Thursday, February 8, 2007
Posted by Robb Pearson at 12:11 PM
"Woe to the shepherds who are destroying and scattering the sheep of my pasture!" -- Jeremiah 23:1
Allow me to tell you a story. It is a lengthy story, and a difficult one. But it is also an important one.
My early days
I was, for all intents and purposes, raised as a Jehovah's Witness. An aunt of mine, who I was very close to, had been involved with them for a number of years, and when I was ten years old (twenty five years ago) she introduced me to some of her Witness friends. They were a charming older couple, very kind and very friendly (though I cannot remember their names; it was a long time ago). Over the next five years I would have semi-regular contact with them, and they would tell me about what Witnesses believed and what they did and about their faith, etc. My aunt, of course, was always around as the constant influence. She would occasionally bring me to the Sunday meetings, which I always enjoyed. I'd also join her in her Bible studies with others.
By 1987 my attachment to the Witnesses was secure, such that theirs was the only faith I firmly identified with. I had a number of Witness friends, and had often joined in their social gatherings. Then in 1990, when I was 17, I pursued my study of the religion with greater seriousness and eagerness, and on December 29 of that same year, at 18 years of age, I was baptized, and officially became one of Jehovah's Witnesses.
Only three short years after my baptism, in January of 1994 and at age 21, I would leave the religion altogether, formally disassociating myself.
Who are the Witnesses, and why did I leave?
As a group, the Witnesses are among the most moral and ethical people one could ever meet. Their faith is a way of life, almost monastic in nature, and they are deeply devoted to it. They are in many ways extremely similar to the Amish, with the exception that the Witnesses live in and reach out to the world, where the Amish withdraw from it. The Witnesses also hold to some teachings and practices that depart from "mainstream Christianity", such as their belief about death (it is a state of unconsciousness), hell (it is merely the grave where the unconscious dead lay), their stance on blood (they refuse blood transfusions; otherwise they are very pro-medicine), their rejection of the trinity doctrine, their rejection of the teaching that people go to heaven when they die, strict excommunication policy (what they call disfellowshipping) for those who unrepentantly commit sins, their belief in the imminence of Armageddon and the second coming of Christ who will save the faithful and kill the wicked and transform the earth into a paradise, their door-to-door ministry, and the use of the name "Jehovah" as the actual name of God.
But why did I leave? Well, it wasn't necessarily because of the beliefs or teachings of the Witnesses, per se, though in the thirteen years since I left I've developed my own beliefs and sense of faith (I do confess, though, that there were a couple moments during those thirteen years that I had thought about returning).
My reasons for leaving were personal and two-fold. The first reason was because I was dealing with the fact that I was gay, and for a 21 year old newly in a religion that seriously looks down upon and condemns homosexuality, it was an extremely difficult struggle. And when the struggle became too oppressive, I left.
The second reason, and perhaps the more serious one, has to do with why my struggle was oppressive.
In three words: the Governing Body.
What many do not realize is that Jehovah's Witnesses, while a good and moral group of people, are as a religious society organized under the auspices of a corporation called the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society which is run by a small group of men with absolute authoritarian control over the organization. These eleven or so men -- known as the Governing Body -- believe themselves to be of a specially "anointed class" of Christians who are God's sole conduit for teaching the world what He requires of mankind. In essence, they are God's chosen representatives on earth.
All congregations of Jehovah's Witnesses -- and all Jehovah's Witnesses individually -- fall under the singular authority of this Governing Body (frequently referred to as "the society"), which sets policy and doctrine for the religion in accordance with their interpretation of the Bible, which is held to be paramount, final, and absolutely unquestionable. At the local level elders are appointed by the Governing Body in order to ensure the society's policies are strictly adhered to by the members of the congregation. Furthermore, prior to baptism, those who are about the become Jehovah's Witnesses are required to answer two questions before being baptized:
(1) On the basis of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, have you repented of your sins and dedicated yourself to Jehovah to do his will?
(2) Do you understand that your dedication and baptism identify you as one of Jehovah's Witnesses in association with God's spirit-directed organization?
The second question is where the person about to be baptized affirms the he or she accepts the authority of the Watchtower organization. And that is ultimately what being a Jehovah's Witness is all about: the organization. And this is why my personal struggle was made oppressive. When I sought "help" and compassion and mercy, I was met with kind yet cold professionalism whose main focus was to enforce organizational rules rather than comfort the struggling heart of a young man. After appearing before several elder committees which oversaw my "case" (the Watchtower society has its own congregational judiciary structure), and after being told numerous times to simply study more, pray more, attend all the meetings, go door-to-door more and, in essence, learn to suffer with my problem -- the basic Watchtower prescription for "healing" and remaining faithful -- I tired of the emptiness of their corporate approach, which had no hint of Jesus in it, and chose finally to outright leave the organization.
