Brian's Story

I was a Jehovah's Witness for 30 years — from ages 16 to 46.

My mother became a member before I was born. I can't remember a time when we didn't attend meetings at the Kingdom Hall, first in my hometown Portland, OR and other places to which we moved.

At age 17, I decided I really wanted to go to Bethel. When I visited Brooklyn Bethel in the fall of 1973 I met a lot of young Bethelites. Most of the young men I met, who were all a few years older than me, seemed to be unhappy. Their lack of joy was palpable. But I disregarded this and pressed on until I was invited to the Watchtower headquarters in Brooklyn, NY. I lived and worked there from 1974 to 1979.

In retrospect, it was an interesting time to be there. I witnessed the transformation of the Watchtower Society from a monarchy (N.H. Knorr’s presidency) to an oligarchy (18 members of the Governing Body of Jehovah’s Witnesses organized into six committees), which happened in January 1976. For a few years, there were some improvements relative to life at headquarters, but certainly not a return to biblical Christianity.

In 1979, I moved to Oregon and began work as a field minister — eventually becoming a "pioneer," that is, spending about 20 hours a week in a public evangelism: mostly house-to-house canvassing and conducting Bible lessons.

For more than 20 years, I also served as a minister — which involved public teaching, congregation oversight and shepherding. From 1987 to 1989, I was a "circuit overseer," a full-time traveling representative of the Governing Body of Jehovah's Witnesses. During that time, I made regular week-long visits to 21 congregations in northern Minnesota.

However, I had to come back to Oregon because of what amounted to a nervous breakdown. For the previous 2-1/2 years I had suffered — undiagnosed — from the anxiety disorder Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, which I began to experience eight months before going to Minnesota.

I didn’t get an accurate diagnosis and begin what would eventually be effective treatment until August 1989. I started to get better in March 1990 and was again able to hold down a job.

In recent years I've worked as a newspaper reporter, and also a technical writer for a software start-up. While I was a tech writer, I was on the Internet all day. I had unfettered access to the Internet and would scan media and other websites between work time.

In the fall of 2001, I decided to see if my aunt's church had a website. I did a Google search, found the site and began to look it over. I felt drawn to what I was reading about the Christian experience of salvation. My Aunt Gertie has been a Christian since before I was born. She is the genuine article, a pillar of faith. I then turned to her as a resource. My tentative questions to her were my first step toward the Lord. The exchange of letters and phone calls with her helped me come to Christ.

At the same time, I took my first step away from the world of the Watchtower by reading material on websites that challenged Jehovah's Witness doctrine and governing body policies. I had many questions, and experienced doubts about some the things I had believed and taught for so many years. Although I was beginning to see cracks in the belief system I had espoused for three decades, I was struggling against the plain, simple truth of the Gospel.

But, if I was to adopt a different faith after all these years, it would greatly affect me. I would have to break away from the legalistic structure I had lived with, and advocated my entire adult life.

First, I would be "disfellowshipped," or would be considered one who "disassociated" himself from the congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses. I would lose every friend I’d had for 30 years because I would be shunned by all Jehovah's Witnesses.

Nonetheless, the appeal of the Gospel was too great. I wanted Jesus.

I disassociated myself from the Jehovah’s Witnesses in May 2002.

The dreadful pain of shunning

The governing body’s longstanding interpretations of such apostolic injunctions as: 'Don't invite him in your homes’; ‘not even eating with such a man'; and 'never say a greeting to him’ are the product of egregiously misapplied Bible passages.

Let me tell you how severe it is to be shunned for committing the “crime” of honestly following your conscience, accepting truths and trying to live by them.

When my mother died in January 2003, a memorial service was held at one of the Kingdom Halls in Klamath Falls, OR where we lived. Of the more than 200 Jehovah’s Witnesses in attendance, many of whom I had spent hours trying to help in one way or another, only a few Jehovah’s Witnesses said a word to me.

A sister who was a friend of my mother said she was sorry for my loss, and a local elder spoke to me to let me know that he, too, was sorry and that he still cared for me.

