I am a British citizen and a taxpayer. I am also one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, and have been since I was a young boy. Yet, I am of the strong opinion that my religion is not worthy of charitable status, and that it should be stripped of this status and made to pay “caesar’s things to caesar” just like any other profit-making self-serving organization. (Mark 12:17) So, why do I feel so strongly about this?
In 2006, a Charities Act passed through parliament and came into force shortly thereafter. This act clarified the meaning of “charitable purpose” as the term relates to organisations operating as charities, and stipulated that these must work for the “public benefit”. As a result of this legislation, organisations such as Jehovah’s Witnesses must now demonstrate that their work is in the “public benefit” in order to enjoy charitable status. So why is charitable status so desirable?
The Benefits of Self-Regulated Charitable Status
Simply put, a charity can potentially retain more of its income than an ordinary company, because the assumption is that its donations are being used to help the community and provide a beneficial service to society in general. Therefore, in most countries charities rightly enjoy special tax-exempt status. In the UK, charities also receive a frequent windfall of “gift aid” which is a contribution made by the government as a percentage of every pound that is received in donations. I’m afraid I don’t have the exact figures (I would very much like to see them) but I estimate that, in the case of Jehovah’s Witnesses and their various UK legal entities, these payments run into millions of pounds each year – all of which is taken out of taxpayers’ money.
The Charity Commission is the government agency responsible for regulating the work of charities in England and Wales. You might expect them to keep a keen eye on whether charities are genuinely operating in the “public benefit” so as to save any needless waste of public funds, but their approach is quite the opposite. Their home page even features a “counter” of the number of registered charities under their supervision, as though the onus for them is on the number of charities they regulate rather than the value of their work to the public. So when it comes to establishing whether a charity is in the “public benefit”, they very much leave this for the charity itself to decide.
If you would like to see an example of such “self-regulation”, go to the website of the Charity Commission and download the Summary Information Return of the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Britain (dated 2010). The summary, which was compiled by the Britain branch, has the following to say under the section on public benefit:
Who benefits from your charity’s work?
“Persons residing in the United Kingdom and elsewhere, both Jehovah’s Witnesses and the wider public.”
How do you respond to their needs and how do they influence the charity’s development?
“By printing and distributing, without charge, Bibles and Bible study aids which offer practical advice on improving one’s life spiritually, morally, and socially. By supporting congregations of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Britain, and associations of Jehovah’s Witnesses in developing countries, with their spiritual and material welfare.”
“All charity volunteers are members of local congregations of Jehovah’s Witnesses and so have direct knowledge of the needs of those in their local community. Input is also received from charitable associations of Jehovah’s Witnesses in other lands. This knowledge and information is reflected in the content and nature of the Bible study aids and assistance that are made available.”
At best, the above statements gloss over the more nefarious and self-serving aspects of the work done by Jehovah’s Witnesses. At worst they are misleading statements that contain outright untruths. For example, if you are one of Jehovah’s Witnesses living in the UK, when was the last time a representative of the Society asked you to divulge information about the problems or concerns of non-believers in your local community so as to be more attentive to their needs? These statements have been carefully worded in an effort to window-dress the work of the Watch Tower Society in a way that demonstrates public interest, even if liberties are taken with the truth in so doing.
Loyalty to the Organisation – The Driving Force
When one undertakes a careful study of the work of Jehovah’s Witnesses, one realises that their work has little if anything to do with serving the “public interest”. Rather, their efforts are almost exclusively focused on reinforcing the authority of the organisation’s leadership (or “Governing Body”), and perpetuating the legacy of the movement by converting new followers. These primary objectives take priority over almost everything, even at the expense of the personal welfare of individual members of the faith.
To demonstrate, I will now list three key areas in which I believe that the work of Jehovah’s Witnesses is demonstrably NOT in the public interest. I would urge all UK citizens to consider these points carefully:
1. The Cult-Like Practice of Shunning All Dissenters
The religion of Jehovah’s Witnesses prioritises loyalty to the organisation’s leadership over loyalty to one’s family. As a result, millions of former JWs around the world (once they are baptized) are shunned by their JW families if they later decide to leave the faith. JWs are encouraged through various Watchtower publications to ignore any family members who disagree with the self-appointed “Governing Body”, who are based in New York. Notice a recent article that reinforced the need for family members to be shunned if they leave the religion:
“What if we have a relative or a close friend who is disfellowshipped? Now our loyalty is on the line, not to that person, but to God. Jehovah is watching us to see whether we will abide by his command not to have contact with anyone who is disfellowshipped.“ – April 15th 2012 Watchtower*, page 12.
And the following article clearly defines “apostasy” (or disagreeing with the leadership) as a form of wrongdoing that would be deserving of shunning, even for family members:
“Indeed, we ought to move as far away from wrongdoing as possible and not see how close we can get to it without being overcome by sin. For instance, we need to guard against succumbing to apostasy, a sin that would make us unfit to glorify God. (Deut. 13:6-9) Let us therefore have nothing to do with apostates or anyone who claims to be a brother but who is dishonoring God. This should be the case even if he is a family member. (1 Cor. 5:11) We are not benefited by trying to refute the arguments of apostates or those who are critical of Jehovah’s organization. In fact, it is spiritually dangerous and improper to peruse their information, whether it appears in written form or it is found on the Internet.” - May 15th 2012 Watchtower*, page 26.
