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Panorama Friday, 12 July, 2002, 18:12 GMT 19:12 UK
Jehovah's Witnesses: system of membership

The Jehovah's Witnesses do not have a system of clergy and laity. Rather they see every baptised person as being an ordained minister who is able to teach and preach.

Each country where there are Jehovah's Witnesses has a headquarters called the Bethel.

Here, volunteers live and work, publishing and printing the organisation's books and magazines.

There are about 500 people living and working in the Bethel in London and over 5,000 in the New York Bethel.

Elders

All Jehovah's Witnesses are part of a congregation of up to 200 members who are led by a body of "elders".

The elders are men (never women) who are chosen at the recommendation of local elders based on scriptural qualifications and appointed by the governing body as their direct representatives in the local congregation.

These men are described by the governing body as "God's representatives on earth". They have the authority to decide whether any person can remain a member of the Jehovah's Witnesses or not.

Such decisions are made by holding judicial hearings. When someone either confesses to, or is accused of, a sin or spiritual transgression, he or she is questioned by elders.

Sanctions or punishments in the form of restrictions, public reproofs or outright expulsion from the congregation are meted out.

'Disfellowship'

Unrepentant sinners who show no remorse can be "disfellowshipped " which means that other members are required to shun them and not associate with them in any way.

This will include all family members and Jehovah's Witnesses the disfellowshipped person may have known all his or her life.

The person is viewed as being "stoned to death" in the biblical context and will not be accepted back unless approved by the elders.

A disfellowshipped person can be reinstated into the congregation after at least one year of meeting attendance after which they are deemed repentant.

Circuits

About 20 congregations make up a circuit and are supervised by a circuit overseer. He will regularly visit the congregations and take part in the choosing of new elders and other matters.

About ten circuits make up a district and are managed by a district overseer who could be responsible for the spiritual welfare of up to 40,000 people.

Above the district level is the Bethel in that country and then the headquarters in New York.

Kingdom Hall

Jehovah's Witnesses in each congregation use a "Kingdom Hall" - the place of worship at the centre of their community.

Every Sunday the Witnesses will attend the Kingdom Hall for two hours to listen to a public talk, given by a elder from their own congregation or a visiting elder, and hold a Watchtower Study.

They will also have three other meetings during the week that consist of a Book Study, Theocratic Ministry School (a public speaking class) and Service Meeting (training for door-to-door work).

They will spend some time each week going from door to door to offer literature and bible studies in an effort to proselytise new members to their faith.

Witnesses who are very committed - called Special Pioneers - can spend up to 150 hours a month going door-to-door.

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