In recent years, especially since the advent of the Internet, the Watchtower Society has been increasingly cast as a secretive and dangerous cult. Various outreach groups have as their goal rescuing Jehovah’s Witnesses from the clutches of the Watchtower. Some of those who accuse Jehovah’s Witnesses of being members of a cult do so for the reason that Jehovah’s Witnesses do not believe in the Trinity. But that is simply ridiculous. Jehovah’s Witnesses do not believe in the Trinity because it’s not a biblical teaching. For example, the “Christian answers” website lists the Watchtower Society as the second most dangerous cult in America, supposedly because “they deny the essentials of Christian faith,” which is to say Jehovah’s Witnesses do not accept the babylonish claptrap that churches consider to be Christian essentials.
However, other more credible sources of the same accusation come from ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses, who claim to have “escaped.” These do not necessarily believe the Trinity either. But what is a cult? And are Jehovah’s Witnesses similar to the destructive cults such as Scientology or the infamous David Koresh or the Jonestown cult? To establish what is a cult I have referenced the criteria established, not by Trinitarians or ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses, but by psychologists. An organization known as the International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA) describes itself as “a global network of people concerned about psychological manipulation and abuse in cultic groups.” It has worked up a checklist that they describe as an analytic tool to help one discern the characteristics of an abusive cult. Over the course of the next two weeks I will consider one point each day. Here is the checklist
1)The group displays excessively zealous and unquestioning commitment to its leader (whether he is alive or dead) and regards his belief system, ideology, and practices as the Truth, as law.
True Christians are “unquestioningly committed” to their leader, Jesus Christ. Although some suppose that Jesus died long ago and he no longer has any influence, Christians believe he is alive. The very fact that churches all over the world celebrate Easter as the resurrection of Jesus could be construed as having a commitment to a dead leader. But why would anyone commit themselves to following Jesus?
When Jesus Christ was upon the earth he claimed to be the sole pathway to God, the very truth and the source of life for all humanity. And Jesus clearly state that those who do not obey him will not see life. Those are pretty bold claims that could be considered by some to be the ravings of a cult leader. In fact, the Jewish clergy said as much, claiming that Jesus was under the power of Beelzebub and that he was possessed by a demon and that he was misleading the people. So, the accusations that Jehovah’s Witnesses are a satanic cult and that they are out to deceive people is nothing new. Jesus even forewarned his followers to expect to be persecuted and maligned.
When Jesus began his ministry he invited people to become his followers. There are several recorded instances when Jesus said “Come, be my follower”; and many of those invited immediately dropped what they were doing and literally followed Jesus as he went through the countryside and villages preaching about the kingdom of God. In a short while those followers were convinced that he was the promised Messiah and they became zealous preachers too – completely committed followers of Jesus Christ.
Without question the apostle Paul was the most zealous first century Christian. When some in the Corinthian congregation questioned his authority as an apostle Paul replied and gave a summary of how his zeal for Christ brought upon him all manner of persecution. He recounted how he had been stoned, beaten, lashed with the whip, suffered shipwreck, thirst and hunger. And Paul made it clear that he was willing to die for Jesus Christ. Was Paul “excessively zealous” for Christ? Absolutely! In his letter to Titus Paul wrote that Jesus “gave himself for us that he might deliver us from every sort of lawlessness and cleanse for himself a people peculiarly his own, zealous for fine works.”
Like those original disciples Jehovah’s Witnesses take their message to the public. Wherever people are, in their homes, on the streets, in the marketplace, the Internet, wherever; Jehovah’s Witnesses endeavor to engage people in order to share with them the Bible’s message. Hundreds of thousands of Jehovah’s Witnesses have devoted their whole life to a public ministry, becoming pioneer ministers and missionaries. And all of Jehovah’s Witnesses, even young children whose parents are ministers, share in some form of the public ministry according to their circumstances. Even people with disabilities. For example, it is not at all uncommon for hearing-impaired persons or those bound to a wheelchair to engage in some form of preaching. Those who may be housebound may use the telephone or write letters as an expression of their ministry. Although many people may feel that Jehovah’s Witnesses are a nuisance, no one can deny that they are zealous in their ministry. In that respect they are peculiar. After all, what other Christian religion is known for their public ministry? (Mormon youths only go on a two-year stint, as if doing military service, and then they are done.) So, according to the first criteria, both the first century Christians and Jehovah’s Witnesses belong to a cult.
2) Questioning, doubt, and dissent are discouraged or even punished.
The Watchtower Society does not have some secret, sinister agenda. When Jehovah’s Witnesses contact people obviously their intent and wish is to convert them. After all, Jesus commanded his followers to go make disciples. To that end a free home Bible study is conducted with individuals or families. Typically studies are held on a weekly basis for maybe an hour or two each week. In about six months time a person should have a basic understanding of the Bible’s teaching. And during the course of those studies it is made clear to the student what will be expected of them if they decide to become one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. It is during these study sessions when students are encouraged to ask questions and if things are unclear the minister conducting the study will try to explain things more thoroughly.
