In Search for Christian Freedom
For such freedom Christ set us free. Therefore stand fast, and do not let yourselves be confined again in a yoke of slavery (Gal. 5:1).
I am giving YOU a new commandment, that YOU love one another; just as I have loved YOU, that YOU also love one another (John 13:34).
Those who criticize Jehovah's Witnesses (and not only them) love to speak about their lack of freedom, their dependence on others, their being brainwashed. Some ex-Witness may tell me that I am a "slave of the organization". Thus he means that he also was a slave of the organization when he was a Witness, and I agree that this is no good. If he was a slave and now feels free, I am glad for him, though it might be difficult to understand how he managed to become enslaved in the 21th century. I would suggest that his slavery is a product of his own intellectual dependence that may lead him to enslavement to some other group than Jehovah's Witness, but this is a subject of another discussion. Anyway, I wish him luck in any other place where he would find comfort. But I found comfort here, so what right does he have to ascribe to me slavery?
Is someone who joins a political party, obeys its charter and statutes, participates in its rallies and demonstrations, and pays membership fees, really unfree? Is someone who is a football fan, who participates in the events of his club, who decorates his house with the colors of his club, and who travels to other countries to see matches of his club, unfree? Is someone who is so passionate about parachuting that he joins a parachute club and daily risks his life for his own money (and a lot of them), unfree? So why is a believer who by his own will attends religious meetings and supports the activities of his religious community, unfree? If we blame religious organizations as curtailing the religious freedom of their members, we should likewise blame all organizations, parties and clubs down to macrame clubs for exactly the same.
One may disagree with Jehovah's Witnesses on some points, but the claim that they lack freedom is unsubstantiated. If some Witnesses seem to lack independent thinking (well, there are such people in all confessions, and Jesus died for them too), it does not mean that all Witnesses lack it as well. If someone attends meetings because he feels pressure, it certainly would be better for him to leave, but it is not wise to suspect others of feeling the same. I, for one, regard myself as the most free person in the world, and I may prove that.
I worship Jehovah because he is my God, not of someone else. Jesus is my Teacher, not of someone else. I read the Bible (not only in the New World Translation), because the Bible is the link to my Teacher. What I believe is my own beliefs, not of some church. I have my own independent view, based on consideration and study, regarding what Christianity is about and what it is not about. No person or group can impose on me teachings that I, on the basis of my own research, do not believe. When I believe in Jehovah, in his kingdom, and the coming paradise on earth, I do not believe in it because I am a Witness, but I am a Witness because I believe in it. If some day my church changes its doctrines substantially, I will be the first to quit.
At the present time Jehovah's Witnesses are the only group that understands Christianity in the same way as I understand it. So I stick to them and support them, because we have the same mind. The Witnesses are the only group in the Christian world that holds the same views that I do, so I do not see any reason why I should not be one of them. Human beings were not created to stay alone, we are social beings. We always seek fellowship with like-minded ones, with those sharing the same views and values. I do not know why, but I have never met a Witness who does not share my views and values. I love them, I love to be among them and worship God together with them. I like the atmosphere at a Christian meeting, the Bethel family, and the conventions. I truly and sincerely love all this, and I want to be a part of it. The critics tell me, "Ok, but up there is a bunch of cynical and wicked people who exploit you. Rank and file Witnesses may be good, but their leaders are the worst of the worst". But how can it be that all my friends are generally good people, but those who helped them become such are bad? How can a good tail grow out of a rotten head?
There is only one way to evaluate a Christian group – by its fruits. When I look at Jehovah's Witnesses, I see fruits that I do not see anywhere else. I do not know an employer who hires only the Catholics, but I know those who hire only Witnesses. I do not see in any of the churches shops where you can serve yourself, and for the goods you take, you put money in a box without anyone seeing it. But there are such shops in the Bethel homes. I have never heard about ethnic, political, or commercial conflicts between Jehovah’s Witnesses, but I have often heard about such things in other groups. I do not know any other Christian leaders who work so hard to help their flocks have healthy spiritual habits, and who so consistently stick to high moral standards that are not always easy to follow (this may be the best way to lose the flock of customers). I do not know of a church whose members take buses, planes and ships at their own cost, in order to go to the remotest corners of the earth to bring the good news to illiterate aborigines. I like the order and effectiveness of Jehovah's Witnesses, their success in their missionary work, and their publishing and building projects. I like their consistent standing in relation to political and nationalistic issues, their non-acceptance of anything unclean, their efforts to maintain unity and a good relationship within the brotherhood, their uncompromising attitude to apostates (so undemocratic, but so correct from the Christian viewpoint). I am impressed by their behavior during wars and conflicts. I admire their uniform understanding of doctrines and values; in any country I will find the same lifestyle and course of action, the same spiritual habits, and the same mood and spirit. There is nothing of this kind in any other Christian group, even such centralized ones as the Roman Catholic church. If all these are not Christian fruits, then what really are Christian fruits, and where can we find them? And how could it all come about under wicked leaders? By chance, some sort of evolution?
