'Paying Attention to': The Watchtower's Secret Manual for Elders

Jason Barker

Jehovah's Witnesses rely on their Governing Body, the "faithful and discreet slave," to provide them with "food in due season" through the literature of the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society (Watchtower, March 15, 1990, p. 8). Devout Witnesses, in order to stay abreast of current Watchtower teachings, are required to gorge themselves on over three thousand pages of "spiritual food" in the form of Watchtower magazines and books each year (David Reed, Jehovah's Witnesses Answered Verse by Verse, p. 121). With such a volume of printed matter one could almost say the primary ingredient in the "spiritual food" of Jehovah's Witnesses is wood pulp.

The majority of Witnesses are unaware, however, that Witness elders are given an additional serving of "spiritual food" by the Governing Body: the elders' manual, Pay Attention to Yourselves and to All the Flock. Jehovah's Witnesses with access to the Internet are now being asked the following questions: Why has the Society written a book so secret that the majority of dedicated Witnesses are unaware of its existence? What makes this book so dangerous to the "faithful and discreet slave?"

Restrictive circulation of some literature is a long-standing Watchtower policy. For example, individuals must prepare for baptism as Jehovah's Witnesses before they are given the regulatory manual, Organized to Accomplish Our Ministry. Witnesses lead prospective members through a carefully orchestrated survey of current Watchtower teachings. The proselytes are shielded from the complete list of ordinances and organizational stipulations until they have dedicated their lives to service for the Society.

The Governing Body engaged in even greater information control by limiting circulation of Pay Attention... only to Society leaders. This effectively cast a veil of secrecy over the manual so dense that only the allegedly illegal action of Internet publication allowed public access to this secret document.

A Powerful Secret

The reason for the Society's intense secrecy regarding the manual can be explained in one word: power. The majority of Pay Attention... is devoted to the exercise of power within a congregation, instructing elders in the proper procedure for handling a wide array of punishable offenses. Power is also at issue because the Society has deliberately kept these regulations from becoming common knowledge amongst the organization, thus leaving Witnesses unprepared and without recourse should their elders accuse them of wrongdoing. The organization has deliberately kept its followers in the dark despite its professed dedication to publishing "new light."

Even though elders as a body exert tremendous power over the lives of individual Witnesses, Pay Attention... shows that the office of elder has little inherent authority; all actions of any importance must be taken as a governmental body. Only a select set of actions may be taken on the individual elder's initiative: the Presiding Overseer may only deliver and post congregational announcements and schedule Service Meeting assignments, the Secretary may only organize files and write general letters of introduction and transfer for publishers, and the Service Overseer may only process magazine order changes (Pay Attention..., p. 68). A significant limitation on the power of individual elders is that any counseling performed with Witnesses must be reported to the Presiding Overseer (p. 97) (This will be discussed in greater detail in the section below on judicial hearings.) The power of the elders as a body is also limited; any decision can be overruled by the Circuit Overseer (p. 67).

These restrictions on the elders have the positive effect of preventing any individual elder from accruing extensive power over the congregation and his fellow elders. Negatively, these restrictions result in absolute power being held by the Governing Body in Brooklyn. All decisions must be made according to the stipulations and ever-changing doctrines of "the faithful and discreet slave and its agencies" (Pay Attention..., p. 64; cf. p. 84), and even many minor actions are dictated from officials in Brooklyn. The power of the Witness hierarchy is so overreaching that headquarters alerts elders when they should give prompt attention to such minutiae as the expiring Watchtower and Awake! subscriptions of individual publishers (p. 61).

An important point for non-Witnesses to realize is that the power of the Society extends over not only the elders and Witnesses lower in the hierarchy; it can also intrude into the lives of non-Witnesses. A record is kept of each individual with whom the Witnesses speak, and the leaders in Brooklyn often order elders to call or visit specific individuals (Pay Attention..., p. 61). Non-Witnesses are thus placed in a network of Watchtower records with numerous people tracking their responses to Witness pressure. Regrettably, the Society has kept knowledge of such abuses of power secret from the majority of its followers.

Crimes and Misdemeanors

Most Jehovah's Witnesses know that there are many reasons for which an individual can be disfellowshipped. Nonetheless, few know about the extensive categorization of sins in the secret manual that allows elders to act swiftly and definitively against transgressors.

The primary breakdown of disfellowshipping offenses resemble the ten commandments: theft, lying, unnecessary violence, failure to provide for one's family, etc. Peculiar to Jehovah's Witnesses (but still well-known as Witness standards) are the prohibitions against blood, tobacco and such "nonneutral [sic] activities" as performing civic service and voting (Pay Attention..., pp. 95-6). Less well-known are prohibitions against such activities as boxing and participating in a raffle (pp. 92, 135).

