I WAS A J.W. ELDER
An Interview with former Jehovah's Witnesses
David and Penni Reed
How long were you both associated with the Jehovah's Witnesses?
DAVID: I was in the organization for thirteen years, from 1969 until 1982. During that time I served as a full-time pioneer minister for two years and as an elder for eight years. Besides teaching in our home congregation, I was a frequent speaker at Kingdom Halls throughout eastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island.
PENNI: My parents got involved when I was in grade school, so I was raised as a Witness. I too pioneered for a few years.
So it sounds as though you were quite serious about it.
DAVID: Absolutely! Like other Witnesses, we called it the Truth. We really believed that the Watchtower Society was God's organization.
PENNI: Between the two of us, we conducted home Bible studies with dozens of people, and we brought well over twenty of them into the organization as baptized Jehovah's Witnesses.
DAVID: We also put the Society's teachings into practice in our personal lives. For example, we kept our secular employment to a minimum and lived in an inexpensive three-room apartment in order to be able to devote more time, to the door-to-door preaching activity.
PENNI: And David's mouth still has spaces where he had the dentist pull teeth rather than do expensive dental work – because he believed the Society's prophecy that Armageddon would come in 1975 or shortly thereafter. Witnesses expected Paradise to be restored on earth, and their bodies to be returned to perfect physical condition after 1975.
But you seem to be intelligent people. How could you fall for such things?
DAVID: Well, Penni majored in psychology and sociology at the University of Western Michigan, and I studied at Harvard on a National Merit Scholarship. So, we weren't stupid. But, we were totally ignorant of the Bible. Besides, the Jehovah's Witness program of indoctrination is so cleverly put together that it appeals to intelligent people. Watchtower books start out teaching things that most everyone would agree with, and then gradually introduce the more eccentric doctrines. It's a very subtle form of brainwashing.
PENNI Yes, once you are fully involved, you will do virtually anything the organization tells you to do. A Witness sent us a tape from their summer, 1985, District Convention, where the speaker said, …we should be working under the direction of the Governing Body and the older men in our congregations… And if one of those instructions were for us to jump, our only response should be, How high? and, How far?
What broke the spell and enabled you to leave the organization?
DAVID: Bible reading! The Scripture is true that says, the word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword (Hebrews 4:12).
PENNI: We were at a Witness convention, and a handful of opposers were picketing outside. One of them carried a sign that said, READ THE BIBLE, NOT THE WATCHTOWER. We had no sympathy for the picketers, but we did feel convicted by this sign, because we knew that we had been reading the Watchtower to the exclusion of reading the Bible.
DAVID: Later on, we actually counted up all of the material that the organization expected Witnesses to read. The books, magazines, lessons, etc. added up to over three thousand pages each year, compared with less than two hundred pages of Bible reading assigned – and most of that was in the Old Testament. The majority of Witnesses were so bogged down by the three thousand pages of the Society's literature that they never got around to doing the Bible reading.
PENNI: After seeing the picket sign, I told David that we should be reading the Bible and the Watchtower. He agreed; so we began doing regular personal Bible reading.
What did you find in the Bible that changed your thinking?
DAVID: In one word, it was Jesus. Not that we began to question the Watchtower's teaching that Christ was just Michael the archangel in human flesh–we had not yet begun to question that. But we were really impressed with Jesus as a Person: what He said and did, how He treated people. We wanted to be His followers.
PENNI: Especially, we were struck with how Jesus responded to the hypocritical religious leaders of the day, the Scribes and Pharisees.
DAVID: Yes. And I began to realize that in fulfilling my role as an elder, I was acting more like a Pharisee than like a follower of Jesus. For example, the elders were the enforcers of all sorts of petty rules about dress and grooming. We told sisters how long they could wear their dresses, and we told brothers how to comb their hair, how to trim their sideburns and what styles of clothing they could or could not wear. We actually told people that they could not please God unless they conformed. It reminded me of the Pharisees who condemned Jesus' disciples for eating with unwashed hands (Matthew 15:1-9).
PENNI: When David stopped wearing an approved theocratic haircut, the other elders were upset. But, when I showed up at Kingdom Hall in a pantsuit, they were furious!
DAVID: They actually put me on trial, called in witnesses to testify, and spent hours discussing half an inch of hair.
But dress and grooming were not the real issues. For us it was a question of whose disciples we were. Were we followers of Jesus, or obedient servants to a human hierarchy?
PENNI: And the elders who put David on trial knew that that was the real issue, too. They kept asking, Do you believe that the Watchtower Society is God's organization? Do you believe that the Society speaks as Jehovah's mouthpiece?
How did you answer the elders?
DAVID: I said, Yes! because at the time we still did believe it was God's organization – but that it had become corrupt, like the Jewish religious system at the time when Jesus was opposed by the Pharisees.