Critics tell me, "You are forced to study the literature and preach". Oh, am I? I read Witnesses' literature because I like it. I generally agree with it, even if I sometimes have a slightly different opinion. But this literature reflects my own views and Christian beliefs – my own views, not of someone else. Among much other religious literature (and I read a lot of it), the Witnesses' literature is my favorite. It is about what I myself regard is right, good and important. So where is my lack of freedom in this connection? Why is it that one may like the Vogue or Wired, and this is not lack of freedom, but if one likes the Watchtower, then there is lack of freedom and coercion? And why is it so difficult to understand that any literature is just a sermon in written form and nothing more? Arguments like "Jehovah's Witnesses study the Watchtower instead of the Bible" reveal a complete lack of understanding what Christian literature is and what it is for.
I preach because I truly find it important, I see biblical commandments and precedents for that. And when I preach, I do not urge people to become Jehovah' Witnesses. Primarily, I urge them to follow Christ, study the Bible, and form their own conscious attitude to faith – and only then, in the end of this process, to join some Christian group. If he or she joins my group, I will be glad, if not – I still did not visit him in vain, since he now confesses himself a Christian. And again, I admire Jehovah's Witnesses because they do not care if they are viewed as being strange or annoying when they publish the news they regard so critically important for others. The Witnesses are unique in their realization that the Christian community is first of all the mission of salvation for the dying world, and not some community club or cultural museum. They are perhaps the only group that has the courage to state openly: being a Christian is being a missionary. This is a truly apostolic mentality, which is completely lost in the majority of modern confessions, and I really like that.
I absolutely do not care about some dark spots in biographies of any Witnesses leaders, because I know that my own biography is also far from spotless. God's spirit does not preclude errors but helps to overcome them. Apostles misunderstood a lot of issues and made serious mistakes even after Christ's resurrection, but still they had the holy spirit for healing and even resurrecting others. If I love Christ, what about my love to Christians? If I can easily forgive myself, what about forgiving others? Fellow Christians are my family. If a member of my family spoils a soup, I do not divorce her. If another member spoils his pants, I do not abandon him to the orphanage. So why should I break with my Christian family if I find some imperfection in organizational or personal matters? I do not have solid reasons to suspect they have bad motives in connection with me: no critiс or high-ranking ex-Witness has ever shown that, although they have put a lot of effort in it. I can not accept their word in such cases, since I know that they lied on many occasions (vaccination, UN, etc.), and they have not presented any solid documented proofs of the wickedness of the leaders of Jehovah's Witnesses. Therefore I can not take their word for it, especially if they have a personal vendetta or make money on it (or both).
I can not accuse the leaders of my confession of some mistakes or unpleasant incidents, since I understand that I would not make less mistakes if I were in their place. I can not accuse them of selfishness and greediness, since I know that they do not ride BMWs or live in luxury – I see with my own eyes that the donated money is spent on huge publishing and building projects, on pioneers and missionaries that I know personally, and on large-scale aid programs. I can not accuse them of a desire to be famous, since I can not remember when I last time saw their names in the publications. I can not accuse them of biased translation of the Bible, because I compare the New World Translation with tens of other versions and I do not find any blatant distortions (and some scholars have a high opinion about NWT, for example Jason BeDuhn). I can not accuse them of a betrayal of Christianity, since 99% of the theological viewpoints of Jehovah's Witnesses are shared by theologians from other Christian groups (and even the Church Fathers). I can not accuse them of "false prophecies", because they are not prophets but students – a prophet cannot err, but a student can. I can not accuse them of mismanagement, since I see that Jehovah's Witnesses are the most effective missionary group in the world. I can not accuse them of stupidity, because the book Insight on the Scriptures is a solid and scholarly piece of work. I can not accuse them of bad human traits, since I should know them in person to do that. But I have a friend who knows several Governing Body members, and he characterizes them as good persons and wonderful Christians. And I do not have reasons not to believe him.
