The book for elders “Shepherd The Flock Of God” lists “Idolatry” as a disfellowshipping offense. This is one of the 11 disfellowshipping offenses of the 43 listed in the Shepherd book that has a basis in the Christian Greek Scriptures. Paul shows in 1 Corinthian 6:19 that a person who is an idolater, i.e., a person who is permeated by idolatry must be disfellowshipped from the Christian congregation.
However, we need to understand which sense of the word “idolatry” constitutes the form of idolatry that is a disfellowshipping offense. The reason for this is that “idolatry” is used in the Christian Greek Scriptures in different senses. And it is absolutely clear that not every action that is called “idolatry” represents a disfellowshipping offense.
The first section discusses several actions that can be termed idolatry, but which are not disfellowshipping offenses. It also discusses whether the Christmas tree can be considered an idol. In some cases, it can be venerated as an idol, but in most cases, it is not.
The second section discusses actions that are disfellowshipping offenses. In most situations, these actions are clear-cut. But in some situations, the elders may view particular actions as idolatry, but the person accused of the idolatrous act does not agree that he is guilty of idolatry. I refer to one situation where this is possible.
Under the heading “Apostasy,” the book “Shepherd The Flock Of God” 39 (7) says regarding idolatry:
Idolatry: 1 Cor. 6:9, 10: 10:14) Idolatry includes the use of images, including pictures, in false religious worship.
Under the umbrella term “Apostasy,” eight disfellowshipping offenses are listed. Of these, “Deliberately spreading false teachings contrary to the Bible” and “Promoting sects,” in addition to “Idolatry,” are true disfellowshipping offenses according to the Bible. The other five are not Scripturally sanctioned disfellowshipping offenses.
When it comes to the meaning of the word “idolatry,” there is one caveat that we must consider, that the word “idolatry” is used in the Christian Greek Scriptures in different senses. Therefore, we need to consider which kinds of “idolatry” are disfellowshipping offenses and which kinds are not.
ACTIONS OF “IDOLATRY” THAT ARE NOT DISFELLOWSHIPPING OFFENSES
Being an idolater in the broadest sense of the word means to set anything in the place where only Jehovah God should be. Some of the idolatrous actions that are mentioned in the Bible and in The Watchtower do not represent disfellowshipping offenses. I will now discuss a few situations that may be termed idolatry but that are not followed up by the GB as disfellowshipping offenses. These situations illustrate that not everything that falls under the designation “idolatry” is necessarily a disfellowshipping offense.
Covetousness is idolatry
The word “idolatry” is found in Colossians 3:5 (NWT 1950):
24 Deaden your body members that are upon the earth as respects fornication, uncleanness, sexual appetite, hurtful desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.
The comment of The Watchtower of 1 April 1978, page 16, is:
One thing that can help us to gain the mastery over wrong fleshly desires is a recognition of the seriousness of covetousness—an inordinate desire for something to which a person is not entitled. As Paul stated, covetousness is idolatry. This is so because the object of a person’s wrong craving begins to take on too much importance in his life. It becomes an idol to him and so interferes with his giving Jehovah God exclusive devotion. It also prevents him from being wholehearted in his love for God, as his selfish craving prods him to disregard divine law.
Persons and animals as idols
The Watchtower of 15 January 1963, page 53, says:
Christendom claims to worship the God of the Bible and it looks down upon what it terms pagan idolaters. However, the facts show that the people of Christendom themselves are guilty of idolatry, and that in ever so many ways. For example, there is the idolatry of political heroes. Today Perón of Argentina has again become an issue. Apparently many still feel as did his wife Evita, when she once exclaimed: “He is God for us, so much so that we cannot conceive heaven without Perón. . . . He is our sun, our air, our water, our life.”
There is also the idolatry of movie stars in Christendom, especially by its youth. Certainly the German teen-age girls were guilty of idolatry when they painted on the portals of the Bamberg Cathedral in Munich the words, “Elvis Presley—my God.”
Then, again, there are those who become so attached to an animal pet that they put the life of it ahead of their own. Others have lavish funeral services for their pets. All such are likewise guilty of idolatry.