In a nutshell, the only way to be acceptable to God is to be a Jehovah's Witness under the absolute authority of its Governing Body. This is the core foundation of their entire religious indoctrination program. To question the Governing Body or its interpretations is to question God and thus risk severe excommunication, which for Jehovah's Witnesses means you are condemned by God.
But what people do not know is that the authoritative policies of the Governing Body are responsible for perpetuating the most hideous of evils.
Most people are shocked to discover that the Watchtower society -- the religion of Jehovah's Witnesses -- is a haven for pedophiles. Thousands of Jehovah's Witness children have been sexually abused -- and many undoubtedly still continue to be abused -- and most of them never see justice because of the religious policies of the Governing Body which reject the rules of "the world" in favor of the overriding rules of God.
In the Jehovah's Witness organization, whenever a person commits a sin, or knows of someone who has committed a sin, it is expected they will go to the elders to seek help and/or guidance. In the case of someone reporting another person's sin, the elders must follow strict guidelines in order to determine guilt: (1) the accused must either confess guilt, or if he or she does not confess guilt then (2) two witnesses are required in order to determine guilt. This rule is based on the strict interpretation of the following Bible passage:
“Moreover, if your brother commits a sin, go lay bare 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, in order that at the mouth of two or three witnesses every matter may be established.”
Matthew 18:15, 16 (NWT)
This rule is adhered to without deviation or flexibility. If only one witness comes forth, the elders will not and cannot say an accused person is guilty, all because the Governing Body's policy requires an unquestioned adherence to this strict interpretation. For example, take note of the Governing Body's policy in regards to how elders should handle cases of molestation accusations:
"If the accusation is denied, the elders should explain to the accuser that nothing more can be done in a judicial way. And the congregation will continue to view the one accused as an innocent person. The Bible says that there must be two or three witnesses before judicial action can be taken. (2Cor.13:1, 1 Tim. 5:19) Even if more than one person "remembers" abuse by the individual, the nature of these recalls is just too uncertain to base judicial decisions on them without other supporting evidence. This does not mean that such "memories" are viewed as false (or that they are viewed as true). But Bible principles must be followed in establishing a matter judicially."
From a November 1, 1995 Watchtower magazine article. (The Watchtower magazine is the principle tool of the Watchtower society for disseminating its teachings and authoritative pronouncements)
It is this very policy which has permitted the sexual abuse of children to go unchecked for years within the congregations of Jehovah's Witnesses. For what child molester ever sexually abuses a child in front of one or more witnesses who could corroborate his crime? Because of this, children who go to elders to report abuse are almost always turned away because the abuser never confesses and the child can never produce more than one witness. As such, cases are closed, and the details buried. But it gets worse. Children who persist in their accusations are warned that they could be shunned because they are engaging in slander of a person who, in the eyes of the religion per its "two witnesses" policy, is guilty of no wrongdoing.
The saddest and most horrific element in all of this is the fact that, due to the indoctrination, conditioning and programming of individual Witnesses, almost none ever oppose this policy due to fears of questioning the authority of the Governing Body.
But some do speak out.
In 2001 an organization called Silentlambs was created by Bill Bowen, a former Jehovah's Witness from Kentucky who served as an elder for twenty years, and who was grieved when learning of cases of child abuse in his own congregation that were swept under the rug. He understood that Jesus' teachings were never meant to harbor those who harm little children, and that any man-made organization whose policies and religious interpretations of scripture permit and perpetuate the abuse of the most innocent among us cannot possibly be blessed by God.
In its first two years, Silentlambs was contacted by six thousand Jehovah's Witness abuse victims. Unlike the Watchtower society, Silentlambs was a safe haven which advocated justice for children who endured unspeakable crimes against their bodies, and unspeakable injustice at the hands of elders who were supposed to shepherd them and an organization which claims itself as the chief representative of God on earth. Silent Lambs helped bring many cases to a national spotlight, and scores of abusers -- many of whom were actually elders -- have now been punished with convictions and prison sentences.
Why I have shared this story
I am a childhood sexual abuse survivor. I know what it is like to suffer the loss of justice after having suffered the loss of innocence. And that is the untold third reason why I left the Witnesses. I had sought help in dealing with the emotional impact of my own abuse, and I received little compassion. Thankfully, the year after leaving the Jehovah's Witnesses, I entered a recovery program which was remarkably successful, and achieved the healing I had desperately needed. I also received the justice I was entitled to.
This message today is to express my gratitude to Bill Bowen, who I was privileged to speak to yesterday for nearly an hour. His courage and compassion and godly conviction has helped thousands. As a result of what he did he was excommunicated by the Watchtower society. Yet his is the truest demonstration of real eldership and godly shepherding, and I have hope for those children of Jehovah's Witnesses who have been victimized, and who certainly are continuing to be victimized. I pray Jehovah's hand bring mercy and justice to them all.
"People were bringing little children to Jesus to have him touch them, but the disciples rebuked them. When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, 'Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.' -- Mark 10:13, 14
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