Paul Derengowski, ThM
Imagine that you have just been in a car accident and that you have incurred internal injuries which include internal bleeding. Thankfully emergency crews arrive quickly, extricate you from your vehicle, and immediately transport you to a local hospital where the staff is waiting to save your life. Everything is proceeding along and the trauma team doctor believes that there is a good opportunity that you will live; all that remains is to give you a life saving blood transfusion while the surgery team corrects the internal bleeding. Unfortunately, you just happen to be a Jehovah’s Witness as well, and because of what The Watchtower Bible & Tract Society [WBTS] says about blood transfusions, you are not allowed to receive one. Also, unfortunate for you, you lose consciousness due to blood loss, and die within a short time.
When it comes to Jehovah’s Witnesses and abusing the Bible to support the refusal of a blood transfusion, the interpretation of the Bible is not so much the issue as the application of the interpretation. Generally this is because of a neglect of observation that preceded the interpretation. It is the object of this article to expose the neglect of the WBTS, and to rebut the notion that what the Bible’s authors were addressing had anything to do with contemporary medical procedures to save individual’s lives in cases like the one discussed above. To do this an explanation of just what is entailed during a blood transfusion will be given, which will then be followed by a contextual discussion of Acts 15:20 and 29, which are at the heart of controversial misapplication by the WBTS. The article will provide not only a better understanding of just how erroneous the Watchtower has been in its abuse of the Bible, but the reader will also have a clearer apologetic response to give to those who want to uphold the Watchtower ideal in the face of potential loss of innocent life.
What is a Blood Transfusion?
Before explaining the relatively simple procedure involved in transfusing blood, it is best to understand just a little history about blood transfusions, as well as what a blood transfusion is and what it entails. Historical understanding is important since the WBTS gives the impression that what doctors and hospitals do to move blood from patient to patient has a connection to Old Testament Levitical Law, when it does not. Defining what a blood transfusion is dispels the notion propagated by the Watchtower that those accepting a transfusion are actually “eating the blood.” Finally, the procedure itself further rebuts the notion that to receive a transfusion is analogous to have a sumptuous meal at one’s favorite restaurant.
Blood transfusions did not get their start until the 1600s, and was not fully and safely serviceable to humans until the early twentieth century. In 1628 British physician William Harvey was the first one to discover the circulation of blood in both animals and humans, and performed the first transfusion between animals at that time, even though his attempt proved unsuccessful. The first successful transfusion between animals occurred in 1665, when English physician Richard Lower transfused blood between two dogs which survived the procedure. In 1818 James Blundell, a British obstetrician, performed the first successful transfusion between a husband and his wife who was suffering from postpartum hemorrhage. It would not be until 1901, though, with the discovery of human blood groups (A, B, AB, and O) by Austrian physician Karl Landsteiner, that blood transfusions among humans would finally become a completely safe practice. Prior to the 17th century, however, no one knew anything about the circulatory system, blood groups, much less anything about the possibility of transfusing blood from one human being into another.
According to WebMD, a “Blood transfusion is a medical treatment that replaces blood lost through injury, surgery, or disease. The blood goes through a tube from a bag to an intravenous (IV) catheter and into your vein.” 1 The Cleveland Clinic adds, “A blood transfusion is the delivery of whole blood or blood components to replace blood lost through trauma, surgery or disease. About one of every three patients hospitalized at The Cleveland Clinic will receive a blood transfusion during his or her stay. More than 10,000 Cleveland Clinic patients receive a total of about 140,000 units of blood annually. Experience has shown that transfusion is a very safe procedure.” 2 Finally, the University of Michigan Health System simply states that a “Blood transfusion is a medical treatment to replace blood or portions of the blood lost through injury, surgery, or disease.” 3
The procedure involved in transfusing blood from one person to another is probably summed up no better than by those at the Mayo Clinic. From the initial step to the possible complications it describes the blood transfusion procedure is as follows:
Before a transfusion, the nurse will compare the patient’s armband with the label on the unit of blood to make certain he or she receives the correct blood product. If the patient does not already have an intravenous (IV) line in his or her arm, the nurse will start one. A nurse will check the patient’s temperature, blood pressure, and pulse before and several times during the transfusion.
Patients are not necessarily confined to a bed or chair during a transfusion. They may resume their previous level of activity after the transfusion. Normally, a person receiving a transfusion will be asked to stay in a bed or chair during the transfusion to monitor for possible reactions.
