This article explores the use of a secret rule within the judicial system of Jehovah’s Witnesses. We refer to it as the five year rule. We will provide evidence that it exists. We will explain what it is, how it is used, and why. The purpose of the five year rule will help explain the reason for the invasive nature of questions asked by Jehovah’s Witness elders during a judicial committee meeting. Most importantly, this article will explain how members and former members of Jehovah’s Witnesses have become victims of the five year rule.
NOTE: This article was originally released March 16, 2016. It was significantly updated on November 9, 2020 to align with current policy.
If you are a Jehovah’s Witness and can answer yes to any of the following questions, the Five Real Rule affects you:
- Were you disfellowshipped and subsequently reinstated?
- Have you been in a judicial committee meeting within five years of being reinstated?
- Were you disfellowshipped again despite feeling you were adequately repentant for your sin?
- Are you working towards becoming appointed as an elder or ministerial servant?
- Are you a publisher of Jehovah’s Witnesses?
- Have you moved congregations within the last five years?
- Have you or your spouse entered into an adulterous marriage?
What is the five year rule and How is it applied?
The five year rule is mentioned four times in the 2020 edition of the Shepherd book, a secret textbook for elders’ eyes only:
Previously Reproved, Disfellowshipped, or Disassociated: If he was reproved within the past three years or reinstated within the past five years, please provide the following information: What was the offense? In a case of reproof, did the judicial committee make an announcement? In a case of disfellowshipping or disassociation, what is the date of reinstatement? When were the last restrictions lifted? Are you aware of his having been reproved, disfellowshipped, or disassociated on any other occasions? What convinces you that he has lived down his past wrongdoing and that others now view him as a good example? If the wrongdoing took place in another congregation, how would that congregation view his appointment? Recommending him prematurely could minimize the seriousness of wrongdoing in his own eyes and in the eyes of others. It could also disturb those who still have his wrongdoing fresh in their memories.Shepherd the Flock of God, Chapter 8, paragraph 7
The publisher’s new congregation should retain the letter [of introduction] for no longer than five years unless there is a need to keep it longer. For example, if an individual entered into an adulterous marriage, the letter should be retained for as long as the innocent former mate is alive, is unmarried, and has not been guilty of sexual immorality (por-nei’a). -See 12:10-11.Shepherd the Flock of God, Chapter 22, paragraph 8
The sealed envelopes containing records on individuals who have not been reinstated should be kept indefinitely. If the person has been reinstated a full five years or has died, usually the file should be destroyed unless the case involved an accusation of child sexual abuse or an adulterous marriage or the committee believes there is some other reason to retain it. The same retention policy applies to records involving judicial reproof and wrongdoing handled by one or two elders. If it is determined that a sealed envelope should be retained after an individual has died, the date of death should be written on the outside of the envelope. If one or more of the elders who handled a specific case are no longer available, the Congregation Service Committee will assign other elders to determine if the file should be retained.Shepherd the Flock of God, Chapter 22, paragraphs 26 & 27
If a person entered into an adulterous marriage, the file should be kept for five years after the judicial action and thereafter as long as the innocent former mate is alive, unmarried, and has not been guilty of sexual immorality (por-nei’a). -See 12:10-12.
The five year rule was previously found in the January 6, 2017 policy letter to all bodies of elders. The letter is identified as Re: Congregation Correspondence and Filing. Its application varies depending on the sins committed. The five year rule is two paragraphs of this letter. They are as follows:
In general, the publisher’s new congregation should retain the letter it received for no longer than five years. Certain situations may require that the letter be kept for a longer period of time, such as that of a publisher who has been involved in notorious wrongdoing. In a situation where an individual has entered into an adulterous marriage, the letter of introduction should be retained by the new congregation for five years; thereafter, the letter should be retained for as long as the innocent former mate is alive, is unmarried, and has not been guilty of porneia.—ks10 chap. 12 par. 16.Policy Letter, January 6, 2017, paragraph 9
Field Service and Meeting Attendance Records: The Congregation’s Publisher Record (S-21) cards should be retained showing at least the last five years of activity for each publisher. Cards from more than five years ago may be destroyed … The record cards of a disfellowshipped or disassociated person should be retained in the sealed judicial envelope.Policy Letter, January 6, 2017, paragraph 10
The Five year rule summarized
The five year rule can be summarized as follows:
- If a male has been disfellowshipped or disassociated within the past five years, it could affect him being appointed as an elder or ministerial servant.
