[This post is a follow-up to last week’s discussion: Are We Apostates?]
“The night is well along; the day has drawn near. Let us therefore throw off the works belonging to darkness and let us put on the weapons of the light.” (Romans 13:12 NWT)
“Authority is the greatest and most irreconcilable enemy to truth and argument that this world ever furnished. All the sophistry—all the color of plausibility—the artifice and cunning of the subtlest disputer in the world may be laid open and turned to the advantage of that very truth which they are designed to hide; but against authority there is no defence.” (18th Century Scholar Bishop Benjamin Hoadley)
Every form of government that has ever existed consists of three key elements: legislative, judicial, and executive. The legislative makes the laws; the judicial upholds and applies them, while the executive enforces them. In less wicked forms of human government, these three are kept separate. In a true monarchy, or a dictatorship (which is just a monarchy without a good PR firm) the legislative and the judicial are often combined into one. But no monarch or dictator is powerful enough to encompass the executive all by himself. He needs those who act for him to execute justice—or injustice, as the case may be—so as to preserve his power. This is not to say that a democracy or a republic is free of such abuses of power. Quite the contrary. Nevertheless, the smaller and tighter the powerbase, the less accountability there is. A dictator does not have to justify his actions to his people. Bishop Hoadley’s words are as true today as they were centuries ago: “Against authority there is no defence.”
At the fundamental level, there are really only two forms of government. Government by the creation and government by the Creator. For created things to govern, be they man or the invisible spirit forces using man as their front, there must be the power to punish dissenters. Such governments use fear, intimidation, coercion, and enticement to hold onto and grow their authority. By contrast, the Creator already has all the power and all the authority, and it cannot be taken from him. Yet, he uses none of the tactics of his rebellious creatures to rule. He bases his rulership on love. Which of the two do you prefer? Which do you vote for by your conduct and life course?
Since creatures are very insecure about their power and always fearful that it will be stripped from them, they use many tactics to hold on to it. One of the foremost, used both secularly and religiously, is the claim to divine appointment. If they can fool us into believing that they speak for God, the ultimate power and authority, it will be easier for them to maintain control; and so it has proven down through the ages. (See 2 Cor. 11:14, 15) They may even compare themselves to other men who truly ruled in the name of God. Men like Moses, for instance. But do not be fooled. Moses had real credentials. For instance, he exercised the power of God through ten plagues and the splitting of the Red Sea by which the world power of the day was defeated. Today, those who would compare themselves to Moses as God’s channel might point to similar awe-inspiring credentials such as being freed from prison after a grueling nine months of suffering. The equivalency of that comparison fairly leaps off the page, does it not?
However, let us not overlook another key element to Moses’ divine appointment: He was held accountable by God for his words and deeds. When Moses acted wrongly and sinned, he had to answer to God. (De 32:50-52) In short, his power and authority were never abused, and when he strayed he was immediately disciplined. He was held accountable. Similar accountability will be evident in any humans today who hold a similar divinely-appointed office. When they stray, mislead, or teach falsehood, they will acknowledge this and humbly apologize. There was an individual like this. He had the credentials of Moses in that he performed even more miraculous works. Though he was never punished by God for sin, that was merely because he never sinned. However, he was humble and approachable and never misled his people with false teachings and false expectations. This one is also still alive. With such a living leader carrying the endorsement of Jehovah God, we have no need of human rulers, do we? Yet they persist and continue to claim divine authority under God and with token acknowledgement to the one just described, Jesus Christ.
These ones have perverted the way of the Christ to gain power for themselves; and to keep it, they have used the time-honored means of all human government, the big stick. They appeared around the time the apostles died off. As years went by, they progressed to the point that some of the worst human rights abuses can be attributed to them. The extremes during the darkest days of Roman Catholicism are part of history now, but they are not alone in employing such methods for maintaining power.
