This comes from one of the readers of this forum and involves correspondence with the branch office in his country about clarification on our position as regards whether it is right or not to applaud when someone is reinstated. (In an aside, I find it astonishing that we should feel the need to have a ruling on this. We, the freest people on earth, need to be told whether or not it is okay to engage in something as natural and spontaneous as applause?!)
km 2/00 p. 7 Question Box
Is it appropriate to applaud when a reinstatement is announced?
In his loving-kindness, Jehovah God has provided a Scriptural way for repentant wrongdoers to regain his favor and achieve reinstatement in the Christian congregation. (Ps. 51:12, 17) When this takes place, we are encouraged to confirm our love for such sincerely repentant ones.—2 Cor. 2:6-8.
Even so, as joyful as we are when a relative or acquaintance is reinstated, a quiet dignity should prevail at the time that the person’s reinstatement is announced in the congregation. The Watchtower of October 1, 1998, page 17, expressed matters this way: “We must remember, however, that most in the congregation are not aware of the particular circumstances that led to a person’s expulsion or to his reinstatement. In addition, there may be some who have been personally affected or hurt—perhaps even on a long-term basis—by the wrongdoing of the repentant one. Being sensitive to such matters, therefore, when an announcement of reinstatement is made, we would understandably withhold expressions of welcome until such can be made on a personal basis.”
Although we are very happy to see someone return to the truth, applause at the time of his or her reinstatement would not be appropriate.
The First Letter
We had a reinstatement announced recently in our congregation. Many expressed their joy at the reading of the announcement by applauding, while others refrained from doing so because of the direction given in the February, 2000 Kingdom Ministry “Question Box”.
I was one of those who did not applaud, though my conscience bothers me now. By obeying the direction of the governing body, I feel like I failed to imitate Jehovah’s loving kindness.
After reviewing the February, 2000 KM and the associated article from the Watchtower of October 1, 1998, I have not been able to resolve this conflict. I was looking to find some scriptural support for our stand, but none is given in either article. I understand the reasoning as expressed in the KM. I certainly want to be sensitive to the feelings of others. Yet, that reasoning appears to be in conflict with the reasoning given to us by the Christ in the form of the parable of the prodigal son. The father in that parable pictures Jehovah. The faithful son was offended by the father’s overt display of joy at the return of the lost son. In the parable, the faithful son was in the wrong. The father did not seek to mollify him by toning down his exuberance at having regained his lost child.
We all want to imitate our God, Jehovah. We also want to be obedient to those taking the lead among us. What do we do when our conscience puts those two goals into conflict with each other? To make matters worse, I have sufficient knowledge of the circumstances of this case to know that none were in a position to have been affected in any way by the wrongdoer’s past actions. So I was ignoring what I see as a principle of God to obey a rule that, in this instance, did not even apply.
Usually, in matters of this sort, you would advise us to be patient and wait for further clarification. That only works if we do not have to take any action one way or the other. It is my hope that before another occasion arises, you will be able to provide me with some scriptural support for our position on this subject so that I will not again feel like I have betrayed my conscience.
[ML: We are not authorized to publish the branch’s response here, but the second letter from this brother makes it clear what points were put forward to support our official position.]
The Second Letter
I would like to thank you very much for your extensive reply dated *************** regarding our rule that discourages applauding the reinstatement of a brother. After carefully considering what you had to say in the letter, I followed your advice to review the subject in our publications. In addition, knowing that the District Convention of this summer included a drama on the subject, I decided to wait to see if that would throw additional light on the matter to aid my understanding.
From your letter and the original Kingdom Ministry Question Box, it would appear that while there is no direct scriptural principle involved, there are three reasons for us to justify withholding our applause in these instances. The first is that there may be some who would be offended by such a public display due to the pain the wrongdoer’s former actions may have caused them. (I recall from this year’s drama that the older brother well highlighted how resentment can persist even after a former wrongdoer has repented.) The second reason is that we cannot demonstrate our joy publicly until we have had sufficient time to see if the repentance is truly sincere. The third reason is that we do not wish to be seen as praising someone for doing what he should never have had to do in the first place; i.e., be reinstated.
