This glossary is intended to help professionals better understand Jehovah’s Witness beliefs and culture. If you have any queries, please visit [email protected]
An auxiliary pioneer commits to doing more than the usual number of hours of preaching for a finite period (e.g. one month). Auxiliary pioneers usually pledge to do 50 hours per month, but this number can be significantly less during circuit overseer visits or special campaigns.
Someone can be deemed “bad association” per 1 Corinthians 15:33 if they are perceived to be failing to live up to the expected standards, even if they have not done something deemed a “gross sin.” Rather than being a formal arrangement, the labelling of certain ones as “bad association” is done on an informal, individual basis. When someone is considered bad association, they may be spoken to at the meetings and during preaching but opportunities to socialize outside of worship activities will be limited.
A bible study is an arrangement whereby a baptized Witness will study an approved publication with someone. Most bible studies are conducted with “interested ones” who have been contacted in the preaching work (such a person might also be referred to as being themselves a “bible study”). But occasionally elders will select someone from the congregation to study with someone who is already attending meetings, i.e. a child in the congregation who has one or more parents who are not believers.
A circuit overseer is a branch representative who visits an assigned number of congregations (a “circuit’) twice yearly. During a circuit overseer’s visit, the “CO” will meet with the elders and go over any recommendations for appointing new elders or removing (“deleting”) existing elders. COs prepare written reports on the status of a congregation at the conclusion of each visit. COs will also be consulted when cases of child sexual abuse are being considered in a congregation. As representatives of the organization, it is their responsibility to ensure each congregation is adhering to the teachings and guidance of the religion.
A congregation is a local group of Jehovah’s Witnesses, usually numbering anywhere between 30 to 100 (or more) congregants, who will normally meet twice weekly at a kingdom hall or rented facility.
Formerly known as a “presiding overseer,” the “Coordinator to the Body of Elders” (COBE) acts as the chairman of the body of elders in a congregation. He serves on the “Service Committee” (see below), organizes kingdom hall meetings, and arranges meetings of elders including those addressing judicial matters or accusations of wrongdoing.
A Jehovah’s Witness is deemed “disassociated” if by their words or actions they are considered to have quit the religion. For example, accepting a blood transfusion is not a “disfellowshipping” offense, but if a Jehovah’s Witness “willingly and unrepentantly” accepts a blood transfusion, they will be “disassociated.” Since 1981, disfellowshipping and disassociation have carried the same penalty, i.e. shunning by all believing Witnesses including family members.
A Jehovah’s Witness is disfellowshipped if they are found by a judicial committee of three elders to be unrepentant concerning a “gross sin,” which could include anything from committing adultery or abusing a child to smoking cigarettes or being a professional boxer. Once someone is disfellowshipped, an announcement is made at one of the next kingdom hall meetings that “So-and-so is no longer one of Jehovah’s Witnesses” (no indication is given concerning the reason for the disfellowshipping). Jehovah’s Witnesses are asked to cut off all contact with disfellowshipped persons. If someone is not related to a disfellowshipped person, they can themselves be disfellowshipped for the “brazen conduct” of talking to them. If a Jehovah’s Witness is related to disfellowshipped person the rules are slightly more lenient. Witnesses are still expected to shun their disfellowshipped family members as a matter of loyalty (with the exception of spouses and minors) but if they choose not to they will not be themselves shunned, rather they will no longer be considered “exemplary.” Once disfellowshipped, the only recourse for a Witness is to apply for “reinstatement” (see below).
Elders have a position of authority in the congregation not dissimilar to that of a pastor in a church, only there can be multiple elders in any congregation with none holding superiority over the others (at least in theory). Usually a congregation will have at least three elders who can form a “service committee” (see below) but it’s not unusual for a congregation to have a dozen or more elders. Elders are responsible for providing pastoral support to congregants (the “brothers and sisters”), particularly in the form of shepherding visits (see below). They also have a prominent role in teaching from the platform during meetings. When a Witness is accused of some form of gross sin, two elders are dispatched to find out whether the claim has substance (see “Two Witness Rule”). If the elders feel the claim is valid, a “judicial committee” (see below) will be formed and three elders will preside over the accused person to determine whether they can remain a member of the congregation. Elders therefore have immense power and authority in the lives of ordinary Witnesses, even to the extent of deciding whether family members can talk to one another or not. Elders also play a fundamental role in the handling of child sexual abuse, even to the extent of being called upon to police the behavior of a known child abuser who is deemed “repentant” and hence welcomed by the congregation.
