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The 2002 CESNUR International Conference

Minority Religions, Social Change, and Freedom of Conscience

Salt Lake City and Provo (Utah), June 20-23, 2002

New Light, Conscience and Jehovah’s Witnesses

by George D. Chryssides, University of Wolverhampton
A paper presented at CESNUR 2002 International Conference, Salt Lake City and Provo. Preliminary version. Do not reproduce or quote without the consent of the author

Conference theme: ‘Minority Religions, Social Change and Freedom of Conscience’.

Abstract: This paper examines the way in which the concept of ‘conscience’ is understood by Jehovah’s Witnesses, and how they relate it to conformity with human law, and to divine law, as revealed in the Bible. Witnesses subordinate conscience to scripture, and to civil government, provided that the latter does not demand disobedience to divine law. The controversies relating to flag saluting and to war are examined as examples of conflicts between the two types of law. According to Watchtower teachings, individual conscience on its own is unreliable, however, and hence the organization allows limited scope for individual decision is moral and spiritual matters. The author concludes that, in the main, exercising one’s conscience entails deciding to do what is known to be right, rather than deciding what the right actually is.


This paper aims to explore what the Jehovah’s Witnesses understand by ‘conscience’, and how the notion of conscience relates, first to civil society, and second to other sources of authority within the Watch Tower organization.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses’ position is often seriously misunderstood. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, for example, portrays them as ‘preaching hatred of all existing institutions’ (Cross and Livingstone, 1978, p. 729), claiming that they cannot be an authentic religious organization, since they teach that ‘religion is against God’. It is incorrect to describe Jehovah’s Witnesses as a ‘world renouncing’ faith or a faith that stands in opposition to the world. Although they teach that the world is currently ruled by Satan, Witnesses do not form their own communities separate from the world. They act within the world, engaging in worldly occupations, and the vast majority of present-day Witnesses do not seek to escape from the world, but expect to live eternally within a renewed Paradise on Earth. Witnesses are as much aware as others of current affairs and sometimes involved in them, and their semi-monthly magazine Awake! offers observations on human affairs. Articles range from how to use ladders safely to reflection on the events of 11 September 2001, although comments on current affairs are offered from a politically neutral perspective. In the Awake! article, ‘The Day the Twin Towers Collapsed’, the editors explained how the nearby Watchtower building had offered help to victims, and the authors presented a range of ‘human interest’ stories, but finally offering the conclusion that such events take place in a world in which theocratic rule has not yet begun:

Tragedies like this one in New York City should make all of us reflect on what we are doing with our lives. ... Modesty should impel us to go to God’s Word to find the true hope for the dead and to discover what God will soon do to reestablish Paradise conditions on this earth. If you wish to know more about the Bible’s promises, we urge you to contact Jehovah’s Witnesses in your neighbourhood. (Awake! 8 January, 2002, p. 12).

The present-day system of civil affairs falls short of Jehovah’s ideal, not simply because of human sin, but because of inappropriate rulership. In the ideal paradise, government will be ‘theocratic’, because Christ and his anointed ones will reign from heaven, ensuring earthly perfection. In the meantime, however, Witnesses do not teach hatred, or lack of co-operation with earthly rulers. On the contrary, civil authorities, at least prima facie, demand obedience. The Bible teaches:

Let every soul be subject to higher powers: for there is no power but from God: and those that are, are ordained of God. (Romans 13:1).

The Jehovah’s Witnesses’ interpretation of this text is an interesting one. ‘Higher powers’, they teach, refers to Christ and his anointed ones, and describes Christ’s heavenly rulership, rather than absolute obedience to every form of civil government. However, in this verse Paul implies that whatever government is in power is permitted to rule by God. Hence the civil powers demand obedience, except insofar as their dictates conflict with divine law. It is in such situations that Jehovah’s people must exercise their conscience and obey Jehovah rather than human rulers.

Sources of authority

This raises the question of how one knows what it contrary to divine law. There are three fundamental sources of authority within the Watch Tower organization: conscience, scripture, and the Watch Tower organization itself.

Christians have typically explained ‘conscience’ as one’s innate sense of right and wrong, independent of any formal definition of right or wrong action.

For whenever people of the nations that do not have law do by nature the things of the law, these people, although not having law, are a law to themselves. They are the very ones who demonstrate the matter of the law to be written in their hearts, while their conscience is bearing witness with them and, between their own thoughts, they are being accused or even excused. (Romans 2:14-15.)

