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Practices of Jehovah's Witnesses

Practices of Jehovah's Witnesses include activities common to many churches, such as evangelism, gathering for group worship and study, and donating money to support their religious activities. Some controversial practices include temporal disengagement, shunning, and injunctions against certain medical procedures.

Table of contents
1 Evangelism
2 Kingdom Halls and Assembly Halls
3 Meetings
4 Funding of activities
5 Baptism
6 Temporal disengagement
7 Association
8 Disfellowshipping
9 Medicine and Health
10 Disaster Relief

Evangelism

Jehovah's Witnesses are perhaps best known for their intensive witnessing, or, as some refer to it, proselytizing, efforts. Indeed, this practice is closely associated with the religion's name. All members who are healthy enough are strongly encouraged to go from door to door, participating in this activity. Even children are encouraged to participate, accompanied by their parents. Each witness is encouraged to participate to the extent his circumstances allow, every week if at all possible. Some witnesses commit to spending 70 hours per month in witnessing activites; they are known as pioneers.

Witnesses have in the past used a wide variety of methods of spread their faith, including information marches, where members wore sign boards and handed out leaflets, to sound cars, and syndicated newspaper columns and radio spots devoted to sermons.

Currently, door-to-door evangelizing for the Witnesses means endeavouring to engage persons in discussion of religious matters and offering literature about their faith to anyone who shows an interest in it, on a donation basis, rather than a for-sale basis.

Althouth it is largely the door-to-door evangelism of the Witnesses that has made them targets of lampooning in various modern media, in many places it continues to be a highly effective way of locating potential new members. Likely more than half of all Witnesses came into contact with the organization when they or an immediate family member received a door-to-door visitation.

Jehovah's Witnesses object to the use of the word proselytism or proselytizing to describe their work, since the word now has almost exclusively negative overtones. They point out that their activity does not involve coercion, as anyone who does not wish to listen can merely shut the door or walk away. No financial or material rewards are offered for conversion. Terms frequently employed by the witnesses include "preaching," "disciple-making", "service," "the ministry," and, more formally, but less frequently, "evangelizing."

Kingdom Halls and Assembly Halls

Jehovah's Witnesses call their meeting places "Kingdom Halls" instead of churches, to indicate that the gathering of the congregation is what is important, not the physical location itself. In general, the buildings are functional in character. Many halls are attractive but have few architectural frills.

In many countries, the Witnesses have "Assembly Halls" where about twenty congregations meet twice a year for one- or two-day assemblies. In countries and areas without such "Assembly Halls" the twice-annual assemblies are still held but in borrowed or rented facilities suitable for the purpose such as public auditoriums or school auditoriums or similar facilities. Once a year Jehovah's Witnesses come together at larger assemblies called "District Conventions" and occasionally "International Conventions" with visiting delegates from a number of foreign countries usually lasting 3-4 days. Some "International Conventions" number into the hundreds of thousands with the largest ever gathering held in New York in 1958 at the Yankee Stadium and Polo Grounds with a peak attendance exceeding 250,000. The latest series of International Conventions is being held in 2003.

The great majority of the Kingdom Halls and Assembly Halls as well as the Watchtower Society's headquarters and branch office facilities around the world have been constructed by the Witnesses themselves freely contributing their own time. The needed finances come exclusively from voluntary contributions made by Jehovah's Witness members according to each one's means and inclination.

Meetings

Congregation meetings are held three times a week. A public talk (sermon on a Bible-related theme) is delivered usually on Sundays, followed by a discussion of an article from 'The Watchtower' magazine. On a weekday evening, the 'Theocratic Ministry School' is held, and virtually all members of the congregation take turns at giving short readings, talks or dialogues on preassigned topics. This is followed by the 'Service Meeting', program on how to carry on the group's preaching efforts. At some other time during the week, smaller groups of 12-15 people meet, generally in private homes, to discuss one of the Watchtower Society's books, looking up scripture references and commenting.

Meetings of Jehovah's Witnesses open and close with prayer. Hymns, known to the Witnesses as 'Kingdom Songs' are usually sung at meetings held in the Kingdom Hall, as well as at assemblies and conventions.

Funding of activities

Congregations do not pass a collection plate around or directly solicit money at meetings. Witnesses have a culture of donating money privately and voluntarily, as each individual sees fit. A report of the congregation's finances is read to the congregation each month. Most Kingdom Halls have one contribution box for the local congregation's operating expenses and one for the worldwide work of Jehovah's Witnesses (including the printing of literature, organization of conventions, supporting missionaries and disaster relief).

