I am not a Jehovah’s Witness. I know a bit about the Witnesses, particularly their neo-Arian, non-Trinitarian beliefs. As a Christadelphian, I was taught to “side” with the Witnesses on certain points of agreement, but to roundly condemn them on other points. It was convenient to draw alongside them in their anti-Trinitarian stance, even to uphold (very selectively) their writings and interpretations. But we would equally write polemics against their acknowledgement of Christ’s pre-existence, and other doctrines, such as the devil. Christadelphians have held their exegesis of John 1:1–2 as authoritative, but condemn them roundly for their predictions about the timing of the second coming and their adjustments to prophetic interpretation when it didn’t eventuate — whilst justifying similar mistakes from the Christadelphian “pioneers.” Both Christadelphians and Witnesses are conscientious objectors and faced condemnation, ostracism and even imprisonment for those beliefs in wartime. Both groups can behave in a sect-like way, very insulated, with strong family associations, a belief that they alone have “the Truth” and varying degrees of ostracism and discipline of non-conformists or those members who wish to leave. Both groups are regarded as non-Christians or “sects” by many mainstream Christians.
How then should Christians respond to ridicule, discrimination and persecution directed at such groups? On April 20th, Russia’s Supreme Court accepted the government’s request to designate Jehovah’s Witnesses as an outlawed religious group, deeming it to be an extremist organisation. The denomination has effectively been criminalised. Witnesses can no longer gather at Kingdom Halls, which are to be confiscated, nor distribute literature. This is the culmination of years of low-level harassment and uses a 2002 anti-“extremism” law designed to respond to violent religious extremism, as the basis for attack on a non-violent religious group. 
This is nothing new. Many countries have taken a stance against Witnesses, particularly as conscientious objectors in the two World Wars, even in the “enlightened” West. The Nazis persecuted JWs, forcing them to wear a purple triangle and sent them to concentration camps, executing some.  Russia has a record of persecution of these and other religious outliers, particularly under Stalin. What is additionally horrifying about this State-sponsored persecution is that the Russian Orthodox Church supports it, despite its own tragic history of suffering under communism.
In America, the UK and Australia, the general populace probably knows very little about what JWs believe and stand for, apart from door-knocking and pushing pamphlets, and maybe for refusing blood transfusions. In a pluralistic, secular society this breeds mockery and verbal abuse rather than much overt discrimination or persecution. They’re just some relatively harmless, crackpot end-of-the-world sect who want to force their beliefs on others. The popular press and tabloids lap up “I escaped the JWs” and “How the JWs Destroyed my Family” stories. But dangerous extremists? As Andrew Brown wrote in The Guardian, 
Their persecution around the world is a horrible testament to the relish we take in the bullying of small, alien and defenceless groups. In Russia it is yet another testimony to the ruthless and brutal dishonesty of the Putin regime. All authoritarian regimes loathe minority religions, perhaps because religious groupings are one of the most powerful ways of imagining a world that might be different.”
Brown rightly points out that the issue at stake is not whether the doctrines and practices of the Witnesses are wrong; “Freedom of religion means freedom to be wrong or it means nothing at all.” Russia claims to honour freedom of religion, as do western democracies, but too often the way it works out is that “all animals are equal but some are more equal than others.” In Russia, the JWs stand for things that clash with the state’s values and that of the increasingly influential Russian Orthodox church. Here in Australia the JWs’ and the Christadelphians’ values and beliefs clash with secular pluralism and the intolerance of intolerance, as well as finding few friends in mainstream Christian denominations.
