203 The Shifting Roles of EldersWatchtower elders serve in a number of roles. Serious problems can develop when they switch from one role to another or try to serve in conflicting roles at the same time.

According to the elders’ manual, Jehovah’s Witness elders can be teachers,”[1] personal counsellors,[2] congregational shepherds,[3] witnesses in Matthew 18:16-17 confrontations,[4] investigators,[5] judges on judicial committees (having power to discipline, including disfellowshipping),[6] and judges on appeals from disfellowshipping decisions.”[7]

The elders’ manual does contain provisions designed to avoid the same elders serving as witnesses, investigators, or judges on the same case.[8]

Unfortunately, injustices can still develop when elders switch from one role to another in the midst of handling various issues. Suppose for example, a Witness goes to an elder for help in overcoming a pattern of sin or for counsel in how to deal with a guilty conscience.

The Watchtower’s website encourages them to do so:

Why should we not hesitate to seek the spiritual help of the elders? The elders gladly comply with this counsel: ‘Continue showing mercy . . . , doing so with fear.’ (Jude 23) By falling into sexual immorality, some Christians have sinned seriously. But if they are truly repentant, they can expect merciful, loving treatment by elders eager to help them spiritually. Including himself, Paul said regarding such men: ‘Not that we are the masters over your faith, but we are fellow workers for your joy.’ (2 Corinthians 1:24) Therefore, never hesitate to seek their spiritual assistance.[9]

The problem with that example is that if the elders decide you aren’t sufficiently repentant, they will disfellowship you.[10]

In 1981, former Governing Body member Ray Franz was disfellowshipped for violation of Watchtower directives—eating a meal with a man who had disassociated from the Watchtower organization.[11]

Two elders came to “readjust” his thinking. When that didn’t succeed, they formed a judicial committee to put him on trial.[12]

Originally, his accuser was chosen to be one of the elders sitting in judgment on him. This was only corrected after Franz objected to the obvious unfairness.[13]

The elder who had come to persuade Franz to change his mind became chairman of the judicial committee. So his role had shifted from shepherd to judge. After the disfellowshipping, he appealed and learned that the chairman of the original committee had phoned long distance to talk with another Witness to ask if she had ever heard Franz make remarks against the Watchtower organization. Now this elder had become an investigator trying to find evidence of “a new and totally different charge.”[14]

If these sorts of injustices can occur in the case of a Witness who used to be a member of the Governing Body, one wonders what safeguards are observed when ordinary Jehovah’s Witnesses are the accused.

Granted, the Bible does say that there may be extreme situations in which a professing Christian should be removed from the fellowship (1 Corinthians 5:11-13).

However, the Watchtower has become an organization which sees the Christian life as a series of laws, rules, and regulations and which has created a permanent structure which includes judicial committees where the shepherds investigate and try the sheep.

As Christians, we need to understand this environment under which Jehovah’s Witnesses live. We need to show them compassion and share with them the true gospel of grace and mercy.

[1] Shepherd the Flock of God, 2019 edition, 6:1

[2] Ibid., 12:8

[3] Ibid., 13:1

[4] Ibid., 12:24-25

[5] Ibid., 12:7; 14:18

[6] Ibid., 12:2

[7] Ibid., 17:1

[8] Ibid., 12:25-27

[9] Always Accept Jehovah’s Discipline,” https://www.jw.org/en/publications/magazines/w20061115/accept-jehovahs-discipline/#?insight[search_id]=49591765-941f-4fa6-9d04-d45fcff9d9d4&insight[search_result_index]=0

[10] Shepherd the Flock of God, 2019 edition, 16:6-12

[11] Raymond Franz, Crisis of Conscience, Commentary Press, 1983, p. 315-320

[12] Ibid., pp. 309-315

[13] Ibid., pp. 315-316

[14] Ibid., p. 324