Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Moderate-Fundamental Gap

Despite their claims of unity of thought and faith, Jehovah’s Witnesses beliefs, as with adherents of all religions, lie on a spectrum, ranging from moderate to fundamental. On the far end of the fundamental side, you have those who take the bible and Watchtower doctrine at its face value. The disseminated laws are to be followed and principles are there to cover most everything else. The fundamentalist will often go out of their way to make sure that they stay way back from where the edge of where being casual with a principle bleeds into breaking a law. This mindset pervades and overrules all other influences, including family ties when it comes to the disfellowshipping policy and the desire to preserve life when it comes to refusing blood transfusions.

In contrast, it seems there will always be some witnesses whose makeup allows them to be more independent and to do things that may not be quite orthodox and yet continue on without feeling that their relationship with God has been adversely affected. Those on this moderate end tend to back down from what outsiders, other moderates, or even they themselves might see as being extreme in some way. “Sure, the Governing Body might teach that I need to limit my interaction with a disfellowshipped family member to only ‘necessary family business,'” they might think, “but Jehovah understands that in my situation, more interaction is needed, for the good of my family member and myself. As long as these conversations and meetings are kept private, no one will be offended and Jehovah won’t hold it against me. Surely he’s reasonable.”

Unfortunately, the men who lead the organization are not of this constitution. Listening to Anthony Morris speak about those who haven’t been out in service in a few weeks as having blood on their hands in the eyes of Jehovah shows that he is entirely serious about this matter. We will use this point, which Morris has elaborated on at least twice, as a test case for consideration.

But first, let’s consider why this gap between moderate and fundamentalist Witnesses is even worth talking about. Surely the moderates aren’t as bad as the fundamentalists, right? It would seem like we don’t have much to criticize in the moderates since they’re much more reasonable.

Consider what Dr. Sam Harris points out in his book, The End of Faith.

While moderation in religion may seem a reasonable position to stake out…it offers no bulwark against religious extremism… From the perspective of those seeking to live by the letter of the texts, the religious moderate is nothing more than a failed fundamentalist. He is, in all likelihood, going to wind up in hell [or, destroyed permanently in Witness doctrine] with the rest of the unbelievers. The problem that religious moderation poses for all of us is that it does not permit anything very critical to be said about religious literalism. We cannot say that fundamentalists are crazy, because they are merely practicing their freedom of belief; we cannot even say that they are mistaken in religious terms, because their knowledge of scripture is generally unrivaled. All we can say, as religious moderates, is that we don’t like the personal and social costs that a full embrace of scripture imposes on us… The texts themselves are unequivocal…By their light, religious moderation appears to be nothing more than an unwillingness to fully submit to God’s law. [bold mine]

 

Dr. Harris makes an invaluable point: moderate believers create a protective wall for fundamentalists while simultaneously appearing as nothing but “spiritually weak” to the fundamental believer. Just a few paragraphs later he states that moderates “do not want anything too critical said about people who really believe in the God of their fathers, because tolerance, perhaps above all else, is sacred.” This couldn’t be more true of the relationship that perhaps the majority of Jehovah’s Witnesses have with members of the Governing Body…which brings us to our Tony Morris example.

An Example

Anthony Morris III has in his arsenal what seems to be a pretty formulaic talk that he’s been giving at branch visits around the world over the last few years. We have recordings of these talks from 2014 in the United States and 2018 in Trinidad & Tobago.

One of the more memorable parts of the talk begins with Tony reading from Ezekiel 33:8, 9 in which Jehovah advises the ancient prophet that the blood of the wicked ones he failed to warn would be asked back of him. Tony says that “spiritual families” likewise understand that they have a “God-given responsibility to warn others.” He explains that, while your friends and family may have some idea since they know your preaching habits, only God can know for sure if you have blood on your hands. Despite this uncertainty, he says to those who haven’t been out in service preaching in weeks, “Guess what? Most likely God is seeing blood all over your hands.”

