Jehovah's Witnesses are being told for the first time that they should violate confidentiality requirements in medical, legal and other professions when one of their own members is discovered to have committed a serious sin.
"The objective would not be to spy on another's freedom but to help erring ones and to keep the Christian congregation clean," says the Sept. 1 issue of the Watchtower magazine, an authoritative publication of the Witnesses' Brooklyn-based Watchtower Society.
The 3.3 million members worldwide, including 745,000 active U.S. Jehovah's Witnesses, are advised to confront the sinner first, but if he or she is unrepentant, the sinner's elders should be told "because of the superior demands of divine law."
Warnings of Armageddon
Jehovah's Witnesses, best known for their warnings of a world-ending Armageddon, have clashed in the past with governments for refusing to pledge allegiance to the flag or to serve in the military-out of a greater loyalty to God. But both sect officials and critics of the movement say this is the first published advice to members that they breach oaths of confidentiality when they learn of serious violations of their faith.
The Witnesses' stance goes beyond anything practiced in conservative churches, said Charles Teel Jr., professor of Christian ethics at Loma Linda University. "I know of no evangelical or fundamentalist community that has that kind of understanding of being faithful to the congregation or breaking pledges in the workplace," Teel said.
The magazine used a hypothetical case of "Mary," a medical assistant, discovering that a fellow Witness had had an abortion. "Did she have a scriptural responsibility to expose this information to elders in the congregation, even though it might lead to (Mary) losing her job, to her being sued, or to her employer's having legal problems?" the article asked.
The answer was yes, and Witnesses were advised to determine, before pledging confidentiality in their jobs, "what problems this may produce because of any conflict with Bible requirements."
One critic of the Jehovah's Witnesses said the opinion will have "frightening" consequences for members already working in certain professions. They may find that requesting transfer or resigning is "the only honorable and responsible thing to do," said David Brown, spokesman for Alpha and Omega, a self-described "counter-cult" ministry in Phoenix.
Regarding the confidential client relationships required of attorneys and physicians, William Van De Wall, a Witness headquarters spokesman, said Wednesday that "in the majority of cases" both the professional and the client could protect themselves.
"At the community level, most patients who seek out an attorney or doctor would know if they were of the same religion. If a Witness wanted to avoid telling him something, he would seek someone else. And as long as the doctors and attorneys make known their positions when they get the client, that should eliminate the problem," Van De Wall said in a telephone interview.
Van De Wall confirmed that someone who contracted venereal disease or AIDS through sexual promiscuity would be considered to have sinned. Other serious offenses, he said, could include drug abuse, contributing to a sperm bank or receiving artificial insemination, or, if unmarried, obtaining a vasectomy or prescription for birth control pills.
Both Van De Wall and the published guidelines suggested that reporting on an erring member can have a happy ending-with the offender confessing the sin and receiving counseling.
Similarly, Frank Kavelin, an elder with the Beverly Hills congregation, noted Wednesday that the guidelines say that minor transgressions should be overlooked. "While the organization promotes zeal for doing things that are righteous, it also promotes discretion," he said.
Kavelin also said that he was not worried that members would be upset over the guidelines in the Sept. 1 magazine, which has been available to members since mid-August.
But some ex-Witnesses predicted that members will be subjected to increased scrutiny in a church that last year expelled one member for every six it took in.
Raymond Franz, a nine-year member of the Watchtower Society's governing body until he resigned under pressure in 1980, said: "The governing body knows that some little statement made by it will be converted into something mammoth by the time it gets to the elders. No area of personal life is beyond their reach and rulings."
Franz, who lives in Winston, Ga., also disputed the idea "that those people going to the elders are going to be treated lovingly. So often people find they were dealt with in demeaning ways." Franz was disfellowshipped at the end of 1981 in a case involving his changed views of the organization's theology.