The League of nations
Religious leaders put The League of Nations in the place where only God’s Kingdom should stand, and by this, it became an idol. The Watchtower 1 October 1985, page 13, says:
13 Interestingly, the Hebrew word translated “disgusting thing” in Daniel is shiq·qutsʹ. In the Bible, this word is used principally of idols and idolatry. (1 Kings 11:5, 7) With this in mind, read some comments by religious leaders about the League:
“What is this vision of a world-federation of humanity . . . if it be not of the Kingdom of God?” “The League of Nations is rooted in the Gospel.” (Federal Council of the Churches of Christ in America) “Every one of [the League of Nations’] objects and activities may be claimed as fulfilling the will of God as made known in the teaching of Jesus Christ.” (Bishops of the Church of England) “The meeting therefore commends to the support and prayers of all Christian people the League of Nations as the only available instrument for attaining [peace on earth].” (General Body of Baptists, Congregationalists, and Presbyterians in Britain). “[The League of Nations] is the only organised effort which has been made to carry into effect the repeated wishes of the Holy See.”—Cardinal Bourne, Archbishop of Westminster.
14 When the nations not only rejected God’s Kingdom but also established their own organization to bring peace, that was rebellion. When religious leaders of Christendom identified that organization with God’s Kingdom and the Gospel, proclaiming it to be “the only available instrument” for bringing peace, that was idolatry. They were putting it in the position of God’s Kingdom, “in a holy place.” Certainly, it was “standing where it ought not.” (Matthew 24:15; Mark 13:14) And religious leaders continue to support the League’s successor, the United Nations, rather than point men to God’s established Kingdom.
Covetousness is idolatry according to the Bible, and to put persons, organizations, or things in a place where Jehovah alone should be is idolatry as well. But I cannot imagine that any Witness would be disfellowshipped in connection with any of the points mentioned above.
IS THE CHRISTMAS TREE AN IDOL?
In the homes of the inhabitants of Norway, there are a great number of carved and molten images and pictures. How should we view these in relation to the question about the worship of idols? The article “Ornamental or Idolatrous Representations — which?” in The Watchtower of 15 May 1972, page 295 discussed this issue. I quote the whole article:
PERSONS desiring divine approval need to know whether certain representations are idolatrous or simply decorative, ornamental. One who cannot discern just what constitutes an idol would have difficulty in heeding the Bible’s commands: “Flee from idolatry.” “Guard yourselves from idols.” (1 Cor. 10:14; 1 John 5:21) This could be disastrous for the individual concerned. Why? Because idolaters are specifically named among those who will not inherit God‘s kingdom.—1 Cor. 6:9, 10.
What, then, makes something an idolatrous representation? Is a statue, picture, or the like, an idol because the creature or thing represented was at one time an object of worship? Can something be an idol in one part of the world but merely serve ornamental or decorative purposes in another part of the world? What should guide a Christian in determining whether he should get rid of certain items because of their idolatrous association?
The Holy Scriptures make it plain that not all pictures, statues and other representations are idols. Whether an object is an idol or not primarily depends on how it is viewed. This might be illustrated by ancient representations of bulls.
In the courtyard of the temple built by Solomon stood the “molten sea.” This large vessel rested upon the figures of twelve bulls. These representations thus served both a utilitarian and an ornamental purpose. But they were never worshiped. Supporting as they did a vessel that normally held around 11,600 gallons of water, the bulls were a fitting symbol of strength or power. (1 Ki. 7:26) They called attention to the truth enunciated at Psalm 62:11: “Strength belongs to God.”
On the other hand, the golden calves set up by King Jeroboam at Dan and Bethel were idols. They received actual worship in the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Even though the claim was made that the golden calves represented Jehovah, this did not make the relative worship given to them acceptable. (1 Ki. 12:28; 14:7-9) Declared Jehovah through his prophet Isaiah: “I am Jehovah. That is my name; and to no one else shall I give my own glory, neither my praise to graven images.” (Isa. 42:8) By making the golden calves (evidently young bulls) and using them in worship, the Israelites made themselves guilty of exchanging God’s glory for something that misrepresented him. How insulting it was to the supreme Sovereign of the universe to be represented as a bull, “an eater of vegetation”!—Ps. 106:20.
