Coercion? Or Church Discipline? Jehovah's Witnesses, Blood Transfusions, and the Sovereign Individual

The British Columbia Supreme Court has been deliberating over whether the parents of sextuplets can refuse blood transfusions for their children on the basis of the parents’ religious beliefs.

Clearly there are a number of crucial issues at stake here: the proper interest of the state in the well-being (as it sees it) of its citizens, and particularly its most vulnerable ones; the freedom of individual conscience on matters of medical treatment; and the freedom of individuals to act according to their religious beliefs. But there is also the question of the freedom of religious organizations to impose consequences on members who flout their shared convictions.

According to the Vancouver Sun‘s reporter Douglas Todd, “a group of scholars and legal specialists has written a statement declaring the Jehovah’s Witness religion often pressures followers not to follow their individual conscience, including…deciding whether to accept transfusions.”

Todd quotes a particular ex-Witness: “Calgary architectural project manager Lawrence Hughes–the former Jehovah’s Witness whose daughter, Bethany, died four years ago after a high-profile court battle over transfusions–said this week his life fell apart after he was shunned by the Jehovah’s Witnesses when he initially allowed his cancer-ridden daughter to receive blood.

“‘When I signed the consent card (to allow his daughter to have blood), I didn’t have anyone I could phone or talk to,’ Hughes said Friday. ‘I was disfellowshipped, kicked out. For many people who are excommunicated from the Witnesses, they lose their family, their friends and even their jobs, because they’re often working for Witnesses.'”

I firmly disagree with the Jehovah’s Witnesses on their understanding of blood transfusions. To my mind, they are patently misinterpreting Acts 15:28-29–just another in a long list of hermeneutical disasters in the history of this movement. Yet I can hardly see blaming the Watchtower Society for refusing to let members pick and choose among their tenets and expect to remain in good standing.

Anabaptists–Mennonites, Hutterites, and others–have “banned” members who have transgressed their common code of belief and behaviour. That was their nonviolent way of imposing church discipline, following the clear example of the Apostle Paul himself in I Corinthians 5.

Most other churches, when they had the political power to do so, disciplined their members even more forcibly, with excommunication amounting to loss of citizenship, land, and livelihood.

One can be glad, as I am, that churches in our country do not have such power today. I don’t even endorse the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ strong version of the “ban” or excommunication. (Can’t one remain friendly even with apostates?) But one can also mourn the loss of anything even resembling church discipline nowadays in many communions. And one ought to be alarmed at the threat that a rising tide of individualistic law and social expectation is posing to even the possibility of such discipline.

Churches have been sued for removing people from office for blatant sexual, financial, and theological transgressions. Student groups are being barred from university campuses because they insist on their officers (forget about the rank and file) actually believing and practicing the faith they were formed to promote. Homosexuals, yes, but also people of other denominations and even non-Christians are all insisting on their putative “right” to join and even to lead Christian groups whose fundamental ethos they do not endorse in important particulars.

So now some Jehovah’s Witnesses are complaining that their leaders want them to actually act in accordance with what they said they believed on pain of being dismissed from the group as unfaithful–which is what “not doing what you said you would do” pretty much is, isn’t it?

What do critics of the Watchtower Society expect them to do? Let anyone belong and remain in good standing who wants to do so, no matter their profession or practice? Would it make sense for the Roman Catholic Church to allow members to pray to Krishna or advocate the Noble Eightfold Path of Buddhism? Would it make sense for Muslims to have to accept a Sikh or a Jew as their imam?

Would it make sense for PETA to have to accept an omnivore as chapter president? Would it make sense for a hockey team to have to keep on the roster four guys who insisted on setting up a bridge table at centre ice?

We must not push individual rights so far as to make group coherence impossible. If individual Jehovah’s Witnesses find that they do not want to follow their religion’s strange teaching about blood transfusions, I say, “Great!” But I don’t expect the Watchtower Society to welcome them back with open arms after this betrayal of one of their salient convictions.

Not everything comes as a smorgasbord to be picked over by the sovereign, consumerist self. Some things come as packages. Most groups, in fact, come that way.

And it is part of being a grown-up, rather than a squalling infant or petulant adolescent, to recognize that you either sign up and follow through, or you get out–or are thrown out.

0 Responses to “Coercion? Or Church Discipline? Jehovah's Witnesses, Blood Transfusions, and the Sovereign Individual”

  1. Bene D

    “Churches have been sued for removing people from office for blatant sexual, financial, and theological transgressions.”

    Can you provide some Canadian examples?

    “Student groups are being barred from university campuses because they insist on their officers (forget about the rank and file) actually believing and practicing the faith they were formed to promote.”

    Can you provide some Canadian examples?

    “Homosexuals, yes, but also people of other denominations and even non-Christians are all insisting on their putative “right” to join and even to lead Christian groups whose fundamental ethos they do not endorse in important particulars.”

    Can you provide some Canadian examples?
    Is this a piece about the celebration of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms?


  2. Daniel Ginn

    I wonder at this, myself, taking a somewhat broader and different slice on the issue.

    This dilemma makes me think of two different things:

    1) A fast-forward apprehension of the overt and global persecution of Christians that will inaugurate the Tribulation. No, I don’t think we are there yet, but I do believe that some of the philosophical groundwork is being or has been laid to make this feasible. I want to avoid the apocalyptical conspiracy theorizing that has produced so much spurious fiction marketed toward and by Christians, but I do want to take seriously the Scripture off which such things are based.