What are the consequences of having this figurative fluid on one’s hands? Tony tells us: “You can not water down what God says here. If your hands are not clean because you’ve been out warning, then they have blood on them and you’re gonna lose your life. It’s what it is. It’s a reality… As long as you’re out there warning and doing your best, you’re gonna get life… So keep in mind, spiritual families: they keep their hands clean ‘from the blood of all men.’ See? So only you, between you and Jehovah can keep your hands clean. You can’t do it for your teenager. They have to accept the responsibility to get their own hands clean.” (emphasis added)

In the 2014 talk he elaborates: “…if he sees blood on our hands, we’re going with the ones that we’re supposed to warn. It’s that serious. Not a light matter.”

Now, if there’s only one point that Tony wants his audience to take away, it seems fair to say that it is “preach or die.” He says nothing that presents any more nuanced a view than that, nor could he since these verses are difficult to apply for an individual Witness since, unlike Ezekiel supposedly did, they’re not being told of the individual “wicked one” to warn. The closest Tony does get to nuance is mentioning that Jehovah doesn’t set out a certain amount of people that someone has to convert, rather he just expects one’s best. What is one’s best and how does someone determine it, though? Tony brings up those who haven’t preached in weeks as if this were a measure listed in scripture when it is actually arbitrary. Tony doesn’t have any way of actually knowing how much God would expect of a person. Perhaps Witnesses should be preaching house to house daily. Perhaps they should be preaching to literally everyone they meet no matter how awkward the exchange. After all, everyone wicked is already doomed if they are not preached to and why run the risk of going along with them?

But a moderate might protest, feeling that, yes, this may be the general rule, but Jehovah can read hearts. He is loving and reasonable and surely he can understand and forgive those who, for various reasons, aren’t able to preach for a period of time or even at all in this “system of things” as long as they believe generally in him and aren’t doing anything terrible. As Sam Harris noted, this seems like a “reasonable position to stake out.” The “personal and social costs” of what the hard line doctrine entails would seem to be unreasonable and, to a moderate, even unbelievable.

How might Tony respond to this? We’re not left to wonder:

“And sometimes folks talk about this relative, that relative and you know, they’re baptized but they’ve been going through a hard time, they’re not preaching. We love the inactive. We’re gonna’ try and help them. But, you know, they talk about Jehovah like, like he’s gonna’ understand all this and I’m like: What Jehovah are they talkin’ about? I don’t know him. He’s not in here. That’s your idea. This is serious business. It’s life and death, whether we share in the warning work.” (emphasis added)

Morris expresses the viewpoint that Harris predicts of staunch believers in scripture. In Tony’s “seeking to live by the letter of the texts,” he seems to view Witnesses who would minimize the seriousness of Jehovah’s words in Ezekiel as “nothing more than a failed fundamentalist,” one whose “religious moderation appears to be nothing more than an unwillingness to fully submit to God’s law.” He even takes it to the extreme of characterizing the God of the moderate as being different from the one he worships; one that doesn’t appear in the bible. That’s how strongly he feels on the matter and the text of Ezekiel provides nothing to challenge him.

It’s quite often that, at this point in the discussion, a moderate might feel that in fact the listener is being a little extreme if they’re taking literally what Anthony Morris, or anyone giving a talk like this, says. The objection can come in a few different forms. One is that Tony is merely a little over-zealous. Who’s to say that Jehovah really feels so strongly? This, however, is simply watering down the words of the messenger who is cautioning you not to water down the “word of God.” It is a doubling down on one’s moderate stance. How far can one go in burying the doctrine under layers of reason before there is no justification in even claiming to believe in, much less hold to, the doctrine itself? At what point does one risk being (supposedly in their own theological viewpoint) like the lukewarm water that Jesus promises to “vomit out of [his] mouth?”