It has been hundreds of years since the Catholic Church has had unfettered power to imprison and even execute any who dared to challenge its authority. Still, into recent times, it has kept one weapon in its arsenal. Consider this from Awake January 8, 1947, Pg. 27, “Are You Also Excommunicated?”[i]
“The authority for excommunication, they claim, is based on the teachings of Christ and the apostles, as found in the following scriptures: Matthew 18:15-18; 1 Corinthians 5:3-5; Galatians 1:8,9; 1 Timothy 1:20; Titus 3:10. But the Hierarchy’s excommunication, as a punishment and “medicinal” remedy (Catholic Encyclopedia), finds no support in these scriptures. In fact, it is altogether foreign to Bible teachings.—Hebrews 10:26-31. … Thereafter, as the pretensions of the Hierarchy increased, the weapon of excommunication became the instrument by which the clergy attained a combination of ecclesiastical power and secular tyranny that finds no parallel in history. Princes and potentates that opposed the dictates of the Vatican were speedily impaled on the tines of excommunication and hung over persecution fires.” –[Boldface added]
The church held secret trails in which the accused was denied access to counsel, public observers and witnesses. Judgment was summary and unilateral, and the members of the church were expected to support the decision of the clergy or suffer the same fate as the excommunicated one.
We rightly condemned this practice in 1947 and correctly labelled it a weapon which was used to quell rebellion and preserve the power of the clergy through fear and intimidation. We also correctly showed that it has no support in Scripture and that the scriptures used to justify it were actually being misapplied for evil ends.
All this we said and taught just after the war ended, but scarcely five years later, we instituted something very similar which we called disfellowshipping. (Like “excommunication”, this is not a Biblical term.) As this process developed and was refined, it took on virtually all the characteristics of the very practice of Catholic excommunication we had so roundly condemned. We now have our own secret trials wherein the accused is denied defense counsel, observers and witnesses of his own. We are required to abide by the decision our clergy has reached in these closed sessions even though we know no details, not even the accusation brought against our brother. If we do not honor the decision of the elders, we too can face the fate of disfellowshipping.
Truly, disfellowshipping is nothing more than Catholic excommunication by another name. If it was unscriptural then, how could it be scriptural now? If it was a weapon then, is it not a weapon now?
Is Disfellowshipping/Excommunication Scriptural?
The Scriptures upon which the Catholics base their policy of excommunication and we as Jehovah’s Witnesses base ours of disfellowshipping are: Matthew 18:15-18; 1 Corinthians 5:3-5; Galatians 1:8,9; 1 Timothy 1:20; Titus 3:10; 2 John 9-11. We have dealt with this topic in depth on this site under the category of Judicial Matters. One fact that will become evident if you read through those posts is that there is no basis in the Bible for the Catholic practice of excommunication nor the JW practice of disfellowshipping. The Bible leaves it up to the individual to properly treat the fornicator, idolater, or apostate by avoiding inappropriate contact with such a one. It is not an institutional practice in Scripture and the determination and subsequent labeling of the individual by secret committee is alien to Christianity. Simply put, it is a misuse of power to stifle any perceived threat to the authority of man.
A 1980 Turn for the Worse
Initially, the disfellowshipping process was principally intended to keep the congregation clean from practicing sinners so as to maintain the sanctity of Jehovah’s name which we now carried. This shows how one wrong decision can lead to another, and how doing the wrong thing with the best of intentions is always doomed to bring heartache and ultimately God’s disapproval.
Having gone against our own counsel and adopted this reprehensible Catholic weapon, we were poised to complete the imitation of our most condemned rival when, by the 1980s, the recently formed powerbase of the Governing Body felt threatened. This was the time when prominent members of the Bethel family began to question some of our core doctrines. Of particular concern must have been the fact that these questionings were based solidly on Scripture, and could not be answered or defeated using the Bible. There were two courses of action open to the Governing Body. One was to accept the newly discovered truths and alter our teaching to come more in line with divine authority. The other was to do what the Catholic Church had done for centuries and silence the voices of reason and truth using the power of authority against which there is no defense. (Well, not human defense, at least.) Our chief weapon was that of excommunication—or if you prefer, disfellowshipping.
Apostasy is defined in Scripture as a turning away from God and Christ, a teaching of falsehoods and of a different good news. The apostate exalts himself and makes of himself a God. (2 Jo 9, 10; Ga 1:7-9; 2 Th 2:3,4) Apostasy is neither good nor bad in and of itself. It literally means “a standing away from” and if the thing from which you are standing away is false religion, then technically, you are an apostate, but that’s the kind of apostate that finds God’s approval. Nevertheless, to the uncritical mind, apostasy is a bad thing, so labeling someone “an apostate” makes them into a bad person. The unthinking will simply accept the label and treat the person as they have been taught to do.