- Letters of introduction are retained for no longer than five years, except in cases of adulterous marriages or child sexual abuse.
- Serious judicial matters (disfellowshipping) are placed in a sealed envelope and kept for a full five years after the person has been reinstated or has died, except cases of adulterous marriages or child sexual abuse.
- Less serious judicial matters (reproofs, and wrongdoing handled by one or two elders) are placed in a sealed envelope and kept for a full five after judicial action.
- If a person enters into an adulterous marriage, the judicial file is kept for five years after judicial action, and thereafter as long as the innocent party is alive, unmarried, and has not been guilty of sexual immorality themselves.
- The retention period for Congregation Publisher Record (S-21) cards has been reduced from five years to 12 months. For disfellowshipped or disassociated ones, the last 12 months are retained in the sealed envelope. – See Shepherd the Flock of God, Chapter 22, para 16.
- Note: Records relating to child sexual abuse, records relating to appointment and deletion of elders and ministerial servants, and sealed envelopes containing records on individuals who have not been reinstated are retained indefinitely. – See Shepherd the Flock of God, Chapter 8, para 40; Chapter 14, para 25; Chapter 22, para 19, 24, & 26.
Why five years?
We have reviewed Shepherd the Flock of God textbook, and policy letters dated January 6, 2017; September 7, 2011; November 17, 2010; December 9, 2008; December 5, 2008; December 4, 2008; and February 15, 2002. There is no scriptural grounds provided in the elder textbook or previously issued policy letters as to why the Jehovah’s Witness leaders specified five years. We can therefore conclude that there is no scriptural support for retaining files on Jehovah’s Witnesses for five years. It is not a bible based rule.
So where did the five year rule come from? It would be fair to assume that the legal department advised the Governing Body of Jehovah’s Witnesses to create a retention rule that is very similar to how law firms are legally mandated to retain certain documentation. Unlike law firms, Jehovah’s Witnesses are not legally mandated to retain this information. They could just as easily direct the elders to destroy the information as soon as a member was reinstated. This is evidenced by the fact that they have reduced the retention period for Congregation Publisher Record (S-21) cards from five years to 12 months. Conversely, they could have mandated that elders hold on to all data indefinitely.
The Spiritual & Legal Impact
The retention of files relating to the sins of Jehovah’s Witnesses is scripturally outlawed. According to 1 Corinthians 13: 5, “love does not look for its own interests” and “it does not keep account of the injury”. This is reinforced in But become kind to one another, tenderly compassionate, freely forgiving one another just as God also by Christ freely forgave you.Ephesians 4:32 and Continue putting up with one another and forgiving one another freely even if anyone has a cause for complaint against another. Just as Jehovah freely forgave you, you must also do the same.Colossians 3:13 where we are admonished to freely forgive one another. If Jehovah’s Witness leadership are keeping an account of the sins it is impossible to claim that love drives them to keep records when the scriptures clearly show otherwise.
Furthermore, if there was a scriptural basis for keeping records of past sins, surely the Jehovah’s Witness leadership would make such rules transparent and open for the ordinary members to inspect and accept. However, the fact is that this five year rule is kept secret. Only those who are appointed elders have access to this rule. It’s not found in the book, Organized to do Jehovah’s Will, nor in any other publicly available publication on jw.org.
The fact that the Jehovah’s Witnesses retain a confidential file about each member’s serious wrong-doing of which they are not aware is a serious data protection issue. When a member attends a judicial committee meeting and observes elders taking notes, he or she is usually informed that the notes are simply taken so that the elders can recall all that is discussed. The member is not informed that those notes will usually form the basis for the summary of the case which is then kept on file at the kingdom hall. This file is also sent electronically to the World Headquarters of Jehovah’s Witnesses and held in HuB under Tracking Persons indefinitely.