As per your suggestion to further research this question, I came across a couple of excellent study articles in the Oct. 1, 1998 Watchtower. As I studied these two articles, I tried to find additional support for the three points from your letter and the KM Question Box. I also more carefully reviewed the details of the Bible account. Unfortunately, this has only deepened my quandary. You see, in trying to follow the principles of Jesus’ parable and the clear direction of the governing body as stated in the aforementioned study articles, I find myself in conflict with the other direction from the Feb. 2000 KM, as well as your letter. I cannot seem to obey the one, without disobeying the other.
Please allow me to illustrate: In the letter, you state that the actions of the prodigal son’s father are appropriate in ‘the private family setting of the parable’, but that ‘in extending the application beyond that setting, other factors must be taken into account.’ I take this to mean, in part, that what might be appropriate in private would not be so in public; and that what we might do as a family might not be appropriate to do as a congregation.
In the family setting that Jesus utilized to make his point, the father lavished gifts upon his errant son. He threw him a banquet. There were musicians hired to play concert music. Friends were invited. There was dancing and noisy celebration such as can be heard at a distance. (Luke 15:25, 29b) When I read about a person throwing a celebratory banquet with hired musicians, inviting friends to dance and engage in noisy celebrations, I find it hard to understand how we can consider that as a private setting. What would a family have to do beyond this to make is a public setting? I hope you can see that I’m not trying to be difficult, but your words do not seem to fit the facts of the Bible account.
Of course, I am not for a minute suggesting that as a congregation we engage in such a boisterous display. I understand that Jesus was trying to make a point—to illustrate the degree of forgiveness and joy Jehovah feels when a sinner repents and turns around, and thus to get across the need for us to imitate our God in this. So my question would be: What would be the very least we could do as a congregation to imitate Jehovah when we first learn a sinner has repented? I can think of nothing less than applause. To not even applaud, would be to do nothing. How can we imitate our Father by doing nothing at all? It is true that individually, we can imitate Jehovah’s joy, but we are talking about what the congregation does collectively.
In your letter you suggest that the primary application of the parable is to the family and that extending it to the congregation is another matter. (If that was not your intent then please accept my apologies up front.) My confusion on this point arises from what appears to be conflicting instruction. The Oct. 1, 1998 Watchtower makes it clear that the primary application of the parable was to the congregation. According to those articles, the father depicts Jehovah, and the older brother represents, in the first instance, the rule-oriented Jews, primarily the scribes and Pharisees of his day.
At this point, I began to question myself, thinking that perhaps I am overly concerned about a point of little importance. So I reconsidered the counsel from the publications. For example:
“Often, repentant wrongdoers are particularly susceptible to feelings of disgrace and despair. Hence, these ones need to be reassured that they are loved by their fellow believers and by Jehovah. (w98 10/1 p. 18 par. 17 Imitate Jehovah’s Mercy)
So I began to wonder how much of a part, if any, applause might play in providing this needed reassurance. We applaud when an auxiliary pioneer is announced or when a speaker concludes a public talk. I recall that when the district convention speaker asked if we would appreciate a book on Acts of the Apostles, we applauded. If an audience were to respond to any of these situations with silence, would that be understood as an attempt at quiet dignity? Or would it rather be seen as apathy? Or worse, as an insult?
Would not joyous applause following the announcement of a reinstatement go a long way toward helping the disgraced one overcome feelings of despair and unworthiness? Conversely, would not a lack of applause serve to reinforce such negative feelings?
Next, was the concern that the applause may be taken for praise or acclaim? I do see your point. There is no question that applause of praise and acclaim would be inappropriate in the Christian congregation. All praise should go to Jehovah. I confess that when the announcement of a newly appointed pioneer is made, for instance, it may be that some view the applause that follows as undue praise or acclaim. However, should we ban such applause, or instead, seek to readjust the wrong thinking of such ones?
As a congregation, we applaud out of appreciation and out of joy. Our applause may be in celebration of an event. It may even be in praise. We do praise Jehovah by applause. However, would it not amount to passing judgment on the congregation were some to assign a motivation to our applause? The reason you give in your letter why some might do this is as follows:
“Therefore, it is really premature to express publicly at this point the sentiments indicated by applause, since to some this may give the impression that the person is being praised for doing what he never should have needed to do in the first place—being reinstated.”