The disfellowshipping offense defined in the greatest detail in Pay Attention... is sexual immorality or, as the manual labels the sin, Por.ne'a. The Society has broken sexual misconduct into three distinct types of offenses, each described in explicit detail and requiring an increasingly severe punishment:

  • Uncleanness: This involves "intentional touching of sexual parts or caressing of breasts" (Pay Attention..., p. 92). This level of "minor uncleanness" seems to involve brief sexual contact. The punishment for this sin includes a meeting with at least one elder, but may not involve a judicial hearing (p.93).
  • Loose Conduct: This sin involves such activities as "wilful (sic) heavy petting or the fondling of breasts" (p. 93). It is notable that masturbation falls into this category because it is performed by a solitary individual (p. 94). The punishment for this sin usually requires a hearing before the judicial committee (p. 93).
  • Por.ne'a: While the Society places any sexual sin under the general category of por.ne'a, the formal definition by the Watchtower is, "It is not a casual touching of the sex organs between persons but involves the manipulation of genitals" (p. 93). The Society goes on to say that por.ne'a involves all forms of sexual intercourse, including "practices involving a catamite (a boy kept for purposes of sexual perversion)" (p. 93). Por.ne'a is always punished by a judicial hearing.

Also examined at length in Pay Attention... is the sin of apostasy. The Watchtower defines apostasy as "action taken against true worship of Jehovah or his established order among his dedicated people" (Pay Attention..., p. 94, emphasis mine). This definition is significant: apostasy involves promoting religious teachings in opposition to the Watchtower and articulating any opinion that is critical of any action or position taken by the Society. Let us examine how the Society defines these two subcategories of apostasy.

The Watchtower defines the religious act of apostasy as promoting "false doctrines, supporting or promoting false religion and its holidays or interfaith activities" (Pay Attention..., p. 94). The Society defines the support of false religion as not only the practice of another religion, but also working for any organization involved with a religious group (pp. 94-95). In addition to this infraction, "Owning images and pictures used in false religion" is considered idolatry and can result in disfellowshipping (p. 95). Little religious artwork or iconography (with the exception of the calendar sold by the Society) is found in Witness homes.

The second subcategory, disrupting "[Jehovah's] established order among his dedicated people," is the most potent and controversial weapon in the Watchtower's disciplinary arsenal. Reinforcing its position that the accrual and retention of power is a divine mandate, the Society tolerates no "deliberate action disrupting the unity of the congregation or undermining the confidence of the brothers in Jehovah's arrangement" (Pay Attention..., p. 95).

What then, a faithful Witness might well ask, constitutes a divisive and apostate action? Notably, and in direct contrast to its exhaustive definition of degrees of sexual immorality, Pay Attention... is silent on this crucial issue. The Watchtower has previously stated that the primary characteristic in any apostate is the desire for "independent thinking," a trait every dedicated Witness is required to eradicate in humble subjection to "the faithful and discreet slave" in Brooklyn (Watchtower, November 1, 1987, pp. 19-20). Questioning or criticizing any teaching by the Society or one of its representatives constitutes "independent thinking" (Watchtower, January 15, 1983, p. 27). The Society reinforces its ban on any critical thinking by stating that individuals may be disfellowshipped for any action that "may involve or lead to apostasy" (Pay Attention..., p. 95, emphasis mine); i.e., a Witness may be disfellowshipped for apostasy even if that person has not rebelled against Watchtower teachings! This is certainly a position of which the Society desires its critics to remain in ignorance.

The need for enforced unity is so serious within Watchtower walls that the body of elders in a congregation must appear united on every decision, even if a minority believe the majority has made an unbiblical decision (Pay Attention..., p. 67). This united front is necessary to deceive the congregation into cooperating and believing that "all the elders base their decisions on God's Word" (p. 67).

Disciplinary Procedures

Nearly one-third of Pay Attention... is devoted to the procedures for creating a judicial committee and holding a judicial hearing, emphasizing the need for each elder to exercise rigid discipline and control over his congregation. Every Witness is aware of the existence of judicial committees; the specter of being summoned to a hearing casts a pall over every congregation. Nevertheless, the Society desperately wants to keep extensive knowledge of these activities from its followers. Thus, interaction of any kind with individuals who have been punished by a judicial committee is anathema to Witnesses (i.e. an offense for which they could be disfellowshipped themselves). This effectively limits full knowledge of the disciplinary process only to those punished, whose testimony is considered deceptive and satanic by the faithful.

This restriction makes it vital for Christians to use every opportunity to show Witnesses from the Watchtower's own publications (such as the Pay Attention... manual) about the ethics involved in the disciplinary process. Jehovah's Witness are frequently shocked to learn precisely how the Society treats any follower who strays beyond the Watchtower's rigid boundaries.

A judicial committee is not automatically formed when a person is accused of serious sin. However, even when a Witness believes an issue has been resolved after meeting with an elder, that overseer immediately reports the meeting with the Presiding Overseer, in case the individual has previously been viewed with suspicion by the body of elders (Pay Attention..., p. 97). Similarly, a Witness is required to report to the elders any "definite knowledge of wrongdoing that could contaminate the congregation" (p. 97). These policies guarantee that any suspicion of wrongdoing by a Witness is immediately investigated by at least two individuals in the congregation. Privacy is a luxury within Watchtower confines.