Ironically, given the current Christian and wider religious and political discussion about “martyrdom,” we may need reminding that the biblical Greek word for “witness” is martys. It originally simply meant “witness,” and referred to legal witnesses, false witnesses, God, Israel, John the Baptist, the apostles and Jesus himself. The term “Jehovah’s Witnesses” was appropriated from Isaiah 43:8. In the early church, those who confessed their faith and were willing to die for it were “witnesses,” but eventually the word came to mean specifically one who died for the faith. Martyrs became venerated and an unhealthy cult of martyr worship grew up. Today, a distinction has been drawn between those persecuted for their faith who die for it or die for others (such as the Coptic Christians and their protectors killed by ISIS) and so-called martyrs such as suicide bombers who murder others and themselves, ostensibly for a “religious” cause. Jehovah’s witnesses are about as far from violent religious extremists as you can get. They are pacifists and historically have always refused to take up arms to defend their own cause, or that of the states in which they reside.
Public opinion is very fickle about conscientious objection and non-mainstream churches. When a country is at war, pacifist groups tend to be looked on as traitors and cowards. They are ridiculed, publicly shamed and may face prosecutions, as happened in so-called religiously free countries during the world wars. But in an oppressive or totalitarian state such as Hitler’s Germany or Stalin’s (and Putin’s?) Russia this is treason. Stubborn resistance to joining the Nazis or even performing the Hitler salute saw about a quarter of Germany’s JWs killed and about half imprisoned by the end of WWII. In the present climate, the same right wing Christians who call for Muslim bans and restrictions on immigrants lament the demise of Christianity as a public and political force and rejoice that the church is being granted more political clout under President Trump. The American right wing evangelical church seems to have forgotten the lessons of early Christianity. When the early church moved from being a persecuted minority to a power broker the result was not uniformly good. The “Christian” empire was significantly less tolerant than its pagan predecessor and instituted greater and more systematic persecutions against dissenters within its borders.
Unfortunately, the Russian Orthodox Church, with its resurgence of power and influence with the current government, may have also forgotten what it was like to be persecuted and has now, like the old imperial church, become the persecutor. The Russian Church called Jehovah’s Witnesses a dangerous sect and supported its ban in the Russian federation.
This is a sect that is both totalitarian and harmful,” stated Metropolitan of Volokolamsk Ilarion, on the Russian program “Church and World.” The Witnesses approach people with their literature, presenting themselves as a Christian organisation, but they manipulate the mind and “destroy the psyche of people and the family.” They “distort the teaching of Christ and interpret the New Testament incorrectly… Their doctrine contains a multitude of false teachings. They do not believe in Jesus Christ as God and Savior, they do not acknowledge the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, and therefore they cannot in any way be called Christian.”
Many mainstream Christians and perhaps some ex-Witnesses would agree with this assessment, but does that justify persecution? Should we be concerned that a strong branch of the Christian church promotes eradication of one it views as heretical? Have we not learned from the horrible errors of the past? If the state or the mainstream church is indeed right, why the need to destroy those who disagree?
Recently, many people who might not have thought very much about religious minorities, persecution or conscientious objection have been (rightly) moved by the portrayal of Seventh Day Adventist conscientious objector hero Desmond Doss in the movie Hacksaw Ridge. Doss’ story teaches, among other things, that conscientious objection does not equate to cowardice, but usually requires greater bravery, conviction and fortitude than going with the flow. The point I want to make is that we either stand for freedom of religion or we side with the persecutors (Luke 9:49-50). We cannot, without sacrificing moral integrity, take a stance that says, “well, the JWs aren’t really Christians. What do they expect if they promulgate their weird, non-biblical ideas?” Or, “I want religious freedom for Christians like me, but not for non-Christians.” The issue of whether Jehovah’s Witnesses, or Christadelphians, or Mormons, or Seventh Day Adventists or monophysite Copts are theologically incorrect is completely separate to the respect and toleration which they should be afforded as human beings and people who honour the Bible. Christians (in the widest sense) are the most persecuted religion today, worldwide. The evidence for this is readily available and it is compelling. Islamic states feature prominently on the World Watch list but so do secular states like North Korea and China where political ideology is a potent, essentially quasi-religious force. Persecution is persecution; it is ungodly and we have no right to usurp God’s judgement and condone it in any form (Deut 32:35; Rom 12:17–21; Mark 9:38–41; Matt 6:1–5; 1 Cor 5:10–11; Eph 4:14–15).
