Orthodox apologist urges tolerance for Jehovah's Witnesses


by Sergei Khudiev

Pravoslavie i Mir, 21 March 2017


News wires have reported that the Ministry of Justice has filed in the Supreme Court for the prohibition in the country of the organization of Jehovah's Witnesses, after the discovery during an inspection of violations of anti-extremism legislation. So they are, of course, heretics, but their possible ban should not be rejoiced over.


Really, the teachings of the Jehovah's Witnesses are a serious heresy, distorting the apostolic proclamation to the point of complete unrecognizability. In their bizarre theological system, Jesus is neither God nor man. According to their doctrine, he is the Archangel Michael, who temporarily assumed (and then renounced) a human body. It was the archangel, and not God, who acted in the role of our Redeemer and it was he who assumed the role of Lord and Judge. However, the analysis of the fantastically unbiblical construction of the "Governing Body," as the leadership of Jehovah's Witnesses calls itself, is not the point of this article.


The question that the actions of the Ministry of Justice places before us is different. Should we welcome that the state is prosecuting heretics?


The answer that for many of us jumps out "by default" is:  "Of course! Heretics are enemies of the true faith; it is good that the government will find them. It's long past time." However, experience shows that the answers "by default," especially when they are dictated by hostility to someone, almost always turn out to be incorrect. We live in a fallen world where, by Richard Niebuhr's apt statement, "evil infects any scalpel by which one attempts to cut it out." Measures taken for eradicating some evil may, in and of themselves, be a yet worse evil. This happens very often—the side effects of medicines kill the patient more quickly than the disease itself.


Simple decisions—accept and forbid—may be monstrously unsuccessful. We recall for example the experience of the dry law in the USA—there was alcoholism and it remains a social plague practically everywhere and it seems it is necessary simply to show decisiveness and forbid this evil. But alas, the ban led only to the flourishing of moonshine, contraband, and criminal syndicates dealing in alcohol, and in the end it was necessary to abolish it.


"Extremism" can also be ascribed to the church


Persecution of Jehovah's Witnesses engenders a number of serious side effects. And the first of these is the actual curtailment of freedom of religious confession. This freedom  means that a person may be a heretic and this will not affect his relations with the state in any way. The state does not interfere in the religious life of citizens. All are free to believe or not believe as they think right.


Why is such freedom necessary? For a whole number of reasons. I will begin with the simplest and crudest.


The state that pursues heretics thereby assumes the power to decide who is a heretic here.


Many Orthodox martyrs suffered under Christian emperors of the Eastern Roman empire, when emperors—usually for their own political reasons—decided to support heresy.


Indeed, today there have developed quite cordial relations between the church and the state. Just like when Joseph had excellent relations with the pharaoh. But then "there arose another ruler who did not know Joseph," and the people of God faced persecution. There where the security of the church depends on personal benevolence of powerful persons, everything may change in the most sudden way.


Ascribing "extremism" to the church may be done with the same success as to heresy. The church resolutely insists on the unique truth of its teaching and criticizes other teaching as mistaken (I even began this article with criticism), and supports practices which could be declared to be "extremist,"—monasticism, for example. Opponents should show a very little ingenuity, and we hear that the church threatens the life and health of its members, for example by praising women who do not want to have an abortion for medical indications.


It is always possible to find some individual instances of stupidity or abuse—like some elder who "does not bless" an operation or chemotherapy, as it is also possible to unleash them during a media campaign. The mechanisms of unscrupulous polemics, alas, have already been worked out, and there is nothing simpler than to employ them against the church.


Like the mechanisms of judicial persecution—we all who have faith in the uniqueness of Christ are extremists, and we are not held accountable merely because now we have good relations with the state. But that is now. There is no guarantee that this will not change. Therefore it is very important to defend freedom of conscience--nobody should be persecuted for his religion. Nobody should be forbidden to believe as he thinks right. The church will be in the greatest security—and in the best conditions for its ministry—when the principle of religious liberty is firmly rooted in society and the law.


Second, the blurring of the concept of "extremism" is in and of itself dangerous. I do not know that they have organized any terrorist acts committed by the Islamic State or insurrections;  nor have they been seen in any violence that would require restraint on the part of the government. If it is possible to declare "extremist" a person who has not thought about any villainy and rebellion, but who simply has strange theological views, then the very concept of "extremism" becomes a universal bludgeon, with which to beat whom one will. It is always better to live under law and not under a bludgeon.


Human conscience belongs to God and not the state


Another, more principled, reason that freedom of conscience is important is the affirmation of the dominion of God. Human conscience belongs to God and not to the state. A person answers for his faith (or unbelief) before God. If he is deceived, he is deceived before God. If he is justified, he is justified before God. His faith is the object of the secret providence of God and of the path by which God leads this very soul, and here the appearance of a gendarme with orders "you must not believe thus, but otherwise" is simply monstrously inappropriate. What is appropriate here is the appearance of a churchman, layman, or priest who kindly and with love helps a person to find his way to truth.


A gendarme who climbs with his boots into a believing heart produces the opposite effect; he only strengthens people in their convictions.


Isn't it written in the Bible that the true believers will be persecuted? Many times. Are we persecuted and hated? Indeed here are new confirmations. Consequently the conclusion is drawn: we are true believers and everything in our life happens in accordance with scripture. Of course, this logic is mistaken. People may persecute one another for the most various reasons, including those not related to truth. But emotionally, is a person faces hostility, rejection, unjust accusations, he seeks for himself psychological compensation that he is suffering for the truth. His adherence to the doctrine for which troubles have arisen for him only grows. The more hostility a person sees from the external world, the more he values the atmosphere of warmth, acceptance, and approval that he finds in his congregation.


There is a well known Scottish tale about how the wind and the sun argued about who could force a traveler to remove his wrap. No matter how hard the wind blew, the traveler only wrapped up more tightly. He took off his wrap only when the sun warmed him. To try to force people's conscience is morally bad and counterproductive.


Know the church's teaching and be ready to explain deception


Jehovah's Witnesses are people who undoubtedly are deceived. And their activity is a challenge for the church. But the proper reaction to this challenge is not to rejoice that the government is attacking them.  The proper reaction is to know Sacred Scripture and the church's teaching and to be ready to gently explain to people just where they are mistaken, and why the church is right. And no less important is to display in one's life those fruits of the Holy Spirit about which the apostle speaks: "love, joy, peace, longsuffering, goodness, gentleness, faith," (Gal. 5.22).


Many rank and file Jehovah's Witnesses are people who are sincerely and fervently seeking God and wishing to be pleasing to him. And if their, in and of itself, noble desire has gone astray, it is necessary gently and with respect to help them find the way and not to smother the desire itself. As the 35th answer from "Answers of Saint Varsonofey and Ioann to disciples' questions" says, "Do not force arbitrariness but this (word) with hope. Our Lord did not force anybody, but preached the gospel; and whoever wished took heed." (tr. by PDS, posted 28 March 2017)


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