Transcript of OnionUnlimited podcast episode 079
HELLO AND WELCOME TO EPISODE 79 OF ONIONUNLIMITED—THE PODCAST. I’m youre host, Daniel Torridon and today I’m going to talk to you about beards. In particular, I’m going to answer the question, Can a Jehovah’s Witness have a beard?
So, I’ve had a beard on and off—mostly on—for the past 17 years. I’ve been out of Jehovah’s Witnesses for just over two years, so that means I was a bearded Witness for getting on 15 years. I started to grow a beard in 2005 after I resigned as an elder. It wasn’t much of a beard, more just a patch of stubble on my chin, but I was proud of it. Generally speaking, those in the congregation I was in at the time said nothing. The only person who did break silence was the presiding overseer. If you’ve listened to my previous podcasts you’ll know how much of a control freak he was. It was him who eventually pushed for me to be disfellowshipped as an apostate. He was picky and finicky about anything out of the norm, and in a congregation devoid of beards, my pathetic attempt at a beard drew his attention. He didn’t exactly say that I couldn’t have a beard, but he questioned my spirituality for doing so. To him, beards were a sign of a spiritually weak person, even a “worldly” person. Of course, I told him where to stick his opinion, which he didn’t take too kindly, and within a couple of years, he’d orchestrated my disfellowshipping as a “wicked apostate”. Having a beard was the least of my “sins”.
Disfellowshipped, I continued to grow my beard. Over time, it began to resemble an actual beard, not just me forgetting to have a shave one morning, and so it was in 2009 when I was reinstated as a Jehovah’s Witness I went back sporting not just stubble, but real facial hair. How would I be received? Would I get a visit from the elders telling me to shave it off? Nope. Nothing. I flew completely under their radar and not a word was said. Granted, I was in a new congregation by then, and the control freak was history. He’d been removed as an elder himself, and even reproved by a judicial committee. I wasn’t a fan of the elders in my new congregation. The coordinator was also a control freak—it must come with the job—and the other elders were your typical “old boys club”. Most of them were incompetent teachers and shepherds, but none of them saw fit to approach me about my beard, which I was happy about.
Within a year of being reinstated, me and my beard were regular pioneering again, but at that time I wasn’t fully committed to the hairy life. My beard came and went, depending on my mood, which I thought might raise a few eyebrows, but it didn’t. It seemed I had one of those faces that suited a beard but was unremarkable, nay, inconspicuous, with or without a beard. Beard or no beard, people just didn’t seem to notice. Even my wife at the time failed to notice when I shaved my beard off after a couple of years.
And so I continued to serve as a pioneer, sometimes clean-shaven, sometimes with a goatee, and sometimes with a full beard. Then, during one of my shaven periods, I moved congregation again. This time I found myself in a congregation I’d served in as a teenager. All was fine, until I decided to grow my beard again. For the first time in 6 years, someone commented. It was at a meeting at the Kingdom Hall. A somewhat nosey, bossy, sister approached me and, grabbing me by the chin, spurted out: “What’s this? Growing a beard, are you?” to which I replied, “Sure, I see you are too.” I wondered if this comment would get me in trouble with the elders. Her own husband was an elder. But no. Nothing again. Me and my beard were still flying stealth and as far as the elders were concerned I wasn’t a threat. That was, until they began to consider me for appointment as a ministerial servant again. It was inevitable. I’d been reinstated for over 5 years and I was banging in the hours as a regular pioneer. Nevertheless, for some, including the circuit overseer, my history as an “apostate” was enough to put them off recommending me. My beard wasn’t the problem.
Happily, I wasn’t alone. In this congregation, there was another bearded man—a fine fellow in his late 50s, and a good friend. He was in a similar position to me, having served as an appointed man in the past, and now he was being considered to serve again. But what about his beard? He’d had it for some 30 years. Should he be made to shave it off? The elders, unable to arrive at a unanimous decision, wrote a letter to Bethel. Their reply was astonishing. It began by conveying “disappointment” that the congregation and elder body didn’t have better things to worry about. It concluded that, yes, he could serve as a ministerial servant—but only if it didn’t upset people in the congregation, and there’s the rub. There’s no blanket ban on beards. They’re just frowned upon by some, usually older ones who have been in the congregation for many years, and that can be enough to prevent a man from serving. Why? Why are beards, even if not banned entirely, looked upon with suspicion? It’s because of an opinion that was held way back in the 1960s.