Why are the Jehovah’s Witnesses, specifically, disliked and persecuted? Mainstream Christians tend to disown groups like JWs primarily because they are non-Trinitarian. Unitarians, Christadelphians and others likewise are regarded somewhere on a spectrum from non-mainstream but essentially Christian, to heretical sects who are not really Christian at all. Regardless of how much issue mainstream Christians take with these groups’ beliefs, it is not a Christian response to endorse discrimination or persecution against them. We are to “speak the truth in love,” teach, admonish and engage with them from the scriptures (Acts 17:11). We have nothing to fear from them; I venture that in nearly all cases it will be the JWs or Christadelphians that will dismiss those overtures and want to distance themselves from the false doctrines and practices of Christendom.
The second reason for persecution of minority denominations is that a state or society might want to suppress Christianity in general. In North Korea it is illegal to possess a Bible. In a number of nations the penalty for a Muslim converting to mainstream protestant Christianity or to the Jehovah’s Witnesses would be the same; ostracism and potentially death. Smaller denominations that do not rate as much priority on the international stage may not engender as much support. The mainstream churches might tend to channel their efforts into persecuted mainstream denominations, leaving it to secular human rights groups to notice the problem with outliers and spring to their defence.
The third reason for persecution of Witnesses and others is that such groups do not match up with the prevailing religious or political ideology. The Nazis did not persecute all Christians. Hitler wooed the German church and, with varying degrees of complicity many Protestant and Catholic churches, to their shame, joined in the acclaim of the Nazis as those who would save Germany and restore its greatness. For various reasons, they subscribed to the lie that the Jews, who killed Christ, were the cause of all evil in the country. This may be similar to the Russian Orthodox’s attitude toward JWs, Baptists and even Roman Catholics. Not all Christians went along with Nazism, of course; many protected Jews and stood up for them. The Confessing Church under leaders such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer were opposed to Nazism. Christians today must be careful not to seek political power and join in political or other ideologies that isolate, discriminate against or demonise other denominations or religions, or that support policies that disadvantage the less powerful, regardless of whether they are foreigners or in some way “not like us.”
In Russia today, not all Christians are persecuted. Russia is not on the 2017 World Watch List of the top 50 persecutors of Christians. Nevertheless some Protestant denominations face degrees of persecution as result of the relationship between the Orthodox Church and the State. Jehovah’s Witnesses have been singled out, as they have in Russia and in other countries over the years. The official position is that “the Jehovah’s Witnesses . . . under the cover of religion establish extensive governing structures which they use for gathering socio-political, economic, military, and other information about ongoing events in Russia, indoctrinate the citizens and incite separatist tendencies.” “This kind of paranoia and religious discrimination has also affected, to a lesser degree, other ‘non-historically Russian’ minorities such as Baptists, Lutherans, Seventh-day Adventists, Mormons, and Pentecostals as well as Orthodox schismatics and some Muslim groups,” according to National Review.
Why might the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ teachings and practices be seen as so offensive and extremist, and a challenge to the mighty Russian State? I have, obviously, not read any of the Russian Witness literature that has specifically offended, but given that all JW literature is produced by the Watchtower Society it is probably essentially the same as available in other countries. I don’t know how much Vladimir Putin cares about the doctrine of the Trinity, but apart from appeasement of the Orthodox church, it would seem the Russians would take most offence at the apolitical stance and eschatological doctrines of the JWs as well as their tendency to argue that other churches’ teachings are false. The JWs are 170,000 Russians who don’t vote, won’t serve in the military and refuse to attend national celebrations that arguably glorify violence. They could be interpreted as having pro-Western sympathies, since the JWs are based in the United States. The JWs believe that their faith is the one true faith, and will actively promulgate that. Other groups such as the Christadelphians have also claimed a more or less exclusive commitment to “the Truth.” This would presumably antagonise the Orthodox church, especially if its beliefs and practices were publicly denounced.
