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Are Jehovah's Witnesses a Cult?
(A Sociological Perspective)
By Gary F. Zeolla
Part One of this article began comparing sociologist Ronald Enroths nine-point definition of a cult to Jehovahs Witnesses. This second half will continue this comparison.
Are JWs legalistic? Psychologist Jerry Bergman lists 62 activities that JWs are forbidden to participate in (Bergman, pp. 104-7). He emphasizes that the list above is by no means exhaustive, but only a sample (Bergman, p. 107).
He comments, "The Governing Body has now, indeed, expressed God's law to JWs in the same form as the Mosaic Law, a list of do's and don'ts, rarely allowing them to use there own judgement . . . . There is much hairsplitting about inconsequential decrees while the unenforceable, weightier matters--love of neighbor, justice and faith--are neglected" (Bergman, p.104).
How does the WT justify this new law? Their handbook, Pay Attention to Yourselves and to All the Flock, is used to train their elders.
Under the heading "Under 'the Law of Christ' (Gal 6:2)" the handbook states, "Christians are not under the Mosaic law but under "the law of Christ." (Gal 6:2; 1Cor 9:21) Consists of a body of rules for Christian conduct. (Gal 6:16) This "law of Christ" embraces the whole scope of a Christian's life and work . . ."(Pay, p. 144).
The problem here is the phrase, "the law of Christ" comes from the book of Galatians. It is in this very book that Paul condemns legalism in no uncertain terms (see especially verses 3:1-3, 24, 25; 4:9-11). The "law of Christ" is love. It is this along with the leading of the Spirit that motivates a true Christian to live a life pleasing to God (see Gal 5:22-25; John 13:34, 35; 14:15; 1Cor 13).
Cultic movements place considerable emphasis on the experiential - on feelings and emotions . . . "Follow your feelings" is the message of Rajneesh and many other contemporary gurus (Enroth, p. 21).
Here is the first point at which JWs do not match up to Enroth's definition exactly. The JWs that I have talked to generally have not appealed to their feelings as proof that their teachings are true as say a Mormon would.
However, Enroth continues, "Subjectivism is sometimes linked to anti- intellectualism, putting down rational processes and devaluing knowledge and education" (Enroth, p. 21). The problem here relates back to point #1, authoritarianism.
Bergman states, "Those who continually ask questions that the WT hierarchy objects to, or which are embarrassing to them are often dealt with by disfellowshipping . . . . if one does not agree fully with the WT Society's teaching, one for the most part should keep quiet and try to resolve their questions on their own or leave the congregation" (Bergman, p. 69).
The WT has even gone so far as to dictate, "Avoid independent thinking . . . questioning the counsel that is provided by God' visible organization ("Watchtower," 1/15/83, p. 22. quoted in "Comments," Winter '89, p. 16).
However, the Bible teaches Christians to, "be on the alert" (Acts 20:30) and to "test the spirits to see whether they are from God" (1John 4:1). This testing must be done since "many false prophets will arise" (Matt 24:11, see also Matt 7:15, Acts 20:29f; 1 Cor 11:13-15). Also, this testing is to be done using objective standards based on the Bible (Deut 13:1-5; Isa 8:20: 1 John 4:2f).
I would implore JWs and all Christians to test anything and everything by what is taught in the Scriptures and not interpret the Scriptures in light of what is being taught (see Acts 17:11f).
Perceived persecution is one of the hallmarks of virtually all new religious movements. Their literature, public statements and in-house indoctrination all convey the theme that in one form or another their group is being singled out for persecution--by mainstream Christians, the president, parents or the government (Enroth, p. 22).
We are now back to a perfect description of JW mentality. Their literature states, "Why are Jehovah's Witnesses persecuted and spoken against? . . . Persecution comes because Jehovah's Witnesses put (Jesus') commands ahead of those of any earthly ruler" (Reasoning, p. 207).
Unfortunately, it is true that JWs have been persecuted. Bergman relates, "Although Witnesses may exaggerate this persecution, it is real and sometimes serious. In some non-western countries they have been hunted down like animals and thousands have been slaughtered . . . Even in the United States, a land founded on the principle of religious freedom, JWs have at times been persecuted" (Bergman, pp. 59, 60).
