as much truth as biblical texts” (6).
Jehovah Witness View of God
Witnesses strongly believe that people ought to call God by his name, Jehovah, rather than by his title, God (7). Witnesses believe that Jehovah is the one and only true God, and the sovereign creator of all things. However, they tend to place more emphasis on God than on Jesus Christ, and they also deny the Trinity (8). According to the society “This is in harmony with Jesus’ own words: ‘The Father is greater than I am.’ Love for Jehovah must be preeminent, accompanied by deep love for Jesus and appreciation of his precious sacrifice and office as God’s High Priest and King” (9). Additionally, they do not consider the Holy Spirit to be an individual person but rather God’s force (10).
Jehovah Witness View of Jesus Christ
Witnesses have a unique view of Jesus Christ that extends beyond their belief they he was crucified on single upright post (as opposed to a traditional cross). They believe that Christ was originally created by God as the Archangel, Michael, and that Michael was later given a human body and renamed Jesus (11). Witnesses do not believe that Christ is God nor that he was God incarnate when he lived as a 1st century Jewish man, and thus believe him, as a created being (and the only direct creation of God’s), to be inferior to God (12). They also believe that when Jesus returns he will reign on a refurbished Earth. Witnesses reject the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ and instead hold that Jesus was raised as a spirit that manifested itself several times in different materialized bodies (13). Witnesses still believe that Christ was a redeemer form humankind who paid the penalty for their sins (14).
Jehovah Witness View of the Afterlife
Witnesses deny the existence of hell and eternal punishment, and believe in total annihilation after death (16). They also believe that the elite ruling class, the 144 000 (a number found in the book of Revelation), are allowed to go to heaven (17). The faithful Jehovah’s Witnesses are believed to be unconscious after death until they are resurrected in the Millennium (also known as soul sleep). Those who are not in the organization are annihilated after death.
The Watchtower Society and It’s Followers
From the year 1879, and under the guidance of Russell, Watchtower supporters began gathering in congregations to study the Bible. Today the WT society is the governing body (comprised of a small number of officials in Brooklyn) whose major purpose is to interpret doctrine and apply scripture (18). The WT society views itself as a restoration of first century Christianity and educates its followers on its doctrinal positions through publications published by them (19). The society also holds to progressive revelation by which they believe God gradually reveals his will and purpose to them (20). They teach that members of their Governing Body are helped by the holy spirit to discern “deep truths,” which are then considered by the entire Governing Body before it makes doctrinal decisions (21). Followers are instructed to have “complete confidence” in the leadership. This includes possessing no skepticism or criticism of the body and its literature as well as the expectation for followers to follow its doctrines and requirements without question (22). Questioning the society can have followers run the risk of disfellowship while withdrawal is viewed as the ultimate betrayal since it signifies the individual voluntarily entering the world of Satan (23). The secular world is viewed as morally corrupt and under the ominous influence of Satan. Holden explains that,
“From the Society’s own perspective, however, there is never any valid reason for defection. Its monopoly over truth does not allow devotees to claim that their search for salvation is causing them to seek new pastures or that their spiritual hunger has not been satisfied” (24).
The Witnesses practice spiritual activities that include weekly meetings at a local Kingdom Hall (the name for the Witnesses’ place of worship) and door-to-door evangelism, the latter of which they are particularly known for (25). Meetings include a study of WT Society literature and the biblical scriptures.
