Analyzing the route to baptism for Jehovah’s Witness children, and what that tells us about the current state of the organization

[This article was contributed by Apollos]

For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. (1 Cor 3:11, ESV)

It is unlikely that any JW would deny that the organization has been going through a period of significant change in recent years. In fact from the top down considerable emphasis has been placed on helping the “rank and file” to keep up with changes and accept them wholeheartedly.

There is nothing intrinsically wrong with the idea of change. We live in a changing world in which it would be difficult for individuals and institutions to survive without reacting and adapting. On the other hand we can be swept along by change without ever considering its consequences, and sometimes it is helpful to take a step back and try to analyze where we have come from, and where we are going, in order to ensure that we are not simply succumbing to change that may not in fact be good for us.

How do we make such an analysis objectively? After all, when we are subject to incremental change it is easy to accept that today’s situation is not substantially different from yesterday’s, and yesterday’s from the day before.

Thankfully as Christians we have the touchstone of God’s inspired Word. From this we can determine certain fundamental measurements of what Christianity should be. As “first principles” are to science, mathematics and other fields of investigation, these are things that are solid. It doesn’t matter how the world changes around us, or how institutions or organizations change their policies. We can always ask whether the state of things right now is in accord with the principles in God’s Word – principles which transcend cultural or societal considerations. It is on this basis that JWs and many other Christian churches continue to maintain that certain activities are morally wrong according to scripture, even though society in general may have become more tolerant to such things or even embraced them.

The Apostle Paul states the “first principle” or foundation for Christians in our theme scripture. It all starts with Jesus Christ himself. This is not only what separates Christianity from the Judaic worship that preceded it as the way to God. The correct foundation in Jesus Christ separates Christianity from all other forms of religion, atheism and agnosticism.

When building a structure a foundation is not just another thing on a list of items to be included. It must necessarily be the very first thing. Imagine building a house in a field, erecting the walls and roof structure and then thinking about working on the foundation. It’s too late. The work done up to that point is already inherently weak, and no true foundation can now be accomplished. The foundation must come first.

With this in mind I would like to consider the foundation laid by Jehovah’s Witnesses in order for a person to become a Christian. This makes it necessary to clarify some terminology. To JWs becoming a Christian means becoming a JW. Sometimes we hear the word “Christian” being used within the organization in a generic sense, but most often the preceding qualifier “true” is used to indicate that, from a JW perspective, nobody who calls themselves Christian in Christendom is what they claim to be. Only those who are baptized as Jehovah’s Witnesses are in fact truly Christian. Matt 7:21-23 is applied to all of Christendom which is considered also to constitute the collective weeds of Matt 13 in contrast to the true wheat – the religion of Jehovah’s Witnesses.

However people reaching the point of baptism do so from varying backgrounds and circumstances. To a certain extent it could be argued that some foundation might have been laid with a person who already has some Bible knowledge. Therefore I am going to focus on a large demographic which has no practical background variance – those born into the organization and raised to the point of baptism.

For these who start with a blank slate it is relatively easy to ask the following questions: What foundation is laid prior to their becoming a baptized Christian? How does this measure up to the Bible standard for becoming a baptized Christian?

As we investigate these questions we can bear in mind that JWs do not treat baptism lightly. It is considered the most important step a person can take and it is necessary for anybody taking it to first “qualify” based upon lifestyle choices and certain minimum doctrinal knowledge.

The Age of Baptism

What is an appropriate age for Christian baptism? A 2006 Watchtower article had this to say:

The Scriptures give no age requirements for baptism. Still, infants certainly could not become believers, exercise faith, or make a dedication to God. (Acts 8:12) (w06 4/1 p. 27 par. 8 Meeting the Requirements for Christian Baptism)

Fair enough. But now let’s consider the age at which JW children are getting baptized in practice. If they have grown up in “the truth” then those in the congregation may start to speculate that something is amiss if a person were to pass their teens without getting baptized.

A Witness in Greece said: “I was baptized when I was 12 years old. I have never regretted my decision. (w11 6/15 pp. 3-6, Should Youths Get Baptized?)

The brother most recently selected to join the Governing Body of Jehovah’s Witnesses – Mark Sanderson – was baptized at age 10.

Another GB member David Splane gave a “zone visit” talk in Sweden in last year, and spoke very negatively concerning the fact that many JW children between the ages of 13 and 15 have not yet been baptized.

In other words there is ample evidence that the Governing Body considers “preteen baptism” to be the target to be aimed for when raising a child in “the truth”, and this message seems to be hitting home in most JW families. I can say from personal observation that children from the families considered to be the most “spiritually strong” in the congregations are indeed being baptized at around ten years old, give or take a couple of years.

The Foundation

The next part of our analysis requires the reader to acknowledge that the website reflects the very latest picture of what the Governing Body believe it is important for people to know.

It seems unnecessary to spend much time belaboring this point. You would have to have lived under a rock for quite some time as a JW to think that is somehow an incomplete picture of the current teachings of the Governing Body. The site contains a huge amount of content and the August 2014 campaign to promote it worldwide bears testimony to the fact that it is considered to be a comprehensive source for anyone wishing to learn about the religion of Jehovah’s Witnesses and their view of what true Christianity entails.