Baptism

Jehovah's Witnesses practice baptism by complete immersion in water. Young children or babies are not baptized. Before undergoing baptism, new Witnesses take part in a series of three discussions with congregation elders, in order to ascertain their understanding of the importance of the step and to determine whether they are adequately prepared for the responsibilities that baptism entails.

Temporal disengagement

Although in general respecting the law of the land, Jehovah's Witnesses refuse to salute flags, sing national anthems, or pledge allegiance to states or nations. This is not intended as disrespect for any particular nation or for governments; Witnesses recognize the legitimacy of political leaders, believing that they are the 'superior authorities' referred to by the Apostle Paul in Romans 13:1, and are therefore to be respected. Indeed, in many places, the Witnesses have been commended for their law-abiding stance. They make a distinction, however, between a show of respect and what they consider to be a manifestation of worship. Jehovah's Witnesses feel that saluting a flag or singing a national anthem crosses the dividing line between the two. This is because they believe they owe allegiance solely to Jehovah (God); that he alone may be worshipped.

In this regard, Jehovah's Witnesses feel that their position is similar to that of the early Christians, who refused to sacrifice a few drops of wine or a few grains of incense to the Roman emperors, and were therefore executed.

Among the results of this belief in the United States are several cases of Constitutional law regarding the Pledge of Allegiance. The early cases establishing that government schools cannot mandate the Pledge, or the salute to the flag, all involved Witness students punished or threatened for their refusal.

Some courts in other countries have also protected the Witnesses' right to abstain from patriotic ceremonies. For example, in 1986, the Supreme Court of India held that no one can be forced to join in the singing of the national anthem, if the person has a genuine, conscientious religious objection.

In a decision handed down on March 1, 1993, the Philippine Supreme Court ruled unanimously in favor of Jehovah's Witnesses in a case involving Witness youths who were expelled from school because they respectfully declined to salute the flag.

Additionally, Jehovah’s Witnessses refuse to serve in military organizations, citing the principle they call Christian Neutrality. They understand Jesus' words in John 17:14, "They are no part of the world, just as I am no part of the world," to mean that they should take a neutral stand concerning political and military controversies. They further cite Jesus' words that "all those who take the sword will perish by the sword" (Matthew 26:52) and the prophecy of Isaiah (chapter 2, verse 4): "Nation will not lift up sword against nation, neither will they learn war any more."

Historically, this refusal to join the military has created serious difficulties for Jehovah's Witnesses, particularly in war time. During World War II, young Witnesses in a number of countries were executed for their conscientious objection to war; even in more democratic countries they were generally refused exemption from conscription and have often been imprisoned.

Currently, there is less conflict between Witnesses and governments over this matter, as many countries have abolished conscription, whereas others have recognized the views of conscientious objectors and thus instituted the right to alternative civilian service, which Witnesses generally accept. In certain republics of the former Soviet Union, however, as well as in Singapore, young Witness males continue to serve prison terms in connection with this issue.

During World War II Jehovah's Witnesses were persecuted by the Allies and the Axis powers for refusing to participate in these powers' respective war efforts. (See Jehovah's Witnesses and the Holocaust).

Jehovah's Witnesses are not pacifists, that is to say, they are not opposed to the use of violence in all circumstances. They recognize, for instance, the legitimacy of the wars between the ancient nation of Israel and surrounding nations, and point out that passages in both the Old and New Testaments refer to God's using warlike methods at times

In harmony with the principle of Christian neutrality, referred to above, Jehovah's Witnesses do not vote in elections, or run for political office. On the other hand, they do not seek to prevent or discourage others from doing so, if they so desire.

Association

Jehovah's Witnesses are a close-knit community and as such many are not inclined to socialize with non-members, particularly in localities where they are treated with hostility. Such association is strongly discouraged by the organization.

Since a Witness has social interactions while on the job or at school, he is encouraged to use these times for witnessing to non-members. Such contacts are often used as opportunities for starting conversations about their beliefs, "informal witnessing," as they call it. Some of the training and study that goes on during the three weekly meetings involves the proper way to witness to a non-member.

Each congregation operates under the oversight of a body of elders, who often influence the socialization between the members. Social events deemed to be wholesome are encouraged, since they strengthen the bonds of the congregation. However, if elders deem a social event to be inappropriate then it is likely that some action would be taken to preserve the group's identity and values, likely bringing published information to the attention of those who to a greater or lesser degree have deviated from the group's standards.

It is not, however, the role of elders to make decisions for the congregation's members. In 1995, The Watchtower gave the following direction to elders: "In matters of conscience, therefore, elders do not make decisions for those under their care. They explain the Bible principles involved in a matter and then allow the individuals involved to use their own powers of reason to make a decision. This is a serious responsibility, yet it is one that the individual himself must bear."

