I think that the key to your whole discussion is what the definition of a cult is. The JW's have their own definition of a cult, and, naturally, they don't qualify. So, before you even get going, agree on what you both believe are the characteristics of a cult. Then, you can demonstrate that the JW's do qualify. A good start would be Lifton's eight marks of a mind-control cult, which you can find here.
At the end of this post is the WTS position on the matter, and you can be sure that the people you are discussing it with will have referred to this article.
One note of caution: be careful what you say in front of two JW witnesses if you are at all concerned about being df'ed. Especially so if your wife's "friend" turns out to be an elder.
*** w94 2/15 pp. 5-7 Are Jehovah’s Witnesses a Cult? ***
Are Jehovah’s Witnesses a Cult?
JESUS CHRIST was accused of being a drunkard, a glutton, a Sabbath breaker, a false witness, a blasphemer of God, and a messenger of Satan. He was also accused of being subversive.—Matthew 9:34; 11:19; 12:24; 26:65; John 8:13; 9:16; 19:12.
After Jesus’ death and resurrection, his disciples were likewise the target of serious accusations. One group of first-century Christians were dragged to the city rulers by people crying out: ‘These men have overturned the inhabited earth.’ (Acts 17:6) On another occasion the apostle Paul and his companion Silas were taken to the authorities and charged with greatly disturbing the city of Philippi.—Acts 16:20.
Paul was later accused of being a "pestilent fellow and stirring up seditions among all the Jews throughout the inhabited earth" and of trying "to profane the temple." (Acts 24:5, 6) The principal men of the Jews in Rome accurately described the situation of Jesus’ followers when they acknowledged: "For truly as regards this sect it is known to us that everywhere it is spoken against."—Acts 28:22.
Evidently, this new group established by Jesus Christ was considered by some to be a religious group with radical views and practices that clashed with what was accepted in those days as normal social behavior. Undoubtedly, many today would have considered the Christians a destructive cult. The accusers were often prominent and respected members of the community, and this seems to have added weight to the allegations. Many believed the accusations against Jesus and his disciples. Yet, as you probably know, every one of these charges was false! The fact that people said these things did not make them true.
What about today? Would it be accurate to refer to Jehovah’s Witnesses as a religious group with radical views and practices that clash with what is accepted as normal social behavior? Are Jehovah’s Witnesses a cult?
What the Evidence Shows
A government official of the city of St. Petersburg, Russia, explained: "Jehovah’s Witnesses were presented to us as some kind of underground sect sitting in the darkness and slaughtering children and killing themselves." However, the people of Russia have recently become better acquainted with the true nature of the Witnesses. After working with Jehovah’s Witnesses in connection with an international convention, the same official observed: "Now I see normal, smiling people, even better than many people I know. They are peaceful and calm, and they love one another very much." He added: "I really do not understand why people tell such lies about them."
Jehovah’s Witnesses do not hold ritualistic meetings, nor is their worship cloaked in secrecy. Non-Witness author Julia Mitchell Corbett notes: "When they meet, usually more than once a week, in Kingdom Halls (their meeting sites are not called churches), most of their time is spent in Bible study and discussion." Their meeting places are clearly marked with a sign. The meetings are open, and the general public is invited to attend. Unannounced guests are more than welcome.
The "Witnesses have earned the reputation of being honest, courteous, and industrious," adds Corbett in her book Religion in America. Many who are not Witnesses readily acknowledge that there is nothing freakish or bizarre about Jehovah’s Witnesses. Their conduct does not clash with what is accepted as normal social behavior. The New Encyclopædia Britannica accurately states that the Witnesses "insist upon a high moral code in personal conduct."
The director of news and special projects for a television station in the United States wrote to Jehovah’s Witnesses in response to a biased report about the Witnesses on the TV news show 60 Minutes. He said: "If more people lived the way your faith does, this nation wouldn’t be in the shape it is in. I am one newsman who knows that your organization is founded on love and a strong faith in the Creator. I want you to know that not all News people are as biased."
A Well-Known Religion
Is it fair to say that Jehovah’s Witnesses are a small fringe religious group? In a sense, Jehovah’s Witnesses are few in number compared to some religions. However, recall what Jesus said: "Narrow is the gate and cramped the road leading off into life, and few are the ones finding it."—Matthew 7:13, 14.
At any rate, the Witnesses are far from being a small fringe cult. In the spring of 1993, more than 11 million people attended the Witnesses’ Memorial of Christ’s death. But more important than their number are their moral character and exemplary behavior, which have brought them worldwide commendation. Undoubtedly this has been a factor in countries that have given them official recognition as a known, bona fide religion.
