Remaining in Association with Jehovah’s Witnesses
An active baptized member of Jehovah’s Witnesses finds significant errors taught in the central publication of the religion, The Watchtower journal. The error is taught with frequency in private and public settings arranged by the religion. The significance reaches to the point that, in some circumstances, premature death could result from abiding by the error. What conscientious options are available to this member? Must they publicly denounce the error (or errors) and formally withdraw themselves from the religion in order to maintain their personal dignity and conscience? Or, can they privately denounce the error or errors and informally withdraw themselves from the religion, yet still maintain their personal dignity and conscience? Or, is it possible to remain a member and retain the same dignity and conscience? This writer believes the individual’s conscience and personal dignity—their honor—can be retained in either setting, but that the third choice has unique honor.
In the first instance (formal withdrawal—disassociation—and repudiation of error) an individual has made a choice based upon a conscientious choice to abide by a personal finding of what is right. No one could denounce them for following their conscience. However, in the case of Jehovah’s Witnesses, the individual will find themselves ridiculed by remaining members of the religion. In essence their former associates will conclude the ex-member has made a very bad and unwise decision, because they feel there is no error of such significance to justify formal withdrawal from the religion. Nevertheless, the person has made a choice in good conscience, they have acted honorably.
In the second instance (informal withdrawal—fading away—and privately repudiating the error) an individual might not be taking a public stance of defending their choice, but they may not be able to without hurting others more severely than it may hurt them to remain effectively silent. In this case an individual has acted selflessly by sacrificing their desire to publicly repudiate error for the sake of others who would be hurt and could not be saved in the process for a variety of reasons. Unless a person is intimately aware of all the facts, including the perceptions of the member involved, there can be no charge of dishonor because the possibility remains that a good conscientious choice has been made. As before, former associates will conclude the ex-member has made a very bad and unwise decision, because they feel there is no error of such significance to justify formal withdrawal from the religion. But, again, this person has made a choice in good conscience, they have acted honorably.
In the third instance (remaining a member) the individual is not taking a public stance of repudiating the error, but neither are they removing themselves from membership, formally or informally. Even in this case it is possible the person is acting honorably. How so? The individual may simply be trying to do all possible to root out the error by whatever means is otherwise available and at the same time cause as little emotional, mental and spiritual upheaval as possible. This person believes emotional and mental stability are essential to happiness and that meaningful spiritual aspiration is essential for both. On one hand they realize an erroneous teaching is death dealing in certain circumstances, but they believe they can make more gains on overcoming this error by working from within and helping to change the flaw, and at the same time not cause the meaningful spiritual aspiration of others to be overcome to the point of causing them to effectively experience a living death that could last for many, many years. Again, this person has made a choice in good conscience, they have acted honorably.
Whichever of the three choices a member makes, they will find themselves ridiculed by persons inside or outside the religion of Jehovah’s Witnesses, except for the one who chooses the latter (remaining a member). Experience shows that a person who recognizes the error but remains a Jehovah’s Witness will find themselves ridiculed from persons inside and outside the religion. Why is this?
Some persons outside the religion will feel you are a coward for not standing up denouncing the error publicly. These ridiculers are also likely to feel by virtue of continued membership you are helping to perpetuate the error. On top of calling you a coward, these will also repudiate you as a hypocrite. On the other side of the aisle some persons inside the religion will feel you are a hypocrite for continuing a membership in something you are not in full agreement with. These ridiculers will denounce you as a spying traitor in that you are not in full agreement but remain privy to inside information anyway. This situation may be the worst of all because persons both sides make you the object of ridicule.
In the case of Jehovah’s Witnesses, any one of the three choices above will be hard ones. It is commendable that intelligent people recognize the potential honor in each case and encourage accordingly. This is an act of neighborliness that, in my opinion, reflects the historical record of Jesus who was willing to build up a person rather than tear them down. This Jesus recognized when people were acting in good conscience and commended them accordingly. Such a course has the practical value of always rewarding conscientious choices, which encourages thoughtfulness, and that is something that no one can intelligently criticize.
What brings on these comments? I am one who has chosen the third option mentioned above. There are many others like me who I know personally, and we have all experienced that described above. Thankfully I can report that discouragement has come only from what I will respectfully call idiots, on both sides. That is, whenever a thoughtful person on either side realized the good conscientious choice, they responded encouragingly. Of course, idiots are not thoughtful and they act accordingly. Quite a few of my friends have succumbed to vicious emotional assaults from idiots on both sides, and their lives are the worse as a result. Of course, they knew the stakes of making the choice they made, so they are not complaining. But no one involved in the hurting has gained anything, except ruining part (or all) of someone’s life, someone who was acting unselfishly and in good conscience at all times. In my book these people are acting in ways that the Bible condemns, and society too for that matter.
In some cases people will actually assert a fallacious bifurcation by contending that honor requires a member must either agree in full with teachings of The Watchtower or formally leave and publicly repudiate the supposed error. These persons are arguing a black and white when other, honorable, options are available, and that is what makes it a fallacy. One reason I believe people assert this false bifurcation results from the sentiment “Traitors are hated by both sides.” The reason this ideology fails in the case of the third choice is this: it is the only choice where a person is definitely not a traitor in context with this discussion. How is that?
In the first choice the individual has formally withdrawn themselves; they are now traitors in the eyes of their former allegiance. In the second choice the individual has still withdrawn, just quietly; however ideologically they are still viewed as traitors because they have withdrawn. If we apply an ideology that “a traitor is hated by both sides,” then both these cases should experience ridicule from both sides, but experience shows they don’t.
The third choice is the only one where the individual has not withdrawn. In the scenario I speak of, they have not removed themselves from membership but instead have made a choice to stand and fight for gains as best the system will allow it. This is not an easy fight. Those who have experienced it know the fight is extremely demanding and, in the end, in most cases the person ends up being caste out of the religion because of thoughtless persons who do not comprehend the good fight, or else they are just plain worn out to a point where they can no longer keep up the fight. In this case they still have not withdrawn. Rather, it can be said they have fought the fine fight to the finish. These are the only ones who cannot be deemed traitors by virtue of withdrawing membership. For whatever reason, they saw some redeeming feature or features worth fighting to salvage, and they acted accordingly. Who of us does not have significant disagreement with an institution that we would also fight to preserve its good features?
The Bible and society as a whole has a long list of persons who made “Choice Three.” To name a few historical persons of the Bible: Elijah, Jeremiah, and Paul.
The option of remaining a member in good conscience exists and therefore the bifurcation of “Stay and accept all!” or, “Leave and publicly reject!” is a false black and white fallacy. Of course, just how one balances their knowledge of error with continued membership is crucial to maintaining a good conscience, but in this author’s mind it is possible and should not be dismissed as undoable. It is possible that I am just trying to justify my own choice. Then again none of us can read another person’s mind to know if they are acting as best they possibly can to do good, and who could expect more than a person’s best. In the end maybe the struggle of trying to understand why another person thinks they are doing good is a key element in spiritual aspiration for each one of us. In that case the thoughtful ones are far ahead. From what I can gather, the historical Jesus was just such a man. Perhaps this is why today he yet has so many claiming discipleship.