Originally published on Danish Media, TV2 by Jonas HR Moestrup
According to a handbook for religious leaders, a judicial committee is to be set up, for example, in matters related to murder, drug use, adultery and celebration of false religious festivals.
Religious bodies within Jehovah’s Witnesses would investigate violations of internal rules and then judge the offender. But only if the right evidence exists.
It appears from a secret handbook for the elders – religious leaders of Jehovah’s Witnesses – of which TV 2 has a copy.
The handbook, entitled ‘Shepherd the Flock of God‘, specifies in detail what types of offenses the elders must intervene in and, in some cases, judge in. This applies, for example, to marriage and sex, but also to smoking and other social behaviour.
Furthermore, it appears that the elders must act in cases that are also considered illegal in the Danish legal system, including murder, rape and child abuse.
One of the leading Danish experts in religious law, Lisbet Christoffersen, knows about the existence of the handbook and believes it represents a parallel legal society.
TV 2 has spoken to several former members of Jehovah’s Witnesses who say they were trained to go to the elders and not to the authorities. That is problematic, says Lisbet Christoffsen.
-It’s a fundamental problem, because then you cut off members of Jehovah’s Witnesses from the ordinary institutions of society, she says.
Expelled for sex before marriage
TV 2 has spoken to several former Jehovah’s Witnesses, all of whom have been expelled from the religious community because they have violated the rules of the Elder Handbook.
One of them is 25-year-old Ann Celina, who in 2017 was expelled because she had sex with a man whom she was not married to – and who was not a member of the religious community. She was summoned to a meeting where three elders judged her. The consequence is that today she can no longer see her family.
Ann Celina was expelled according to one of the rules of the Elder Handbook – what Jehovah’s Witnesses call ‘porneia’. Besides sex before marriage, it also includes adultery, homosexuality and sex with animals.
The edition of the handbook, which TV 2 holds, is in Danish, 142 pages long and can only be opened in Jehovah’s Witnesses’ own app on a smartphone.
It appears that the Elder Handbook should be kept secret and is published by the highest authority in Jehovah’s Witnesses – the Governing Body in New York, USA.
From there, like any other official material in Jehovah’s Witnesses, it will be sent to Branch Offices all over the world that translate it into local languages and pass it on to the elders who direct each congregation. In Denmark, there are 173 churches, or kingdom halls as Jehovah’s Witnesses refer to them.
It appears from the book that all elders in the congregation must have their own copy.
Can set up a judicial committee
The handbook is made up of chapters with a wide range of rules and guidelines, many of which refer to Jehovah’s Witnesses own edition of the Bible.
Chapter five in the handbook is entitled ‘Determining Whether A Judicial Committee Should Be Formed’. Here are listed several types of cases that can be serious enough for the elders to set up a judicial committee.
Besides porneia, the following also applies:
- Brazen conduct, loose conduct (including socializing with disfellowshipped members, child sexual abuse)
- Staying all night in the same house with a person of the opposite sex outside of marriage
- Engaging in immoral conversations by telephone, in Internet chat rooms, or through similar electronic means
- Repeated use of porn
- Misuse of tobacco
- Extreme physical uncleanness
- Celebrating false religious holidays
A confession or two witnesses are the only valid evidence
For the elders to judge a member of the congregation, there must be evidence against the member. According to the handbook, an offense can only be proven if the accused confesses or if there have been two witnesses to the infringement.
In Ann Celinas case, however, the elders did not need confession or other witnesses. Without her knowledge, a woman recorded her while she was busy telling her about her new boyfriend.
During Ann Celina’s disfellowshipping meeting, of which TV 2 has a sound recording, an elder said he and one of the other elders had witnessed the recording with Ann Celina, which was enough to prove the offense.
When she did not repent of her actions, the three elders had her condemned by disfellowshipping her – the most serious punishment they can give.
– Unfortunately, in the present situation, we have no other option than to disfellowship you. We have not been able to find any signs of change, which we really wanted to find, said one of the elders to Ann Celina at the meeting.
In the Elders Handbook, it is stated in various places that besides disfellowshipping there are other types of sanctions, including the removal of tasks in the congregation and public or private reprimands of the offender.
If there is no evidence of an offense, “the elders may determine to hold the matter in abeyance”, says the handbook.
Professor: – A parallel legal system can be problematic
Professor of Religious Law at Roskilde University, Lisbet Christoffersen, explains that in many associations, and for example sports clubs, there are internal guidelines that can be regarded as parallel legal systems. However, she believes that the legal system of Jehovah’s Witnesses is highly developed, partly because of the Elder Handbook.
– You describe what is the function of the elders and how they exercise that function – also in terms of delivering judgments, and how the judgments can also lead to being excluded from the religious community, she says.
Lisbet Christoffersen believes that this can be problematic if Jehovah’s Witnesses choose to go to the elders rather than the Danish authorities.
– If it is about criminal offenses, then it is the task of the police and the courts. It should not be some internal justice. It is a problem we have discussed in relation to all the children’s cases in the Catholic Church around the world, and it is just as relevant to Jehovah’s Witnesses, she says.
Jehovah’s Witnesses state on their website that the organization is subordinate to the secular — ie, the non-religious — laws.
In a mail, the Scandinavian branch office of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Holbæk wrote that “The Bible’s requirements for evidence (a confession, strong evidence, or two witnesses), alone are something the elders use in their assessment of whether there is a basis for disfellowshipping.”
Jehovah’s Witnesses Scandinavian branch office in Holbæk did not want to be interviewed.