PENNI: It was what we said at the congregation meetings that got us into trouble though.
DAVID: Yes, I was still an elder. So, when I was assigned to give a 15-minute talk on the book of Zechariah at the Thursday night Theocratic Ministry School meeting, I took advantage of the opportunity to encourage the audience to read the Bible. In fact, I told them that, if their time was limited and they had to choose between reading the Bible and reading the Watchtower, they should choose the Bible, because it was inspired by God while the Watchtower was not inspired and often taught errors that had to be corrected later.
PENNI: That was the last time they allowed David to give a talk. But we could still speak from our seats during question-and-answer periods at the meetings.
DAVID: Everyone was expected to answer in their own words, but not in their own thoughts. You were supposed to give the thought found in the paragraph of the lesson being discussed.
PENNI: But, after we said a few things they didn't like, they stopped giving us the microphone.
Were they able to silence you?
DAVID: No. That's when we started publishing our newsletter Comments from the Friends. I wrote articles questioning what the organization was teaching and signed them with the pen name, Bill Tyndale Jr. – a reference to sixteenth century English Bible translator, William Tyndale, who was burned at the stake for what he wrote.
PENNI: We drove across the state line at night – to avoid a local postmark – and mailed the articles in unmarked envelopes to local Witnesses and also to hundreds of Kingdom Halls all across the country, whose addresses we copied from telephone books at the town library.
What did you say in the newsletter?
DAVID: Well, we were only just beginning to question Watchtower doctrines. The big issue for us then was that the organization had elevated itself above Scripture. For example, I decided to start writing after the December 1, 1981, Watchtower said:
Jehovah God has also provided his visible organization... Unless we are in touch with this channel of communication that God is using, we will not progress along the road to life, no matter how much Bible reading we do (p.27).
It really disturbed me to see those men elevate themselves above the Bible.
PENNI: On the same page, The Watchtower also said that the organization never went back to previous points of view. But we had seen them do that very thing. Back in 1974 they abandoned the view that J.W.'s should not say Hello to disfellowshiped Witnesses. For the next seven years they taught that it was all right to talk to them. And then, in the September 15, 1981, Watchtower, they returned to the old view and again prohibited saying Hello. David wrote about that too.
Why didn't you just quit the Jehovah's Witnesses and go somewhere else? Why did you stick around?
DAVID: To us, it was similar to the question of what to do in a burning apartment building. Do you escape through the nearest exit? Or do you pound on doors first to wake the neighbors and help them escape too? We felt an obligation to help others get out – especially our families and our students that we had brought into the organization. If we had just walked out, our families left behind would have been forbidden to associate with us.
Did the elders find out that Bill Tyndale Jr. was really David Read?
DAVID: Yes. After a few weeks my best friend turned me in. Then, one night when Penni and I were returning home from conducting a Bible study, two elders stepped out of a parked car, accosted us in the street, and questioned us about the newsletter.
PENNI: They wanted to put us on trial for publishing it, but we simply stopped going to the Kingdom Hall. By that time most of our former friends there had become quite hostile toward us. One young man called on the phone and threatened to come over and take care of David if he got another one of our newsletters. And another Witness left a couple of death threats on our answering machine.
DAVID: The elders went ahead and tried us in absentia and disfellowshiped us.
How did you feel when you found yourselves outside the organization after all those years as Witnesses?
PENNI: It was a great relief to be out from under the oppressive yoke of those men.
DAVID: However, we also had to face the immediate challenge of where to go and what to believe. It takes some time to re-think your entire religious outlook on life. Before leaving the Watchtower, we had rejected their claims that the organization was God's channel of communication, that Christ returned invisibly in the year 1914, and that the great crowd of believers since 1935 should not partake of the communion loaf and cup. But we were only beginning to re-examine other doctrines. And we had not yet come into fellowship with Christians outside the J.W. organization.
How did you cope with the questions of what to believe now, and what religious community to fellowship with?
PENNI: We knew that we wanted to follow Jesus and that the Bible contained all that we needed to know. So we really devoted ourselves to reading the Bible and to prayer.
DAVID: And we invited our families and friends to meet in our apartment on Sunday mornings. While the Witnesses met at Kingdom Hall to hear a lecture and study the Watchtower, we met to read the Bible. As many as fifteen attended – mostly family, but some friends also.
We were just amazed at what we found as we prayerfully read the New Testament over and over again – things that we had never appreciated before, like the closeness that the early disciples had with the risen Jesus, the activity of the Holy Spirit in the early church, and Jesus' words about being born again in John chapter 3.
Hadn't you studied those things as Jehovah's Witnesses?