The fact that the bull was an object of worship in the Northern Kingdom of Israel did not make the bulls at Solomon’s temple idols. Similarly, the fact that various creatures, plants and heavenly bodies—all part of God’s creative works—have been and still are being given veneration would not in itself make them unacceptable for decorative or ornamental purposes. Many things that were at one time worshiped by the ancients have lost their idolatrous significance and are generally regarded as being merely ornamental.
However, the Christian has to be careful that he does not begin to look upon any object as being something more than it actually is. This aspect was well expressed by Jehovah’s faithful servant Job: “If I used to see the light when it would flash forth, or the precious moon walking along, and my heart began to be enticed in secrecy and my hand proceeded to kiss my mouth, that too would be an error for attention by the justices, for I should have denied the true God above.”—Job 31:26-28.
Accordingly, if a Christian felt that the presence of a certain picture or object could stir up worshipful feelings because of its ancient idolatrous association, he would want to get rid of it. This could include personal ornaments, jewelry and the like. And, of course, he would not want to keep things that presently have a supposed sacred significance or that are specifically designed for use in false religious rituals. That would be true even if the items in question no longer had any religious significance to him. Like Christians in ancient Ephesus, he would destroy appendages of false worship, regardless of how expensive they may have been, so that no one else could misuse them.—Acts 19:19.
This is an instructive article, and the conclusions are balanced:
- Whether an object is an idol or not primarily depends on how it is viewed.
- Something may be an idol in one part of the world while serving merely an ornamental or decorative purpose in another part of the world.
It is clear that most of the statues, figures, and pictures in the homes of families in the Western world are not idols, but have a decorative purpose. It is, of course, different in some countries in Asia where statues and figures are objects of worship as well as in religions where statues and pictures of saints play a part in their worship.
On this background, I ask: Is the Christmas tree an idol? I think that most JW would say Yes. But let us consider some details regarding the Christmas tree in the light of the above Watchtower article.
The ancient Egyptians celebrated the winter solstice by filling their homes with green palm rushes to honor the god Ra. The Romans had their Saturnalia feast at the winter solstice, and they decorated their homes and temples with evergreen boughs. The origin of the present Christmas tree tradition may link back to the custom of the Germans in the 16th century of decorating their homes with fir trees. The catalyst of the worldwide acceptance of the Christmas tree is ascribed to Queen Victoria of England, who in 1846 was sketched together with her husband Albert and their children around a Christmas tree.
Today, Christmas is celebrated all over the world, both in countries that are called Christian and in non-Christian countries. One example of the latter is Japan:
Christmas has only been widely celebrated in Japan for the last few decades. It’s still not seen as a religious holiday or celebration as there aren’t many Christians in Japan. Now several customs that came to Japan from the USA such as sending and receiving Christmas Cards and Presents are popular.
In Japan, Christmas is known as more of a time to spread happiness rather than a religious celebration. Christmas Eve is often celebrated more than Christmas Day. Christmas Eve is thought of as a romantic day, in which couples spend together and exchange presents. In many ways, it resembles Valentine’s Day celebrations in the UK and the USA. Young couples like to go for walks to look at the Christmas lights and have a romantic meal in a restaurant – booking a table on Christmas Eve can be very difficult as it’s so popular!
What do we find if we apply the two principles from The Watchtower article that is quoted above? Many persons both in Japan and in Norway do not view the Christmas tree as a religious symbol. In their view, the tree is connected with the Christmas festival when families and others come together to have a good time. Whether a thing is an idol or not “depends on how it is viewed,” according to the article, and because the tree is not viewed as an idol by many people in many countries, it is not categorically an idol.
The article also shows that a figure or a picture can be an idol in one part of the world but not in another part. This can also apply within the same country. Some persons in Norway view the tree as a religious symbol. For example, when the family walks around the tree singing songs in praise to it, such as the carol “Thou Green and Glittering tree, Good Day!,” the tree is being treated or viewed as an idol.
