One of the recurring topics on our Meetup for discussion among former Jehovah’s Witnesses is “Church.”
After what we experienced in the Watchtower organization, many of us are hesitant to be involved with a church. Reasons vary. Some do not trust God or the Bible at all and therefore stay away. Others, like myself, have come to Christ for salvation, and have explored churches, yet find some practices unsettling.
Not only is it a challenge to even ENTER the doors of a church, the common practices of communion, prayer, and worship toward Jesus can be overwhelming for the first time visitor. There’s the range of doctrinal differences such as the Trinity, hell fire, and heaven for more than just the 144,000, but also the way in which people “do church” can be an affront to the senses of a person adjusting to life outside the Watchtower. The type of worship music played, how people dress, the call to tithe, or seeing a woman pastor can get one running for the exit door! So we’ve been discussing how our previous “grid” of the arrangements at the Kingdom Hall can influence our current experience. Without having to consult God in prayer or discern His word for ourselves, we simply denied some things as dangerous or false because our “grid” told us it was. Naturally, when we encounter anything that doesn’t measure up to the grid, it can make us nervous and ready to run! One member shared how his first visit to a church outside his grid made him feel.
“I somehow forced myself to visit one more time, but then the fear of Satan crept in. I felt like I was selling my soul to the devil.”
As new members come on Meetup, I am reminded of my own hurdles that I’ve overcome when it comes to this topic of church attendance. I no longer fear the same things some of them are discussing. Yet, there is one remaining issue for me. I think it remains because I don’t know if it really is a “problem” needing correction. On the one hand I see it as maturity because I’m not the naive person I was when I joined the cult. On the other hand, some have implied I have “authority issues” which keep me from committing to a church family. Authority issues? Me? So I explored that this month in my own comment about “church.”
Authority Issues? Hell Yes!
My mother still describes me as “the one who didn’t give her any trouble.” In comparison to my two older sisters, I was the obedient one. Parent teacher conferences through the years confirmed to her that my respect for authority continued in the classroom. And no manager in the work world ever complained that I had “authority issues.” When my own children came along, I recognized the need to establish authority in our home and began to search the Bible for guidance where I discovered God desired an order in the home. I shared my finding with my husband assuring him that I was prepared to be under his headship as we led our children in the ways of God. He plainly told me he didn’t believe in God or desire to be head of the household and left their spiritual training and discipline to me.
I was desperate to learn about God and provide an example of proper authority to my children. I thought I had found this in the congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses. After attending their meetings for 6 months, I declared to the elders that I wanted to get baptized because I whole-heartedly desired to be accountable to their authority. When they turned me down because I had not yet completed the required study or spent enough hours in the field service ministry, I was heartbroken and asked,
“Will you still watch over me? Will you still hold me accountable if you see me straying?”
Eager to apply the principles of authority in our family life, I also aligned my thinking and actions with the leadership of my new “church” — the Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses. It really wasn’t that hard for me to do as I already had an obedient nature and desired to be under someone’s headship.
When I entered the ranks of Jehovah’s Witnesses, I relied on them as my substitute family. My children would get to see fathers discipline their children and be concerned about their choices. We were among whole families going out in the door-to-door ministry together. I loved knowing that I had elders over us as shepherds and received endorsements from their publications for my role as the good and submissive wife. I wanted to obey and was more than willing to comply if a brother had to pull me aside and correct a course of behavior that my own eyes didn’t yet see as sinful. I placed myself completely in their hands because they were willing to lead and had Jehovah God as their head. All was well as long as I continued to serve their expectations, but when I began to stumble at some discouraging words the presiding overseer of the congregation spoke, there was no room for discussion. Elders must be obeyed at all costs. My discouragement eventually led to a hearing before a judicial committee of elders in which they prodded me with questions about my loyalty to “Jehovah’s organization” asking me if I thought it was possible to have a relationship with God outside of that group. When I answered “yes,” my fate was sealed and I was condemned as an apostate to the faith and my “church family” was ordered to shun me.