Every donor is screened before donating blood, and an exhaustive series of tests is conducted to determine blood purity. The chance of illness being passed through a blood transfusion is extremely small. 4
To sum up, blood transfusions are a relatively recent medical procedure, having been safely developed for humans at the beginning of the twentieth century. It is only administered by placing a catheter in a vein, typically in the arm, and then only after a medical professional has carefully matched the recipient with the proper blood type. And though there may be some minor reactions to the transfusion, given the number of people who receive transfusions every year, those reactions are the exception and not the rule, and hence there is nothing to be truly concerned about, should one actually need a transfusion. So, why all the hubbub from the Watchtower? It starts with a faulty understanding of Scripture and then blossoms from there.
The Council at Jerusalem
In order to understand how the Jehovah’s Witnesses arrive at their conclusion regarding the acceptance or refusal of blood transfusions it is
important understand the core biblical texts first. Those particular texts are Acts 15:20 and 29. “[B]ut that we write to them that they abstain from things contaminated by idols and from fornication and from what is strangled and from blood” (v. 20). “[T]hat you abstain from things sacrificed to idols and from blood and from things strangled and from fornication; if you keep yourselves free from such things, you will do well. Farewell” (v. 29) [NASB].
The whole context encompassing verses 20 and 29 involves a challenge which began in Antioch, just after Paul and Barnabas had finished their first missionary tour of duty. Upon arriving at Antioch, which was the base of operations for Paul and Barnabas, they are confronted by some representatives of the heresy of the Pharisees. 5 The heretic’s contention is found in both verses 1 and 5, and which state that “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved” (v. 1) and “It is necessary to circumcise them [Gentiles], and to direct them to observe the Law of Moses” (v. 5). In other words, some legalistic Jews who had become a part of the church (“the sect of the Pharisees who had believed“) were insisting that all Gentile converts be circumcised according to the Law, otherwise those converts could not be genuinely saved. This raised the ire of both Paul and Barnabas (v. 2), which resulted in the gathering at Jerusalem of “the church and the apostles and the elders” (v. 4) to settle the issue.
There is no record of how long the proceedings took, nor of all those who contributed to the debate. What we do know is that there were many questions, which probably took a fair amount of time to work through, coupled with testimony from Paul, Barnabas, and Simeon (vv. 12, 14), and then at least two declarations on the matter from Peter and James, the latter of which was the pastor of the church at Jerusalem. Peter’s argument was that God had redeemed the Gentiles on the same basis of faith as that of the Jews. Therefore, he asks the heretical Pharisees, “Now therefore, why do you put God to the test by placing upon the neck of the disciples a yoke which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear?” James concludes the council by issuing the final edict: “Therefore it is my judgment that we do not trouble those who are turning to God from among the Gentiles, but that we write to them that they abstain from thing contaminated by idols and from fornication and from what is strangled and from blood” (vv. 19-20). The church agreed with James’ proclamation and then sat down to write a letter to the Gentiles in Antioch expressing the sentiments of what was determined. The concluding statement found in verse 29 repeats what has since been taken out of context by the Watchtower Bible & Tract Society to mean that a blood transfusion should be rejected. Yet, all the conclusion entailed was that all people, if they are to be saved, are saved by grace, through faith, and that all legalisms contribute nothing to a person’s salvation. That for either conscience, moral, or sanitary sakes, the Gentiles should refrain from participating in those things that would preclude them from “doing well” in terms of walking the Christian life. 6
The Jehovah’s Witness Society has made it perfectly clear that the basis upon which it has decided to reject blood transfusion has nothing to do with morality or law, even though all decisions of the magnitude to save a life have both moral and legal consequences and ramifications. Instead the Society explicitly states, “Yet the stand taken by Jehovah’s Witnesses is above all a religious one; it is a position based on what the Bible says” [emphasis theirs]. 7 Expressed otherwise, the WBTS asserts that its position to refuse life-saving blood transfusions is purely a biblical one, and in typical WBTS fashion it has lined up a series of proof texts to try and convince the inquiring mind that what it asserts is in fact true. Yet, when one culls through the references, one easily discovers that none of the references have anything to do with blood transfusions whatsoever, but are instead the usual text-mining for references to support a preconceived notion, rather than an honest exegetical effort to align one’s beliefs with the biblical message.