In The Watchtower of 15 September 1951, the question was raised as to whether a Christian could sell Christmas trees, Christmas cards, and Christmas gifts. And the answer was that each Witness must decide on the basis of his or her conscience. The leaders of JW would not give any advice as to what kind of work was acceptable for a Christian and which was not acceptable. Because so many of the customs connected with Christmas have a pagan origin, and the festival is wrongly connected with the birth of Jesus Christ, Witnesses generally will have nothing to do with any of the customs. But a Witness would not be violating any of God’s laws or principles by having a Christmas tree.
ACTIONS OF “IDOLATRY” THAT MAY BE DISFELLOWSHIPPING OFFENSES
Christians who support God’s Kingdom and its king Jesus Christ are neutral in connection with the pursuits of the nations of this world. There is one “non-neutral” action that is viewed as idolatry and that is saluting the flag of a nation.
Saluting the flag
The Watchtower of 1964, page 377, says:
One of them is found at 1 Corinthians 10:14: “Flee from idolatry.” This command to Christians embraces the thought of the second of the Ten Commandments, which says: “You must not make for yourself a carved image or a form like anything that is in the heavens above or that is on the earth underneath or that is in the waters under the earth. You must not bow down to them nor be induced to serve them, because I Jehovah your God am a God exacting exclusive devotion.”—Ex. 20:4, 5.
To give exclusive devotion, true Christians throughout the centuries have fled from idolatry. Showing how the early Christians kept their integrity by fleeing from any form of idolatry, the book A History of Civilization, by Brinton, Christopher and Wolff, says: “To hold this motley collection of peoples [in the Roman Empire] in a common allegiance, to give them something like a national flag as a symbol of this unity, the emperor was deified. . . . [But] the true Christian . . . could not bring himself to make what to an outsider was merely a decent gesture, like raising one’s hat today when the flag goes by in a parade.”
Even under persecution the early Christians did not cave in to the demands of men to perform a religious act toward national images or idolized humans, for to do so would be to render to them sacred service that belongs to God. (Rom. 1:25) We today do well to follow the example of the early Christians in fleeing from every form of idolatry.
Saluting the flag is a concrete action, and a Witness who continues to salute the flag and refuses to stop this overt action, will be disfellowshipped.
But suppose that a brother says:
It is true that I salute the flag, but I do not view this action as idolatry. The instruction JW have received is that when others salute the flag, we can stand and by this show respect for the flag and the country. However, I do not view the flag as an idol but merely as a symbol of the nation. When I salute the flag, I view this as showing respect for the flag and the country just as the act of standing for the flag salute is viewed as a gesture of respect for the flag and the country by others. Indeed, if it is acceptable to stand up for the flag-salute, as a non-verbal gesture of respect, then I can express a verbal gesture of the same respect without it being considered idolatry.
When I was young, I spent 18 months in jail because I refused to do military service and civil service as an alternative for military service. The reason was that as ambassadors we do not accept that any state has the right to put us under compulsory service. But suddenly, the members of the GB changed their minds and said that from now on civil service as an alternative for military service was OK. So I spent 18 months of my life in jail for nothing, because of viewpoints that later were changed.
It is the members of the GB who say that the flag is an idol. But I do not agree. If you disfellowship me, you do that because of human viewpoints and not because it is required by the Bible. So you throw me out of the congregation against Jehovah’s will.
In all honesty, I must agree with this brother. When someone views the flag as an idol, it is their privilege to do that. I do not object to their right to make that call. But if someone views the flag only as a symbol and not as an idol, that is also their right to do so. Weighing heavily in support of the view of the brother quoted above is the fact that no other persons on the planet seem to view the flag as an idol except JW. And the article in The Watchtower of 15 May 1972 argues that a thing is an idol only when it is viewed as an idol.
Using images and pictures in false religious worship.