However, Jehovah’s Witnesses use the term to apply (a) to situations where clear moral guidance is lacking, (b) to situations where one’s obligations are clear but where is faced with the choice as to whether to act rightly or not, and (c) one’s knowledge of true doctrine. Thus, J. F. Rutherford stated that ‘Adam did not heed his conscience’ when he succumbed to Eve’s enticement to eat from the tree in the Garden of Eden. (Rutherford, 1928, p. 35.)

In particular, citizens have obligations to the state. The Bible says, ‘Pay back Caesar’s things to Caesar, but God’s things to God.’ (Mark 12:17). However, because the world is under Satan’s rule, Witnesses cannot express allegiance to one particular form of government rather than another. Hence, Witnesses will maintain strict neutrality between different types of earthly kingdom. This entails declining to vote in elections, and refusing to engage in armed combat on behalf of any nation. The Witnesses’ reluctance to participate in war is not simply on the ground that it involves violence and the taking of human life; participation in armed conflict implies support for a particular political system in a world that is under Satan’s rule.

All this does not mean, of course, that nothing is due to civil authorities (‘Caesar’). The Watch Tower organization will do its utmost to comply with the law in the running of its administrative affairs. At a recent Quickbuild, it was evident that the congregation had done its utmost to ensure compliance with planning and building regulations, and health and safety requirements for the work force. (A ‘Quickbuild’ is a rapid construction of a Kingdom Hall, usually accomplished in under four days.) Like other religious bodies, the Witnesses keep accounts properly and subject them to the due processes of auditing, and so on. Individuals are encouraged to be trustworthy: for example, to fill in their tax returns accurately and honestly. However, where there is state interference with religion, or where there is undue interrelationship between Church and political systems to which Christendom prostitutes itself.

Since mainstream religion is ‘false religion’ it cannot serve as a guide to conduct; conscience is therefore a more reliable guide to right and wrong than the mainstream churches. Russell contended that ‘creeds stifle conscience’ (Russell, n.d., p.1156), implying that the Church could intrude to too great a degree on one’s individual judgement about what ought to be believed and practised. There are therefore three potential remaining sources authority for the Witness: conscience, the Bible, and the Watch Tower organization. The main thrust of Jehovah’s Witnesses’ teaching is to minimize dependence on individual conscience, and to look to the scriptures and, particularly, the Watch Tower organization, as the true arbiters on issues of morals and doctrine.

If conscience were a sufficient guide you would have no need of the Scriptures. The majority of people have as good as no conscience; for they are blind to the principles and laws of God given to guide conscience; and still worse off then these are those mentioned in 1 Tim.4:2. Hence the imperative necessity for carefully heeding the Lord's Word, and walking circumspectly according to its light. (Russell, 1911, p.123).

He who keeps these two commandments of Jehovah, and here restated by the Lord Jesus, will be pursuing the right course, which will gain for him the approval of the Most High. In doing what he believes is right man cannot be guided merely by his conscience. If his conscience condemns him, this is evidence that ho is wrong. But he may be doing conscientiously that which is wrong, The conscience of man is not a safe guide unless that conscience is directed exactly in harmony with the Word of God. (Rutherford, 1936, p. 151).

Conscience has thus to be subordinated to scriptures. However, this does not mean individual interpretation of scripture. Although individual private study is allowed, scripture is systematically studied through the Watch Tower organization. This has the consequence that, where matters of conscience are concerned, these are in the main issues on which Jehovah’s Witnesses as an organization have taken a stance, rather than individuals. Collectively, Jehovah’s Witnesses have sought for freedom of conscience on matters where civil law intrudes upon divine law, and attempts to force a country’s citizens to act contrary to the commandments of scripture. The most prominent examples of situations where Witnesses collectively have invoked freedom of conscience against the state have been war, flag saluting, and the right to proselytize.

The flag salute controversy began in 1935, when, in response to a question at the Annual Convention, Rutherford had compared the U.S. flag salute with the salute that was offered in German to Adolf Hitler. Walter Gobitas was a Witness who attended that convention, although ironically he was not present when Rutherford made that remark; however, it was reported it to him, and his daughter Lillian subsequently refused in school to take part in the expected flag salute, with which other children complied. This led to a lengthy legal battle, which went as far as the Supreme Court, and Witnesses were not finally granted freedom of conscience in this matter until 1942.