Just as the members of the congregation all have different backgrounds and consciences, and thus range from super-zealous in their application of the group's teachings and standards, through to those who view compliance with all the details as less than critical, with a host of shades in between, the same can be said about congregation elders. Some are more successful in fulfilling their role than others.

Sociologist Rodney Stark notes: "Jehovah's Witnesses are expected to conform to rather strict standards, [but] enforcement tends to be very informal, sustained by the close bonds of friendship within the group. That is, while Witness elders can impose rather severe sanctions (such as expulsion and shunning) on deviant members, they seldom need to do so -- and when they do, the reasons for their actions will be widely-known and understood within the group. Moreover, even if leaders are not always very democratic, the path to leadership is. As a result, Witnesses tend to see themselves as part of the power structure, rather than subjected to it. It is this, not 'blind fanaticism' (as is so often claimed by outsiders and defectors), that is the real basis of authority among Witnesses." (Journal of Contemporary Religion)

Most young witnesses engage in casual recreational sports, but the group encourages its members to avoid giving undue importance to sports or recreation.

Members under the age of 18 are strongly discouraged from dating, which, the Witnesses believe, is for those considering marriage only and should be avoided until both members are prepared for marriage. Little research has been done on the average age at which Witnesses marry. A 1994 survey in which all Jehovah's Witnesses in the Federal Republic of Germany were invited to participate, revealed that only 4.9% of them are divorced or separated, and many of these were already in this state before becoming Witnesses.

Disfellowshipping

Jehovah's Witnesses practise shunning, or disfellowshipping, as they call it for three main reasons: (1) They feel that to tolerate violations of the Bible's standards in their ranks would bring reproach on the God they serve, (2) Shunning keeps the congregation free of possible corrosive influences (leaven, as the Apostle Paul calls it in 1 Corinthians 5), and (3) They hope that such a serious measure will motivate the person in question to re-evaluate his course of action and repent.

A person might be disfellowshipped from the Jehovah's Witness organization for non-repentance involving serious violations of the Bible-based moral standards. These would include fornication, adultery, homosexual activity, abortion, theft, recreational use of drugs or tobacco, drunkenness, and teaching false doctrines.

Disfellowshipping is not automatic, even when a person is accused of one of the above transgressions. Allegations must be substantiated by at least two witnesses (unless the person confesses voluntarily). In these cases, a committee of elders examines the evidence and seeks to determine whether the person has ceased the questionable activity and repented. If they find that this is not the case, the person is likely to be disfellowshipped.

Shunning, as practiced by the Witnesses, takes a less extreme form than that of the Old Order Amish. Because Witnesses' social life generally revolves around association with fellow believers, being shunned can isolate a member in a very powerful way. Being "disfellowshipped" can be devastating if everyone in a member's social circle participates in the shunning. Witnesses are not, however, expected to shun family members living in the same household. In these cases, social contact and normal family ties continue as before, with the exception that the remaining Witness members of the family will not share in Bible study, prayer, or discussions of faith-related matters with the disfellowshipped member. Parents, though, are encouraged to continue to study the Bible with their minor children who have been disfellowshipped.

The organization discourages association with disfellowshipped family members living outside the home, but recognizes the need for a certain degree of contact, for instance, to discuss necessary family business, or to provide care for aged parents who are disfellowshipped. In practice, most disfellowshipped persons continue to have a limited degree of association with family members who remain in the organization.

Disfellowshipping is not always permanent. If a disfellowshipped person repents of his former conduct, he may be received back into the congregation. No specific period of time is prescribed before this can happen; in most cases, at least six months pass, in many cases, much longer. Statistics would appear to show that about one third of those disfellowshipped eventually return to the group.

Jehovah's Witnesses point to a number of Bible passages to defend their practise of disfellowshipping, most notably 1 Corinthians 5:10-13, which reads: "I am writing you to quit mixing in company with anyone called a brother that is a fornicator or a greedy person or an idolater or a reviler or a drunkard or an extortioner, not even eating with such a man. ... "Remove the wicked [man] from among yourselves."

Another passage often quoted in the Witnesses literature with reference to disfellowshipping is 2 John 10, 11: "If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, never receive him into your homes or say a greeting to him. For he that says a greeting to him is a sharer in his wicked works."

