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Are Jehovah's Witnesses a Cult?

(A Sociological Perspective)

Part One

By Gary F. Zeolla


Are Jehovah's Witnesses a cult? The answer one gives to this question would depend on how one defines the term cult. For the purposes of this two-part article I will be using the nine-point definition Ronald Enroth outlines in his booklet, "What is a Cult?" (p. 31).

Ronald Enroth is professor of sociology at Westmont College, Santa Barbara. As a sociologist, his definition covers sociological rather than theological points.

The nine points are:
1. Authoritarian
2. Oppositional
3. Exclusivistic
4. Legalistic
5. Subjective
6. Persecution-Conscious
7. Sanction-Oriented
8. Esoteric
9. Antisacerdotal (Enroth, pp. 17-25).

Using this definition, Jehovah’s Witnesses will be evaluated as to how closely their organization fits these nine points. Please note: The Jehovah's Witnesses' organization is known as the Watchtower. Throughout this paper, the abbreviations JWs and WT will be used for these names respectively.

1. Authoritarian

Enroth comments:
A crucial dimension of all cultic organizations is authoritarian leadership. There is always a central, charismatic (in the personality sense) leader, who commands total loyalty and allegiance . . . . The leader exercises authority over both doctrine and practice, and his/her interpretations of the "truth" are accepted by members without question (Enroth, pp. 17, 18).

Do JWs fit this point? Yes and no. No in the sense that the WT is not run by ONE authoritarian leader. It is run by a Governing Body of 11-18 men (Franz, p. 39). However, this group of men does rule the members of the WT in the manner Enroth describes.

The WT explains the function of the Governing Body:
God's visible organization today also receives theocratic guidance and direction. At the headquarters’ of Jehovah's Witnesses in Brooklyn, New York, there is a Governing Body of older Christian men from various parts of the earth who give the needed oversight to the worldwide activities of God's people. This governing body is made up of members of "the faithful and discreet slave." It serves as spokesman for that faithful "slave" (You Can, p. 195).

I'll let the WT explain what is meant by "the faithful and discreet slave:"
The total number of those making up the membership of the "body" of Christ, the spirit-begotten congregation, is stated to be 144,000 persons. These, when resurrected to the heavens, are to reign with Christ as kings and priests (Rev 7:4-8; 14:1-5; 22:4, 6). Evidences show we are in the time of the "harvest," the conclusion of the present system of things. The remaining ones of this number on earth today are therefore few (Matt 13:37-43).

They are the nucleus around which a much larger number of honest-hearted persons have gathered. These latter ones are called by Jesus the "other sheep." (John 10:16). The Bible also designates them as a "great crowd," having the hope of everlasting life on earth as subjects of the Kingdom (Rev 7:9-17).

The remaining ones of Christ's spirit-anointed body members on earth constitute the "faithful and discreet slave" of today, and it is this class as foretold at Matthew 24:47, that the Lord Jesus has appointed "over all his belongings" here on earth. So it is vital to work in close association with this "slave" class and to respond in a positive way to the counsel that you receive from it.

From among the members of that "faithful and discreet slave" class certain ones serve as a visible governing body . . . . So if it is your sincere desire to serve our God and Father, Jehovah, you will want to show appreciation for the "faithful and discreet slave" class that he is using and work wholeheartedly under its direction (Organization, pp. 9, 10, 12).

I have quoted this passage at length as it brings out several points of WT theology that bears on this discussion. First, it should be noted how obedience to the Governing Body is virtually equated with obedience to God. This idea grows out of the other points raised.

A central point here is the WT doctrine that only 144,000 go to heaven. It is only these who are born-again and are a part of the body of Christ. All other JWs look forward to living forever in paradise on earth (You Can, pp. 120-26, 163, 4).

Does the Bible teach that there are these two classes of Christians who have two different hopes? To determine this, one has to check the context and meanings of each of the prooftexts JWs use to demonstrate this idea.

The first text to look at is Matt 24:45-47.

Ex-JW, David Reed comments on how the WT interprets this verse.
Instead of seeing it as an exhortation to each Christian to be a faithful and diligent "slave" for Christ, they believe that their organization represents the faithful and discreet slave, divinely appointed to dispense "spiritual food" to the household of faith. This interpretation gives the Watchtower headquarters tremendous power and authority in the eyes of the average Witness (Reed, p. 58).

The context of the passage is at the end of the Olivet discourse. Here, Jesus is discussing God's coming judgement. The preceding verses have Christ warning people to be ready at all times since no one knows the time of His coming (24:42). There is nothing in the passage to indicate that Jesus is referring to an organization or class of people.