Jehovah Witness Ethical Views and Committee
Witnesses have a not-too-short list of “serious sins” that should they be committed by the member he or she will have to face judicial committee hearing (26). These sins include, though are not limited to, adultery, abortion, homosexual practice, blood transfusions, boxing, drug use, interfaith activity, joining the military, verbal abuse, violence, and others (27). Even advocating or promoting these serious sins without committing them can also result in disfellowship from the society. It is also sinful for one member to know of the sins of another member yet conceal them from other believers. Judicial committee hearings are held in private without an audience, and the accused is allowed to make a personal statement to the committee as well as bring in a witness to speak in his or her defense (28). The committee considers the evidence presented in the meeting in private before reaching a verdict. If the committee finds that a serious sin had been committed then there are two possibilities for the guilty individual: “reproof” or “disfellowshipping.” Reproof is when the committee attempts to get the accused to repent of his or her sin. This is considered sufficient if the individual is repentant although reproof does result in some forms of punishment. Punishment can include an individual not being allowed to lead prayer or comment in services (29). According to the society, “During the time that an individual who has been judicially reproved is healing spiritually… it would be beneficial for the repentant one to listen rather than comment at meetings” (30). The guilty individual can also be met with disfellowship which results in the shunning of the person (31). This occurs if the individual has been found guilty of a serious sin and does not repent of it. Witnesses are encouraged to avoid interacting with the disfellowshipped. There is also the chance for reinstatement, the ability for the disfellowshipped to rejoin the society. Reinstatement is determined by the judicial committee to determine whether or not the individual has really repented of his or her sins (32).
1. Encyclopaedia Britannica. 2018 (last updated). Charles Taze Russell. Available.
2. Beckford, J. 1975. The Trumpet of Prophecy: A Sociological Study of Jehovah’s Witnesses. p. 2.
3. Licona, M. n.d. What to say to Jehovah’s Witnesses. Available.
4. Licona, M. n.d. Ibid.
5. Licona, M. n.d. Ibid.
6. Holden, A. 2002a. Jehovah’s Witnesses: Portrait of a Contemporary Religious Movement. p. 67.
7. Holden, A. 2002b. Cavorting With the Devil: Jehovah’s Witnesses Who Abandon Their Faith. Available.
8. Watchtower Online Library. n.d. Rekindle That First Love! Available.
9. Watchtower Online Library. n.d. Rekindle That First Love!
10. Watchtower Online Library. n.d. What Is the Holy Spirit? Available.
11. Jehovah Witnesses. n.d. Who Is Michael the Archangel? Available.
12. Jehovah Witnesses. n.d. Who Is Michael the Archangel?
13. Watchtower Online Library. n.d. Resurrection. Available.
14. Jehovah Witnesses. n.d. Jesus Offers Counsel About Stumbling and Sin. Available.
15. Jehovah Witnesses. n.d. What Is Hell? Is It a Place of Eternal Torment? Available.
16. Watchtower Online Library. n.d. A Royal Priesthood to Benefit All Mankind. Available.
17. Watchtower Online Library. n.d. A Royal Priesthood to Benefit All Mankind.
18. Watchtower Online Library. n.d. Cooperating With the Governing Body Today. Available.
19. Van Voorst, R. 2012. RELG: World. p. 288.
20. Watchtower Online Library. n.d. Impart God’s Progressive Revelation to Mankind. Available.
21. Watchtower Online Library. n.d. Impart God’s Progressive Revelation to Mankind.
22. Watchtower Online Library. n.d. Do We Need Help to Understand the Bible? Available.
23. Watchtower Online Library. n.d. Cooperating With the Governing Body Today.
24. Holden, A. 2002b. Ibid. p. 2.
25. Whalen, W. 1962. Armageddon Around the Corner: A Report on Jehovah’s Witnesses. p. 15.
26. Jehovah Witnesses. n.d. Organized to Do Jehovah’s Will. Available.
27. Watchtower Online Library. n.d. Does God Forgive Serious Sins?
28. Penton, J. 1997. Apocalypse Delayed. p. 89.
29. Jehovah Witnesses. n.d. Organized to Do Jehovah’s Will.
30. Watchtower Online Library. n.d. Always Accept Jehovah’s Discipline. Available.
31. Jehovah Witnesses. n.d. Do Jehovah’s Witnesses Shun Former Members of Their Religion? Available.
32. Watchtower Online Library. n.d. “An Overseer Must Be . . . Self-Controlled.” Available. 5