    2) The current modern conceit of the divide between the private and public life of an individual and how permeable that line ought or ought not to be. This is the broader slice. My mentor and I were talking over this two days ago, and it seems that in America at least–with its anti-discrimination laws and also by some of the standards with which some parties are attempting to redefine and broaden the terms “discrimination” and “hate crime”–that the social mores and modus operandi have become, “We will publically affirm that it is okay to believe privately what ever you want to believe, but your private personal beliefs are not permitted to determine proper public social behavior.”

    Frankly, I find that to be ridiculous, given that actions flow from beliefs. After all, the best foundation for orthopraxis is orthodoxy.

    I don’t pretend to know the solution to the tension between personal autonomy and social cohesion. All I can see is that the culture in general is becoming more anti-Christian and that you can’t really have a pluralistic society without some kind of sovereign cultural code (whether legislated or not) of lowest common denominator social mores than curbs, redefines, modifies, or circumvents the comprehensiveness of most (or all?) traditional worldviews/religions. Or perhaps does so to ANY worldview/religion.

    So, the “secular” comes to predominate or blot out the “sacred.” It replaces the old sacred and becomes the new sacred itself.

    Is it any great wonder that some people grow up in mainline Christian denomination churches but that they don’t form or maintain a committment to those beliefs that lasts into the coming of age of adulthood and beyond?

  3. Jon Coutts

    great article. i beg to differ with the last comment which hinted that this might be one more step toward the Tribulation. maybe it is, maybe it isn’t, but it fairly narrow of us when we jump to this conclusion every time things go badly for Christendom in the West, when persecution has happened and is happening all over the world to greater extremes at various times throughout history. even now Christianity is flourishing in some places and dying in others and facing very big societal stresses in others. how you weed through all of that and determine where we are at in on the hourglass of time is beyond me.

    anyway. that’s an aside. great article. this is tough stuff to think through as society changes and stackhouse has been perceptive in that regard once again.

  4. John Stackhouse

    Bene D asks for Canadian examples, as well he or she might. The better-known controversies have been in the United States and United Kingdom, but here are a few Canadian examples of people pressing Christian groups to let them join or remain despite their beliefs or practices being obviously contrary to the Christian norms of that group.

    In Smitherman v Powers, Marc Hall, a homosexual student at a Roman Catholic secondary school in Ontario, sued the school to allow him to bring his same-sex date to the annual prom, in full awareness that this action would be contrary to the express teaching of the Roman Catholic Church. He won, and the appeal is now in limbo since the prom has come and gone and the Mr. Hall has neither the money nor interest to continue the case.

    Lewery v Salvation Army prompted the New Brunswick Court of Appeal to rule that Salvation Army officers, like other clergy, are “ecclesiastic office holders” who serve only as long as permitted by their ecclesiastical oversight structure.

    Vriend v Alberta and Shroen v Steinbach Bible College are cases in which people wanted to work for institutions despite their holding beliefs expressly at odds with those institutions.

    Mr. Vriend was already working at The King’s University College in Edmonton (if memory serves) as a lab instructor and “came out” as a homosexual. He was dismissed and he sued. The case prompted a rewriting of human rights legislation in Alberta, but Vriend did not pursue the matter further.

    Ms. Shroen was a Mormon who sought work as a secretary at Steinbach Bible College, a Mennonite school in southern Manitoba that requires all of its staff to profess orthodox Christianity. She was hired on her profession of such faith, and when her Mormon identity was discovered shortly thereafter, she was fired. She filed a complaint with the Manitoba Human Rights Commission (I’m pretty sure that’s who it was: I actually appeared as an expert witness in the proceeding, but it’s been a while!), but lost.

    I have checked with legal experts in these matters and they tell me that Canadian churches have indeed been sued as I have said, but they have either been successful or settled out of court, so we have no court cases to which to refer you.

    Student groups have been threatened or exiled from university campuses for pro-life activities (e.g., UBC Okanagan, Carleton, McMaster, University of Western Ontario), and I remember a rather extreme Christian group being summarily dismissed from the U. of Manitoba for its “aggressive evangelism” while I was a professor there. But I have only heard anecdotes about groups in Canada being pressured to accept or retain those whose views differ from the groups (which is the main point of this post) and can’t give you specifics. Can anyone else?

    I suppose one might also adduce the cases of Anglican Bishop Michael Ingham and former United Church moderator Bill Phipps, each of whom have expressly denied cardinal doctrines of their respective denominations without seeing why they should resign their clerical roles.

    That’s what I can come up with in the midst of end-of-term grading. I’d be glad for other examples–any more out there?

  5. Daniel Ginn

    Jon Coutts, you are correct. I don’t wish to jump to conclusions, and the strength of people’s conviction in the doctrines of Christianity, as well as the depth of their relationship with God, probably, collectively speaking, is increasing in other countries, even as it wanes in the United States of America. Then again, some hundreds of years later, this trend in the USA could completely change directions. We Americans could have another revival. I hope that it may be.

    Many have tried and failed to read the prophesied Great Tribulation into the events of their local history and been proved wrong. I don’t wish to be another of their number. The day approaches ever nearer, but how near we are now I do not know. In one way, I wish it were very close so that our sanctification and glorification would be completed and the world remade. In another way, I wish it were very far away to provide more time for people to repent and to hold off such great suffering as much surely come as a result of the necessary events that will unfold.

    If I may revisit the second point of my previous post, the pragmatism of our present age seems to imply that traditional religion (especially theisms) is irrelevant to the kind of culture we want to have, despite the diversity that we claim we want to have. Traditional religion like Christianity is not relevant to–or at least at odds with–the kind of pluralistic diversity that champions of the dominant culture claim we should want to have and maintain.


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