For example, after equating blood transfusions with smoking, doing illicit drugs, and having an abortion, the Watchtower cites Genesis 9:3-6 as its first reference on its way to its dubious conclusion about blood transfusions. 8 Yet, the context of Genesis 9:3-6 has to do with the post-flood civil behavior to refrain from murdering a fellow human being. Ironically, though, when the Watchtower instructs its followers to refrain from taking a life-saving blood transfusion, it is also instructing them on how to commit an act of self-murder or suicide. 9
Another abused proof text is found in Leviticus 17:10-14, which, once again, has nothing to do with a medical procedure. Instead, it has to do with the Jewish ordinance against eating the blood of a sacrifice, which the Watchtower acknowledges. 10 Added to this Numbers 15:30, 31, 1 Samuel 14:31-35, and even John 6:53-66, and it is readily apparent the biblical case built by the Watchtower against blood transfusions in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries is made of straw.
Nevertheless, all of the preceding textual citations bring us to the main ones mentioned at the beginning of this article: Acts 15:20, 29. In the Watchtower’s mind, even though it admits that these verses are speaking to the fact that eating blood is what the author is alluding to, it insists that eating the blood is the same thing as receiving a blood transfusion. The reason why such a leap is taken has nothing to do with the context, but instead relies upon a faulty emphasis involving the word “abstain.” It offers the following example to try and drive home its fallacious understanding.
In a hospital, when a patient cannot eat through his mouth, he is fed intravenously. Now, would a person who never put blood into his mouth but who accepted blood by transfusion really be obeying the command to “keep abstaining from…blood”? (Acts 15:29) To use a comparison, consider a man who is told by the doctor that he must abstain from alcohol. Would he be obedient if he quit drinking alcohol but had it put directly into his veins? 11
The short answer to both questions is a simple “yes.” Why? First of all, a contemporary medical procedure where a catheter is placed in the arm to receive another human’s blood to maintain life is not the same thing as slaying a sacrificial animal and then putting its blood in one’s mouth. Second, ceasing to drink alcohol and refusing a blood transfusion are two totally different activities. One can refrain from the former and live, whereas there have been literally thousands of Jehovah’s Witnesses that have refrained from accepting blood, and died! The error that the Watchtower makes by placing too much emphasis on the word “abstain” (avpe,cw), that it means only one thing in all contexts and at all times, are classic examples of what D. A. Carson might term “Word-Study Fallacies,” and more particularly Word-Study Fallacies that either “selectively and prejudicially use the evidence” or place “unwarranted restriction of the semantic field.” 12 In the former instance, a “appeal to selective evidence [is made] that enables the interpreter to say what he or she wants to say, without really listening to what the Word of God says.” 13 In the latter instance, an illegitimate “restricting of the word’s semantic range” is executed. 14 And what the Watchtower wants everyone to believe is that the word “abstain,” particularly as it applies to blood, means to completely stay away from it in every single instance, forever and always, when the reality is, even the Jehovah’s Witness himself cannot do such a thing. In fact, most Jehovah’s Witnesses, unless they are complete herbivores, probably enjoy a good, juicy steak or hamburger every once in a while. Steak and hamburger, though, contain blood elements, even though the animals have been bled out. So, the Watchtower’s restriction on blood, by placing an undue emphasis on one word (i.e. “abstain”), is clearly another example of abusing the Bible to bolster a preconceived doctrine.
Now, some might attempt to point out that even though a blood transfusion recipient is not actually “eating the blood” through his mouth, that the principle is still the same. Such thinking is part of the misapplication of Scripture mentioned earlier. It is tantamount to already having a fixed notion in the mind as to what one wishes to believe or do before ever approaching Scripture. It is both intellectually dishonest and hopelessly eisogetical in practice. In such a case one is not complying with what Scripture actually states, but is foisting one’s belief upon Scripture, as one feverishly searches for any expression that might seem remotely close to what one already believes. That being the case, the assertion made by the Watchtower that it bases its blood transfusion decision solely upon what the Bible says, is a ruse. And since it is a ruse, then the Watchtower becomes the final authority in such matters, as well as complicit in the deaths of its members by persuading them to abide by something that is not true biblically, morally, or ethically.