For years I have struggled to comprehend the logic beneath the argument that Witnesses are coerced to do one things and banned from other things. What exactly am I coerced to do and how? What am I not allowed to do that I want to do? Reading religious literature that is not from the Watchtower Society? This is an outrageous lie, there has never been such a ban. Receiving blood? I truly and sincerely believe that a Christian should not use blood of another being. Communicating with apostates? But I do not want to do that! Their views, their mindset, their speech and manners are not something I want to share and spend my time on. Running a blog, studying something, or writing something? This is also a myth: many Jehovah's Witnesses have published their own studies, and I personally know wonderful Christians, elders and pioneers who publish their works with the full knowledge and even cooperation from branch offices. (The Our Kingdom Ministry of March, 2007 discusses a completely different situation, namely, organized critical work aimed at undermining the authority of the Governing Body. This is absolutely sound: if you do not like the teaching of your church and do not respect its leaders – first leave, and only then criticize.) There is nothing that I want to do that I am not allowed to do, or something that I do not want to do, but must do. I do everything I want, and do not do what I do not want. I feel no pressure, limits, or discomfort.
Or do I lack freedom because I have to adhere to some rules and procedures, and to the protocol of Christian meetings, or wear a tie, but not jeans, or submit reports about my preaching work? But what is the problem about this? If there is a meeting, there is a protocol of some sort. If collecting statistics about preaching work contributes to the effectiveness of this work, then I totally agree. How does it infringe on my freedom? Every person in the world does million of things that he himself did not devise. Did I devise that I only could cross a road on green light? Did I invent the custom of shaking hands? Was it my idea to wear pants but not skirt? I do all this either because of tradition, or because doing it benefits me more than not doing it; and in any case it is absolutely irrelevant for my life. If I see a red light and have to stop and wait a bit, is this a reason for feeling a lack of freedom? Did we really became less free when we invented traffic lights and other rules and adhere to them despite their being far from perfect? If one feels a lack of freedom because of a red light, he definitely misunderstands something either about traffic, or about life.
Or do I lack freedom because I can not influence decisions in my church, manage its affairs, and discuss its problems? But I do not want to spend my time on it, since I am perfectly comfortable about everything that happens here. I am not burdened by the rules which are applied within the congregations of Jehovah's Witnesses, because I agree to 99% of them, and the rest 1% are trifles and hair-splitting that I can turn a blind eye to. I know that if, speaking hypothetically, I left the Witnesses to build my own group, I would make it practically the same. Next, I regard myself as a disciple of Christ, not Jefferson. Democracy is not a Christian value, it was unknown to the biblical authors, and God's people were never in history a democracy. Ordinary Christians in the 1st century C. E. did not discuss organizational matters with the apostles. So I am not going to abandon this principle in order to satisfy the politically correct atheist community around me.
When critics lament about the lack of democracy in the society of Jehovah's Witnesses or other groups, they misunderstand what democracy is and what it is for. Democracy is a tool for finding a compromise between several groups with conflicting interests. In the Christian congregation, there are no groups with conflicting interests, and such groups cannot exist there, because unity is a biblical requirement (John 17:21; 1 Cor. 1:10). This is the fundamental difference between Christianity and the state. In a state, especially a large one, there are many people with very different views, while the Christian community consists of people with the same views. That is why they just do not need democracy, which would inflict additional management costs and greatly stall overall effectiveness. Culturally and ideologically homogenous groups with meritocratic governance are always more effective than a heterogenous group with democratic governance. Moreover, life is much more pleasant in such a group, because one is surrounded by friends and fellows.
Organization, centralizing and even lack of democracy is not good or bad in itself – it is biblically neutral. It is good or bad only insofar that it produces good or bad fruits. If within an organized and centralized Christian community there emerge and develop good Christian fruits: peace, joy, unity, devotion, assistance, witnessing, etc., then organization and centralization are good and cannot be attacked. When Paul speaks of Christian freedom (Gal. 5:1), he does not call for free and democratic Christian lifestyle where everyone thinks and does whatever he or she wants. This would be very far from what Paul always taught. The same Paul often speaks about order, obedience and even of the harm of "questionings and debates" (1 Tim. 6:4). And are questionings and debates not the basis of any democratic arrangement? The same Paul introduced and enforced a lot of rules in the Christian congregation.