Of course, it is wrong for anyone to be physically persecuted for their religious beliefs. However, a couple of points need to be related in this regard.
First, it is important to consider how the Society uses the persecutions to their advantage. Bergman states, "However, usually the persecution is mental and the Society uses this opposition to "scare" Witnesses into submission to its authority" (Bergman, p. 59).
Second, often, the witnesses bring the persecution on themselves. Ray Franz is a former member of the Governing Body and nephew of the current president of the WT, Fred Franz. As a member of the board, he was fully acquainted with the persecution JWs were experiencing in Malawi between 1964-75.
Beginning in 1964, JWs in Malawi began to experience persecution and violence on a scale unequaled in modern times . . . . In the first attack, 1,081 Malawi families saw their little homes burned or otherwise demolished, 588 fields of crops destroyed. In the 1967 attacks, Witnesses reported the rapings of more than one thousand of their women, one mother being sexually violated by six different men, her thirteen-year-old daughter by three men . . . . In each wave of violence, beatings, torture and even murder went virtually unchecked by the authorities . . . (Franz, p. 112).
Such atrocities are to be condemned.
However, Franz continues:
What was the issue around which this recurrent storm of violence revolved? It was the refusal of the Witnesses to purchase a party card of the ruling political party . . . . JWs who inquired were told that to buy such a party card would be a violation of their Christian neutrality, a compromise, hence, unfaithfulness to God . . . . The vast majority of Malawaian Witnesses held firm to that position even though at enormous cost to themselves (Franz, p. 112).
What is especially disturbing about this situation was that the board took a totally different position concerning a similar situation occurring at the same time in Mexico.
Put briefly, in Mexico men of draft age are required to undergo a specified period of military training during a period of one year. Upon registration the registrant receives a certificate or "cartilla" with places for noting down attendance at weekly military instruction classes. It is illegal and punishable for any official to fill in this attendance record if the registrant has not actually attended. But officials can be bribed to do so. According to the Branch Office Committee this is also a common practice among JWs in Mexico (Franz, p. 119).
Why do the Witnesses in Mexico break the law and bribe officials to get this card? Because the Governing Body told then to do so! Franz includes a copy of a letter the board sent to Mexico on page 121 of his book.
The letter stated in part:
If members of the military establishment are willing to accept such an arrangement upon the payment of a fee then that is the responsibility of these representatives of the national organization . . . . If the consciences of certain brothers allow then to enter into such an arrangement for their continued freedom, we have no objection. Of course, if they get into any difficulties over their course of action then they are to shoulder such difficulties themselves, and we could not offer them any assistance (Franz, p. 121).
It was this type of coldness shown on part of the Governing Body and their double standards that convinced Franz that they were not being led by the Holy Spirit as they claimed and caused him to leave the WT.
Cults require conformity to established practices and beliefs and readily exercise sanctions against the wayward. Those who fail to demonstrate the proper allegiance, who raise too many questions, disobey the rules or openly rebel are punished, formally excommunicated or merely asked to leave the group (Enroth, p. 23).
For the WT, formal excommunication is the means of sanction used. The WT calls it disfellowshipping.
Bergman explains the harshness of the WT:
A JW is required to strictly follow all of the rules, however minor, which originate from WT Headquarters in Brooklyn. Love and acceptance are conditional, based upon rigid adherence to dogma established by the Governing Body. Little consideration is given to the necessity to learn from one's own experience . . . . Shortcomings, even honest mistakes, are often interpreted as evidence of deliberate sin and punished accordingly (Bergman, p. 82).
The same type of punishment is also levied on anyone who chooses to leave the organization on their own accord (Pay, p. 171). What does this punishment of disfellowshipping entail.
I'll let the WT itself explain, "Members of the Christian congregation should avoid contact and have no spiritual association with disfellowshipped and dissociated persons" (1 Cor 5:11) (Pay, p. 170).
