The Theocratic War Doctrine: Why Jehovah's Witnesses Lie in Court

December 18, 1995
By Jerry Bergman, Ph.D.

The Jehovah's Witnesses are one of the fastest growing religions in the world today. Their ruling body, the Watchtower Society, now claims that almost twelve-million persons are now involved with the church and, according to their Dunn's report, their American income in 1992 alone was over $1,250,000,000. Founded in 1879, they are most well known for their conflicts with nations over flag salute and government requirements.

Theocratic War Doctrine

Among their unique doctrines includes a prohibition against blood transfusions and a teaching called theocratic war strategy that justifies lying in court and elsewhere. Only the Aryan Brotherhood, a white supremacist group which teaches it is appropriate to lie in order to further its interests, shares the latter teaching in common with the Wathctower. The doctrine is complex, but essentially the Watchtower teaches that it is appropriate to withhold the truth from "people who are not entitled to it" if it will further the Watchtower's interest (Reed, 1992, also per the court's definition, not telling "the whole truth and nothing but the truth" which means the court requires the whole story, not half-truths. Although the Watchtower claims to condemn lying, they define it as "saying something false to a person who is entitled to know the truth and doing so with the intent to deceive or to injure him or another person" (Franz, Vol. 2, 1988:244). They then add:

While malicious lying is definitely condemned in the Bible, this does not mean that a person is under obligation to divulge truthful information to people who are not entitled to it. …Jesus on certain occasions refrained from giving full information or direct answers to certain questions when doing so could have brought unnecessary harm (Mt 15:1-6; 21:23-27; Joh 7:3-10). Evidently the course of Abraham, Isaac, Rahab, and Elisha in misdirecting or in withholding full facts from nonworshipers of Jehovah must be viewed in the same light-Ge 12:10-19; chap 20; 26:1-10; Jos 2:16; Jas 2:25; 2Ki 6:11-23 (p. 245).

The Watchtower does not admit to reaching lying, but that lying to "God's enemies" is not really lying but "war strategy" and that,

God's Word commands: "Speak truth each of you wish his neighbor." (Eph. 4:25). This command, however, does not mean that we should tell everyone who asks us all he wants to know. We must tell the truth to one who is entitled to know, but if one is not so entitled we may be evasive (The Watchtower Je 1, 1960:351-352).

They then state "we may not tell a falsehood," but this refers to their definition of a falsehood. The May 1, 1957 Watchtower adds that,

Lies are untruths told for selfish reasons and which work injury to others. Satan told a lie to Eve that worked great harm to her and all the human race. Ananias and Sapphira told lies for selfish reasons. But hiding the truth, which he is not entitled to know, from an enemy does not harm him, especially when he would use such information to harm others who are innocent… So in time of spiritual warfare it is proper to misdirect the enemy by hiding the truth. It is done unselfishly; it does not harm anyone; on the contrary; it does much good (p. 284-285).

That they are specifically teaching lying as the word is normally used in English is illustrated by their discussion about the account of Abraham who, when near Egypt, told Sarah to "hide the fact" that she was his wife (Watchtower, Feb. 1, 1956, p. 78). The Watchtower notes that years later when Abraham was in this Philistine country of Gerar, Abraham repeated the lie about Sarah, blatantly claiming that his wife "is my sister." This, the Watchtower concludes, is not lying because "Abraham represented Sarah as his sister to prevent the life of Jehovah's prophet… But critics… view Abraham wholly as a lying, prevaricating, weakling coward" (Feb. 1, 1956, p. 79).

Ironically, this example that the Watchtower uses to justify lying backfired - pharaoh, thinking she was Abraham's sister and not married, took her for his wife, causing a plague on "pharaoh and his house." When Pharaoh found out about this lie and returned Abraham's wife, he protested to Abraham, stating that if Abraham told the truth, what happened would have been prevented -Gen. 12:10-20. Thus, instead of being an example that justifies lying, this scriptural example actually condemns lying by showing that it can seriously backfire. Although the Watchtower elsewhere states that they condemn direct lying and advocate only hiding the truth, by providing Abraham's example to emulate in situations where doing so can protect the Watchtower, the Society shows that they in fact advocate direct lying.

The History of This Doctrine

Some details on the origin of this now infamous Watchtower theocratic war doctrine are related by Frakes:

There is always the possibility that new interpretations of Jehovah's word will be presented at the assemblies by …the Watchtower Society, new revelations based on temporal developments which prove the validity of the Society's tenets. In his Sunday-morning discourse on "Cautious as Serpents among Wolves," … Franz interpreted certain Old Testament passages as proving that when it meant preservation of his own, Jehovah approved lying to one's enemies; hence, such lying is not to be condemned so long as it is addressed to outsiders. Thereupon the chairman thanked him as the agent of the Watchtower Society for the "new light" he had brought (1955, p. 819).

Actually this doctrine was hinted at before 1955. A 1936 Watchtower publication defined a lie as "a false statement by one to another one who is entitled to hear and to know the truth, and which false statement tends to work injury to the other" (Rutherford, 1936, p. 177). Sherrill defined this doctrine as follows: "Lying is part of "theocratic war strategy.' A JW can lie to someone if they are not entitled to know the truth" (1955, p. 56). The teaching that "the truth should be told" only to those who have "a right to know" includes all Watchtower opposers and critics, none who have a right to know the truth:

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