However, these ones were not actually apostates as defined in the Bible. So we had to play a little jiggery-pokery with the word and say, “Well, it’s wrong to disagree with what God teaches. That’s apostasy, plain and simple. I am God’s channel of communication. I teach what God teaches. So it’s wrong to disagree with me. If you disagree with me, you must therefore be an apostate.”
That still wasn’t enough however, because these individuals were being respectful of the feelings of others which is not a characteristic of apostates. One cannot envision the ultimate apostate, Satan the Devil, being respectful of others’ feelings. Using only the Bible, they were helping truth seekers to get a better understanding of Scripture. This was no in-your-face sectarianism, but a dignified and gentle attempt to use the Bible as a weapon of light. (Ro 13:12) The idea of a “quiet apostate” was a bit of a dilemma for the nascent Governing Body. They resolved it by redefining the meaning of the word still further to give them the appearance of just cause. To do this, they had to change God’s law. (Da 7:25) The result was a letter dated 1 September, 1980 directed to the traveling overseers which clarified statements just made in The Watchtower. This is the key excerpt from that letter:
“Keep in mind that to be disfellowshipped, an apostate does not have to be a promoter of apostate views. As mentioned in paragraph two, page 17 of the August 1, 1980, Watchtower, “The word ‘apostasy’ comes from a Greek term that means ‘a standing away from,’ ‘a falling away, defection,’ ‘rebellion, abandonment. Therefore, if a baptized Christian abandons the teachings of Jehovah, as presented by the faithful and discreet slave, and persists in believing other doctrine despite Scriptural reproof, then he is apostatizing. Extended, kindly efforts should be put forth to readjust his thinking. However, if, after such extended efforts have been put forth to readjust his thinking, he continues to believe the apostate ideas and rejects what he has been provided through the ‘slave class, the appropriate judicial action should be taken.
So just thinking the Governing Body was wrong about something now constituted apostasy. If you are thinking, “That was then; this is now”, you may not realize that this mentality has, if anything, become more entrenched than ever. In the 2012 district convention we were told that just thinking the Governing Body was wrong about some teaching was tantamount to testing Jehovah in your heart as the sinful Israelites did in the wilderness. In the 2013 circuit assembly program we were told that to have oneness of mind, we must think in agreement and not “harbor ideas contrary to…our publications”.
Imagine being disfellowshipped, totally cut off from all family and friends, just for holding an idea that differs from what the Governing Body is teaching. In George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984 a privileged Inner Party elite persecuted all individualism and independent thinking, labeling them Thoughtcrimes. How tragic that a worldly novelist attacking the political establishment he saw developing following the Second World War should hit so close to home regarding our current judicial practices.
From the foregoing it is evident that the actions of the Governing Body in dealing with those who disagree—not with Scripture, but with their interpretation of it—parallel the Catholic hierarchy of the past. The present Catholic leadership is far more tolerant of dissenting views than its predecessors; so we now have the ignoble distinction of going the Church one better—or one worse. Our own publications condemn us, for we condemned the Catholic practice of excommunication and then set about implementing an exact copy of it for our own purposes. In doing this, we have implemented the pattern of all human rulership. We have a legislature—the Governing Body—which makes laws of our own. We have a Judicial branch of government in the traveling overseers and local elders who enforce those laws. And finally, we execute our version of justice by the power to cut people off from family, friends and the congregation itself.
It is easy to cast blame on the Governing Body for this, but if we support this policy by blind obedience to the rulership of men, or out of fear that we too might suffer, then we are complicit before the Christ, the appointed judge all mankind. Let us not fool ourselves. When Peter spoke to the crowd at Pentecost he told them that they, not just the Jewish leaders, had executed Jesus on a stake. (Acts 2:36) At hearing this, “they were stabbed to the heart…” (Acts 2:37) Like them, we can repent for past sins, but what of the future? With the knowledge we know have, can we get off scot-free if we continue to help men wield this weapon of darkness?
Let us not hide behind transparent excuses. We have become what we have long disdained and condemned: A human rulership. All human rulership stands in opposition to God. Invariably, this has been the final outcome of all organized religion.
How this present, lamentable state of affairs developed from a people that started out with such noble ideals will be the subject of another post.
[i] A tip of the hat to “BeenMislead” whose thoughtful comment brought this gem to our attention.