If, after completing the course the student wishes to commit to baptism they are required to meet with the elders in the congregation and they consider with them some 100 questions to determine whether the student has a basic grasp of things. If not, it may be that the elders suggest that the person put off baptism and continue to study. So it is not like prospective converts are pushed into anything. It is just the opposite. In fact, some people criticize Jehovah’s Witnesses for not allowing persons to simply walk in off the street and to become baptized as Jehovah’s Witnesses.
They may point to instances in the Bible when persons who accepted Jesus were immediately baptized. But in those instances the Jews and people of the nations who were Jewish proselytes already knew much about God and likely they were familiar with many of the messianic prophecies. So, for them it was an easy transition. But people today have their minds filled with so many erroneous ideas or they may not have any Bible background, whatsoever. So there may be an unlearning process involved. Or it may take many hours of reading and study for a person to comprehend the basic truth contained in the Bible.
But what if a person commits to becoming one of Jehovah’s Witnesses and at some point he or she begins to have doubts, what then?
Typically, they are encouraged to talk with an elder. It may be that an elder can clear up some questions that they may have or help them with some problem. In a case where one of Jehovah’s Witnesses becomes spiritually weak the elders may arrange for them to have private Bible study sessions. Doubts are definitely discouraged. Jesus once rebuked the so-called doubting Thomas, saying to him ‘stop being unbelieving but become believing.’ The letter of James is even more straightforward, saying that he who doubts is like a wave of the sea driven about by the wind. The doubter should not suppose that he will receive anything from God.
But what about dissension? Does the Watchtower Society allow dissenters to have a free voice?
No, definitely not. Those who do not continue to hold in common the beliefs of Jehovah’s Witnesses they once embraced are not allowed to remain in the congregation to try to persuade others to their view. Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that they have the true faith, and the elders have an obligation before God to serve as protective shepherds of God’s sheep. So that is why no dissension is allowed.
Ultimately, though, if Jehovah’s Witnesses are the true faith then they may expect Jehovah to be the ultimate judge. In the first century congregation there were dissenters. And they were not tolerated either. For example, Paul spoke of two men by name. In his second letter to Timothy the apostle wrote: “But shun empty speeches that violate what is holy; for they will advance to more and more ungodliness, and their word will spread like gangrene. Hymenaeus and Philetus are of that number. These very men have deviated from the truth, saying that the resurrection has already occurred; and they are subverting the faith of some.”
The apostle made it clear that those who insist on teaching their own doctrine have no place in the congregation. Also, in his letter to Titus Paul spoke about the men of Crete who spoke of things they ought not, and the apostle said that it was necessary to shut the mouths of these men because they were overturning entire households. And in his same letter to Titus Paul commanded Christians to turn down foolish questionings and to reject anyone who promotes a sect, writing: “But shun foolish questionings and genealogies and strife and fights over the Law, for they are unprofitable and futile. As for a man that promotes a sect, reject him after a first and a second admonition; knowing that such a man has been turned out of the way and is sinning, he being self-condemned.” Again, according to the criteria, the first century congregation, after which Jehovah’s Witnesses have patterned themselves, was a cult.
3) Mind-altering practices (such as meditation, chanting, speaking in tongues, denunciation sessions, and debilitating work routines) are used in excess and serve to suppress doubts about the group and its leader(s).
None of these characteristics of a cult are evident among Jehovah’s Witnesses. The Watchtower, in fact, has warned Jehovah’s Witnesses of the potential dangers of transcendental meditation and hypnotism. There is no chanting, tongue speaking, or “denunciation sessions” at meetings of Jehovah’s Witnesses. “Debilitating work routines”? Except for those considered full-time ministers the average Jehovah’s Witness spends a couple hours a week knocking on doors or some other facet of preaching work – hardly debilitating.
4) The leadership dictates, sometimes in great detail, how members should think, act, and feel (for example, members must get permission to date, change jobs, marry—or leaders prescribe what types of clothes to wear, where to live, whether or not to have children, how to discipline children, and so forth).
5) The group is elitist, claiming a special, exalted status for itself, its leader(s) and members (for example, the leader is considered the Messiah, a special being, an avatar—or the group and/or the leader is on a special mission to save humanity).
This criteria certainly describes Christianity. Jesus was so audacious he declared himself to be the savior of the world – actually, others who were acquainted with him declared him to be such. And Jesus enlightened his followers in order for them to serve as “the light of the world.” Those who are anointed are the very chosen ones of God whom the Father has called to enter into heaven itself in order to serve as an elite establishment of kings and priests in order to save humanity from sin and death. But also, Jesus warned that there would be many false messiahs and false prophets and that they would mislead many. So, the existence of destructive cults actually confirms that Jesus is a true prophet.It should not come as any surprise that the demonic forces of darkness wish to cast the sons of light as an evil cult.
6) The group has a polarized us-versus-them mentality, which may cause conflict with the wider society.
7) The leader is not accountable to any authorities (unlike, for example, teachers, military commanders or ministers, priests, monks, and rabbis of mainstream religious denominations).