When secret procedures are invoked to judge and discipline a member, they are being denied a right to due process. When they are not informed that a record is kept of their sins and that it is passed on to third parties without their knowledge or consent, they are being denied their right to know that their sensitive personal data is being processed, and because of this, one is not in a position to revoke such processing.
Readers of this article would do well to check the legal implications of this in their own jurisdiction and take appropriate action.
The Emotional & Spiritual Impact
The five year rule has a rather insidious effect on members who commit a serious sin within 5 years of being reinstated. The application of the five year rule may explain why some former members feel that they have been treated unfairly in their judicial committee meetings. Unknowingly, they may have become victims of the five year rule. As the five year rule is not bible-based rule but rather one defined by a legal system, a member is forgiven for being confused when elders are applying legalities to a practice that is meant to be wholly pastoral. It is a sad indictment of what the Jehovah’s Witnesses claim is scripturally mandated. Nothing could be further from the truth.
If Jehovah’s Witnesses did “not keep account of the injury”, one would have a clean slate to work from. However, this is not possible if a file of one’s previous wrong-doing(s) exist. As part of the judicial committee meeting, one may experience extremely invasive questions being asked by the judicial committee members. One of the reasons for the seemingly invasive questioning is that the elders are attempting to determine if you have committed the same sin as you had previously. This is made clear in Shepherd the Flock of God textbook.
The judicial committee should be very concerned about keeping the congregation clean and the need to exercise particular care if the wrongdoer has secretly carried on gross sin over a long period. In such cases, an individual might not be able to demonstrate sufficient repentance to the committee at the time of the hearing. If so, he must be disfellowshipped, allowing time to pass for him to prove his repentance. Or it may be that the individual has been dealt with judicially a number of times in the past. Because he appeared repentant, he was reproved each time. Now he has sinned again.Shepherd the Flock of God, Chapter 16, paragraph 9
In the previous Shepherd the Flock of God, it stated in Chapter 7 paragraph 9, “While there is no such thing as automatic disfellowshipping, an individual may have gone so far into sin that he may not be able to demonstrate sufficient repentance to the judicial committee at the time of the hearing … If so, he must be disfellowshipped.” It is clear that the wording has been softened but the intent is the same: someone can be automatically disfellowshipped if they are a repeat offender.
Noteworthy is the fact that there is no scriptural basis for demonstrating sufficient repentance. Incidentally, there was no scripture provided in the 2010 edition of the Shepherd the Flock of God in the above quote. However in the 2020 edition of the textbook, Matthew 3:8 is referenced. This is a pathetic attempt at finding scriptural support for their automatic disfellowshipping policy. It says, “product fruit that befits repentance”.
In view of the foregoing then, to disfellowship someone, despite him or her being repentant, is likely to confuse and anger the victim. After all, they are never informed that no amount of repentance can save them from being disfellowshipped. Their past sins are used against them.
It is safe to conclude that if one was disfellowshipped previously for the same sin within a five year period, one will most likely be disfellowshipped again by default. One has an opportunity to appeal the decision within seven days but there is no appeal committee that will over-turn the original judicial committee’s decision. After all, the elders on the original judicial committee were simply following protocol.
The five year rule’s impact can be catastrophic to a victim’s faith. If she erred more than once within a five year period, she is now cast out from the congregation. She is shunned by all those whom she considered her close friends, her loving family. She has nowhere to go for spiritual assistance. She has no one left for social interaction. She is alone. She is confused. Her God, Jehovah, who promised to always be there for her said He would never forsake her. (For he has said: I will never leave you, and I will never abandon youHeb 13:5b). But here she is: alone and forsaken. Anger sets in. The damage is done. Her faith has been taken from her. She has been made a subject of Gehenna. (Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because you travel over sea and dry land to make one proselyte, and when he becomes one, you make him a subject for Gehenna twice as much so as yourselves.Matt 23:15).
Every year thousands of Jehovah’s Witnesses are disfellowshipped. Of those disfellowshipped, it is fair to say that hundreds have fallen victim to the five year rule. You might be one of them.