In faithfulness to God, none in the congregation should greet such persons when meeting them in public nor should they welcome them into their homes. Even blood relatives who do not live in the same home with a disfellowshipped relative . . . avoid contact with such disfellowshipped relative just as much as possible . . . . And those who may be members of the same household with a disfellowshipped person cease sharing spiritual fellowship with the unrepentant wrongdoer . . . . there is no reason to listen to a disfellowshiped child or mate if such one attempts to justify himself or endeavors to sway the faithful one to his way of thinking (Organization, pp. 172, 3).
A couple of examples will demonstrate the heart-wrenching nature of the practice:
I left the organization in the middle 70's, after twenty years of publishing and pioneering. The wrangling, rivalry, and discontent became too much to ignore . . . . I wrote the letter stating that I did not wish to attend the Kingdom Hall, and I was subsequently disfellowshipped.
There was no kindness or compassion, in spite of the fact that our daughter had just been killed in a car accident, leaving my husband and I to raise her 4 children. My mother and two brothers live 5 miles away and they were totally silent. Their WT would not allow them to attend the funeral or offer any condolences. At that time I felt terribly alone . . . . I can't tell you how grateful I was to know some "real" people with true Christian attitudes ("Comments," Fall, '88, pp. 8, 9).
My mother was disfellowshipped years ago for smoking, so before I could be pleasing to Jehovah I had to disown my own mother. I hurt her deeply and myself too! But I was led to believe I was doing the right thing even though my heart kept saying "This just isn't right, how can this be love?" ("Bethel, Vol 8, #5, p. 4).
. . . the attempts of my parents to change my mind (on the WT's prohibition of blood transfusions) were unsuccessful. They left after this, and have not been in our home since. I was not disfellowshipped until later, however, when it became known that I had attended a talk Bill (her husband who was already disfellowshipped over the same issue) gave on the Witnesses and blood transfusion at a neighborhood church . . . . I still write letters, but they are never answered. When we visit them now, we cannot even get into the house . . . . I asked her, "Mother, what do you want me to do to restore our relationship again?" Her answer could be summarized in one sentence, "Come back to the organization" (Gruss, pp. 99, 100).
We now once again see the WT's propensity to break up families. They justify such behavior by appeal to various Biblical texts. An evaluation of each of these would require a paper in itself. However, I will take the time to look at one main one used: Matt 18:15-17. Here, Jesus outlines the procedure that should be used in correcting a wayward brother. In verse 17, he states that if the brother refuses to repent, then he should be treated "as a Gentile and a tax-gatherer." The WT seems to believe that this means that one should have no contact with him whatsoever.
However, how did Jesus Himself treat Gentiles, tax-gatherers and other perceived sinners by the Jewish people? One of the main points of confrontation between Jesus and the Pharisees was that He was, "a friend of tax-gathers and sinners!" (Matt 11:19). He even ate dinner with them! (Matt 9:10).
When the Pharisees objected, Jesus replied, "It is not those who are healthy who need a physician but those who are sick. But go and learn what this means, I desire compassion, and not sacrifice, for I did not come to call the righteous but sinners" (Matt 9:12, 13).
Of course, Jesus never condoned sin (John 8:11) and neither should we; but compassion, not harshness, is the way to lead one to repentance (Rom 2:4).
Cultic religion is a religion of secrecy and concealment . . . . This kind of esotericism, Alexander continues, "accepts the appropriateness (and practical necessity) of a deliberately created gap between the picture that is projected to the general public and the inner reality known to initiators (Enroth, pp. 23, 4).
The WT claims, ". . . the Christian witnesses of Jehovah are the best-oriented, happiest and most contented group of people on the face of the earth. They get along better with each other than do people of any other religion, tribe or social group . . ." ("Awake!" 3/8/60, quoted in Bergman, p. 38).
They also claim that the love manifested in their congregations is proof that they are the one true religion (You Can, pp. 189, 90).
However, once one gets inside the organization, a different picture emerges. In his book, The Mental Health of Jehovahs Witnesses, Bergman documents that the rate of mental illness among JWs is 4-5 times the national average. After documenting this statement in the first three chapters of the book, he attempts to explain why this is the case in the next two chapters.