As I meditated on this point, I was confronted with the difficulty of reconciling it with the point made below:
Apparently, the prodigal’s brother harbored a deep-seated resentment, so he felt it was inappropriate to celebrate the return of someone who should never have left home in the first place. (w98 10/1 p.14 par.5)
In the Watchtower article, we hold that the older brother’s reasoning was incorrect. So it is difficult for me to understand how similar reasoning can be applied to the issue of withholding applause?
The letter also makes the point that “the congregation as a whole has not had an opportunity to see this one fully manifest a changed heart condition.” Yet, wasn’t that also the case with the father in Jesus’ parable? He did not wait to see if his returning son’s repentance was sincere; if it would stand the test of time. Since there is no wait-and-see attitude depicted in the parable, what is our basis for encouraging one in the congregation?
This also seems to be inconsistent with our position on how a congregation is to view a disfellowshipped one. The congregation is expected to immediately accept the decision of the judicial committee and treat the wrongdoer as disfellowshipped. No time period is allowed for them to see for themselves that the person is unrepentant. So would it not be consistent that the same congregation accept the decision to reinstate made by the same judicial committee in the same way? If the judicial committee has judged that the brother is truly repentant, who in the congregation has a right to withhold their acceptance of that judgment?
From the instruction I have received from the aforementioned Watchtower article, reinforced by this year’s drama, it appears that those who have trouble forgiving a repentant wrongdoer are themselves in the wrong. The portrayal of the resentful older brother was very effective in conveying that truth. Would not our withholding applause out of consideration for the feelings of similar ones be tantamount to supporting them in their wrong attitude?
Please do not feel that I am intentionally or wilfully attempting to resist the direction from Jehovah’s appointed channel. It is just that in trying to be obedient, I must resolve these apparent inconsistencies, and I am at pains to do so. For instance, I wish to rejoice with people who rejoice as counselled to do by the following excerpt:
Like the prodigal’s brother, who was “unwilling to go in,” the Jewish religious leaders balked when they had opportunity to “rejoice with people who rejoice.” (w98 10/1 p. 14 par. 6 Imitate Jehovah’s Mercy)
Does this not also imply rejoicing as a group? The Jewish leaders were condemned because they were unwilling to engage in a public display of joy. Jesus gave his Jewish disciples principles governing the application of mercy. The scribes and Pharisees gave them rules. Principles belong to a free people, but they are hard. For many of us, there is more comfort in rules because someone else has taken the responsibility for us in determining what is right and wrong.
I have heard that there are some—a minority, yes, but still some—who have “worked the system” to “put away” an unwanted mate. They have connived to sin, marry someone else, then “repent” and return to the congregation, often the same one where the injured mate still attends. When such a sinner is disfellowshipped, the congregation would support the decision of the judicial committee. However, should he be reinstated, would that same congregation be as willing to support the decision? No one likes to be played for a fool. It would appear that our rule serves to protect us in such cases. However, by applying it, are we not unfortunately excluding thousands of rightly-disposed repentant ones from the comfort and solice of the majority? Will they not be denied a small, but important expression of love and support?
Finally, in attempting to come to terms with our position, I reviewed Paul’s direction to the Corinthian Congregation at 2 Cor. 2:5-11. To overcome the inclinations of imperfection he counselled against the withholding of fellow feeling as a group, saying “this rebuke [already!] given by the majority is sufficient for such a man, so that, on the contrary now, YOU should kindly forgive and comfort [him], that somehow such a man may not be swallowed up by his being overly sad. Therefore I exhort YOU to confirm YOUR love for him.” He makes this a matter of faith: “For to this end also I write to ascertain the proof of YOU, whether YOU are obedient in all things.”
I acknowledge that the governing body is empowered to direct the Christian Congregation and all true Christians should strive to follow that direction wherever possible so that there may be harmony among God’s people. I am not presuming to counsel you brothers. (Phil. 2:12) It is just that our obedience is based on the persuasiveness of the truth, and in truth there is no inconsistency nor conflict. As demonstrated above, there does appear to exist such inconsistency and conflict in our current reasoning on this issue. That, in a nutshell, is the reason I have written a second time.
Thank you again, and may Jehovah continue to bless the work you do for the worldwide brotherhood.