Catholics use images and pictures of Mary and different saints when they pray to God. The followers of Jesus “worship the Father in spirit and truth” ( John 4:23), and even though the Catholics deny that they worship Mary or the saints—they only use them as mediators—the acts of veneration that are bestowed on these by Catholics must be viewed as idolatry. A Witness who follows a similar course deserves to be disfellowshipped.
That a Witness should start to use images and pictures while he prayed to God would be exceptional. But if he or she insisted on continuing to do that, that would clearly constitute acts of idolatry. But could there be situations that are not so clear-cut? Please consider the following example:
A brother works for a big company, and he is the overseer of a department where older workers with health problems are placed. One of these dies, and because the brother is the overseer, his duty is to be present in the church where a priest will officiate at the funeral. After his sermon, the priest asks those present to stand up. He points above the alter to a big picture of Jesus on the cross, and he says. “Out of respect for Jesus and his sacrifice and in respect of the (dead person), let us bow our heads in silence for two minutes. The Witness follows these directions of the priest. At the end of the ceremony, the priest asks those present to stand up and receive his blessing in the name of the trinity, the Father, the Son, and the Holy spirit. The brother again follows the directions of the priest.
Two elders are informed about the situation and they speak to the brother, telling him that his actions are tantamount to idolatry. The brother disagrees and says that both because of his position as overseer of the department, and because he personally knew the deceased person, he viewed it as his duty to attend the funeral. He did not bow his head in veneration of the statue of Jesus on the altar or the big picture of him behind the altar but only out of respect for his dead colleague.
The elders do not accept this explanation, and they strongly admonish the brother not to do the same again. But the brother says that he expects more of his colleagues to die in the future and he feels it is his duty to attend their funerals as well. The elders believe they have the right to overrule the conscience of a brother or sister in such matters. And so, when the brother repeats his actions at the funeral of another of his colleagues, a judicial committee is formed, and he is disfellowshipped because of “idolatry”.
Could this situation that I have described really happen? That is absolutely possible. Some elders are extremists, and they will react to the slightest brush with another religion on the part of a Witness. The following example happened in a congregation in Arizona in the US: A brother was a medical doctor, and he started to work for a big company. This company published a paper for its employees, and the editor of this paper happened to be a former priest. The doctor wrote an article in the paper with some medical suggestions. The elders got wind of this article, and they decided that the doctor would lose his position as an elder because his article appeared in the paper where a former priest was the editor. In addition, some elders wanted to form a judicial committee to consider disfellowshipping the doctor.
What I have described may sound like a crazy situation. But it did happen, and it was told to me by an eyewitness. Most bodies of elders are not as extreme as the body of elders in this congregation. But some are that extreme. And the brother who attended the church service would probably have been disfellowshipped if he had been a member of that Arizona congregation.
I have never heard of anyone being disfellowshipped because of idolatry. But I have witnessed several extreme decisions made by judicial committees, based on the wording in one of the books for elders, that have led to disfellowshipping. While the example from the congregation in Arizona is extreme, I have seen examples that are not very far from this example in craziness. Part of the problem is that the elders have not been adequately educated in handling judicial cases. All they have is the mentioned book for elders, and we cannot learn how to treat fellow Witnesses in a balanced way in connection with wrongdoing by reading a book.
Worshipping carved or molten images is condemned both in the Hebrew Scriptures and in the Christian Greek Scriptures; this is idolatry. It is also possible to engage in idolatry in other ways. For example, Paul says that covetousness is idolatry, and to venerate persons or put things in the place that God alone should occupy is idolatry as well. But these latter kinds of idolatry are not disfellowshipping offenses.
The people of God are loyal to God’s Kingdom and to the king Jesus Christ. Therefore, they are neutral in connection with the pursuits of the nations of this world. One action indicating loyalty to a particular nation is to salute the nation’s flag. Witnesses who do that and refuse to stop may be disfellowshipped because of idolatry. But such a disfellowshipping may be without a viable Scriptural basis.
Witnesses who use images and pictures in false worship deserve to be disfellowshipped. However, it is not always clear whether or not particular actions are idolatrous, so the elders must be certain that a Witness really is permeated by idolatry before he or she is disfellowshipped for it.