Do Jehovah’s Witnesses have a Clergy?

The official website of Jehovah’s Witnesses answers the question Do Jehovah’s Witnesses Have a Paid Clergy? this way:

Following the model of first-century Christianity, Jehovah’s Witnesses have no clergy-laity division. All baptized members are ordained ministers and share in the preaching and teaching work. Witnesses are organized into congregations of about 100 members. Spiritually mature men in each congregation serve as “older men,” or elders. (Titus 1:5) They do so without being paid for their services.

From a quick read of the answer to their own question regarding a paid clergy, a reader could easily conclude that Jehovah’s Witnesses do not have a clergy. Had you arrived at the same conclusion?  It’s quite easy to come to this conclusion when they say, “Jehovah’s Witnesses have no clergy-laity division”. Remember, the question they are answering is whether they have a paid clergy or not. Most definitely, Jehovah’s Witnesses have no clergy-laity division when it comes to a paid clergy. Neither the clergy or laity are paid. They are all volunteers. There is no money “paid for their services”. In other words, there is no division between those who are paid and those who are not paid as no member of Jehovah’s Witnesses is paid.

Is it fair to say that because Jehovah’s Witnesses do not have a paid clergy they do not have a clergy at all? No. Mormons also have no paid clergy but the title of this post clearly admits to the fact that they most definitely have a clergy.

Didn’t Jehovah’s Witnesses say that “all baptized members are ordained ministers and share in the preaching and teaching work”? Yes they did. Jehovah’s Witnesses also allow some unbaptized members, known as unbaptized publishers, to share in the preaching and teaching work. Does that make them ordained ministers? Yes it does. One does not need to be baptized to be ordained. When a religious organisation appoints a member to carry out certain duties, they are ordained. Therefore, whether baptized or not, Jehovah’s Witnesses can be ordained to share in the preaching and teaching work. Ordaining all members to share in the preaching and teaching work does not necessarily mean that Jehovah’s Witnesses do not have a clergy-laity distinction.

According to  Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, clergy is defined as “a group of members ordained to perform pastoral or sacerdotal functions within a Christian church”.  If the Jehovah’s Witnesses do not have a clergy-laity distinction, one can safely assume that any ordained member can perform pastoral or sacerdotal functions. Is this true for Jehovah’s Witnesses? No. Like any other Christian denomination, only certain members can perform marriages, baptisms and funerals. In most Christian denominations, these individuals are recognized as clergy. Within Jehovah’s Witnesses, they are known as elders.

A Clergy or No Clergy?

At times Jehovah’s Witnesses admit to having a clergy and at other times they vehemently deny it. Any admission to having a clergy is only made in courts of law. You won’t find such an admission in their literature.

When do Jehovah’s Witnesses admit to having a clergy?

Jehovah’s Witnesses admit to having a clergy when they want to avail of the clergy-penitent privilege. The clergy-penitent privilege protects the contents of communication between a member of clergy and a penitent who shares information in confidence. If Jehovah’s Witnesses are attempting to defend their child abuse policies in cases where they have not reported suspected child abuse, they will be quick to describe the elders as being clergy. In earlier court proceedings with child abuse victim, Stephanie Fessler, Watch Tower’s legal team described the elders as clergy when attempting to avail of the clergy-penitent privilege. Unfortunately for Watch Tower, mandatory reporting laws in Pennsylvania trumped clergy-penitent privilege. As clergy, the elders should have reported the abuse of Stephanie Fessler to competent authorities. They did not.

When do Jehovah’s Witnesses argue that they do not have a clergy?

Jehovah’s Witnesses do not have a clergy when an individual is looking for punitive damages against their religious organisation. If Jehovah’s Witnesses have a clergy, their regional headquarters of is ultimately responsible for their clergy’s actions. This is because clergy are representatives of the religious organisation, paid or otherwise.  What difference does it make if congregations or the headquarters are responsible for the elder’s actions? Congregations of Jehovah’s Witnesses are restricted by their regional branches from holding on to large sums of money. They are required to retain enough just to cover operating costs and meet donation resolution commitments. They recommend that any monies in excess of these are sent to their branches to support the worldwide work. See June 9, 2014 letter for confirmation. It soon becomes apparent why Jehovah’s Witnesses do not want to have clergy. It is because the headquarters would not be responsible for the elder’s actions. Therefore, all monies sent to the headquarters would be protected from being used to pay off child abuse victims. The victim would have to look for damages from their location kingdom hall. As their kingdom hall retains little money, it is unlikely they would ever receive fair justice, monetarily.

Is There a Clergy / Laity Distinction?

In the Awake! August 2009 pages 22-23, under the heading, The Bible’s Viewpoint – Should There Be a Clergy-Laity Distinction?, they provide six reasons why they do not have or should not have a clergy. Let’s evaluate these reasons.

Reason 1.