An “exemplary” Jehovah’s Witness is a Jehovah’s Witness who is deemed to be living entirely in accordance with the expectations of the religion, and who is therefore desirable to fill positions of responsibility. Hence an “exemplary” Witness man (“brother”) can aspire to being a regular pioneer, ministerial servant or elder. An “exemplary” Witness woman (“sister”) can aspire to being a regular pioneer.
Field ministry/Field service
The terms “field ministry” or “field service” are often used to describe the preaching work of Jehovah’s Witnesses. It can include door-to-door preaching or “public witnessing” using literature carts.
Field service group
Congregations are divided into Field Service Groups overseen by designated elders or “Field Service Group Overseers” who decide which area their group will be working in for the door-to-door preaching, when they will meet, who will work with who, etc. They will normally meet together at Field Service Meetings during the week so that Witnesses in the group can be organized for their preaching work. Field Service Groups are also used to determine which Witnesses will be responsible for cleaning the kingdom hall on a rotational basis.
Good standing (i.e. “in good standing”)
A Jehovah’s Witness who is not disfellowshipped or “marked” (see below) and who may therefore attend meetings and freely socialize with other Witnesses without any restrictions is considered to be “in good standing.”
A gross sin is an offense for which a Jehovah’s Witness can be disfellowshipped if they are not considered repentant. These offenses are listed in detail in the “Shepherd the Flock of God” manual, viewable only by elders. It is assumed that ordinary Witnesses will determine what these sins are, and their various permutations, merely by attending meetings and reading the publications. “Gross sins” can include “porneia” (see below), gross uncleanness, brazen conduct, drunkenness, gluttony, stealing, lying, fraud, greed, fits of anger, manslaughter and apostasy. Many of the terms, taken from the Bible, are purposefully vague so that the organization can define and interpret them for themselves, adding things that are not necessarily in the Bible but which they nevertheless find undesirable. For example, you can be disfellowshipped for “brazen conduct” if you persist in talking to a disfellowshipped person, or you can be disfellowshipped for “gross uncleanness” if you view non-heterosexual pornography.
A Jehovah’s Witness who stops attending meetings or participating in the preaching work is considered “inactive.” Elders still assume authority over the person, including by deciding whether anything in their behavior might be considered “gross sin” and therefore potential grounds for disfellowshipping. Some inactive ones who stop believing and “fade” from the organization so that they can maintain links with their believing family are allowed to do so relatively unbothered by their elders. There are provisions for wrongdoing to be recorded and held “in abeyance” at the discretion of elders so that they can be confronted on the matter if they ever choose to return. However, there have been accounts of inactive Witnesses being hunted down by elders years or decades after they last attended a meeting over a perceived sin. Usually this occurs when elders discover that the inactive person has spoken publicly against the religion making them guilty of the “gross sin” of apostasy.
A judicial committee is formed when a Jehovah’s Witness is determined to be guilty of wrongdoing after an accusation has been investigated by two elders. Judicial committees are comprised of three elders usually from the individual’s congregation (in exceptional circumstances outside elders may be chosen). The purpose of the judicial committee is not to decide on guilt or innocence, as this has already been decided. Rather, elders on a judicial committee seek to determine whether the wrongdoer is repentant or unrepentant. If the wrongdoer is deemed repentant, they will be “reproved” (see below) effectively meaning they are forgiven and can continue in “good standing” (see above) in the congregation. If the wrongdoer is deemed unrepentant, they will be “disfellowshipped” (see above) and an announcement will be read at one of the next meetings to the effect that they are no longer one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. There are provisions for decisions made by judicial committees to be appealed within a seven-day period, forcing an appeal committee composed of different elders to be selected. But the elders who made the original decision are able to veto any conflicting decision by the appeal committee in which case the branch office, without any personal knowledge of the matter, ultimately adjudicates. Judicial committees can be extremely traumatic ordeals, especially for victims of child sexual abuse. Elders have been known to abuse their authority in these situations, including by asking extremely invasive questions of a sexual nature.