Outstanding is a recent ruling by the European Court of Human Rights. It declared that the Witnesses should enjoy freedom of thought, conscience, and religion and that they have the right to speak about their faith and teach it to others. This would hardly be the case if Jehovah’s Witnesses were known to use deceptive and unethical techniques to recruit members or if they used manipulative methods to control the minds of their followers.
Multitudes around the world are well acquainted with Jehovah’s Witnesses. Of the millions of non-Witnesses who are studying the Bible with the Witnesses or who have studied with them at one time or another, we ask, Were there any attempts to brainwash you? Did the Witnesses employ mind-control techniques on you? "No" would doubtless be your frank response. Obviously, if these methods had been used, there would be an overwhelming number of victims in contradiction to any argument in favor of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
"Absorbed in Humanity"
Cult members often isolate themselves from family, friends, and even society in general. Is that the case with Jehovah’s Witnesses? "I do not belong to Jehovah’s Witnesses," wrote a newsman in the Czech Republic. Yet he added: "It is obvious that they [Jehovah’s Witnesses] have tremendous moral strength. . . . They recognize governmental authorities but believe that only God’s Kingdom is capable of solving all human problems. But watch it—they are not fanatics. They are people who are absorbed in humanity."
And they do not live in communes, isolating themselves from relatives and others. Jehovah’s Witnesses recognize that it is their Scriptural responsibility to love and care for their families. They live and work with people of all races and religions. When disasters strike, they are quick to respond with relief supplies and other humanitarian assistance.
More important, they are engaged in an educational program that has no comparison. How many religions have an organized system to pay personal visits to every individual in their community? Jehovah’s Witnesses do this in more than 200 lands and in more than 200 languages! Clearly, Jehovah’s Witnesses are "absorbed in humanity."
Strict Adherence to the Bible
Admittedly, the teachings of Jehovah’s Witnesses are different from those provided by the churches. Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that Jehovah is the almighty God and that Jesus is his Son, not part of a triune deity. Their faith is anchored in the belief that God’s Kingdom alone can bring relief to suffering humanity. They warn people of the imminent destruction of this corrupt system of things. They preach about God’s promise of an earthly paradise for obedient mankind. They do not venerate the cross. They do not celebrate Christmas. They believe that the soul is mortal and that there is no hellfire. They will not eat blood, nor will they accept blood transfusions. They abstain from involvement in politics and participation in warfare. Have you ever asked yourself why the teachings of Jehovah’s Witnesses are so different?
A Massachusetts newspaper, the Daily Hampshire Gazette, explains that Jehovah’s Witnesses’ "strict interpretation of the Bible forbids many activities others take for granted . . . , all in an effort to follow the example of first-century Christians and the word of the Bible." The Encyclopedia of Religion agrees that "all that they believe is based on the Bible. They ‘proof text’ (that is, supply a biblical citation to support) almost every statement of faith, taking for granted the authority of the Bible, which entirely supplants tradition." The book Religion in America states: "The group has never wavered from its focus on Bible study, and its teachings are supported by an elaborate system of references to scripture."
Who Is Their Leader?
It is precisely because of this close adherence to Bible teachings that the veneration and idolization of human leaders so characteristic of cults today is not to be found among Jehovah’s Witnesses. They reject the concept of a clergy-laity distinction. The Encyclopedia of Religion aptly states about Jehovah’s Witnesses: "A clergy class and distinctive titles are prohibited."
They follow Jesus Christ as their Leader and as Head of the Christian congregation. It was Jesus who said: "Do not you be called Rabbi, for one is your teacher, whereas all you are brothers. Moreover, do not call anyone your father on earth, for one is your Father, the heavenly One. Neither be called ‘leaders,’ for your Leader is one, the Christ."—Matthew 23:8-12.
It is clear that Jehovah’s Witnesses are as far from being a cult as Jesus was from being a glutton and a drunkard. Admittedly, not everyone who was influenced by the false reports about Jesus and his disciples fell into the trap of slandering him. Some may simply have been misinformed. If you have questions about Jehovah’s Witnesses and their beliefs, why not get to know them better? The doors to their Kingdom Halls are wide open to all who seek truth.
You can also benefit from their careful search for accurate Bible knowledge and learn how to worship God in harmony with Jesus’ words: "The hour is coming, and it is now, when the true worshipers will worship the Father with spirit and truth, for, indeed, the Father is looking for suchlike ones to worship him."—John 4:23.