The Witnesses, along with other Millennialist groups, promulgate the imminent end of the world and the establishment of the worldwide kingdom of Christ who will reign for a thousand years. This was one of the Nazis’ objections because it posited an alternative thousand year reich. It is possible that some of the “subversive and extremist” literature referred to Russia as Gog, the enemy army against God (Ezek 38–39). The JWs do not participate in specific anti-government activities but they are not pro-government, either. Their agenda is other-worldly. They would refuse to take up arms in defence of the Russian State. They actively proselytise, which implies a subversive, underground sort of influence on the minds of others — from an “American” religious society at that.
Although JWs’ beliefs differ from those of early orthodox Christianity, their situation and their stance in relation to personal moral behaviour and their interaction with the state is very similar to that of the early Christians. People distrust groups who are exclusive and who are different and who could be interpreted as feeling superior in their beliefs and practices. The early Christians were disliked and distrusted for their refusal to participate in arena games and spectacles, social activities and festivals, to worship in the state religion, and were the subject of rumours about evil and immoral practices. They were persecuted for the name they bore. Perhaps the JWs have been tactless and undiplomatic in their views of other churches and their beliefs. Perhaps they are overly dogmatic on issues which other Christian denominations would consider to be of little importance. Perhaps, in terms of worldly wisdom, they have picked the wrong hill to die on, emphasising beliefs which are not at the core of the gospel, some of which only attract ridicule and condemnation. But surely, the appropriate response from the church is rational engagement? (2 Tim 3:1-5) Surely it is never coercion or persecution, attempts to shut down the voices of those who hold different opinions? Both churches and states have made that mistake in the past.
Tertullian, the great third century Latin Christian thinker, wrote “It is a fundamental human right, a privilege of nature, that every man should worship according to his convictions: one man’s religion neither harms nor helps another man. It is assuredly no part of religion to compel religion — to which free will and not force should lead us.”  The humanist Voltaire, who had no love for religion, famously said, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
God is the judge of our hearts, our beliefs, our practices (1 Cor 4:5; James 4:12; Rev 2:21). We should not neglect the plight of the JWs, regardless of our opinion on their teachings. In the twenty-first century, when religious freedom is under attack, not only from totalitarian states and fundamentalist religious views, or from secular ridicule and distrust of the mingling of politics and religion, when intolerance of “intolerance” is the new “tolerance,” and Christianity appears to be losing the moral high ground in society, now more than ever we have to get this right. I pray that political, secular and religious institutions will condemn this human rights abuse, and others throughout the world which persecute people for their faith. I pray that the JWs will see beyond the indoctrination of their denomination and come to appreciate the gospel as they read the Bible with an open mind. I pray that Christians will not despise or condone or ignore persecution of denominations that do not share mainstream beliefs but rather teach the truth in love and speak and demonstrate what the gospel truly is. I pray that God will restrain this evil and others like it and that no Christian will gullibly, unwittingly or deliberately be a part of it. For ultimately, if faced with a gun at your head or a torch to your house, or Siberian exile or imprisonment, and the demand to know whether you are a follower of Christ or not, there can only be one answer. And most of all I pray the subversive prayer of a believer – that Christ is the rightful ruler of the world, who one day will return and displace every rule, authority and power.
Ruth Sutcliffe is currently studying for a PhD on the topic of the theology of early Christian persecution.
- Julie A. Klein, Faith on Trial: Persecution and Resistance of Jehovah’s Witnesses in North Rhine-Westphalia during the Third Reich. MA thesis,
Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. 2016.
- See Open Doors https://www.opendoors.org.au/ and their World Watch List https://www.opendoors.org.au/persecuted-christians/world-watch-list/ also Paul Marshall, Lela Gilbert and Nina Shea, Persecuted: The Global Assault on Christians (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2013) and John Allen Jnr, The Global War on Christians (New York: Image, 2013).
- Robert Louis Wilken, The Christians as the Romans Saw Them 2nd ed. (Yale: UP, 2003).
- Tertullian, (Ad Scapulam, 2.2-3) http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/tertullian05.html