The Watchtower Bible & Tract Society has a long history of changing its position on a variety of different subjects, whether in relation to prophecy, doctrines, or ethical issues. The year 1914 was initially predicted to be the end of the world according to founder Charles Taze Russell, but when the year came and went without the expected results, 1918, 1925, 1975, and even a subtle hint at 2000 became convenient substitutes. Also the Watchtower at one time forbade its members from accepting vaccines and organ transplants, that is, until it had to recant its position that vaccines “never saved a human life” 15 and that organ transplants were equal to cannibalism. 16 One can only hope that it will eventually do the same with blood transfusions.
Until such a change happens, though, it should be clear that the rationale behind the prohibition on blood has nothing to do with biblical warrant, and everything to do with a faulty application of Scripture. When Paul, Barnabas, Peter, and James made their declaration at the Jerusalem council in opposition to the heretical Pharisees and their insistence that circumcision and following Mosaic Law were necessary for the Gentiles to be saved, they in no way, shape, or form had a modern-day medical procedure on their minds when quoting Leviticus 17. Abstaining from blood in the Old and New Testament senses, in other words, had to do with dietary restrictions, since in the former instance blood was “to make atonement for your souls” (Lev. 17:11), and in the latter instance blood was associated with idol worship (Acts 15:29). Healing and the healing arts are nowhere in view, and hence the Watchtower’s misapplication must be rejected.
If you are a Jehovah’s Witness reading this I would implore you to take a very close look at what the Watchtower is demanding that you do. It says that this is all about obedience to Jehovah, even to the degree where if you don’t comply that your children would lose their salvation. 17 Yet, to refuse a blood transfusion, as already seen by an examination of the biblical contexts, has nothing to do with the Bible, much less obedience to Jehovah. And to throw in a child’s salvation is nothing more than a desperate scare tactic. What this has to do with is complying with a religious organization’s false teaching and its wishes to keep you under its thumb, even if that means the taking of your life. Therefore, it would be in your best interest, as well as your emotional, spiritual, and physical welfare, to carefully examine not only the primary texts fueling this very bad belief, but what the Watchtower is expecting of you, should you experience a life or death decision and a blood transfusion becomes a part of the equation. Failure to reconsider by genuinely putting some independent thought into the matter may not only cost you your physical life, but your spiritual one as well.
- “Blood Transfusion,” WebMD <http://www.webmd.com/a-to-z-guides/blood-transfusion-overview>. ↩
- “What is a blood transfusion,” Cleveland Clinic; http://my.clevelandclinic.org/services/blood_transfusion/hic_what_you_need_to_know_about_blood_transfusions.aspx> ↩
- “Blood Transfusion,” University of Michigan Health System <http://health.med.umich.edu/healthcontent.cfm?xyzpdqabc=0&id=317&action=detail&AEProductID=hw_knowledgebase&AEArticleID=tc4111>. ↩
- “Basic Blood Transfusion Procedure,” Mayo Clinic, <http://www.mayoclinic.org/blood-transfusion/performing-transfusions.html>. ↩
- From the Greek τη̑ς αἱρέσεως τω̑ν Φαριαίων at 15:5. ↩
- Paul would later address the eating meat sacrificed to idols when dealing with the Corinthian church. His conclusion? “But food will not commend us to God; we are neither the worse if we do not eat, nor the better if we do eat. But take care lest this liberty of yours somehow become a stumbling block to the weak” (1 Cor. 8:8-9 cf. Rom. 14:1-3). ↩
- “Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Question of Blood,” Watchtower Library 2007 CD-ROM. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- The Watchtower has attempted to mitigate the charge that refusing a life-saving blood transfusion is not suicide in light the argument that it encourages its members to seek alternative treatment when available (see the booklet “Blood,” page 53, published by the Watchtower. Incredibly the Watchtower asserts that dying by refusing a blood transfusion is analogous to dying a martyr’s death. The question then becomes, just who is doing the martyring? It cannot be the doctor. He wants to save the JW’s life. And there is no such thing as self-martyrdom. Therefore, since we’ve run out of options, we’re back to senseless, avoidable, sin-laden suicide, if a person dies, when the opportunity was afforded to spare a life via a blood transfusion. ↩
- “Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Question of Blood.” ↩
- Reasoning from the Scriptures (Brooklyn: Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc., 1989), 73. ↩
- D. A. Carson, Exegetical Fallacies (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1984), 54-57. ↩
- Ibid., 54. ↩
- Ibid., 57. ↩
- The Golden Age (February 4, 1931), 294. ↩
- The Watchtower (November 15, 1967), 702. ↩
- The Watchtower (July 1, 1966), 400. ↩