Back then, in the 60s, when hippies and flower power were all the rage, beards—especially big, bushy ones—were seen as a sign of rebellion, being associated, at least by the Watch Tower Society, with the likes of “ban the bomb” activism and “free love”. Even as late as 1975, The Watchtower (p. 500) was encouraging the congregation to make unwritten rules by articles such as the following:
“Extreme hair styles [The Watchtower wrote] can easily lead one into a trap of the Devil… and cause others to stumble. For example, a young man in the United States was making fine progress in his study of the Bible, and he was moved to share with an experienced Witness in preaching to others about the good [news] he was learning from the Bible. From early youth he had let his beard grow, and since some in the business community wore beards, he felt that his wearing one in preaching to others would be acceptable generally. But in speaking to a lady he was unable to do more than introduce himself, when she said: ‘I’m sorry, young man, I do not want to become involved in student revolt.’ No amount of explanation after this sufficed to clear up the misimpression. After the conversation ended with the closing of the door, he asked the experienced Witness what had happened. He was invited to consider his appearance in relation to what he claimed to be, a servant of God. Not wanting to be responsible for even one person’s being stumbled so as to miss the way to everlasting life, this new Kingdom publisher shaved off his beard. Would you be willing to do the same or to make similar adjustments if your appearance gave the wrong impression in a certain community?”
And that, folks, is the mentality that I grew up with as a kid in the 1970s and 80s. Most Witness men of the time were under the impression that if they grew a beard, the people they tried to convert would mistake them for a “revolting student”. The Watch Tower hadn’t said outright that beards were banned, but they said just enough to make it that if you had a beard people in the congregation would look sideways at you. And so it was, in the 1980s, a friend of my dad shaved off his magnificent beard in order to be appointed as an elder. His beard was smart. He looked awesome. In fact he looked like a typical Watch Tower depiction of Jesus Christ himself, but in order to be an elder, his beard had to go. That’s what his body of elders told him, and so that’s what he did. He was congratulated for his “humility” and dutifully appointed to the role of elder.
It probably didn’t help that even further back in Watch Tower history, beards had been blasted by J F Rutherford, successor to the organisation’s founder, Charles Taze Russell. Russell, of course, had a fine beard, as did many men of the day. But when the clean-shaven, control freak, Rutherford took over, things changed. William Schnell, writer of 30 Years a Watchtower Slave recalled Rutherford’s visit to the German headquarters in 1925:
“The Director of our German branch, as had many before him, had grown a beard, patterned after Charles T Russell’s beard. The Judge [that’s what they called J F Rutherford] did not want anything at all to remain which might remind him of Russell—not even the cultivation of a beard. So, sitting at the table for dinner one night within my earshot, the Director asked the Judge for one more large rotary press. The Judge said nothing for a while, merely ate. Then suddenly he looked up, his eyes pinned severely on the Director’s huge beard and said, ‘I will buy you the press if you take that thing off,’ pointing to the beard. It surely shocked the Director’s sensibilities, but he meekly heeded the warning and soon shamefacedly appeared minus the beard.”
And so it was, I grew up in a largely beardless organisation. In fact, apart from the previously-mentioned Jesus-lookalike, I can’t remember anyone with a beard in the 70s and 80s. While beards were never outrightly prohibited in the official literature, they were given a wide-berth by anyone who wanted to “get on” in the organisation.
The artwork in Watch Tower literature did nothing to promote beards either, not even among those who were under the command of the Old Testament not to mess with their beards by shaving them—not just off—but in any way at all. I am, of course, thinking of the Israelites and the command at Leviticus 19:27: “You must not shave the hair on the side of your head or disfigure the edges of your beard.” Clearly, Israelite men had beards, and they were to keep them full. Nevertheless, the Jesus (an Israelite) depicted in Watch Tower artwork was clean-shaven, which always struck me as odd because other Hebrew men—Noah, Abraham, Moses—were all represented as having big, bushy, beards.
Adam, the only other perfect man to walk the earth, was also presented as beardless, and for this reason, I think there developed a connection between perfection and clean-shaveness.
But all that changed in 1965 when Watch Tower reevaluated its “non-bearded Jesus” policy. In a Questions From Readers supposedly sent in by an actual reader—doubtful—the question was asked: “When Jesus Christ was a man on earth, did he wear a beard?” Their spirit-guided reply? “It is apparent that Jesus did wear a beard, and so artistic representations of him in future Watch Tower publications will harmonize with the Scriptural evidence to that effect.” Marvellous! Except the argument that “Jesus had a beard” failed to overrule the “revolting student” stance that was [still] prevalent at the time. The same article that gave the thumbs-up for a beardy Jesus cautioned:
“Today Christian ministers, like the early Christians, are concerned with neatness and cleanness, but they strive to dress inconspicuously so that their appearance does not in any way detract from the dignity or the effectiveness of the message they bear. (2 Cor. 6:3, 4) In recent years in many lands, a beard or long hair on a man attracts immediate notice and may, in the minds of the majority, classify such a person undesirably with extremists or as rebels against society. God’s ministers want to avoid making any impression that would take attention away from their ministry or hinder anyone from listening to the truth. They know that people are watching true Christians very critically and that to a great extent they judge the entire congregation and the good news by the minister’s appearance as a representative of the congregation.”
For anyone that was desperate for a beard, The Watchtower gave hope, concluding: “In paradise restored on earth it would not be out of order if men returned to wearing beards, in perfect fashion, like Adam in Eden.” Great! So you would have to wait until you’re perfect to grow a beard. And that was the ridiculous situation I grew up with as a Jehovah’s Witness in the 70s and 80s.