It is worth noting that the Witnesses’ refusal to salute the flag was not out of any disrespect. On the contrary, an article in Awake! recounts an incident in which a school teacher allegedly asked a Witness and a non-Witness pupil to spit on a U.S. flag. The non-Witness is said to have complied while the Witness refused. The story illustrates the Witnesses’ political neutrality rather than any hatred of human institutions. Their real worry about flag salutes is that it potentially deifies the flag, and Witnesses will often compare the ritual with the Roman authorities’ requirement that the early Christians should acknowledge the emperor’s divinity.

The second controversy involved war. In its inception the stance of the (then) International Bible Students’ Association was not totally anti-war. Although Russell urged the necessity of peace, and asserted a close connection between armed conflict and sin, he preached a sermon in 1913 entitled ‘Peace Desired, War Necessary’ (Russell, 1917, p.451), in which he argued that many of the greatest human achievements had, albeit regrettably, resulted from war: ‘Yet I cannot close my eyes to the facts of history that practically every blessing has come to the world through war, at the cost of cruel bloodshed.’ He cited specifically America’s independence.

Russell, however, appears to have been more interested in what the impending war signified than about matters of conscience regarding participation. Writing in advance of the highly significant date of 1914, he saw the coming war as the beginning of Armageddon, and associated it with the signs of the end of human affairs. As far as one’s moral stance towards war was concerned, Russell took the view that, while wars may be necessary for human ends, ‘The Lord's followers, like Himself, are to be peculiar, and separate and distinct from the world - a New Creation. They are to be so devoted to the teachings of their Master and so filled with His spirit of love for each other and for all mankind that they would suffer evil and injustice, rather than do injury to others. Our Lord Himself was always peaceably disposed and a peacemaker as respects others; and so all of His followers are to be. "Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God." (Russell, 1917, p.458).

It was during Rutherford’s leadership that a more active moral stance was taken against war, with the refusal of thousands of Witnesses, both on the side of Germany and of Britain, to participate in armed conflict. The Jehovah’s Witnesses’ stance on war is commonly misunderstood. Strictly speaking, Jehovah’s Witnesses are not pacifist, claiming that if Jehovah commanded them to fight they would do so. The Jews of ancient times engaged in battles, following God’s instructions, and of course there remains the great Battle of Armageddon to be fought between Christ and his hosts and the forces of Satan. Jehovah’s Witnesses teach that battles recounted in Hebrew scripture, such as the conquest of Jericho, and the divinely sanctioned military manoeuvres against surrounding nations were attempts to re-establish true religion by attempting to eliminate all traces of Canaanite religion. Under the new covenant brought in by Jesus Christ, however, Jehovah’s people may not engage in violence or armed conflict; hence forms of religion that sanction violence form part of ‘Babylon’, and stand in opposition to Jehovah.

Such assertions of freedom of conscience have been at great personal cost to Jehovah’s Witnesses, who have been notoriously unpopular on account of their perceived lack of patriotism. They have experienced personal attacks, public lynching, economic boycotts of their businesses, and – most notably – imprisonment and death in the Nazi concentration camps under the Third Reich.

In these examples, freedom of conscience has been the collective freedom that the Witnesses have wanted to assert for their own organization. But what about individual freedom? To what extent and in what circumstances can individual Witnesses make up their own minds about teachings, or about matters of right and wrong? Russell taught that if something is not contrary to the Bible, and not contrary to human law, one’s conscience may decide what is appropriate. (Russell, 1905, p.350). As the Watch Tower organization became more firmly structured, it was taught that human conscience is unreliable, and needs to be subordinated to God’s commandments. That is not to say, however, that the collective understanding of doctrines and morals is infallible. On the contrary, Witnesses often talk about ‘greater light’ dawning as time progresses. The Watch Tower organization can reach conclusions on matters that have previously been subjects for individual conscience, and even acquire greater light as an organization. The counter-cult movement often seizes on apparent inconsistencies in Watch Tower teachings, when in actual fact – like most forms of religion – the truth of the matter is that its teachings are evolving.

These commandments are set out in the Bible. However, one’s understanding of the Bible requires guidance also, and such guidance comes from the Watch Tower organization. It is only when there is not a clear scriptural injunction, and where there has not been a clear ruling given by the Governing Body that individual Witnesses may decide for themselves regarding their preferred course of action.