The lack of privacy extends to the judicial committee meetings themselves. In addition to meeting with the elders who serve on the committee, minors are required to have their parents present and wives must be accompanied by their believing husbands (Pay Attention..., p. 97). Only adult males may avoid being spiritually shackled to a familial warden during judicial proceedings.

Judicial committees are called for punishing gross sins "that have brought the congregation into public disrepute or those of a more private nature" and serious sins that constitute a "clear threat of contaminating the congregation" (Pay Attention..., p. 103). Most threatening of all sins to the Society is apostasy, which can "contaminate the congregation like gangrene" (p. 103). As pointed out in the preceding section, a person who questions any action or teaching of the Watchtower's authority figures is immediately silenced.

Pay Attention... outlines in detail the procedures for holding a judicial hearing. The most significant rule affecting the accused is that he or she is not allowed any written or recorded documentation involving the proceedings (Pay Attention..., p. 110). Elders are also forbidden from sending any documentation stating the precise accusation being leveled against the Witness. If a written "invitation" to the hearing is necessary, the elders simply state the accused's alleged course of action, the time and place of the hearing, and a contact reference for rescheduling (p. 110). Similarly, the accused may bring no outside observers nor tape-recording devices into the hearing (p. 110). Verdicts are rendered orally (p. 121); the written documentation for disfellowshipping (Forms S-77 and S-79) are sent to Brooklyn (p. 122). Controlling all the evidence concerning the events surrounding the hearing allows the Society to protect itself should a punished Witness resort to legal action against the Watchtower.

The Society gives elders an extensive arsenal in prosecuting its cases. Judicial committees may use two or three eyewitnesses (remarkably, a Witness cannot officially be convicted on the testimony of only one eyewitness), oral or written confessions, the testimony of youths and unbelievers, two or three witnesses to separate but similar incidents, and even "strong circumstantial evidence" (Pay Attention..., p. 111). The elders' manual provides for the accused to bring witnesses in defense ( p. 110). The fear of being labeled as a conspirator with the sinner, however, greatly limits the number of Witnesses who would come to the defense of an alleged wrongdoer.

The Judicial Committee's decision is announced to the congregation if a successful appeal is not registered within seven days (Pay Attention..., p. 122); the disfellowshipping takes effect upon announcement (p. 122). Unknown to potential converts, any judicial action against an unbaptized publisher is announced to the congregation, even if the action does not result in any official punishment (p. 99). Many Witnesses have been shocked to hear at the beginning of a Service Meeting the announcement, "A matter involving (name of person) has been handled, and he (she) continues to serve as an unbaptized publisher with the congregation" (p. 99). As previously shown, privacy is a rare commodity in the life of a Jehovah's Witness.

The most sinister form of Watchtower punishment, and the one most carefully concealed from outsiders by the Watchtower, is "marking." Pay Attention... explains, "If individuals persist in 'walking, disorderly' in serious violation of well-established Bible principles, but not yet to a degree warranting judicial action, they may be marked by members of the congregation" (p. 100, emphasis theirs). Marking involves isolating the individual from any social contact with other Witnesses; contact is allowed "only to reprove and instruct the individual" (Watchtower, April 15, 1985, p. 31). In other words, Witnesses can be shunned by their former friends even if no violation of Watchtower law has occurred. Any Witness who fails to joyfully follow every command of the Society is eligible for marking until the person either submits to Watchtower authority or leaves the organization. In either case, the elders have effectively wielded a powerful psychological weapon to ensure unquestioning devotion.


Most Jehovah's Witnesses who serve within the Watchtower bastion are largely unaware of the full arsenal of disciplinary weapons at the Society's disposal. They believe that the Society is opposed to accruing power through the almost total curtailing of personal freedom. The Watchtower has even derided others for abusing their authority, noting that "worldly managers or bosses often show this attitude by surrounding themselves with yes-men, who offer no dissenting views and who do not challenge their superiors' worldly quest (greed) for power" (Watchtower, August 1, 1993, p. 13). Unfortunately, the Governing Body engages in this same "worldly quest (greed) for power" by using its vast array of regulations and disciplinary measures to create "yes-men, who offer no dissenting views and do not challenge their superiors."

It is the responsibility of Christians to share with Jehovah's Witnesses God's evangel, the good news that "if the Son therefore shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed" (John 8:36). If Pay Attention to Yourselves and to All the Flock is proven to be an authentic elder's manual (the Society's allegation that posting this document on the Internet was a violation of copyright law, and their demand for its removal, strongly support its authenticity), Christians will have an unprecedented opportunity. Using this Watchtower literature they can compare for Jehovah's Witnesses the bewildering morass of public and secret Societal restrictions and punishments with the freedom that Christians have in Christ.

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