He summarizes the first of these chapters as follows:
Several factors exist which likely influence the high mental illness rate found among the Witnesses. These can be summarized as follows: (1) over-rigidity, especially relative to keeping all the many necessary commandments, some very trivial. (2) Inappropriate responses by the Watchtower Society, the Elders, and other Witnesses to those who are mentally ill and seek their help. They often do more harm than good in their efforts to aid the Witness. (3) Fear that expression of one's concern will result in problems--and the discovery that discussion of honest doubts do cause problems. (4) An over emphasis and concern with demons and demonology in general . . . . (5) In some areas and periods of history, real or feared persecution has taken its toll . . . . (Bergman, p. 62).
Bergman summarizes the next chapter as follows:
These factors include (1) a great deal of social pressure which keeps Witnesses at lower economic and educational levels, even if they have the talent to improve their lot in life. (2) Discouragement from involvement in rewarding activities such as music, sports, art or other hobbies and from involvement in rewarding occupational pursuits as well. (3) Social pressure against intellectual activities in general. Especially do many of the more active, better-read, introspective Witnesses experience problems. (4) Lack of support and often discouragement by the WT Society in helping Witnesses satisfy general psychological and emotional needs. (5) The many doctrinal changes, shallow and poorly researched theology, and lack of human concern and compassion by the WT headquarters (Bergman, pp. 80, 81).
Several of these points have already been discussed in this article already. Others are related to issues that have been raised. I quoted Bergman at length so the reader can see that the issues I have been discussing have practical ramifications. They can cause extreme emotional turmoil in the life of the average JW.
If the reader doubts Bergman's charge that the rate of mental illness among JWs is higher than the national average or would simply like to pursue the issues he has raised in the quotes above, I would suggest that you order his book. It is available from Witness Inc., P.O. Box 597, Clayton, CA 94517. Write to them for ordering information.
Cults tend to be organizations comprised of lay people. There are no paid clergy or professional religious functionaries like those in traditional groups (Enroth, p.25).
The WT states:
None of the overseers receive a salary for the work that they do in the congregation. It is true that the work they do one behalf of their brothers may require many hours, and some of them may even cut down on the amount of secular work that they do, in order to have more time for the congregation. But they do this out of love for Jehovah and for his "sheep," not with expectation of any material gain (Organization, p. 150).
This practice does sound rather commendable. However, the lack of a paid clergy prevents the WT from having any true scholars in their organization. Also, the treadmill of having to work secular jobs along with leading a congregation and other responsibilities, keeps the elders from doing any serious Bible study on their own. All they have time to do is read what the WT has printed and present it to the congregation without any serious reflection on it. This of course, relates back to issues already raised at other places in this article.
I started this two-part article by asking the question, "Are Jehovah's Witnesses a cult?" I defined the word cult by using a nine point definition by sociologist, Ronald Enroth. Throughout this paper, I have demonstrated that the WT matches up almost perfectly to each point as defined by Enroth. Therefore, the conclusion reached is Jehovah's Witnesses are in fact a cult based on a sociological definition.
Books and eBooks by Gary F. Zeolla, the Director of Darkness to Light
Bibliography (for Parts One and Two):
Bergman, Jerry PhD. The Mental Health of Jehovah's Witness,
Clayton, CA: Witness Inc., 1987.
Bethel Ministries Newsletter. Vol 7, #6, Vol 8, #1, Vol 8, #5.
Comments from the Friends. Fall 1988, Winter 1989.
Enroth, Ronald. What is a Cult? Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity, 1982.
Franz, Raymond. Crisis of Conscience . Atlanta: Commentary Press, 1983.
Gruss, Edward. We Left Jehovah's Witnesses. Philipsburg, NJ, 1974.
Kittle, Gerhard and Gerhardf Friedrich, ed. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament: Abridged in One Volume. by Geoffrey Bromily. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1985.
Organization for Kingdom-Preaching and Disciple Making. New York: Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, 1972.
Pay Attention to Yourselves and to All the Flock. Brooklyn, NY: WBTS, 1981.
Reasoning from the Scriptures. Brooklyn, NY: WBTS, 1985.
Reed, David. Jehovah's Witnesses Answered Verse by Verse. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1986.
You Can Live Forever in Paradise on Earth. Brooklyn, NY: WBTS, 1982.
All Biblical quotes are from The New American Standard Bible. La Habra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1977.
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 website April 12, 1997.
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