Particularly in its early history, there were numerous and varied matters on which the Watch Tower organization has not made definite pronouncements. Examples included voting, taking out mortgages, growing tobacco, owning gambling clubs and saloon bars, participation in ‘letter circles’, taking part in religious gatherings where collections are taken (Russell made a point of not taking up collections at his meetings), and mentioning Pastor Russell in public prayer. At a later stage, several of these matters were firmly decided by the organization. Voting is now forbidden, and indeed even in the Jehovah’s Witnesses organization the only voting that takes place is within the Governing Body itself. In 1973 Witnesses were instructed that they had six months to give up smoking, or risk disfellowshipment. Gambling is firmly prohibited, and attending mainstream churches – which characteristically take up monetary collections – can be a matter potentially leading to disfellowshipment.

Matters of conscience certainly do not include the kinds of burning issues on which mainstream Protestantism allows divergence of opinion, having assumed no firm position, for example abortion, euthanasia, and capital punishment. (Abortion and euthanasia are, predictably, prohibited, but not capital punishment, which is sanctioned in the Old Testament, and never reappraised either by Jesus or by the New Testament Church.) Currently, matters of conscience include whether to perform jury service is a matter of conscience (Watchtower, 1 April, 1997, p.27), as is whether to participate in organ transplantation (Watchtower, 15 March 1980, p. 31). A nuber of less significant matters are referred to one’s conscience, for example, whether a Jehovah’s Witness housewife may use her conscience to decide whether or not to cook a Christmas turkey for a non-believing husband and family. A Jehovah’s Witness window cleaner would be unlikely to agree to provide his or her services in a mainstream church building, but I am told there is difference of opinion as to whether cleaning the windows of a vicarage is acceptable.

There have been times when Governing Body rulings have been rescinded, and where some of the decisions may seem inconsistent or difficult to comprehend. On the question of organ transplantation, for example, there was a period where it was prohibited, presumably on the grounds that it involved the introduction of someone else’s blood into one’s body. However, such a prohibition was rescinded in the 1980s.

At times the organization’s change of stance may seem surprising. Raymond Franz – once a member of the Governing Body, and who was forced to resign, and finally disfellowshipped in 1981 – comments on a number of these. One example involves definition of the types of sexual contact that are permissible within marriage: at one time Witnesses forbade any form of sexual intimacy apart from normal copulation; now the organization is more inclined to be less overtly prescriptive.

A further – rather different – example, to which Franz draws attention, relates to Mexico, where the government required everyone undertake a year’s military service. Completion of this service gained the citizen an ‘Identity Cartilla for Military Service’, which was essential for obtaining a driving licence and a passport, as well as for other legal matters. The passport, of course, was particularly important for Witnesses who often need to work abroad, or to go to the U.S.A. for international Assembly. One way of obtaining such a certificate was bribery, euphemistically called ‘paying a fee in lieu’, and the Governing Body’s opinion was sought in this matter. Perhaps surprisingly, the Governing Body took the view that such a ‘money transaction’ or ‘payment of fee’ was a matter for one’s conscience (they avoided the term ‘bribe’), and was only to be avoided if the money went directly to the military establishment. This was the view they expressed, even though the certificate rendered one eligible for military call-up.


To sum up. On matters of conscience, Jehovah’s Witnesses have tended to take a stance as a body, rather than as individuals. Where they have done so, they have taken a very firm stance, often at great personal cost. While there are matters of individual conscience, these tend to regarded as of lesser importance, and confined to details of personal living, and certainly not matters of doctrine.

This is because individual conscience is viewed as unreliable, needing to be subordinated to scripture and to the Watch Tower organization. The Watch Tower organization, however, is not itself infallible, and Witnesses make frequent reference to ‘new light’, meaning new insights that are afforded – principally to the Governing Body – as time progresses. On occasions, however (marital intimacy and organ transplantation are examples I cited), lights can go off as well as on, and it can appear at times that there are vacillations within the Governing Body. This is understandable in a fallible organization; yet, on the other hand, Jehovah’s Witnesses strongly imply that they afford ‘the Truth’, and indeed offer the only ark of salvation. Reconciling these two positions is, I believe, a matter that Witnesses will need to address in order to maintain a thoroughly coherent doctrine of divine election.



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Rutherford, J. F. (1936). Riches. Brooklyn, N.Y.: Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York.

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