The stronger version of this objection is that perhaps Tony Morris is actually just flat wrong. Perhaps the understandable fear and anxiety that discourses like this result in are in fact proof that what he teaches is harmful, not in line with what Jehovah actually wants taught, and that maybe he’s just being used to accomplish a larger and more important purpose in God’s plan. This is, in fact, the exact line of reasoning that a friend of mine recently raised.

Upon being reminded of Morris’ strong statements, and sharing with him the additional rhetoric from the Trinidad & Tobago version, my friend brought up the biblical account of Eli and his sons, Hophni and Phinehas. Quick recap, Eli was high priest of Israel beginning before the prophet Samuel was born and continuing on until Samuel was a young man. Hophni and Phinehas both served as priests as well but weren’t too ethical about it, to say the least. They would have their attendants steal meat from people offering sacrifices before the ritual was complete so they could prepare it how liked. They were also sleeping with the female attendants who worked in the tabernacle courtyard. Eli was lazy in his discipline of them, merely rebuking them instead of removing their positions. In fact, most if not all of what they did would have incurred death by stoning according to the Mosaic law.

My friend’s claim (made spontaneously and without forethought, to be fair) was that perhaps Morris could be in the same position. Perhaps Morris is completely wrong in his interpretation of Ezekiel 33 and he will eventually be made to account in some way. Maybe he won’t get his heavenly reward? I’m not sure as he didn’t elaborate on what he thought the penalty might be.

Here’s where the wheels fall off of this theory though. When we’re talking about a Governing Body member teaching Jehovah’s Witnesses, at the behest of the GB itself, about bible doctrine, we’re talking about “God’s channel of communication.” There is nothing in the bible account of Eli to suggest that he was teaching false or harmful doctrine. There is nothing that gives us the impression that he was telling the Israelites things that were false concerning the Mosaic Law or God’s personality and actions. His crime, as presented, was his offending God by not properly disciplining his sons. It was not an issue of his teaching but rather, an issue of his conduct and failure to act.

With Tony we have the opposite problem. There is no evidence to suggest that he is involved in any sort of “wrongdoing.” While he may not be a very pleasant individual to spend time with in the eyes of many, there is no reason to think, at least from a Witness perspective, that he is involved in private activity that would cause his concept of God to become offended, adultery or blasphemy for example. In fact, through the lens of JW belief, he has been put in his position specifically because holy spirit has influenced the organization to make sure he is used in this way, that is, to teach and to lead.

If Jehovah would allow a Governing Body member to teach things about his nature that aren’t true, then why should a Witness believe anything that the Governing Body says at all? “Well, when he’s on his own, he’s just a domestic[note]w13 7/15 p. 22 par. 13: Who, then, are the domestics? Put simply, they are those who are fed. Early in the last days, the domestics were all anointed ones. Later, the domestics came to include the great crowd of other sheep. The other sheep now make up the vast majority of the “one flock” under Christ’s leadership. (John 10:16) Both groups benefit from the same timely spiritual food that is dispensed by the faithful slave. What about the Governing Body members who today make up the faithful and discreet slave? Those brothers also need to be fed spiritually. Hence, they humbly recognize that as individuals they are domestics just like all the rest of Jesus’ genuine followers.[/note] like any other Witness. Maybe Jehovah uses holy spirit to ensure the Governing Body as a whole makes good decisions but not when they split up and act individually.” Fine, but what source would you use to draw this arbitrary line of when God stops using holy spirit to protect his life-saving message? Does holy spirit stop protecting the information when the Governing Body says “amen” and leaves their meeting room? Does it protect the writing of Watchtower articles and publications, the vast majority of which are written by Witnesses who are not on the Governing Body, or even anointed Christians? If so, why wouldn’t it protect the information conveyed by Tony when he is hand-picked by the Governing Body to serve on a Branch Visit? How could any of us make that call? And if the whole means of delivering God’s truth is so susceptible to intervention and tampering, why should anyone take any Watchtower doctrine, or the bible for that matter, as valid? If Tony Morris’ very clear reading and interpreting of Ezekiel 33 as written in plain speech can’t be taken seriously because it offends a moderate’s idea of what is reasonable, then what is the whole endeavor about anyway? If the text can’t be taken seriously, then what does one compare a claim against to determine if it is valid and imperative?