On the other hand, one of the sisters at the funeral — to whom I had in the past offered spiritual help (and spent hours with other members of her family, all Jehovah’s Witnesses) — did not speak to me. Later, however, she concluded she could speak to me after all, because some “necessary business” had come up. The governing body allows individual witnesses here a rare opportunity: to actually make a decision for themselves

You see, at the time, I was a reporter for the Klamath Falls daily newspaper, and part of my beat was to cover the local business community. This included talking to people who had started new businesses, and then writing brief stories about these new enterprises.

The sister who could not offer to me words of comfort at the funeral was able to later engage in the “necessary business” of speaking to me at my place of work in order to get some free advertising about her new business — free advertising in the form of a story in the business section.

This sad tale shows that, even though she has been a Jehovah’s Witness for more than 25 years, the shunning rule had not helped her to be a truly spiritual person.

Wouldn’t it have been far more Christlike for her to offer me the comfort of an embrace at the funeral, and in obedience to the shunning rule, simply taken out a paid advertisement in the newspaper?

I’m not angry at this sister. I feel sorry for her. I forgive her. (And I would never tell her what I have written here.)

And this is not an isolated incident. She and other observant Jehovah’s Witnesses live in fear — fear of being out of line with the shunning policy and what the consequences might be for them.

From this painful experience it is obvious to me that some of the governing body’s policies do not build the qualities of genuine, full-fledged love and mercy in the hearts of individual Jehovah’s Witnesses.

And sometimes hypocrisies result from the “necessary business” provision.

Another example: in the summer of 2001, while I was still serving as an elder, an engaged couple came to our home for a consultation. The Jehovah's Witness parents of the young woman, who was 21 years old and living on her own, had done everything they could to break up the engagement and ruin their wedding plans.

The “elder,” who had at the time justly earned the reputation of being a bully, and the young woman’s mother were harassing these young people. They made it very clear the young man was not worthy of their daughter, even though he was and is a fine young man and in good standing in the congregation. I understand he is a loving father to his infant son.

The mother created a scene in the parking lot of the Kingdom Hall that was so extreme that the young man simply had to walk away and get into his vehicle. I agreed to conduct the wedding ceremony for the couple, even though no other elder would because of intimidation by the young woman's "elder" father.

I consider my solemnizing their happy marriage to be one of the best things I’ve ever done in my life — before or since. I am happy that I was up to doing it. This couple deserved a Christian wedding.

But this story ends tragically, at least for me. While leaving Wal-Mart in September 2004, I saw the young woman. Our eyes met for a moment. She brightened and was just about to smile, but then she remembered ... I was a disassociated person. Her smile disappeared, and she took her new baby boy and quickly left the store.

Why does the governing body continue its excruciating shunning policy? Can’t these men see its bad fruitage?

Perhaps the governing body can’t see the sad truth because what the Bible really says has nothing to do with the shunning policy. It’s all about the prevailing politics of the governing body.

I believe the process goes something like this: The governing body neglects to seriously consider the possibility that, “Maybe we should rethink the Bible texts we have traditionally interpreted as justification for our policy of shunning?"

Apparently, that idea succumbs to: “It’s easier to just dig in our heels. It’s not as though we’re dealing with a nation threatening to persecute the brothers if they don’t vote, or endangered by the possibility that European nations might begin to tax us.

“We’re only presented here with the case of Brian Cole, just one person. If Brian Cole has a broken heart, it’s his own fault for having the audacity to obey his conscience and leave ‘the truth.’

“And, after all, what can he do? If he tries to plead his case to those still in 'the truth' (which I have no interest in doing) we already have another rule to cover that: We've told the members to never read “apostate” material, or anything else that is critical of our policies.”

(I agree that some books and websites of ex-Witnesses are spiteful screeds. I have no time or interest in them. But many raise legitimate questions about Jehovah’s Witness doctrines and governing body policies.)

Yet, it isn’t as though the governing body does not know how to change course on a matter.

An example is the governing body’s policy stated in the Nov. 1, 1999, Watchtower, pages 28-9, that states it is now up to individual Jehovah’s Witnesses to decide for themselves whether they will vote in political elections.