In February 1987, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the Witnesses' right to disfellowship those who fail to live by the group's standards. In so deciding, it upheld the ruling of a lower court that: "Shunning is a practice engaged in by Jehovah’s Witnesses pursuant to their interpretation of canonical text, and we are not free to reinterpret that text . . . The defendants are entitled to the free exercise of their religious beliefs . . . The members of the Church [she] decided to abandon have concluded that they no longer want to associate with her. We hold that they are free to make that choice."

For a detailed explanation of the practise from a Witness viewpoint, see the official Watchtower website.

Medicine and Health

The Witnesses' teachings in general promote a healthy lifestyle. They believe that smoking and recreational use of drugs is incompatible with Christian principles. Drinking alcohol is viewed as permissible, and most Witnesses do drink a little. Drunkenness, however, is not permitted.

Witnesses do not reject most medical treatment and in general avail themselves of the full range of medical care. Since 1945, however, Jehovah's Witnesses have refused to receive blood transfusions. This is because they consider blood to be sacred, representing life. They point to Bible texts such as Acts 15:29, which enjoins Christians to "abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from unchastity." [1]

Because of this, some Witnesses have died, including minor children. Critics consider it child neglect - or even murder - for parents to refuse to permit their children to receive transfusions. In practice, however, such situations are very rare indeed, because in most cases the state will take action to order a blood transfusion on a minor child if the parents refuse consent.

The Witnesses' attitude to vaccination and organ transplants, based on the same verses which inform their attitude on blood transfusion, was initially condemnatory, their literature at first forbidding vaccination (until 1952) and organ transplants (until 1980). Vaccination was however accepted by some Witnesses as early as the second world war. Currently both procedures are accepted in the Witness community.

Although their stance regarding blood transfusion is based on the Bible, rather than on medical concerns, many Witnesses are highly critical of those who attempt to paint a picture of "life giving blood transfusions" versus "death due to refusing a transfusion." They emphasize that no surgeon gives guarantees and point out that 'dying after refusing blood' is not necessarily the same as 'dying because of refusing blood'; after all, no-one can state with certainty whether the patient would have survived if he had received blood. Such 'either-or' reasoning ignores other possibilities, such as the use of blood substitutes, meticulous surgical techniques, as well as the many dangers of blood transfusion, including mismatch of blood types, blood-borne diseases such as AIDS and Hepatitis, and the more frequent recurrence of cancer in patients who have been transfused during operations.

To allow for surgery without violating their belief against transfusion, the Watch Tower organization has set up "Hospital Liaison Committees" to enrol doctors and surgeons who will practice "bloodless surgery" for Witness patients. Currently there are some 1600 such committees in 200 different countries of the world, and over 110000 doctors and surgeons who have agreed to treat Jehovah's Witnesses without making an issue of blood transfusions.

"Hospital Information Services", a department of the World Headquarters of Jehovah's Witnesses researches medical literature on the subject and translates medical-journal articles into dozens of languages. These may be sent by fax to any Hospital Liaison Committee. The provision of the most up-to-date information about a certain condition has often obviated the need for a blood transfusion. Recently, the Hospital Information Services received an award from the Society for the Advancement of Blood Management.

The Watch Tower Society has published extensive information about the medical matters in general and blood transfusion in particular. [1] [1] Their magazine Awake frequently carries articles about disease and health-related matters. Although various treatments are discussed for information purposes, such articles invariably include a statement to the effect that they are not endorsing or recommending one type of medical treatment or therapy above another.

Abortions are forbidden by their faith, on the basis that human life starts at conception. They are not against contraception, as long as the contraceptive method works by preventing conception, as opposed to being an early abortifacient. Jehovah's Witnesses are politically neutral and, as such, do not get involved in political debate regarding abortion.

Disaster Relief

The Jehovah's Witnesses organization has a policy of helping its members who have been affected by natural disasters, wars, etc. Under the direction of the group's governing body, one of the Society's branch offices may be asked to take care of the need. The prime focus is on helping fellow believers, although others also receive assistance.

The French Branch Office of Jehovah's Witnesses operates a non-governmental organization known as AidAfrique, which provides material help to Witnesses in Africa after disasters. During the war in the former Yugoslavia, Witnesses from Austria and the Federal Republic of Germany provided material assistance to fellow believers in Sarajevo, as well as other localities, some risking their lives to drive the aid truck through the war zone. Witness literature occasionally publishes reports on the progress of such efforts.

Jehovah's Witnesses offer literacy programs in countries where there is a need. For example, Witness literacy classes in Nigeria between 1962 and 1994 were attended by upwards of 25 000 persons. In the same country, the literacy rate among Witnesses is over 90%, in contrast to the average of 68% for the population in general.

See also: Jehovah's Witness Doctrines