Notice in the above extended WT quote, how the word class is added after the phrase "faithful and discreet slave." The word is not in the text itself.

The next verse to investigate is John 10:16.

Reed comments:
They contrast the "other sheep" with the "little flock" mentioned at Luke 12:32 . . . . The "little flock," Witnesses say, are 144,000 spirit anointed believers who make up the body of Christ and will go to heaven, while the "other sheep" include all other believers - those who will receive everlasting life on earth . . . . Besides the vast majority of JWs, the Watchtower Society also throws all pre-Christian believers into the other sheep class with an earthly hope. Thus, witnesses believe that Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, the prophets, and so on, do not go to heaven (Reed, pp. 78, 9).

In interpreting the Bible, it is important to look at the historical, cultural background of what is written. A major issue in the earlier church was whether Gentiles would be included in the church along with Jews (see Acts 10 and 15). As a result of the events concerning Cornelius, Peter realized, "God is not one to show partiality, but in every nation the man who fears Him and does what is right is welcome to Him" (Acts 10:34f).

Paul wrote in Galatians 3:20, "There is neither Jew nor Greek . . . for you are all one in Christ Jesus."

What Jesus is doing in John 10:16 is predicting this oneness that will exist between Jews and Gentiles. In the passage, He specifically states that "they shall become one flock." Hence, the sense of the passage is that Gentiles (i.e. the other sheep) will become one with the faithful Jews (i.e.. the little flock) as the people of God.

Revelation 7 is the next passage to look at. It is here that we have mention of the 144,000 (the anointed class according to JWs) and the great multitude (the other sheep who will live on earth according to JWs). However, nowhere here or elsewhere are these connections made. In context, the 144,000 are Jews who are sealed by God to be His witnesses during the Great Tribulation period.

Now some commentators do believe that this passage should not be taken literally and instead is to be taken metaphorically as an indeterminate number of Christians (i.e.. spiritual Israel). They take 144,000 as simply indicating completeness being the product of 12,000 times 12, 12 being a symbolic number referring to completeness.

Either way, the passage must be taken wholly literally or wholly figuratively. In other words, it is poor exegesis to take the number 144,000 literally yet to spiritualize Jews as an anointed class of Christians. If 144,000 is taken literally then so should Jews. If the number is taken spiritual, then so should Jews.

As for the great multitude, Rev 19:1 specifically states that they are in heaven. So how can this phrase refer to those who will live forever on earth?

Finally, Revelation 5:9, 10 teaches all who have been purchased by Christ's blood will "be a kingdom and priests to our God; and they will reign upon the earth." Christians will reign upon the earth in the sense of having our dominion over the planet restored to us that was lost at the fall (see Gen 1:28; 3:17-19). We will be priests before God in the sense of having direct access to God the Father through Jesus Christ (see 1 Pet 2:9, 10; 1 Tim 2:5).

Overall, the emphasis in the New Testament is on all believers being the one people of God. The idea of two distinct classes of Christians with two different destinies is totally foreign to the New Testament.

The important point to note here is the WT interpretation gives the leaders of the WT unquestioned authority over the average JW. The leaders are believed to be the only ones capable of receiving "theocratic guidance."

2. Oppositional

Enroth explains what he means by this point, "Their beliefs, practices, and values are counter to those of the dominant culture. They often place themselves in an adversial role vis-a-vis major social institutions."

The JWs take pride in believing that they are separate from "the world."

Their own publications state:
Jehovah's Witnesses are neutral with regard to the political and military affairs of the nations. They do not interfere with what others do as to voting in political elections, running for or campaigning for political offices, joining the military etc. Since true dedicated Christians are "no part of the world," if one pursues a course in violation of his Christian neutrality, he disassociates himself from the neutral Christian congregation (Pay, p. 149).

Along with separating themselves from governmental institutions, JWs are also required to leave and/or refrain from joining or being involved in any way with any religious organization other than the WT.

The issue of a Christians relationship to the state is too complex of an issue to be pursued here. Suffice it to say, that any decision reached must take into account Paul's teaching on the subject in Romans 13 and John's attitude expressed in Rev 13. However, given the complexity of the issue, it is difficult to see how the WT can take such a dogmatic stance as to threaten with disfellowshipping, anyone who disagrees with their opinions.

The JWs attitude with regards to other religions will be dealt with under point 3. Under this point, I will elaborate on one other aspect of this oppositional stance of the WT.

Enroth continues his description of this point, "Perhaps the social institution most affected by the oppositional stance of the cults is the family. The most outspoken critics of the new religious movements are parents who have experienced the often painful distancing and separation from their children that occur when young people join extremist groups" (Enroth, pp. 18, 19).

