Elders and Governing Body

How Jehovah’s Witness Elders “Discern” If a Woman Has Been Raped

Jehovah’s Witnesses actually consider rape to be fornication or adultery if the woman does not scream and resist enough to satisfy elders of the religion. If a woman claims to have been raped, elders may convene a “judicial committee” and ask her pointed, graphic questions about the incident. If they feel she did not do enough to fend off her attacker, she faces the threat of disfellowshipping (excommunication) and, along with it, complete and total shunning from other JWs, including her own family. 

It might be surprising to hear some additional instructions that elders are given in order for them to “discern” if a rape actually occurred, and the gross lack of qualifications these men have when it comes to these assertions.

Their Instructions

“Shepherd the Flock of God” is a super-secret handbook given to elders, and meant for their eyes only. It outlines their instructions on judicial matters, including cases of immorality that warrant shunning, and it says:

One who has been raped would not be guilty of porneia. [“Porneia” being the Biblical word for fornication.] Discernment is needed in considering claims of rape, taking into consideration such factors as the mental disposition of the person, the circumstances that led up to the incident, and any delay in reporting.

Other than the requirement to scream and fight, this is their entire set of instructions when it comes to determining if rape was actually rape, and note that they immediately say “discernment is needed.” In other words, don’t assume or automatically accept that a claim of rape is rape, but be prepared to pick it apart.

Mental Disposition

Note that they give no further explanation for the phrase “mental disposition,” and no reasons for why this might call into question a woman’s account of rape.

So, the story of rape from a woman who generally hates men might be suspicious? One who is overly emotional? A woman with a lower IQ? A loner?

A woman who resists the authority of the elders?

While they give no indication of what they mean by this term, what is most important to remember is that women with all the dispositions mentioned above may very well have been raped!

When a woman claims to have been raped, her tears or anger or general “mental disposition” have nothing to do with whether or not the incident actually occurred. Either she was raped or she wasn’t; her state of mind is not proof for or against that fact.


“Circumstances that led up to the incident” is very obscure but also dangerous and downright insulting. This allows elders on the judicial committee to discount date rape if the woman was in a romantic setting with the man, and to ask her what she was doing at a certain location when raped.

Note the March 8, 1974, Awake magazine:

The New York Times, November 26, 1973, told of two fifteen-year-old girls being forced, shortly after midnight, into a store by an employee of the store who kept them for four hours and repeatedly raped one of them … But what business did two teen-age girls have on the streets around midnight?

So Jehovah’s Witnesses do question why females are in certain places at certain times when they’ve suffered rape. I heard (but cannot confirm this story) of a woman being disfellowshipped for being raped because she went to a bar after work and was attacked in the parking lot. According to the elders, she shouldn’t have been in the bar in the first place. Interestingly, my brother sometimes goes to a favorite bar after work when his wife won’t be home so he can have a beer and a sandwich; if he got mugged in the parking lot, would the elders disfellowship him for fighting?

Granted, certain places may not be the safest for women and may increase her risk of attack, but this doesn’t mean an incident wasn’t actually rape. There is a difference between “greater risk of rape” and “it wasn’t really rape.”

Delay in Reporting

It’s vital to discuss this “delay in report

ing” phrase, because women who have been victims of rape often avoid reporting the incident for days or weeks, or they may never report it at all. This doesn’t mean that it wasn’t rape; it’s simply part of the trauma of the experience.

raped tears

Imagine yourself going through this scenario; a man breaks into your home, punches you, shoves you onto the floor, rips your clothes off of you, screams filth into your face, shoves his penis into every orifice of your body, punches you some more, and threatens you or your family. This may go on for hours and hours.

Going to the police means reliving this trauma again and again. For many women, simply burying the incident is easier. They also may want to avoid being poked and prodded by doctors, and facing this person again in a court of law.

Who would want their family to find out that this horrific thing happened to them, who would want to admit to being victimized in such a way? Many women also find that it takes those days and weeks to get over their outright shock. They may simply be trying to survive, without thinking about the next “logical” step of calling the police.

Note, the “Shepherd” book doesn’t bring out any of these points, but instead instructs these men to consider a “delay in reporting,” not as part of a woman’s terror, humiliation, and shock, but as cause to think that the incident wasn’t actually rape.

Their Qualifications

I must ask, what qualifies these men to make this determination about rape in the first place? These elders are not police, crime scene investigators, or psychologists. As a matter of fact, Jehovah’s Witnesses frown upon higher education of any sort, so most elders don’t possess anything more than a high school diploma!

It’s worth noting that for those who are in law enforcement, the woman’s “mental disposition” and “delay in reporting” the incident are rarely, if ever, taken into account when determining claims of rape, and only a very short list of factors about the circumstances leading up to the event are considered. If criminal and psychological experts do not consider these things as diminishing a woman’s claim of rape, what business do non-experts have in doing so?

It’s also worth noting that the elders are given almost complete discretion over this “discernment” they’re told to have, easily allowing personal opinions to color their decisions. An elder may come upon a woman who obviously resents the intrusion of elders into her personal life, and having to answer to them after such a horrific event, and if he takes this resentment personally, he may decide that she should be disfellowshipped as a form of punishment for her attitude, using the reason of her “mental disposition.” This “Shepherd” book gives him that complete authority.

EXPERTISEIt’s important to remember that no matter what an uneducated and unqualified elder may think that he has “discerned” regarding a woman’s “mental disposition” or the circumstances of her attack, this doesn’t mean she wasn’t really raped. After her horrific ordeal, she then may face shunning because of her “mentality,” or because she couldn’t bring herself to report the attack to police, but not because it wasn’t actually rape.

Since these elders are so uneducated and have no experience when it comes to criminology, psychology, and the like, why not take the approach that they should believe a woman’s claim of rape unless they have very obvious reason not to?

Why not humbly admit that these types of scenarios are outside their area of expertise, and lovingly treat a woman with respect and trust as you would a grownup adult, rather than with suspicion and disbelief, as you would an immature child?

How can I trust a religion and the men who run it when they have these secret instructions that, not just authorize, but also direct them to be this suspicious of claims of rape, and especially when these instructions are based on criteria that is so questionable and illogical, open to interpretation, and never used by experts in the area of sexual assault?

Why should I belong to a religion that obviously has such a gross lack of regard and respect for women that even when elders hear claims of rape, their first instructions are not to get her the help and supportive counsel she needs, but are to basically call her a liar and start judging her “mental disposition,” so that they can decide if it was rape or not?

Why should I belong to a religion that is so misogynistic and insulting to women that it makes me feel as if I can’t even be raped in the right way?

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