The organization of Jehovah's Witnesses was founded in Pennsylvania by a small group of Bible students led by Charles Taze Russell in the late 19s. Russell had become disillusioned with the Christianity with which he was familiar. He claimed it had deviated from first-century Christianity as he read it in the Bible. Zion's Watch Tower Tract Society was founded in 1884. The society was engaged in publishing and distributing Bible literature characterized by strong end-time expectations and the coming of God's kingdom. Today, the religious group has more than 8,3 million active members in 240 countries. In the Netherlands, the organization of Jehovah's Witnesses has been active since the beginning of the twentieth century. The Netherlands has slightly less than 30.000 active Jehovah's Witnesses.
The primary legal entity used today by the organization of Jehovah's Witnesses is the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania. The head office is located in Warwick, in the state of New York in the United States. Jehovah's Witnesses believe that their organization is shaped according to that of the first-century Christian congregations.
The worldwide organization of Jehovah's Witnesses is led by the Governing Body. It consists of older men who see themselves as appointed by God in this position. The Governing Body lives and works in the head office in Warwick, USA, and is the head of the highly hierarchical organization. Jehovah's Witnesses believe that the Governing Body is the "channel" through which Jehovah God makes known his will.
Under the supervision of the Governing Body, the organization is led through Branch offices. Each Branch Office oversees a particular country or territory and is led by a Branch Committee. The members of a Branch Committee are appointed by the Governing Body. Currently there are more than 90 Branches worldwide. A branch is also called "Bethel" (House of God).
Municipalities are groups of Jehovah's Witnesses and are the basis of the organization. Municipalities are organized into groups, known as 'circles'. The municipalities within a 'circle' are visited by the 'circuit overseer', a representative of the Branch Office, who takes care of the municipalities assigned to him and ensures that they comply with the theocratic rules of the organization. Circuit overseers are appointed by the Governing Body.
Members of the congregation are called 'publishers' and call each other 'brother' and 'sister'. If someone is not yet baptized, but does participate in the evangelization work led by the organization, it is called an 'unbaptized publisher'. Baptism is seen as the symbol that someone has "dedicated himself to Jehovah (God)" and means that he has associated himself with the organization of Jehovah's Witnesses.
Elders and Servants
In every congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses, a group of elders is in charge. They are supported in their tasks by "servants in ministry". A woman can never become an elder or "servant servant" within the organization of Jehovah's Witnesses. Elders are appointed as "shepherds" to take care of their congregation. Their responsibilities include the organization of the evangelization work, the conducting of meetings and Bible studies, the provision of spiritual care to the congregation and the supervision that members adhere to the (strict) norms and guidelines of the organization.
The duties and responsibilities of 'servants in the ministry' include: taking care of the reading, operating the sound equipment during meetings, supervising a meeting, cleaning and maintaining the Kingdom Hall (the place where Jehovah's Witnesses for worship come together).
A male publisher can make spiritual progress by first becoming servant in the ministry and then an elder. Whether someone qualifies for an appointment depends on whether they meet certain 'biblical' qualifications and guidelines. Within the organization, it is believed that elders and servants in the ministry are appointed "by the spirit". The guidance of the holy spirit is presupposed when it is considered prayerful if someone complies with the Biblical guidelines.
When a person is eligible to become an elder, the body of elders makes a recommendation and sends it to the Branch where it is determined whether the recommended person can be appointed or not.
Aspects of the doctrine that influence the situations of sexual abuse
Bible as "God's Word"
For Jehovah's Witnesses, the Bible is the basis for what they believe and how they live their lives. That Bible is seen by them as the inspired 'Word of God'. They read the Bible quite literally and understand the text as explained by the Governing Body through publications. Many text sections in the Bible are read as predictions of the future that find fulfillment in this and the future tense. Other texts are seen as eternally valid guidelines for how to live. It is not permissible for individual Jehovah's Witnesses to interpret the Bible at its own discretion - different from organizational doctrine. The organization's policy is also based on the Bible, as interpreted and explained by the Governing Body.
Principle of authority and obedience
Central to the doctrine is the "principle of authority," based on the text in 1 Corinthians 11 verse 3, which states that "the Christ is the head of every man. And the man is the head of the woman and God the head of the Christ. " Women must be subject to their husbands and children to parents. Church members are expected to be obedient to the elders and both the elders and the rest of the congregation must obey the leadership of the organization. With at the top the Governing Body, who identifies himself with the "faithful and discreet slave, who has been appointed by his master (Jesus) over his servants" and thus forms the channel by which God makes known his will to the followers. (Matth.24: 45). Obedience to the organization is seen as obedience to God.
Position of women in the municipality
Women are not allowed to teach in the church. They are not allowed to exercise authority over baptized male Jehovah's Witnesses. They are not appointed in leading positions in the congregation and may not interfere with church matters. They are expected to look to their husbands for spiritual guidance.
Separated from the world
Jehovah's Witnesses are urged to keep themselves separate from the world. According to the Bible, Jesus said that his followers are "not part of the world." Moreover, according to the teachings Satan is the ruler of this world. Jehovah's Witnesses therefore do not take a political stand. Social interaction with people outside the organization is limited as much as possible. People outside the organization are referred to as 'worldly' and people who are 'not in the Truth'.
Secular law versus Biblical law
In Romans 13: 1 states that everyone must be subject to the superior authorities, because there is no authority that does not come from God; the existing authorities have been placed in their relative position by God. ' On the basis of this text, Jehovah's Witnesses have to obey the laws of the country in which they live or stay. However, when these laws are in conflict with the doctrine of the faith, the text in Acts 29: 5 gets the upper hand: 'We must obey God as a ruler more than people'. The own internal rules, which are seen as originating from God, therefore take precedence over secular laws. On the own guidelines that influence the organizational response to sexual abuse is discussed in more detail in the article about sexual abuse with Jehovah's Witnesses.
Moral rules regarding sexuality
Jehovah's Witnesses maintain a strict sexual morality. Sex is only allowed between a man and a woman who are married. No form of sex is permitted outside of marriage. Also not masturbation. And although the organization does not mention specific details, it does imply that even during the marriage not all sexual acts are allowed.
The organization of Jehovah's Witnesses uses the use of exclusion. A baptized Jehovah's Witness who commits a violation of the organization's moral rules and does not repent of them is excluded. Jehovah's Witnesses may no longer contact this person. Someone who is excluded often loses the entire social network, including close family, which has far-reaching consequences.
Even someone who chooses to officially no longer want to be one of Jehovah's Witnesses is treated as excluded.
Note: Bible texts are quoted from the New world translation of the Bible (2017), published by Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc.