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Is it Christian to Exclude and Denounce Those with Different Opinions?

Understanding the true meaning of unity

It is clear that the leaders of "the truth" have adopted a system of exclusion in regard to those who disagree with them and enforce it with vigor. They use every form of persuasion to convince those under their care that they should refuse association with some of their brothers and sisters, and to deny them the name, character, and privileges of Christians.

We begin with an important statement. We hope that it may be distinctly understood that the zeal of the Reform Movement on this point has no other goal than the peace and prosperity of the Christian congregation. We are pleading, not our own cause, but the cause of our Master Jesus.

Why are the name, character, and rights of Christians, to be denied to some of our brothers? Do they deny that Jesus is the Christ? Do they reject his word as the rule of their faith and practice? Do their lives discover indifference to his authority and example? No, these are not their offenses. They are deficient in none of the qualifications of disciples that were required in the first century. Their offense is that they read the Scriptures for themselves and derive from them different opinions on certain points from those which "the organization" has adopted. Mistake of judgment is their so-called crime, and this crime is charged to them by men who are as liable to mistake as they are.

A condemning sentence from such judges should carry no terror. Sorrow for its uncharitableness, and strong disapproval of its arrogance, are the principal feelings that it inspires. It is truly astonishing that everyday Jehovah's Witnesses are not more affected by the unbecoming spirit, the arrogant style, of those who deny the Christian character to professed and exemplary followers of Jesus Christ because they differ in opinion on some of the most subtle and difficult subjects of Biblical interpretation. A stranger, at hearing the language of these denouncers, the words of our own Governing Body, would conclude, without a doubt, that they supposed themselves to be clothed with infallibility, and were appointed to sit in judgment on their brothers. But what pretence for the language of superiority assumed by our leaders do they have? Are they exempted from the common frailty of human nature? Has God given them superior intelligence? Were they educated under circumstances more favorable to improvement than those whom they condemn? Have they brought to the Scriptures more serious, anxious, and unwearied attention than anyone else? Or do their lives express a deeper reverence for God and for his Son than anyone else? No. They admit they are fallible, imperfect men, possessing no higher means, and no stronger motives for studying the word of God, than any of their brothers. And yet their language to those who disagree is virtually this: "We pronounce you to be in error, and in most dangerous error. We know that we are right, and that you are wrong, in regard to the fundamental doctrines of the Bible. You are unworthy of the Christian name and unfit to sit with us at the table of Christ. We offer you the truth, and you reject it at your own peril."

Such is the language of "humble" Christians to persons who, in capacity and apparent godly devotion, are not inferior to them. This language has spread from the leaders through a considerable part of the community. Elders in the congregation, who are told to make sure all members conform to the organization's teachings, pass sentence on people who see something different in the Scriptures than the leaders see. There are people in the congregation who spend little time examining the issues involved, who bitterly denounce errors of people they have never met or heard. Young people forget the modesty that should belong to their age and hurl condemnation on the heads of those who have grown gray in the service of God and humankind. Need we ask whether this spirit of denunciation for supposed error is becoming of the humble and fallible disciples of Jesus Christ?

In defense of this system of exclusion and denunciation, it is often urged that the "purity of the congregation," and the "cause of truth," forbid those who have the truth to maintain fellowship with those who support wrong opinions. Without stopping to notice the modesty of those who claim an exclusive knowledge of the truth, we would answer that the "purity of the congregation" can never be harmed by admitting to Christian fellowship people of irreproachable lives. On the other hand, it has suffered severely from that narrow and uncharitable spirit which has excluded such people for imagined errors.

We answer again that the "cause of truth" can never suffer by admitting to Christian fellowship people who honestly profess to make the Scriptures their rule of faith and practice, while it has suffered most severely by substituting for this standard conformity to human creeds and formularies. It is truly amazing, if excommunication or disfellowshipment for supposed error is the method of purifying the congregation, that Christendom has been doctrinally corrupt for so long. Whatever may have been the deficiencies of Christians in other respects, they have certainly discovered no criminal reluctance in applying this instrument of purification. One would think that the truth would have been maintained that way. But it was not. One might argue that the situation is different in the case of Christendom, because the leaders enforced a theology of error. And yet, the Witness leaders admit that they have been in error in the past and could be in error now, but they still make belief in their tenets a requirement. They argue that, for the sake of unity, all should accept their teachings. Is that any different from what the Church has done?

What does history tell us? It tells us, that the spirit of exclusion and denunciation has contributed more than all other causes to the corruption of the church, to the diffusion of error; and has rendered the records of the Christian community as black, as bloody, as revolting to humanity, as the records of empires founded on conquest and guilt.

But it might be said, "Did not the apostle Paul denounce the erroneous, and pronounce a curse on those declaring good news 'beyond what you accepted'" (Gal 1:8)? This scripture is the stronghold of the friends of denunciation. But let us never forget, that the apostles were inspired men, capable of marking out with unerring certainty those who substituted another good news for the true one. Show us their inspired successors, and we will cheerfully obey them.

It is also important to recollect the character of those men against whom the apostolic anathema was directed. They were men, who knew distinctly what the apostles taught, and yet opposed it, and who endeavored to sow division, and to gain followers in the congregations which the apostles had planted. These men, resisting the known instructions of the authorized and inspired teachers of the good news, and discovering a factious, selfish, mercenary spirit, were justly excluded as unworthy the Christian name.

But what do Christians, whom it is the custom of people "in the truth" to denounce, have in common with these men? Do these oppose what they know to be the doctrine of Christ and his apostles? Do they not revere Jesus and his inspired messengers? Do they not disagree with the organization, simply because they believe that the organization disagrees with their Lord?

Let us not forget that the contest, at the present day, is not between the apostles themselves and men who oppose their known instructions, but uninspired Christians, who equally receive the apostles as authorized teachers of the good news, and who only differ in judgment as to the interpretation of their writings. How unjust, then, is it for any class of Christians to confound their opponents with the factious and unprincipled sectarians of the first century.

Mistake in judgment is the heaviest charge that one denomination has now a right to urge against another; and do we find that the apostles ever denounced mistake as so awful and fatal to the good news that they pronounced anathemas on men who wished to obey, but who misunderstood the holy writings? The apostles well remembered that none ever mistook more widely than themselves. They remembered, too, the lenity of their Lord towards their errors, and this lenity they cherished and labored to diffuse.

Indeed, if the leaders of the organization desire us to put up with their mistakes in matters of biblical interpretation, why is it that they cannot put up with the mistakes of their brothers, with whom they are equals in the eyes of the Lord?

Some may argue that there can be unity only in uniformity of thought, and that an openness to other opinions would divide the congregation and even destroy it. But these fail to understand what the glue is that holds the Christian congregation together. It is not uniformity of belief that accomplishes this. It is the love, the "perfect bond of union" (Col. 3:14) and "the uniting bond of peace" (Eph. 4:3), both of which are spoken of by the apostle Paul.

But it may be asked, "Have not Christians a right to bear witness against opinions which are utterly subversive of the good news, and most dangerous to people's eternal interests? To this we answer that the opinions of persons are entitled to respectful consideration. If, after inquiry, they seem erroneous and injurious, we are authorized and bound, according to our ability, to expose, by fair and serious argument, their nature and tendency.

But we maintain, that we have no right as individuals, or in an associated capacity, to "bear witness" against these opinions by threatening with ruin the Christian who listens to them, or by branding them with the most terrifying epithets, for the purpose of preventing candid inquiry into their truth. This is the fashionable mode of "bearing witness," and it is a weapon which will always be most successful in the hands of the proud, the positive, and overbearing, who are most impatient of contradiction, and have least regard to the rights of their brothers.

But whatever may be the right of Christians as to bearing testimony against opinions which they deem harmful, we deny that they have any right to pass a condemning sentence on account of these opinions, on the characters of persons whose general deportment is conformed to the good news of Christ. Both Scripture and reason unite in teaching that the best and only standard of character is the life a person leads; and he who overlooks the testimony of a Christian life, and grounds a sentence of condemnation on opinions about which he, as well as his brother, may err, violates most flagrantly the duty of just and candid judgment, and opposes the peaceful and charitable spirit of the good news.

Jesus Christ says, "By their fruits you will recognize them." "Not everyone saying to me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of the heavens, but the one doing the will of my Father who is in heaven will." "You are my friends if you do whatever I command you." "He that hears and does these sayings of mine," i. e. the precepts of the Sermon on the Mount, "I will liken him to a man who built his house upon a rock." It would be easy to multiply similar passages. The whole Scriptures teach us, that he and he only is a Christian, whose life is governed by the precepts of the Gospel, and that by this standard alone the profession of this religion should be tried.

We do not deny that our brothers have a right to form a judgment as to our Christian character. But we insist that we have a right to be judged by the fairest, the most approved, and the most settled rules, by which character can be tried; and when these are overlooked, and the most uncertain standard is applied, we are hurt; and an assault on character, which rests on this ground, deserves to be called nothing less than defamation and persecution.

We know that this suggestion of persecution will be indignantly rejected by those who deal most largely in denunciation. But persecution is a wrong or injury inflicted for opinions; and surely assaults on character fall under this definition. Some persons seem to think that persecution consists only in pursuing error with violent acts, and that such persecution has ceased to exist, except in distempered imaginations, because no Christians among us is armed with these terrible weapons. But no. The form is changed, but the spirit lives. Persecution has given up its sword and stake, but it breathes venom from its lips, and secretly blasts what it cannot openly destroy.

For example, a Witness of Jehovah, however circumspect in his walk, irreproachable in all his relations, no sooner avows his honest convictions on some of the most difficult subjects than he is ousted from the congregation, and his name begins to be a byword. A thousand suspicions are infused into his hearers; and it is insinuated, that he is a minister of Satan, in disguise as "an angel of light." At a little distance from his home, calumny assumes a bolder tone. He is pronounced an apostate, and it is gravely asked whether he believes in a God at all. At a greater distance, his morals are assailed. He is a man of the world, leading others off into destruction, to gratify the most selfish passions. But notwithstanding all this, he must not say a word about persecution, for reports like these rack no limbs; they do not even injure a hair of his head; so how then is he persecuted?

We think that most people would be more willing that their adversaries take their money or their life than that they should rob them of their reputation, of the affection of their friends, and of their means of doing good. Those who take from a person their good name take the best possession of which human power can deprive someone (Eccl. 7:1). It is true that a Christian's reputation is comparatively a light object; and so is his property and life, for that matter, if he has the hope of everlasting life. But, of all earthly blessings, an honest reputation is to many of us the most precious thing of all; and he who robs us of it, is the most injurious of people, and among the worst of persecutors.

Let not the friends of denunciation attempt to escape this charge by pleading their sense of duty and their sincere desire to promote the cause of truth. St. Dominic was equally sincere when he built the Inquisition; and we don't doubt that many torturers of Christians have fortified their reluctant minds, at the moment of applying the rack and the burning iron, by the sincere conviction that the cause of truth required the sacrifice of its enemies. We beg that these remarks may not be applied indiscriminately to everyone of Jehovah's Witnesses, among whom are multitudes whose humility and charity would revolt from making themselves the standards of Christian piety, and from assailing the Christian character of their brothers.

People differ in opinions as much as in features. No two minds are perfectly accordant. The shades of belief are infinitely diversified. Amidst this immense variety of sentiment, every person is right in his own eyes. Every person discovers errors in the beliefs of his brother. Every person is prone to magnify the importance of his own peculiarities, and to discover danger in the peculiarities of others. This is human nature. Every person is partial to his own opinions, because they are his own, and his self-will and pride are wounded by contradiction.

Now what must we expect, when beings so erring, so divided in sentiment, and so inclined to be unjust to the views of others, assert the right of excluding one another from the Christian congregation on account of imagined error? As the Scriptures confine this right to no individual and to no body of Christians, it belongs alike to all; and what must we expect, when a handful of men, a select few Christians, of equal status with everyone else in Jehovah's eyes, imagine it their duty to prescribe opinions to the whole brotherhood, and to open or to shut the door of the congregation according to the decisions they form on some of the most perplexing points of theology?

This question, unhappily, has received answer upon answer in ecclesiastical history. We there see Christians denouncing and excommunicating one another for supposed error until every denomination has been pronounced accursed by some portion of the Christian world, so that if the curses of men were to prevail, not one human being would be saved. Think about it. Have the many years of fighting so-called apostates resulted in a congregation that produces less "apostates"? On the contrary, there are more dissenters than ever. Indeed, the dissent often stems from a resistance to the very system that tries to quash dissent. They may be swept under the carpet, but they are there nonetheless. To us it appears that to plead for the right of excluding men of blameless lives on account of their opinions is to sound the horn of perpetual and universal war.

Arm men with this power, and the congregation will always be threatened by division. Some persons are sufficiently simple to imagine that if this "apostasy" were once hunted down and put quietly into its grave, the congregation would be at peace. But no: our present problems have their origin, not in the gravity of the apostasies, but very much in the principles of human nature, in the love of power, in impatience of contradiction, in people's passion for imposing their own views upon others, in the same causes which render them anxious to make proselytes to all their opinions.

Were the views of so-called apostates quietly interred, another and another hideous form of error would start up before the zealous guardians of the "purity of the congregation." Thus the wars of Christians will be perpetual, even through the new system of things, for God will never reveal all of his knowledge to us, and so there will always be occasion for disagreement on various subjects. Never will there be peace, until Christians agree to differ, and agree to look for the evidences of Christian character in the temper and the life.

Another argument against this practice of denouncing the supposed errors of sincere professors of Christianity, is this: It exalts to supremacy in the congregation men who have the least claim to influence. Humble, meek, and affectionate Christians are least disposed to make creeds for their brothers and to denounce those who differ from them. On the other hand, the impetuous, proud, and enthusiastic men, who cannot or will not weigh the arguments of opponents, are always most positive, and most unsparing in denunciation. These take the lead in a system of exclusion. They have no false modesty, no false charity, to shackle their zeal in framing fundamentals for their brothers, and in punishing the obstinate in error.

The consequence is that creeds are formed, which exclude from Christ's congregation some of his truest followers, which outrage reason as well as revelation, and which subsequent ages are obliged to explain away, for fear the whole religion be rejected by people of reflection.

Such has been the history of the church. It is strange that Jehovah's Witnesses have not learned wisdom from the past. What person, who feels his own fallibility, who sees the errors into which the positive and "orthodox" of former times have been betrayed, and who considers his own utter inability to decide on the degree of truth, which every mind, of every capacity, must receive in order to obtain salvation, will not tremble at the responsibility of prescribing to his brothers, in his own words, the views they must maintain on the most perplexing subjects of religion? Humility will always leave this work to others.

Another important consideration is that this system of excluding persons of apparent sincerity for their opinions entirely subverts free inquiry into the Scriptures. When once a particular system is surrounded by this bulwark, when once its defenders have brought the majority to believe that the rejection of it is a mark of depravity and perdition, only the name of freedom is left to Christians. The obstacles to inquiry are as real, and may be as powerful, as in the neighborhood of the inquisition. The multitude dare not think, and the thinking dare not speak. The right of private judgment may thus be reduced to nothing.

It is true that Jehovah's Witnesses are sent to the Scriptures; but they are told before they go, that they will be driven from the congregation on earth and in heaven unless they find in the Scriptures the doctrines which are outlined in the accepted body of teachings. They are told, indeed, to inquire for themselves; but they are also told at what points inquiry must arrive; and the sentence of exclusion hangs over them, if they happen to stray, with some of the best and wisest men, into forbidden paths. Now this "Christian freedom" is, in one respect, more irritating than Papal bondage. It mocks as well as enslaves us. It talks to us courteously as friends and brothers, while it rivets our chains. It invites and even charges us to look with our own eyes, but with the same breath warns us against seeing anything which the eyes of the Governing Body have not seen before us.

Is this a state of things favorable to serious inquiry into the truths of the Bible? Yet, how long has the congregation been groaning under this cruel yoke! 

In churches where the power is lodged in a few individuals, who are supposed to be the most learned men in the community, the work of marking out and excluding the erroneous, may seem less difficult. But among Jehovah's Witnesses, the tribunal, before which the offender is to be brought, is the Governing Body, consisting of men in humble circumstances, who have very little, if any knowledge of biblical languages or history, and who are always engaged in active and pressing Society business so that they find little time for study. Now is this a tribunal before which the most intricate points of theology are to be discussed, and before which serious inquirers are to answer for opinions, which they have perhaps examined more laboriously and faithfully than their judges have? It may be true that God reveals things to the righteous, and members of the Governing Body indeed may be such, but the fact is that the Governing Body is not inspired as the prophets and apostles of old were. They admit they are fallible. And where would such fallibility manifest itself but in the imperfections and weaknesses they already possess? Would a body of truly humble men, conscious of their limited opportunities, consent to judge professing Christians as intelligent, as honest, and as exemplary as themselves?

While the general membership of Jehovah's Witnesses is slumbering, the ancient and free constitution of our congregation is silently undermined and is crumbling away. Since argument is insufficient to produce uniformity of opinion, recourse must be had to more powerful instruments of conviction, that is, to judicial committees, which are nothing more than ECCLESIASTICAL COURTS. And are this people indeed prepared to submit to this most degrading form of vassalage, a vassalage that reaches and palsies the mind and imposes on it the dreams and fictions of men instead of the everlasting truth of God?

This system will shake to the foundation our religious institution and destroy many habits and connections which have had the happiest influence on the religious character of this people.

The system of denying the Christian name to those who differ from us in interpreting the Scriptures carries discord not only into congregations, but families. In how many instances are families divided in opinion on the present subjects of controversy? Beforehand they may have loved each other as partakers of the same glorious hopes, and have repaired in their domestic joys and sorrows to the same God (as they imagined) through the same Mediator. But now, they are taught that they have different Gods and that the friends of truth are not to associate with its rejecters. By accepting this doctrine, one of the tenderest ties, by which many wedded hearts are knit together, is dissolved. The family altar falls. Christianity will be known in many a domestic retreat, not as a bond of union, but a subject of debate, a source of discord or depression.

Now I ask, For what boon are all these sacrifices to be made? The great end is that certain opinions, which have been embraced by many serious and inquiring Christians as the truth of God, may be driven from the congregation and be dreaded by the people as among the worst of crimes. Uniformity of opinion, — that airy good, which emperors, popes, councils, synods, bishops, and ministers have been seeking for ages, by edicts, creeds, threats, excommunications, inquisitions, and flames, — this is the great object of the system of exclusion, separation, and denunciation, which is now to be introduced. To this we are to sacrifice our established habits and bonds of union; and this is to be pursued by means which, as many reflecting men believe, threaten our dearest rights and liberties.

It is sincerely hoped that reflecting Jehovah's Witnesses will no longer shut their eyes on this subject. It is a melancholy fact that our long established organizational government is menaced, and tribunals, unknown to the Scriptures, have been introduced, and introduced for the very purpose that the supposed errors and mistakes of ministers and private Christians may be tried and punished as heresies, that is, as crimes. In these tribunals, as in all ecclesiastical bodies, the will of the Governing Body, who make theology their profession, will be enforced through the elders of the local congregations and will of necessity have a preponderating influence, so that the question now before us is, in fact, only a new form of the old controversy, which has agitated all ages; namely, whether the clergy shall think for the laity, or prescribe to them their religion.

Were this question fairly proposed to Jehovah's Witnesses, there would be but one answer; but it is wrapped up in a dark phraseology about the purity, order, and unity of the congregation, a phraseology, which, we believe, imposes on multitudes of elders, ministerial servants, pioneers, and publishers, and induces acquiescence in measures, the real tendency of which they would abhor.

It is, we hope, from no feeling of party, but from a sincere regard to the religion of Christ, that we would rouse the slumbering minds of this community to the dangers which hang over their religious institution. No power is so rapidly accumulated, or so dreadfully abused, as ecclesiastical power. It assails men with menaces of eternal destruction, unless they submit, and gradually awes the most stubborn and strongest minds into subjection. We mean not to ascribe the intention of introducing ecclesiastical tyranny to any class of Christians among us; but we believe that many, in the fervor of a zeal which may be essentially virtuous, are touching with unhallowed hands the ark of God, to support Christianity by measures which its mild and charitable spirit hates.

We believe that many, overlooking the principles of human nature and the history of the church, have set in motion a spring of which they know not the force, and cannot calculate the effects. We believe that the seed of spiritual tyranny is sown, and although to a careless spectator it may seem the "smallest of all seeds," it has yet, within itself, a fatal principle of increase, and may yet darken the world with its deadly branches.

The time has come when the friends of Christian liberty and Christian charity are called to awake, and to remember their duties to themselves, to posterity, and to the congregation of Christ. The time is come, when the rights of conscience and the freedom of our congregations must be defended with zeal. The time is come, when menace and denunciation must be met with a spirit which will show that we dread not the frowns and lean not on the favor of man. The time is come, when every expression of superiority on the part of our brothers should be repelled as criminal usurpation.

But in doing this, let the friends of genuine Christianity remember the spirit of their religion. Let no passion or bitterness dishonor their sacred cause. In contending for the good news, let them not lose its virtues or forfeit its promises. We are indeed called to pass through one of the severest trials of human virtue, the trial of controversy. We should carry with us a sense of its danger. Religion, when made a subject of debate, seems often to lose its empire over the heart and life. The mild and affectionate spirit of Christianity gives place to angry recriminations and cruel surmises. Fair dealing, uprightness, and truth, are exchanged for the arts of sophistry.

The devotional feelings, too, decline in warmth and tenderness. Let us, then, watch and pray. Let us take heed that the weapons of our warfare not be carnal. While we repel usurpation, let us be just to the general rectitude of many by whom our Christian rights are invaded. While we repel the uncharitable censures of men, let us not forget that deep humility and sense of unworthiness with which we should ever appear before God. In our zeal to hold fast the word of Christ, in opposition to human creeds and formularies, let us not forget that our Lord demands another and a still more unsuspicious confession of him, even the exhibition of his spirit and religion in our lives.

The controversy in which we are engaged is indeed painful, but it was not chosen. It was forced upon us, and we ought to regard it as a part of the discipline to which a wise God has seen fit to subject us. Like all other trials, it is designed to promote our moral perfection. We trust, too, that it is designed to promote the cause of truth.

While we would speak diffidently of the future, we still hope that a brighter day is rising on the Christian congregation than it has yet enjoyed. The good news is to shine forth in its native glory. The violent excitement, by which some of the corruptions of this divine system are now supported, cannot be permanent; and the uncharitableness with which they are enforced, will react, like the persecutions of the Church of Rome, in favor of truth. Already we have the comfort of seeing many disposed to inquire, and to inquire without that terror which has bound as with a spell so many minds.

We don't doubt that this inquiry will result in a deep conviction that the Christian congregation is yet disfigured by errors which have been transmitted from ages of darkness. Of this, at least, we are sure, that inquiry, by discovering to people the difficulties and obscurities which attend the present topics of controversy, will terminate in what is infinitely more desirable than doctrinal concord, in the diffusion of a mild, candid, and charitable temper. We pray to Jehovah that this most happy consummation may be in no degree obstructed by any unchristian feelings, which, notwithstanding our sincere efforts, have escaped us in the present controversy.

This essay was inspired by and is based on the article, "The System of Exclusion and Denunciation in Religion Considered," by William Ellery Channing (1815).

Back to "Repression of Thought"

See also "The Role of the Individual Christian in the Interpretation of God's Word"

True Freedom of Thought
"The Bible encourages each Christian to set as a goal the bringing of "every thought into captivity to make it obedient to the Christ." (2 Corinthians 10:5) This is achieved, not through restrictions placed by religious leaders, but through an individual’s exercise of self-control and through his love for and understanding of Jehovah and His principles. With the achievement of this goal comes true freedom of thought, limited only by godly standards and enhanced by the joy of knowing that, even in our thoughts, we are pleasing to Jehovah." (Awake, June 8, 1994, p. 21; italics ours)
Does Christian Unity Allow for Variety?
"Respect for a person as an individual continues after one becomes part of the Christian congregation. God’s people do not drown in a sea of complete uniformity and absolute conformity to the preferences of those in authority. Rather, they enjoy a wide variety of personalities and have different abilities, habits, and opinions. The individuality of each one is not viewed as a bother or a nuisance. It is part of God’s original design." (Awake, February 8, 1998, p. 14)
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Sites of Interest
Note: The following sites are supportive of the faith of Jehovah's Witnesses. At the same time, they promote, in one way or another, freeness of speech about the workings and teachings of the JW organization and show where improvement is needed..

Beth Sarim

Our partner site, dedicated to providing a place of shelter from storms both within and without the Witness community.

Make Sure of All Things
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