Do you see this as rebellious? Do you stand side-by-side with the men who used their position of leadership to condemn me for claiming that Jesus is my ONLY mediator and not their religion? Do you know for years I was so submissive and obedient to their leadership before that “rebellion” that I prayed to Jehovah to remove His Spirit from me so that I could obey them?
Be obedient to those who are taking the lead among you and be submissive for they are keeping watch over your souls as those who will render an account; that they may do this with joy and not with sighing, for this would be damaging to you. (Hebrews 13:17 NWT)
Yes, Hebrews 13:17 was fully upheld by me. I OBEYED my leaders at the cost of denying the Holy Spirit. That is an embarrassing moment in my life but true. It remains a painful reminder of what I am capable of in my imperfection. I have learned that my obedient nature can be a character flaw, easily manipulated by others, and therefore, I submit it to God alone for any “correction” needed. I hesitate to “join” a church and be under any man’s authority because I am so committed to Christ as my head but I’m learning that this can be misunderstood by church leaders as rebellion. I wonder how many other former cult members can relate?
I’m the first to admit that this road has led me to having “authority issues” but not in the way described by the lesson I’m about to present.
I was delivered by Jesus Christ and taught by the Spirit outside of any church because He loves me that much. By His strength alone, I was set free of the fears the cult put into me and was enabled by His Spirit to explore local fellowships. I’ve never joined any, but have participated beyond the usual Sunday sermon volunteering in various positions. I don’t think anyone would say I’ve been disrespectful of authority at any of these fellowships. I pray regularly for local pastors and their leadership roles. I watched some local churches disband and one pastor lose his position due to sin on his part. What benefit would my membership be to any local church that no longer exists? Would my commitment to Jesus Christ have been any better by coming under the authority of a pastor who couldn’t control his own sins much less try to control mine? I fail to see the point of such titles of leadership when the Holy Spirit does a fine job of convicting and teaching me as it is. That same Spirit continues to flow through me to pray for the people who contact our ministry team. That Spirit enables me to write words of encouragement on the message boards and share telephone Bible studies with those transitioning out of the cult. What does joining a church have to do with any of this? The Spirit placed me in the church the day I was adopted by my Father and there’s been no shortage of activity or fruit since. Nonetheless, I visit the local fellowships and have committed to a class at the church I currently attend which takes us through the basics of Christianity, one of which is “Church authority.”
Under the heading “Discipline in the Church,” I read:
“For most of us, when we reject the idea of discipline in the Church, authority is the problem. If we do not have a revelation of authority, we rebel at discipline. Generally if we have a problem with church discipline as a principle, we have a root problem with authority in general meaning rebellion.”
I am insulted by that paragraph. I do understand this is not a publication that goes into great detail about various abuses in the church that could lead a person to difficulties with leadership, but as one who has been spiritually abused, I find the term “rebellion” very insulting. It implies that the reason I have such issues with authority is due to my own need to sin and cling to a wayward course outside of Christ.
It further states, “if we cannot receive correction, then there is something wrong within us.”
Let me state this in defense. It was only when I REBELLED against Hebrews 13:17 with fear and trembling that I began to OBEY the Holy Spirit. I’m not so naïve anymore, life has taught me to look past titles and labels. There are men who seek the title of leadership without the commitment to shepherd. I’ve learned that as long as I’m serving their needs, they’re glad to have the title of leader. If I have a need, however, the title of “leader” has no connection with “shepherd” but is only something to be obeyed regardless of the situation. I have witnessed very few men who attempt to shepherd. Those who do, are leaders regardless of what title they bear. I give no respect to any man simply for his title anymore, I obey those TAKING the lead of shepherding.
And so when I got to the last question in this lesson which asked if I had any problems submitting to authority or leadership, I wrote without hesitation “Yes I do! After being spiritually abused by those in authority, my innate sense of self preservation and my knowledge of JESUS as my head and ONE mediator between me and God strengthens me to scrutinize men and not so blindly follow Hebrews 13:17 as a VICTIM awaiting more abuse from “those taking the lead.”
Has my past involvement in the Watchtower affected my view of church authority today? Of course it has, and I’m better for it. Or am I? I’ll leave that to God to decide.
Keep yourself in God’s love, Julie