PENNI: No. The Watchtower took us on a guided tour through the Bible. We gained a lot of knowledge about the Old Testament and we could quote a lot of Scriptures, but we never heard the Gospel of salvation in Christ. We never learned to depend on Jesus for our salvation and to look to Him personally as our Lord. Everything centered around the Watchtower's works program, and you had to come to Jehovah God through the organization.
DAVID: When I realized from reading Romans chapter 8, and John chapter 3, that I needed to be born of the spirit, I was afraid at first. Jehovah's Witnesses believe that born again people, who claim to have the Holy Spirit, are actually possessed by demons. And so I feared that if I prayed out loud to turn my life over to Jesus Christ, some demon might be listening and the demon might jump in and possess me, pretending to be the Holy Spirit.
PENNI: Many Jehovah's Witnesses live in constant fear of the demons. Some of our friends would even throw out furniture and clothing, fearing that the demons could enter their homes through those articles.
What freed you from that fear?
DAVID: I read Jesus' words in Luke 11:9-13. In a context where He was teaching about prayer and casting out unclean spirits, Jesus said: And I say to you, ask and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened. If a son asks for bread from any of you who is a father, will he give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will he give him a serpent instead of a fish? Or if he asks for an egg, will he offer him a scorpion? If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him.
I knew, after reading those words, that I could safely ask for Christ's Spirit (Rom. 8:9), without fearing that I would receive a demon. So in the early morning privacy of our kitchen, I proceeded to confess my need for salvation and commit my life to Christ.
Praise God! So His Word proved to be more powerful than the years of cultic indoctrination.
DAVID: Yes, the word of God is living and powerful, as Hebrews 4:12 says.
About a half hour later, I was on my way to work and I was about to pray again. It had been my custom for many years to start out my prayers by saying, Jehovah God... But this time when I opened my mouth to pray, I started out by saying, Father... It was not because I had reasoned on the subject and reached the conclusion that I should address God differently; the word Father just came out, without my even thinking about it. Immediately, I understood why: God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into your hearts crying out, Abba, Father (Galatians 4:6). I wept with joy at God's confirmation of this new, more intimate relationship with Him.
And what about you, Penni?
PENNI: When I publicly declared that I chose to know Jesus instead of the Watchtower – and that He was my Savior, rather than the organization – then I, too, was born again.
Were you having fellowship with Christians at that time?
DAVID: Not yet. But we soon developed the desire to worship and praise the Lord in a congregation of believers, and to benefit from the wisdom of mature Christians. Since the small group of ex-J.W.'s was still meeting in our apartment on Sunday mornings for Bible reading, and most of them were not yet ready to venture into a church, Penni and I began visiting churches that had evening services.
PENNI: One church we attended was so legalistic that we almost felt as though we were back in the Kingdom Hall. Another was so liberal that the sermon always seemed to be on philosophy or politics – instead of Jesus.
Finally though, the Lord led us to a congregation where we felt comfortable and where the focus was on Jesus Christ and His Gospel, rather than on side issues.
Were you discouraged by the various problems you observed in the churches you visited?
DAVID: Somewhat. But it was a learning experience. Looking back now, we are glad that we had the opportunity to visit so many different churches, because we got to see, first hand, why Paul had to write such strong counsel to the Corinthians and to the other congregations he addressed his Epistles to.
PENNI: And the messages that Jesus commissioned John to write to the seven churches in Revelation, chapters 2 and 3, became very real to us. We could see that similar problems exist in the churches today.
DAVID: Yes. Jesus foretold that there would be weeds among the wheat (Matt. 13:24-30, 36-43) and some churches are really overgrown with weeds. More often, though, it is just a case of individual Christians being at various stages of growth – from babes in Christ to mature disciples. And real growth does take place in the churches, not just the phony spirituality found in the Watchtower organization and other cults. Even the church that we finally settled into has its problems – what congregation doesn't? But reading Romans chapter 14 helped us to understand the situation in the body of Christ and to accept all of our brothers and sisters in the Lord.
What are you doing now?
PENNI: I'm teaching Fifth Grade in a Christian school that has students from about seventeen different churches. I really enjoy it, because I can tie-in the Scriptures with all sorts of subjects.
DAVID: And I resumed publishing Comments from the Friends as a quarterly newsletter aimed at reaching Jehovah's Witnesses with the Gospel, and helping Christians who are talking to J.W.'s. It also contains articles of special interest to ex-Witnesses. We have readers in a dozen foreign countries as well as all across the United States and Canada.
Besides writing on the subject, I speak occasionally to church groups interested in learning how to answer Jehovah's Witnesses so as to lead them to Christ.