As Dr. Harris says, “By failing to live by the letter of the texts, while tolerating the irrationality of those who do, religious moderates betray faith and reason equally.” He describes the faith of the moderate as nothing more than “a desperate marriage of hope and ignorance.” It’s an unfortunately fitting description of the cognitive dissonance that this position betrays.

The sad fact is that this dissonance brings with it very real consequences, not the least of which is people remaining trapped inside of organizations exercising undue influence over their members. That’s why Dr. Harris takes the time to address this problem in the first place. The negative effects on people both inside and outside of such religions and organizations is real and worrisome.

How does all of this trickle down to congregations of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Most Witnesses don’t deal with Governing Body members on a regular basis if ever, so what other effects does this split between moderates and fundamentalists have?

Prayer

Think of the different ways that individuals look at a topic like prayer. Watchtower routinely reminds Witnesses that they need to be vigilant, regular, and specific in prayer. In fact, Tony, in the same talk, chastises family heads who give prayers that get a little stagnant or routine. If a father’s kids can guess what he’s going to pray for at the dinner table, he can assume he needs to mix it up.

The moderate may pray because the Bible commands it but he or she in many cases doesn’t pray particularly about their issues in hopes of receiving an answer. Their prayers may tend towards the general blessing and protection of their brothers and sisters and for God’s will to be carried out in the big picture concerning Jehovah’s Witnesses. But these ones are not very likely to claim any specific event as being in response to a prayer.

Based off of the public prayers I heard growing up, both in the Kingdom Hall and at private social functions, this arguably describes the majority of Witnesses in my area, maybe in others as well. It was also very rare for any of my friends or acquaintances to bring up having a prayer answered and many I knew would find it a little funny and awkward if someone made the claim one of theirs had been.

The fundamentalist believer on the other hand tends to pray very specifically and see subsequent events as answers to their prayers. Having spent around a decade in full-time service, I have seen many, many examples of this.

To illustrate, one of my Pioneer Service School instructors seemed to have all types of tales proving that Jehovah answers prayers if they are specific enough, a common topic for theocratic schools in particular. He had enough stories in fact, that they would take up a good portion of his time for each unit and we would have to skip over much of the “spiritual food” prepared for us.

To offer an example, at one point, he had become a little depressed in his pioneer work and belived that owning a dog might cheer him up and help him to continue on. He prayed to Jehovah for a specific breed of dog for the purpose of helping to continue on as a pioneer. The alleged response came in the form of one of his return visits informing him of a Craigslist post advertising his desired breed of puppy for sale. Tearfully, our instructor told us that upon entering the seller’s home, God caused a particular puppy to come right up to him, thereby signaling that this was the dog selected for him.

Another story was centered around his being assigned as a Bible School for Single Brothers[note]For those of you who may have been out for a while: the successor to the Ministerial Training School (along with the Bible School for Christian Couples) and predecessor of the current School for Kingdom Evangelizers.[/note] graduate to a rural town in my state. He knew it would be difficult to move so far away so he prayed to find a home with a specific number of rooms, specific types of finishes, a specific number of trees in the yard, etc. Sure enough, he ended up finding this type of home at a price point he could afford. The moral of the story: be specific in prayer.

I would have to ask, would god really refuse to provide a home if someone was a little less specific? What if a person prayed for a home with all of the same parameters but not the number of trees desired? Would this be answered, and, indeed even answerable? What if the person just asked generally for a home that would fit all of their needs and wants so as to serve God “whole-souled”? Is this enough? After all, the bible says that God knows what it is we need before ever we ask it. It must be asked then, why is the prayer needed and where do the demand for and parameters of specificity come from.

