The Choice to Get Baptized by Jehovah's Witnesses

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

A reader raised by Jehovah’s Witnesses responds to our callout for dissenting views over the apostate readers and disfellowshipped readers who were shunned by their JW congregations and families:

I am overwhelmed and angered by the misinformation being supplied by your readers. Many of them are leaving out vital information. Only if you are baptized can you be disfellowshipped. Baptism is not a requirement in the church nor is it a choice one can frivolously make.

I am not baptized, but both my parents were; my mother is baptized but inactive, and my father was disfellowshipped. I was raised in the Kingdom Hall [the JW term for church building] until I was a young teen, and then allowed to choose my own path. At 28, I still hold many of the beliefs (I abstain from holidays and attend the observance of [Nisan 14], also known as The Memorial of Christ’s death), but I am not baptized and do not plan on becoming baptized because I know I could not follow all the rules. I have been told that the path to baptism takes around two years. One must be old enough to choose for themselves (16+ usually), have intense Bible study, and then pass a rigorous test administered by the elders on Bible knowledge.

For one to act as though they were shocked by their disfellowshipping and the subsequent behavior of baptized family and friends is like one being surprised that their spouse has divorced them and doesn’t wish to communicate after cheating. They chose to make a lifelong vow and broke it, fully aware of the potential consequences. No one forced them to be baptized; it was their own free will and choice. Again, without that choice, they would not have been in a position to be disfellowshipped in the first place.

I asked the reader a few followup questions, such as the rough percentage of JW church-goers who are baptized and some key distinctions between members of different commitment levels:

I am no longer an active member of a congregation (admittedly, I now only darken the door for the Memorial). I would guess if you walked into a Kingdom Hall on a Sunday morning the majority of attendees (minus children) will be baptized or preparing for baptism. I think generally people who make the effort and commitment to go to church regularly are more likely to commit in other ways, such as baptism, whereas those who are not serious about baptism probably drop off and rarely attend because it is not required of them. There is no term for an unbaptized believer, but I cannot call myself “one of Jehovah’s Witnesses” as an unbaptized adult; I can only say that I was raised as one.

There are three ways for baptized members to leave the church (but they will forever be considered baptized): disfellowshipment, disassociation, and becoming inactive.

Let me interrupt real quick to illustrate the difference between disfellowshipment and disassociation, explained here by a different reader (the first of two readers excerpted in our previous note) in a followup email:

Just to clarify, my wife and I weren’t disfellowshipped. We disassociated ourselves, which is a technicality of sorts, but also very different. We committed no wrong and left because we no longer wanted to carry the label of Jehovah’s Witnesses, since we disagreed with their position on many things. People are disfellowshipped for moral failings. We disassociated because of their failings. Our leaving was voluntary.

Back to our dissenting reader:

An inactive member is someone who does not maintain steady attendance at the Hall nor keeps up with going out in service. Very rarely would someone who’s inactive be disfellowshipped, as the whole point of disfellowshipping is to keep the church “clean,” and if someone isn’t attending, then they can’t quite taint it.

However, the only grounds for divorce in the church is adultery. If a divorce is obtained for any other reason, remarrying another Witness is not possible.

My father was inactive when my parents divorced and my mother wanted to remarry a Witness, so she brought my father’s actions before the elders. It was a long process—interviews with family members, opportunities given to him to repent, etc. He could try to be reinstated now, like most disfellowshipped people, probably by attending all meetings for a year, asking for Bible study, showing repentance and writing a letter to the elders to ask for consideration.

I really appreciate you allowing me the opportunity to try and shed more light on this issue. Please don’t help spread misinformation or fan flames of intolerance. I was bullied horribly in school due to my beliefs, all the way through college (mostly by the administration at my state school—I was also an employee). The amount of discrimination Witnesses face is pretty incredible sometimes; people lose their minds over others not celebrating holidays, for instance. Say you are/were a Witness and you risk others being convinced you want to proselytize them.

I understand the religion has some issues—all do—but what can be expected from organizations led by imperfect men?