The separation of a clergy class implies that one must have a special calling to be a minister of God. Yet, the Bible says that all true Christians should serve God and praise his name. (Romans 10:9, 10) As for ministering within the congregation, Christian men in general are encouraged to reach out for that privilege, which is the custom among Jehovah’s Witnesses.—1 Timothy 3:1.

Do Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that their elders have a special calling to be a minister of God? Indeed they do. In the The Watchtower, March 15, 2002, page 14, para. 7, it is stated: “Paul’s counsel, then, applies with equal force to all elders, whether anointed or not: “Pay attention to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the holy spirit has appointed you overseers.” (Acts 20:28)”. Jehovah’s Witnesses are prolific when it comes to quoting scriptures in their literature. One might think that their prolific use of scripture is clear evidence that what they say is bible-mandated. However, one must consider not just the scriptures they quote, but the ones they carefully omit.

Reason 2.

The clergy-laity distinction exalts the clergy class, an evidence being adulatory religious titles. Yet, Jesus said: “He that conducts himself as a lesser one among all of you is the one that is great.” (Luke 9:48) In harmony with that spirit of humility, he told his followers not to adopt religious titles.Matthew 23:8-12.

In the Awake! 2009 article, The Bible’s Viewpoint – Should There Be a Clergy-Laity Distinction?, the writer(s) were careful to omit any reference to Ministerial Servant, Elder or Circuit Overseer. These are all titles. Even “Brother” and “Sister” are titles. Whether Jehovah’s Witnesses will admit it to themselves or others, the fact is that Jehovah’s Witnesses will show a certain reverence to members with specific titles. For example, a Circuit Overseer will receive greater reverence than an elder due to their position in the organisation. Because some of their titles may not be used by other religious denominations, it doesn’t take away from the fact that they are religious titles. Ministerial Servant is the equivalent of Deacon. Circuit Overseer is the equivalent of Bishop. They are titles and they are religious titles and how adulatory they may be is dependent on the member who bestows adulation upon them.

Reason 3.

A paid clergy class can impose a heavy financial burden on the laity, especially when the former have lavish lifestyles. Christian overseers, on the other hand, care for their financial needs by doing normal secular work, thus setting a good example for others.*Acts 18:1-3; 20:33, 34; 2 Thessalonians 3:7-10.

Granted, Jehovah’s Witnesses do not pay their clergy. Neither does the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Both Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses care for their own financial needs by doing normal secular work. The difference between Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses is that the former recognizes that they have a clergy. The latter would like to think they don’t.

Reason 4.

Because a clergyman may depend on others for financial support, he might be tempted to dilute the Bible’s message in order to please parishioners. Indeed, the Scriptures foretold that this very thing would occur. “There will be a period of time when they will not put up with the healthful teaching, but, in accord with their own desires, they will accumulate teachers for themselves to have their ears tickled.”2 Timothy 4:3.

This is a fallacious argument. Whether a clergyman “might be tempted to dilute the Bible’s message in order to please parishioners” does not take away from the fact that he is still a clergyman. Furthermore, quoting a scripture to prove that there may exist ear-tickling clergy does not absolve a religious group from having a clergy.

Reason 5.

The clergy-laity distinction tends to cause lay people to relegate religion to the clergy, while the laity just turn up for weekly services. Yet, all Christians must be conscious of their spiritual need and be good students of the Bible.Matthew 4:4; 5:3.

There are two things wrong with this argument. Firstly, generalizing is a terrible way to prove a point. There are religious and non-religious lay people in every religion. Some may relegate their religion to the clergy; others will not. Secondly, and more importantly, the argument proposed here is known as a “false cause”. A clergy-laity distinction does not cause lay people to relegate religion to the clergy. The cause of religious relegation is more likely because of people’s personal stances on the issue. The scriptural quotations do not add to the point being made. It drives home the point that lay people need to be conscious of their own spiritual needs. If anything, a clergy-laity distinction would ensure lay people know who and where to turn to when they need assistance in that regard.

6. When the laity are Biblically uninformed, they can easily be misled by clerics, even exploited by them. Indeed, history contains many examples of such abuses.—Acts 20:29, 30.

This is a straw-man argument. It has no bearing on a clergy-laity distinction. It’s simply a warning that clergymen can go bad. In fact, the bible verses quoted could lend to the argument that even Biblically informed laity could be deceived by scrupulous clerics.

In the court case where Watch Tower finally settled with Stephanie Fessler, they vehemently denied having clergy for two full days. But then, in a shock move on Friday morning, February 10th 2017, before the jury was sworn in, they conceded that they had a clergy. The following Monday they settled with Fessler for an undisclosed sum. Because Jehovah’s Witnesses admitted having a clergy, Fessler’s settlement monies will not come from kingdom hall funds. The money will be paid by the headquarters of Jehovah’s Witnesses using 100% of member’s donations for the “worldwide work”.

No matter how they may try to wrangle it in their literature or in the courts, it is clear from the evidence that Jehovah’s Witnesses have a clergy. It is made up of ministerial servants, elders, circuit overseers, branch committee members, helpers to the Governing Body, and the Governing Body.