A kingdom hall is the place of worship of most congregations of Jehovah’s Witnesses, where meetings are held twice weekly. Multiple congregations can be assigned to share a single kingdom hall. Congregations unable to build or acquire a kingdom hall will usually hold meetings at rented facilities.
When a Jehovah’s Witness is deemed to be behaving in a “disorderly way,” usually by going against the advice of the elders on a certain matter without doing anything that can be considered a gross sin, they are “marked.” Marking begins when a talk is given before the congregation identifying the person by their behavior, but not by name. During this period, congregants may talk to the marked person at the meeting and during the preaching work, but they are forbidden from socializing with the person. Marking ends when the elders decide that the reason for marking no longer exists (perhaps the person relents and follows their direction) and together with their families they conspicuously resume socializing with the person.
A ministerial servant is a position in the congregation below that of elder (see above) but above that of ordinary congregant, or “publisher.” Ministerial servants can be thought of as the Jehovah’s Witness equivalent of deacons. They perform a number of support roles in the congregation, including operating the audio/visual equipment, managing the stocks of literature, bookkeeping, and giving talks during meetings. As with elders, only men can be “appointed” as ministerial servants. While elders tend to be appointed from their mid-twenties and early thirties onwards, ministerial servants can be appointed when they are still teenagers. Depending on how many men there are to fill roles in the congregation, ministerial servants can find themselves doing nearly all the duties elders would be expected to perform. The only exceptions would be corresponding with the branch office, arranging shepherding visits and handling judicial matters involving wrongdoing – all of which are are activities exclusive to elders.
Porneia is a Greek word meaning “sexual immorality.” Considered a gross sin, porneia refers to “immoral use of the genitals, whether in a natural or in a perverted way, with lewd intent.” Put simply, porneia is used as a catch-all word to describe any sexual activity of which Jehovah’s Witnesses disapprove. It includes fornication (sex before marriage), adultery, rape and child sexual abuse.
Presiding overseer (see “Coordinator/COBE”)
A publisher is someone officially recognised by the congregation as qualified to represent Jehovah’s Witnesses in the preaching work. A publisher can be baptized or unbaptized (see “Unbaptized publisher”).
A regular pioneer is a Jehovah’s Witness who pledges to spend 840 hours per year (70 hours per month) in the preaching work. As with all Jehovah’s Witness preaching, this is done on an entirely voluntary basis and no remuneration is received. Both men and women can be regular pioneers, but they must be “exemplary” (see above) in their behavior in order to qualify. Unlike auxiliary pioneering (see above), which can be done for a finite period, a regular pioneer continues indefinitely until they either decide to step down from pioneering (perhaps due to ill health or for financial reasons) or they are stripped of the status by the elders.
Those who are “disfellowshipped” (see above) from Jehovah’s Witnesses can apply to be reinstated, i.e. be welcomed back into the congregation. However, normally elders will expect to see evidence of repentance from the individual before they will consider the request. This will involve the person both ceasing the behavior that led to the disfellowshipping and attending weekly meetings for a number of months (six would be the absolute minimum as an unspoken rule) while the entire congregation is shunning them by not speaking to them. It is not uncommon for severe trauma to result from repeated requests for reinstatement being turned down. It is also quite common for disfellowshipped Jehovah’s Witnesses to go through the reinstatement process even though they no longer believe just so they can reestablish ties with Jehovah’s Witness family members who are shunning them.