It is because of such harsh rules designed to shield the seven-member Governing Body from any form of criticism that disgruntled JWs such as myself are forced to go about our work anonymously, for fear of being the subject of a witch-hunt that would end in losing contact with our family members. Worse still, the Watch Tower Society uses hateful and vulgar language to describe its opponents. Any dissenters are branded as “mentally diseased“. This type of rhetoric leads to family members disowning one another, purely on religious grounds, leaving many JW families irreparably damaged. How are such practices in the public benefit?
2. Opposition to Certain Life-Saving Medical Treatments
You are likely already aware that Jehovah’s Witnesses encourage their members to decline life-saving medical treatment if this involves the use of whole blood transfusions. Whilst JWs insist that their objections to blood transfusions are biblical, there is in fact no biblical precedent for a Christian to decline blood transfusions, since all references to abstaining from blood in the bible were not written with blood transfusions in mind. Each year, untold numbers of JWs (including JW children) die as a result of succumbing to pressure exerted on them by the religion’s leaders to refuse blood transfusions. How is this in the public benefit?
3. Failure to Protect Children from Paedophiles
It is well known that Jehovah’s Witnesses have an extremely negligent and out-dated approach to dealing with cases of child abuse among their members. Local congregation elders are empowered by the church leadership to try to internally police any accusations of child abuse rather than to immediately urge victims to contact the authorities. In adjudicating over cases of child abuse, JW elders only consider the accused to be guilty if the abuse was witnessed by two people, which is hardly ever the case in instances of child molestation. Notice the guidance given to elders in a recent guidebook:
“There must be two or three eyewitnesses, not just people repeating hearsay; no action can be taken if there is only one witness. – Deut. 19:15″ – Shepherd the Flock of God (2010), page 71.
“If the accused denies the accusation, the investigating elders should try to arrange a meeting with him and the accuser together. (Note: If the accusation involves child sexual abuse and the victim is currently a minor, the elders should contact the branch office before arranging a meeting with the child and the alleged abuser.) If the accuser or the accused is unwilling to meet with the elders or if the accused continues to deny the accusation of a single witness and the wrongdoing is not established, the elders will leave matters in Jehovah’s hands.” - Shepherd the Flock of God (2010), page 72.
Therefore, any man who molests a child but denies the charges, and who hasn’t had his offence witnessed by someone other than the child, can have his offence concealed from other members of the congregation by the elders – the matter being left “in Jehovah’s hands”. The same individual might even potentially serve as a congregation elder himself in the future, thereby granting him greater access to children. This means that any JW who knocks on your door could potentially be a child molester, and by attending JW meetings with your child you could potentially be putting him or her within arm’s reach of a paedophile. How is this in the public benefit?
An Oath of Allegiance
There are 1,537 congregations of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Britain, and each of them contains fine upstanding British citizens who would do anything to assist their neighbours if called upon to do so. I have been one of Jehovah’s Witnesses myself for over 20 years, and I can vouch for the fact that many JWs lead exemplary christian lives. However, this alone should not guarantee the organisation charitable status – especially given the harmful practices that run rife in the religion, which threaten the emotional and physical wellbeing of any who become involved.
The main thrust of the work of Jehovah’s Witnesses is that of recruiting new members, and anybody who becomes a JW is asked to swear an oath of allegiance to their leadership. They are asked to shout a loud and affirmative “yes” to the following question:
“Do you understand that your dedication and baptism identify you as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses in association with God’s spirit-directed organization?” - Organized To Do Jehovah’s Will (2005), page 215.
Most newly baptized ones swear this oath without even considering the full ramifications, namely that if they subsequently decide that it is NOT “God’s spirit-directed organization”, they will potentially be “disfellowshipped” and cut off from any meaningful contact with their families. This is essentially a possible outcome for any who embrace the Witness faith having been contacted in the door-to-door preaching work for which Witnesses are so famous. What few people realise is that the UK Government actually rewards the Watch Tower leadership for organizing this entirely self-serving campaign (of converting fresh recruits into a lifetime of servitude) by waiving any taxes that would have been payable, and even contributing an extra percentage on all donations received!
Public Interest or Self Interest?
If you are a UK citizen, and like me, you find it immoral that our government is unknowingly subsidising a cult that exploits the kind-hearted and generous nature of British taxpayers whilst making life intolerable for their followers (or endangering their lives altogether), then there is something YOU can do about it.
An online petition has been launched, and you are encouraged to sign your name to it. Once 100,000 signatures are received, the matter will be automatically considered for debate in the House of Commons. You can view and sign the petition by clicking here.
Many like me are forced to continue as Jehovah’s Witnesses even though we no longer accept the beliefs – purely through fear of being shunned by our families. We are doing our best to bring about reform from within, but we cannot do it without your support. Please help us by adding your voice to our cries for change. In so doing, you will be ensuring that UK charities are truly charitable – working in the public benefit, and not their own benefit.
n.b. If you live in the UK, and you would like to help in raising awareness of the petition mentioned in this article, you are encouraged to download fliers that can be used in helping to bring the issue to the attention of your neighbours.
*Watchtower downloads are directly from an official website of Jehovah’s Witnesses, and may cease to work after a certain period.