Does the WT break up families? Excerpts from letters to the editor of Bethel Ministries will help answer this question. Bethel Ministries is a Christian organization ministering to JWs and ex-JWs.

Dear Bethel Ministries Staff:
I wrote over two years ago asking for materials on witnessing to Jehovah's Witnesses because my husband joined the organization. It has been a long struggle and a difficult one. I have been divorced by my husband with their blessing upon my husband, in spite of the many articles in their publications almost forbidding it . . . . the judge made the decision to okay the divorce my husband asked for, but because of the damaging effects of my husband's behavior on the six year old, the judge ruled that the children are not to be exposed to that religion . . . . the judge . . . told my ex-husband to be good and stop this nonsense of telling the kids they are evil and that they will be destroyed, or else the kids will hate him when they get older. The older son refused to see him all last summer and part of this year because of fear . . . . Even now, the 3 1/2 year old is getting upset because his dad will not allow him to pray to Jesus. He has been trying to refuse to go with his dad (Vol 7, #6, pp. 3, 4).

A lady who was studying with the JWs was told, "that her sister, Linda, was of the devil and she'd have to quit seeing her." This was because Linda had given her a tape containing the soundtrack of the counter-JWs movie, "Witnesses of Jehovah" (Vol 8, #3, p. 4).

Dear (friend):
Saturday we gave our daughter to the Jehovah's Witnesses at the Kingdom Hall in Monroe Falls, Ohio. She married ______ ______ and the organization. She is so beautiful but I'm afraid it's hopeless . . . . We gave her a huge wedding and everything we could do for her, all the love of friends and relatives. We were all there, stuffed in the Hall and "put down" throughout a speech by the elder who married them, and ridiculed at the reception .

. . . My heart is broken . . . . She let them do this to us, and shunned me, her mother, at her own wedding, at my expense. Her old girlfriends were all crying, sobbing. She told them they couldn't be in her wedding or come to theirs if in a church. I loved them, she threw them out of her life. I've sobbed and sobbed . . . . How can they call themselves Christians? . . . Someday Satan will get his . . . . In the meantime, she will go to eat with the JWs on Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas . . . . Please pray for me! (Vol 8, #1, pp. 3, 4).

Why JWs treat "outsiders" in this manner will be better understand after the next point is elaborated.

3. Exclusivistic

Related to the oppositional character of cults is their elitism and exclusionism. The group is the only one which possesses the "truth" and therefore to leave the group is to endanger one's salvation. Usually the new "truth" is based on a new revelation given to the group's prophet/ founder/leader.

A former member of an aberrational Christian group describes the attitude of exclusiveness so typical of the cultic mind set.

Our leader was critical of all established denominational churches and people who didn't believe as he taught . I became mentally isolated because it was felt that nobody outside of Glory Barn teaching was walking in as much truth as we were and therefore their opinion was not valid. I became cloistered in a world of Bible meetings and spiritual pride. I felt that I had all the truth and that no other people had anything to offer (Enroth, pp. 19, 20).

I have quoted Enroth's comments at length here because the attitude expressed by the former member of Glory Barn perfectly echoes that of JWs. The WT claims, "Likewise in our day Jesus Christ foretold that there would be only one source of spiritual instruction for God's people" (You Can, p. 193).

Do not conclude that there are different roads, or ways, that you can follow to gain life in God's new system. There is only one. There was just the one ark that survived the Flood, not a number of boats. And there will be only one organization - God's visible organization - that will survive the fast- approaching "great tribulation." It is simply not true that all religions lead to the same goal (Matt 7:21-23; 24:21). You must be part of Jehovah's organization, doing God's will, in order to receive his blessing of everlasting life.--Psalm 133:1-3 (You Can, p. 255).

Elsewhere they write, "Because Jehovah's Witnesses base all their beliefs, their standards for conduct, and organizational procedures on the Bible, their faith in the Bible itself as God's Word gives them the conviction that what they have is indeed the truth" (Reasoning, pp. 203, 4).

JWs consider all religious organizations except theirs to be part of "Babylon the Great"(Rev 17, 18, Reasoning, p. 49).

Their literature states:
Why can religions that profess to be Christian properly be viewed as a part of Babylon the Great along with those who know nothing of the God of the Bible? . . . Jehovah's chief adversary, Satan the Devil himself, is really being honored by all who do not worship the true God in the manner that he has appointed even though they may claim to be Christian (Reasoning, pp. 52, 3).