A Jehovah’s Witness wrongdoer who convinces a “judicial committee” (see above) of his or her repentance is reproved rather than “disfellowshipped” (see above). Reproof comes in the form of the elders admonishing the individual during the judicial committee over the wrongness of their behavior. If the elders decide the individual needs to be reproved publicly, an announcement will be read out at one of the next meetings to tell the congregation that the individual has been reproved without specifying the reason. This means that if a child sexual abuser can convince elders that they are sorry, they are allowed to continue in the congregation and congregants will not automatically be informed of their crimes. Following the reproof, the individual will normally face “restrictions” for a period. For example, they may be barred from offering comments during meetings or giving talks for a number of months. In cases where a child sexual abuser is reproved, branch-imposed restrictions are applied so that elders become responsible for policing the individual’s behavior and degree of contact with children indefinitely. These special restrictions can, at the branch’s discretion, include elders warning parents in the congregation that they are not to allow the individual to have any contact with their children. However, in practical terms it is impossible to monitor all aspects of someone’s worship at all times and there are a number of ways a determined and resourceful paedophile could gain access to Jehovah’s Witness children even with restrictions in place.
A service committee is the administrative nucleus of the body of elders in a congregation. It is comprised of three roles: the “COBE/Coordinator” (see above), the secretary, and the service overseer. The secretary cares for a number of administrative duties including record-keeping and oversight of the congregation’s finances. The service overseer is responsible for the congregation’s preaching activities, ensuring there are adequate arrangements in place to ensure the congregation’s assigned territory is covered by door-to-door preaching as frequently as possible.
A special pioneer is a Jehovah’s Witness who commits to 120 hours of preaching per month. Unlike regular pioneers, special pioneers receive a small allowance for their work (usually barely covering their expenses) and they report directly to the country’s branch office who may assign them to a different congregation as needed. A Jehovah’s Witness doesn’t decide for themselves to be a special pioneer. Rather, an exemplary Witness who meets certain criteria may apply for the position and receives their appointment from the branch office.
A shepherding visit is a visit arranged by elders to give pastoral care to congregants. Normally a shepherding visit is carried out by two elders, or an elder accompanied by a ministerial servant, but shepherding can be done by one elder by himself in some instances. In cases where a wife is receiving a visit without her husband present, the elder who arranges the visit will always take along a colleague to make sure there is no impropriety. Shepherding visits are intended to be spiritually uplifting, encouraging and motivational. However, it is not unheard of for some elders to use the opportunity to make judgmental comments, issue unreasonable demands, or ask invasive questions about a person’s private life.
Two witness rule
Based on Deuteronomy 19:15, “The Two Witness Rule” is the informal name for the Jehovah’s Witness policy of demanding at least two witnesses in order to establish that wrongdoing has occurred. Jehovah’s Witnesses have attracted criticism for applying this rule even in cases of child sexual abuse, which is almost always not observed by third parties. Simply put, if elders do not feel they can “scripturally” establish wrongdoing as having occurred by the testimony of more than one reliable eye-witness (disfellowshipped persons and outsiders are viewed with suspicion) they are instructed to “leave the matter in Jehovah’s hands” by not proceeding with a “judicial committee” (see above). A variant of the two witness rule has been referred to as “the two victim rule” – a loophole whereby the same type of wrongdoing by the same wrongdoer observed on a different occasion by a different person may also count as second-witness testimony. However, in cases of child sexual abuse, this provision overlooks the urgency of stopping the offender and merely serves to relegate the trauma of one of the victims to little more than part of an evidence gathering process.
An unbaptized publisher (see “Publisher” above) is someone who is in the process of becoming a baptized Jehovah’s Witness who asks to join in the preaching work with the congregation. An unbaptized publisher can be the child of Jehovah’s Witness parents, or it can be an adult who is in the process of being converted into the faith. When the unbaptized publisher requests to be baptized, an elder will arrange to visit to go through a series of questions to access their knowledge of Jehovah’s Witness teachings and beliefs. Once these questions have been satisfactorily answered the person can be baptized, normally at the next assembly or convention (large multi-congregation Witness gathering).