That being the case, it is of interest to our investigation that the website is clearly divided into sections directed at particular age groups. The primary divisions as it stands at the time of writing this article are as follows:

  • Couples and parents
  • Teenagers
  • Children

Therefore having established that the Governing Body promotes the ideal standard of preteen baptism, it becomes very straightforward for us to examine this particular area of the website (i.e. The “Children” section) in order to see what foundation of knowledge the Governing Body believes is important to reach the point of becoming a baptized Christian.

With that in mind please allow me to present you with a challenge as follows. Try to find somewhere under that section of that educates this target audience with the basic Christian truth that Jesus Christ is the only way to the Father. After all what does being a Christian even mean without this most basic foundation? (John 14:6)

I was tempted to list each subsection and its contents to reinforce the point that no such foundation is laid anywhere as far as I can see, but then I began to appreciate just how extensive the content has become and just how much space it would take up in this article. So instead I will cut to the chase and point out that at the time of writing there is one section entitled “Teach Your Children” that contains two articles that are related to the person of Jesus Christ. One is essentially an anti-Christmas message, and the other uses him as an example of obedience. There appears to be nothing else about Jesus.

In total I counted 163 activities and lessons in the children’s section. Most of this is totally unique content (i.e. not just republished material from the publications), and much of it – videos and graphic art especially – clearly took a lot of time, effort and resources.

It is surely impossible therefore to excuse the absence of this foundational Christian message as being a simple oversight, or as something that could not have found its place somewhere for this primary audience, bearing in mind that they should in theory be ready for baptism prior to moving onto the content targeted at teenagers.

Note that the Watchtower article referenced earlier also has this to say:

In the case of youths, some develop a measure of spirituality at a relatively tender age, while others take longer. Before getting baptized, however, a youngster should have a personal relationship with Jehovah, a sound understanding of the fundamentals of the Scriptures, and a clear comprehension of what dedication involves, as is the case with adults. … Another important step in the progress toward baptism is that of sharing in preaching the Kingdom good news. (w06 4/1 p. 28 par. 9-11 Meeting the Requirements for Christian Baptism)

Here we can see that even prior to the website, the foundation that the Apostle Paul clearly defines as being Jesus Christ himself is entirely absent from the formula.

Depending on your current perspective you will have your own view on the import of this. That is why I approached this subject from the outset by pointing out that we need to take a step back to see the big picture. We can read the Christian Greek Scriptures and note that in every case Christian baptism was founded on faith in Jesus Christ himself. This was not just a side issue, or one of a number of things on a prerequisite checklist. It was indeed the central foundation without which nobody could build a Christian relationship with the Father.

I suspect however that there are many in the organization who have become so accustomed to this omission that they may minimize its import. Likely they will fall back on the idea that as long as the new recruits turn out well enough, with a good spiritual routine of meeting attendance, field service, family worship, loyalty to the organization, etc, then everything is fine. After all “by their fruits you will recognize them” right? And it is impressed upon us that Jehovah’s Witnesses are the only ones bearing such fruit.

When Paul penned the inspired words in our theme scripture he went on to talk about what could be built on that foundation, and what the result would be.

Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. (1 Cor 3:12,13)

Our publications tend to take this scripture in isolation from the preceding verses. Often the full passage is cited from verse 10, but little or no reference is made to vs 10,11 in its application. Verse 12-15 is simply used to carry the idea that our teaching must be of good quality.

Yet the picture Paul paints is clear. The foundation is all important. Yes, after it is laid there can be varying qualities of materials used to build on that, but even if we build with gold, it is of no value if the foundation is not present.

I was prompted to venture into this topic as a result of various discussions that I have had with brothers and sisters about how many young people in the organization stray “into the world”, or lead double lives. Sadly there are many cases of large groups of teenage Witnesses connected by social media whose behaviour is far outside the bounds of Christian decency, and who are covering for each other so that they can live their lives “unfettered”, but at the same time remain connected to their families.

I do not say this to in any way to denigrate young people in the organization. There are many who are excellent examples to us all, and I tip my hat to those who manage to avoid the pitfalls common to the teenage years. But the fact that endemic and extensive problems are frequently presenting themselves should give us pause to not only check the materials which are being used to build their Christian identity, but the very foundation itself.

The reality is that even if a young person moves beyond that age without being a casualty of the declining world in which we live, his faith will continue to be tested throughout his life, and many of us still expect to face the greatest tests that lie ahead for Christians according to Bible prophecy.

Therefore we cannot minimize this issue. We must face up to the reality of what scriptural Christianity is, and what it truly must be founded upon. It is not “religion by the numbers” whereby a child can reach the point of baptism by watching Caleb and Sophia videos covering aspects of religious routine and good works. To believe this is to deny the foundation. A child may be able to point to the sky when you ask where Jehovah is, she may know it is wrong to lie, he may offer tracts to people, etc. But do they understand that Jesus Christ is the basis for their faith and the only way to gain a relationship with his Father?

I will conclude by relaying something that was told to me by a sister who was recently babysitting her five year old nephew. This child is part of what I would describe as a very typical and active Witness family. I happen to know that they use extensively in training the children. Family worship consists of watching videos from the site, or using the activities that are featured. Why wouldn’t they do things this way? The content is represented as given by the Almighty God Jehovah himself and is of course exactly what He knows families need. During this particular visit the boy spoke enthusiastically about various fictional super-heroes, which is obviously nothing unusual in our recent generations. The sister took the opportunity to ask if the boy knew who Jesus was. He did not.

As an organization we are undeniably on the move, but just where are we heading?