Is any of this true? Does God only work through an organization? Does a person have to join this organization to be saved? Are all professing Christians actually Devil worshippers?

First, nowhere in the New Testament does it talk about God's organization. The NT talks about the church. The Greek word is ekklesia. "The Greek world uses ekklesia for a popular assembly (cf. Acts 19:32, 39-40)." In the OT and Judaism, "The term ekklesia has the basic sense of 'assembly' (cf. Dt 9:10; 1 Kings. 8:65) . . . ." (Kittle, pp. 399, 400).

Thus, no idea of an authoritarian organization is in mind. Also, the church is referred to as "the body of Christ" (Rom 12:5 etc.). As such, the church is considered an organism, not an organization.

Second, nowhere does the Bible teach that one has to join an organization to be saved. Salvation is based on repentance and belief in Jesus Christ (Acts 2:38; 3:19; 16:31, etc.). Also, joining an organization would be a work and the Bible clearly teaches that people are saved by grace, not works (Eph 2:8, 9 Titus 3:5, etc.).

As for Christians actually being Devil worshippers, the answer to this question would hinge on whether the God of historic Christianity or the God of Jehovah's Witnesses is the one true God. This discussion would be out of the scope of this article. Suffice it to say here that the two Gods are not the same. I would refer the reader to such books as Why You Should Believe in the Trinity, by Robert Bowman Jr., The Watchtower Files and The Heavenly Weatherman, by Duane Magnani and Jehovah of the Watchtower, by Walter Martin along with the books listed in the bibliography for further discussion of this issue.

In any case, it is this exclusivistic attitude that makes it difficult for a Christian to witness to a JW or to give them any Christian literature.

My first encounter with a JW was in the winter of 1987,88. I initially met Joseph when he was trying to sell copies of the WT's "Awake" or "Watchtower" magazines to a secretary at a country club I was working at. I interrupted the conversation (something the secretary thanked me for afterwards) and Joseph and I began to talk.

We agreed to meet later at my house. We met several times over the next few months until I left the Pittsburgh area in March of '88 and moved to Denver to go to seminary.

It was as a result of these encounters that I became interested in doing the kind of ministry that I am now involved in. What had really struck me about Joseph was that he had been attending a Baptist church before he joined the JWs. Since then, I have spoken to other members of JWs and other non-Christian religious groups that were either raised in or exposed to a Christian church before joining their current religion. It is this fact that has shown me the extreme need of more doctrinal, apologetic teachings in the local church.

Also, the frustration in talking to Joseph caused me to study what the WT taught as compared to historic Christianity. However, the effects of the above discussed attitude instilled in JWs (that only they have the "truth") made it almost impossible to share this information with him or give him any literature. It seemed impossible to get him to critically analyze anything he had been taught.

The same attitude was apparent when I visited the local Kingdom Hall about 1/2 mile from my home at his invitation. The meeting consisted of the leader reading a paragraph from a WT book and reading the corresponding question at the bottom of the page. Someone would respond with the expected answer and the procedure would continue. There was no discussion or analyzing of what was written.

Ex-JW, David Reed explains what is happening:
They accept whatever the Society tells them because the Society is God's channel of communication, which, in turn, they believe because it is the only religious organization on earth teaching the truth - a conclusion they defend because they accept everything the Society tells them. Although this is circular reasoning, it is the way that Jehovah's Witnesses think (Reed, p. 59).

However, Reed continues, "The key to breaking that vicious circle is to give the individual some information that will jar his thinking enough to get his mind off the well-worn track that it has learned to function in. This can be a long, slow process. Much prayer and persistence is required. But it can be done (Reed, p. 60).

David Reed himself was a JW elder for 14 years before he committed his life to Christ. He relates his testimony at the end of his book, Jehovah's Witnesses Answered Verse by Verse. This is a book I highly recommend to anyone wanting to study the WT teachings and to learn how to witness to a Witness.

In any case, it is the hope that JWs can be reached with the Gospel that enables me to continue to try to minister to them. I spoke to Joseph again around Christmas '89. He's still a Witness, but I'll still pray for him and trust that the Lord will use the seeds I planted to lead him to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ (1Cor 3:6).

Part Two of this article will continue this comparison of Ronald Enroth’s definition of a cult to Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Books and eBooks by Gary F. Zeolla, the Director of Darkness to Light

See end of Part Two.

Are Jehovah's Witnesses a Cult? Copyright 1999 by Gary F. Zeolla of Darkness to Light ministry (www.zeolla.org/christian).

The above article was originally written as a class assignment at Denver Seminary in 1990.
It was posted on this Web site April 12, 1997.

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