Any rules are secondary, the primary thing is pleasing God and bearing Christian fruits. If the rules lead to good fruits, then such rules are good (and vice versa). One cannot destroy good fruits in order to introduce worldly values, such as democracy and pluralism. Democracy may be something that can bring forth good fruits, but it is not the fruit itself. If democracy can bring good fruits – that is fine, but no group has ever shown how to achieve this. The more democracy there is in a group, the more chaos and discord there is, and and less good fruits. So I want to tell "pro-freedom critics": do your experiments somewhere else. Create a democratic, decentralized, pluralistic and liberal Christian group, show your Christian fruits, show your peace and unity, your educational, missionary and other achievements – and only then go teaching us.
And until that happens, we adhere to the lesser evil principle. If there are some problems in our Christian life, they are not so grave as to dismantle the whole building. That is why I do not want democracy in my religious community. Along with democracy, there will come plenty of strangers who will launch endless debates about everything, start changing everything, and tearing everything apart. There will emerge many centers of power that will draw multiple lines of confrontation (1 Cor. 1:12–13). Endless wars will begin and divisions will occur. This is actually what happens now in the world of Catholicism, Baptism, Lutherism, Anglicanism. I will have to share my Kingdom Hall with people I fundamentally disagree with. Hate, dissent, and foul language will dominate our online and offline communities, as they now dominate Catholic, Protestant and apostate Internet forums. People will make a habit of openly criticizing elders and leaders of the congregations, something which is a declaration of bankruptcy in relation to all the Christian values: any shepherd is only a co-shepherd to Christ. I will not find spiritual and emotional peace in my Christian family, in which teachings and values important for me are securely protected from outer encroachment. I do not want all this to happen. There is too much enmity and dissent in the world, and I do not want to bring them into my congregation just because it is an accepted way in the world. Do it somewhere else, but not here. I believe in the spiritual paradise concept, especially in the last days. Others are free not to believe in it. But believing in it is my conscious and free choice.
Or is my lack of freedom that I must accept all corrections of the doctrine introduced by the leaders? But what is the problem about that, if such corrections do not affect fundamental Christian beliefs? Critics may argue that when the leaders err, so does automatically all the flock, and that is bad for their freedom and faith. Oh, come on! To err means that one first has his own opinion and then changes it. But I just do not have the conscious opinion on interpretation of all 31,000+ Bible verses. Nor do I have one, neither anyone else in the world, including the Pope, for it is technically impossible. I have a conscious opinion regarding basic Christian teachings which I will never compromise. But I am not very interested in myriads of secondary interpretations: in what year Babylonians conquered Jerusalem, what is "this generation" in Mat. 24:34, the exact succession of events in the last day and etc. These matters are irrelevant to everything essential in my faith, they do not affect my relationship with God in any way; they do not make my fellows worse Christians than before. So I am ready to accept any consistent and sound interpretation (and often several interpretations may be equally sound), and forget about the issue and enjoy the unity with my brothers.
Christian unity is attained on the basis of the main teachings, which are very few, and Jehovah's Witnesses have never in their history modified them. I have a Bible Students’ booklet printed in 1925, and I see in it that no basic teaching has been changed since that time. Only this is important, only this defines the essence and face of the confession, while myriad of secondary positions are just accepted de-facto, like a code or charter, nothing more than that. One joins a political party or any other organization for the sake of its basic ideals, while the rest of its rules and secondary viewpoints are accepted de-facto and automatically without much consideration. And, of course, any organization, including a religious one, is totally free to modify its charter and provisions. If my church decides to make a secondary doctrinal modification, I have nothing to say against it. It shows their openness to new information, readiness to learn, and to improve. Show me just one church that once cemented its doctrine and never changed a single comma since then. Such an arrangement is hardly possible and hardly desirable. I do not see any problems with that, and I do not understand those who do. I am really sorry for people who panic every time their church modifies a secondary interpretation which has nothing to do with anything that is important to Christianity. They reveal that years of religious experience have not taught them to distinguish what is important from that which is not important, what requires adherence and rigidness, and what – compromise and flexibility.
