Do Jehovah’s Witnesses Have Clergy?
As we examine what the Jehovah’s Witness’ leadership have to say about the clergy of the Christian churches, we need to look at whether or not they have their own clergy.
Part of their criticism of the clergy is that they constitute a class that is exalted above the laity. Watchtower publications will tell you that Jehovah’s Witnesses are a classless society and that all Jehovah’s Witnesses are ordained ministers, becoming such at their baptism as Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Although all baptized Jehovah’s Witnesses are ordained ministers, their leadership is very hierarchical. The Jehovah’s Witness organization is organized geographically into zones, branches, districts, circuits and congregations with zones covering the largest area and congregations the smallest. In each division there are those who hold positions of oversight. The governing body of Jehovah’s Witnesses oversees the whole organization.
Having served as a congregation elder for 10 years and now having been involved in other churches, it seems to me that the congregation elders, circuit overseers, district overseers, branch overseers and the governing body constitute a clergy class. While congregation elders are unpaid, all the others are compensated monetarily and with other benefits such as health insurance, leased cars and living expenses.
Overseers other than congregation elders are also members of the Order of Special Full-Time Servants and as members of this religious order have taken a Simple Vow of Poverty which allows them to receive their compensation and other contributions from congregations and their members tax-free.
While congregation elders are not paid, I would say that they are, in effect, clergy. They are said to be appointed by holy spirit, they hold ecclesiastical tribunals to decide judicial matters, the rest of the congregation are bound to support the decisions of these tribunals while not being privy to the evidence, and they are provided material by headquarters that is not provided to the rest of the congregation.
Jehovah’s Witnesses and Clergy Privilege
Despite their proclaiming that they have no clergy class, congregation elders have on several occasions invoked clergy privilege when called upon to testify against child molesters in their midst. Such was the case near me in New Hampshire when congregation elders refused to testify in the cases of Gregory Blackstock and Paul Berry.
So, they try to have it both ways. On the one hand they want to allow some of their leaders to enjoy the privileges that accrue to the clergy of other religious organizations, such as tax advantages and clergy privilege, while on they other hand they try to characterize their leaders as not being “clergy” in order to differentiate themselves from the churches of Christendom. As with so many other areas with Jehovah’s Witnesses, it is a distiction without a difference.