And we provide a weekly phone-in recorded message for Jehovah's WItnesses. Twenty-four hours a day, J.W.'s can call 617-584-4467 and hear a brief message directing them to the Bible and helping them to disprove Watchtower teachings. Some Witnesses even call during the middle of the night, so that family members will not observe and report them to the elders. So far, we have received over 5,500 calls. At the end of each message the caller is invited to leave his or her name and address, to receive free literature in the mail – and many do.
Since you yourselves have come out of the Watchtower and have visited many churches, where would you tell new ex-Witnesses to go?
PENNI: They should go to Jesus. He will guide them into fellowship with others, if they trust in Him first.
DAVID: But that may be difficult for them to grasp because to Jehovah's Witnesses, Jesus is Michael the archangel who became a man, died, and is now an angel again. They locate Christ on their organizational chart in an executive position somewhere above the elders, circuit overseers, district overseers, and governing body. They see Him as so far away that individual Witnesses never expect to have any direct dealings with Jesus – just through the long chain of command found in their organization.
Overcoming that misconception is the most important lesson we've learned since leaving the Jehovah's Witnesses. Jesus is not just a historical figure that we read about in the Bible. He is alive and is actively involved with Christians today, just as He was back in the first century. He personally saves us, teaches us, and leads us.
While a J.W. may quit going to Kingdom Hall and start attending church, and may stop believing Watchtower doctrines and start learning Christian doctrine, none of those things, in themselves, will save him. The essential thing is to put faith in Jesus Christ and follow Him.
But don't Jehovah's Witnesses already claim to believe in Christ?
PENNI: Yes they do. But they also believe that they have to come to Jehovah's organization for salvation (The Watchtower Nov. 15, 1981, p. 21). So, the organization is really viewed as their savior. And they give unquestioning obedience to the Watchtower Society. So the organization is their master, or lord.
DAVID: It's like the case of those people in the first century who claimed to believe in Christ, but also thought that they had to keep the Law of Moses in order to be saved.
PENNI: Only the Witnesses are in an even worse position, because the Watchtower's law keeps changing at the whim of the men who run the organization.
DAVID: When such false teachers crept into the Galatian congregation, Paul wrote: If righteousness comes by the law, then Christ died in vain. O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? And, I marvel that you are turning away so soon from Him who called you in the grace of Christ, to a different Gospel (Gal. 2:21; 3:1; 1:6).
The different gospel that Jehovah's Witnesses preach centers around the thought that Jesus Christ (who they believe to be Michael the archangel) returned invisibly in the year 1914 and set up the Kingdom of God in the hands of the Watchtower Society, opening the way for men to gain everlasting life on earth through their obedience to the organization.
The thrust of our outreach ministry is to help Jehovah's Witnesses break free from this deception and put faith in the original Gospel of Christ as it is presented in the Bible.
Have you met with much success?
DAVID: Oh, yes. There are many who have read our literature and left the Watchtower organization as a result. And we've had the joy of seeing quite a number of those we have corresponded with or spoken with become real disciples of Jesus Christ.
Of course, only the Lord knows where most of our literature goes after it leaves our hands, and He knows how people who read it respond. But we keep getting letters of appreciation from readers as far away as Poland and Malaysia.
PENNI: Stopping people from joining the Watchtower is important too. The organization is baptizing nearly 200,000 new converts each year. So even if only a portion of our literature ends up in the hands of Jehovah's Witnesses themselves, the rest of it helps other people to avoid failing into the Watchtower's trap.
What can Christians do to help?
DAVID: Education is really important, so that believers will be able to rightly handle the word of truth (2 Tim. 2:15) when confronted with cultic arguments. Jehovah's Witnesses practice many hours each month, preparing to quote Scripture and to speak persuasively in support of their organization. Christians need to be prepared to say more than just, I'm not interested, when Jehovah's Witnesses come to the door.
The Apostles Paul and John devoted significant portions of their inspired writings to answering false teachers who were already, in that day, starting to promote pseudo-Christian sects. So Christians today should show similar concern for defending the faith and winning the souls of people who are misled.
PENNI: We meet so many parents whose college-age children have begun studying with the Witnesses. They are desperate to stop them before they get hooked, but they don't know what to say. Parents often realize the seriousness of the situation after it's too late, when the brainwashing has already begun to take hold on the young person's mind.
What sort of education will protect families and individuals against the cults?
DAVID: Basic knowledge of the Bible–especially the New Testament's Gospel message is essential. The person who is first introduced to the Bible by a cult recruiter will be easy prey. And Christians should also have at least a rudimentary knowledge of what the cults teach, and why they are wrong. That way the clever arguments that they use will not catch a person off guard.
PENNI: And, of course, the most important thing is a close personal relationship with God through His Son Jesus Christ. The individual who knows Jesus and follows Him will not even think about following anyone else: A stranger they will not follow, but they will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers. My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me; and I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of My hand (John 10:5, 27-28).