The article begins matter-of-factly: “There are clear principles set out in the Bible that enable servants of God to take a proper view of this matter. However, there appears to be no principle against the practice of voting itself.”

Compare that with the clearly stated policy in the Nov. 15, 1977, Watchtower article “Why Persecution of Christians?”: “The Witnesses are neutral as to warfare and strife between the nations, as well as being clean from all political involvement, not even voting, because they fulfill Jesus’ description of them as being “no part of the world.” (John 17:14)

The real reason for the policy change in 1999 (or is it a “clarification/amplification”?) is buried deep in the article, which states: “What, though, if the law requires citizens to vote? In such a case, each Witness is responsible to make a conscientious, Bible-based decision about how to handle the situation. If someone decides to go to the polling booth, that is his decision. What he does in the polling booth is between him and his Creator.”

The article eventually gets to the bottom line: Some countries apparently require their citizens to vote — so now voting can be left up to the individual.

But troubles to Jehovah’s Witnesses from civil authorities for refusing to vote pale in comparison to the dreadful pain that has been caused for decades to countless persons by the governing body and its intransigence regarding its shunning policy.

The 1999 Watchtower article also says: “People should recognize, though, that in matters of individual conscience such as this, each Christian has to make his own decision before Jehovah God.” — Romans 14:12.

So why isn’t Romans 14:12 reason enough to eliminate the shunning policy, too? Why not allow the individual Jehovah’s Witness to answer to Jehovah, not a “judicial committee,” for making the conscientious decision to have a friendly conversation with a disassociated person?

Other issues about governing body practice and doctrine disturb me include counting and reporting hours spent in field service. There is nothing in the New Testament that even remotely suggests we should keep track of hours and report them to the congregation. What I do to spread the Gospel is between God and me. Period. No human has the right to “inspect” what I do. And now, no man does.

The governing body’s rule, required of Jehovah’s Witnesses, is to never accept or read such literature that is critical of the governing body's doctrines or actions. This policy comes from a position of weakness, because if JWs have the truth, if they are interested in really preaching the truth, what is there to be afraid of?

I lost my faith in an earthly (human) organization that cannot answer so many questions, including:

If the Faithful and Discreet Slave “class” began to function at Pentecost, 33 C.E., who took over as members of this slave “class” in the 2nd century, after the death of the apostles? And in the 3rd century and in the 4th? And who were Charles T. Russell’s immediate Faithful and Discreet Slave “class” predecessors in the 19th century? Who handed the mantel of the Faithful and Discreet Slave “class” to Russell?

· Charles T. Russell correctly taught that the “Higher powers” of Romans 13 (KJV) are the civil authorities. In 1929, the WT Society abandoned that understanding, and the Watchtower stated that these “Higher powers” or “governing authorities (NIV)” are Jehovah God and Jesus Christ. Then, in 1962, the understanding of the identity of the higher powers was changed back to the way it was before 1929. In what way was the Holy Spirit involved as a Helper or Teacher in any of these “adjustments” in understanding?

The blessings far outweigh the loss

Loss of friends and other indignities has been painful. But Jesus said whatever we lose for choosing Him as our Savior will be offset a hundredfold — in this world, and in the one to come. He has kept His word to me.

When I left JWs, it was an immediate relief from incessant "do-more" pressure. But I still needed a place to land. That place is a person: Jesus Christ.

Matt. 9:28, 29: “Come to me, all you who labor and are heavily burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart; and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my load is light.”

The life of the observant Jehovah’s Witness isn’t easy or light.

I now know the Lord continued to lead me; he never let go of my hand! I will not abandon the powerful testimony of the Scriptures. I will never shake off the beauty of the Gospel!

I accepted the Lord Jesus in May 2002. And I have received the witness of the ‘Spirit with my own spirit, that I was a child of God,’ as stated in Romans 8:16.

When I left the Watchtower in May 2002 I was at least biblically literate and had some ministerial abilities. In most other areas, however, I have had to pretty much start over, build a new biblical foundation.

I now am happy to be an Evangelical Christian associating with a vibrant faith group where I live in Klamath Falls.

Brian J. Cole