A friend of mine at Bethel, a married sister in her 40s, seemed to have a prayer answered each week. The most memorable claim for me, since there were so many, was when she specifically prayed to Jehovah for, and received, an office job. Now, at Bethel, we would routinely have recounted for us examples of long-time Bethelites who had stayed the course in difficult assignments. Sometimes the assignment was boring, other times it was challenging, and in others it was taxing someone to their physical limit due to health or age. These experiences were touted to us as examples of faith and endurance. So why would someone pray to God to remove from them an opportunity to show these qualities? And why would Jehovah answer a prayer as small as whether or not a particular person gets to sit or stand during working hours when there are so many far more important prayers that go unanswered daily? So many Witnesses and people in general are daily praying for relief from unimaginable and chronic suffering. The claims of Jehovah giving people dogs, homes meeting one’s personal wishes, cushier jobs, and other trivial things fall flat when compared with mankind’s protracted and ongoing struggle to survive and thrive.

I saw this friend not too long ago after not having the opportunity to visit with her for a few years. Almost immediately it was explained to me how recently, some of her family members were able to attend a special Bethel event because she had prayed that it would be so. She seemed to give no thought to the fact that this privilege was only made possible by the fact that she and her husband had been in full-time service for north of two decades and had thus amassed the seniority and connections to make this possible. She also may not realize that because she is prone to talk about her own goings-on to anyone who might listen, her friends and workmates are all in the know when she is in need of an extra ticket to this event or that. It is in her nature and habit to attribute positive things that happen to her to prayer, despite the evidence of the actual causes of these things being plain. Why? Because parts of the bible say that this is how things work.

Conclusion

It should be asked, why write this post? What’s the point?

My hope is that moderate Jehovah’s Witnesses, or believers of any type, will reflect on what it is that makes them moderate in the first place. Is it really an accurate understanding of a sacred text or the nature of a deity? The conclusion I came to, before ever having read anything by Sam Harris or anyone critical of religion, is expressed well by him nonetheless:

Religious moderation is the product of secular knowledge and scriptural ignorance – and it has no bona fides, in religious terms, to put it on a par with fundamentalism.

 

In other words, moderates are bringing something else to the table that makes them such. And thank goodness for it! The disgust one feels when reading of the violence inflicted by Jehovah on bible characters is a sign that something in one’s ethical filter is working properly. Struggling to comprehend that Jehovah would kill good people at Armageddon for the crime of not believing in him the way the Governing Body stipulates is an indicator that one probably has a good moral base themself. But it is not the bible that has built this. There can be some good principles to take away from the bible, to be sure. But in reality, this understanding and empathy are the products of living in a time vastly superior in almost every measure to the one in which the bible writers lived. And the progress that we’ve made is not due to a better reading of scripture, but rather a better grasp of our reality and a relegating of ancient claims about it to their place on the shelf of systems long-forgotten.

I would urge moderates to think hard on this matter, and then consider that taking Watchtower’s view of the bible will always shackle them to laws and principles that offend the empathy and understanding they have gained from secular sources, and keep them from growing in those qualities. If you are actually going to make progress in your understanding of the world and other people, these are shackles that must be shaken off, and no one else can do it for you.

–kp


 

1 thought on “Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Moderate-Fundamental Gap

  1. “All we can say, as religious moderates, is that we don’t like the personal and social costs that a full embrace of scripture imposes on us… The texts themselves are unequivocal…By their light, religious moderation appears to be nothing more than an unwillingness to fully submit to God’s law.”

    This is an important observation in this post. In order to find a reasonable response – or even a superior position to the potential damage through fundamentalist extremism – moderation seems to provide the most sophisticated position. However, we simply have to recognize that religion is capable of creating a whole different world within the larger existing reality and keep the minds and actions of believing individuals beholden to this system of belief. For some, it can remain the unending infatuation!

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