Or is there a problem in joining an organized group with a flock and shepherds, leaders and subordinates? Then we should ban all the churches, from the Roman Catholic Church down to an evangelical community in a village. What is the problem about Jehovah's Witnesses? Let us liquidate all organized groups, because organization and order are evil. Let us excommunicate the apostle Paul because he introduced multiple rules and norms, because he was "a pharisee and scribe" who infringed on the unlimited Christian freedom. Let us condemn every kind of pastor work: why do we need sinful pastors when there is perfect Christ? Let us attack every drive for systemic education and preaching work, any pursuit of order, unity and consent. Let us reject every form of organized Christian life and activity, since they all rise against our freedom. And will a single group out there survive such a reform, including the 1st century Christianity? Will there be left any monastery with a tenfold more rules and limits than among Jehovah's Witnesses and all the rest of the "cults" combined? It is hard to find a group that calls for a crusade against monasticism for alleged infringing on human rights and freedoms.
The fact is that there is no argument against Jehovah's Witnesses that can not also be used against some other Christian group. All problems and shortcomings critics find in connection with the Witnesses exist in other confessions as well, in some of the confessions or in all of them. The 2,000 years record of the Catholic and Orthodox churches makes it hard for the Witnesses to match them in problems and mistakes. One may collect all the works of critics and ex-Witnesses, replace "Jehovah's Witnesses" with "Catholics" or "Protestants", and there will not be much difference. I once wanted to make a long list of accusations and make answers to them, but I later gave up the idea, since I saw that there was no exclusive Witness-related criticisms. (By the way, this is the reason why Witness apostates usually do not go to other churches; they understand that the same problems they see among the Witnesses are found in the other churches as well. They attack the Witnesses only because they lost a certain amount of time with them. They still retain strong emotional connections with Witnesses, emotions which used to be positive, but are now negative. Many fail to break this connection completely, and they participate in endless discussions about this connection in forums, losing time for the past, while they can go on living in the present.)
I will never argue that Jehovah's Witnesses as a confession is better than other confessions, this is a matter of faith. But I can prove that they are at least not worse than others. Therefore, if I would leave them I would have to become a non-confessional Christian. But why should I? Why should I break free from my brothers, my friends, and from their help, their love? When I moved to another city, a brother rented an apartment for me with my money that I gave him after knowing him for 10 minutes. There was no refrigerator, but I was given one for free. Fifteen people came to help me with my flat, while I even did not know them all by name. I know that in any city of the world, should some emergency occur, I would not be left without shelter, because I have a family there. I may break free from all of this. I would have to preach alone, since I would not have any partners. I may break free from the wonderful Christian literature and other aids down to videos that I use to educate my son. I may break free from the organizational culture that helps me keep healthy spiritual habits and focus on pleasing God. I may break free from everything that embodies Christianity in action, the living example of Christian life in the 21st century, which is only possible within brotherhood and not feasible on an individual basis. Brotherhood is one of God’s best gifts to humans, but I should say, "no thanks"? Well, then I reject such kind of freedom.
Freedom of this kind is a Christian tragedy, since the essence of Christianity is the brotherhood, collectivism, conciliarism. If one breaks free from it, he breaks free from the greatest commandment, namely, to love fellow Christians and to be loved by them. Freedom in Christ and love to Christians are two sides of the same coin. Loving Christ without Christians is infinitely easier than loving Christ in Christians, but Christian freedom is not about that.
If someone believes that belonging to an organized Christian community infringes on his freedom, it means that this person is not interested in Christianity. Certainly, we should not drag him into it. Let him break free from this burden. If one is not interested in football, it is not good to force him to go to the fan club. But if a person breaks free from a Christian community (not necessarily Jehovah's Witnesses), he must understand that this means Christian bankruptcy. And much more so if he starts to bitterly despise others just for being in some organization – people whom he regarded as brothers just yesterday. And now he offers me his school of individualism, pride, and hate. Thanks, but I'll pass.
Freedom is an opportunity to make a choice. Christian freedom is realized within the choice to worship Jehovah through Christ. Christ consists of Head and Body, which is a congregation of sinful people. This is the greatness and depth of Christian life. No other Christian freedom exists but that.