Sadly, beards in general society began to drop by the wayside during the 90’s and 00’s, at least in the United Kingdom. There were some bearded men around, but shaving was now viewed as the “manly” thing to do. Gillette, apparently, was “the best a man [could] get”. So, in 2004 when I turned up at a meeting with what appeared to be a goatee in the making, alarm bells immediately started ringing. My presiding overseer dredged up the old Watchtower articles of the 1960s and 70s, but I was disfellowshipped for apostasy before my beard could ever make it to the general consideration of the elders.
From my reinstatement in 2009 all the way through to 2019 when I was disfellowshipped again, I usually wore a beard. Sometimes it was a full beard, more often than not it was a goatee. I liked it even if that one sister didn’t. When mentioning her to an elder I was advised that even “stumbling” one person should be a good reason to consider shaving it off, but I considered she wasn’t stumbled—just bossy—so I persisted as a bearded man: I continued to pioneer; I gave talks from the platform; I accepted privileges in the congregation; I served on various departments at circuit assemblies and regional conventions; I even joined a foreign language group where bearded Western men were considered to look like “the gods”, but there was one thing I was not absolutely not allowed to do—and for this, there was an official ban.
In 2016, my entire family—my wife, my kids, and my dad—were invited to participate in a circuit convention platform assignment. By now, I was in yet another new congregation, and to all intents and purposes, the elders there were reasonable guys who were keen to use me for spiritual assignments. So it was with a sad heart that the elder assigned the item on the assembly approached me one Sunday and told me I was to be excluded. With an embarrassed look on his face, clearly realising the “no beard rule” was nonsense, he asked me if I knew why I couldn’t be on the assembly programme. Part of me really wanted to reply, “Because I’m being discriminated against!” but I resisted the urge and just asked, “Is it the beard?” The elder nodded and confirmed that it was, indeed, my hairy face that prevented me from “serving Jehovah more fully”. To prove he wasn’t just being a jerk he showed me his official, written directions for selecting programme participants. There it was, in print, no brother with a beard was allowed to share in the programme.
I wasn’t overly upset. Being or not being on an assembly programme didn’t bother me in the slightest. I thought the directions were rubbish, but hey, what can a man do when he’s in a cult (apart from leave)? So I said nothing and carried on as normal. That was until I took my family to the rehearsals. Despite there being NO men with beards in the room—apart from me—one of the brothers in charge of rehearsals saw fit to read out, publically, the “no beard rule”. Why? There was no one there with a beard except me, and I was already excluded from the programme. It was uncomfortable. I felt everybody glaring at me as if the word “UNSPIRITUAL!” was flashing in neon lights above my head. Clearly, beards were still frowned upon. I took the matter up with an elder, a friend, and he suggested the perfect solution—shave my beard off, accept the assembly assignment, and then grow it back afterwards, but to me, that smacked of jumping through hoops, so I disregarded his counsel and kept my beard, keeping my feelings to myself in order not to make a scene over something so petty.
Then there was THAT Watchtower article. You know, the one in September 2016 that we studied at the Kingdom Hall—the one that posed the question: “What about the propriety of brothers wearing a beard?” Finally, we had an up-to-date Watchtower answering the decades-long debate! I waited with bated breath as the paragraph was read at the Sunday meeting:
“The Mosaic Law required men to wear a beard. [Yes, it did.] However, Christians are not under the Mosaic Law, nor are they obliged to observe it. (Lev. 19:27; 21:5; Gal. 3:24, 25) [“Brilliant!”, I thought. Does that mean the command against tattoos in Leviticus 19:28 can be disregarded?] In some cultures [it continued], a neatly trimmed beard may be acceptable and respectable, and it may not detract at all from the Kingdom message. [“Awesome!” I thought. It was now 2016 and beards were nothing unusual in UK society at large, among businessmen, and even among politicians. I knew if I stuck with my beard for long enough it would come back in fashion! Then it stated what I’d been waiting for years:] In fact, some appointed brothers have beards.“
Here was everything that was needed to lay the matter to rest. The Bible commanded men to wear beards: we’re not under the Mosaic Law; but neither does the Bible say beards are banned; and a neat beard may be “acceptable” and “respectable”—and even be worn by an elder or ministerial servant. One or two in the congregation commented on these points and things were looking up for my beard, but then the circuit overseer who was visiting put his hand up and highlighted the rest of the paragraph which stated:
“Even so [“Oh God, no,” I thought], some brothers might decide not to wear a beard. (1 Cor. 8:9, 13; 10:32) In other cultures or localities, beards are not the custom and are not considered acceptable for Christian ministers. In fact, having one may hinder a brother from bringing glory to God by his dress and grooming and his being irreprehensible.—Rom. 15:1-3; 1 Tim. 3:2, 7.”
Despite us not being in a “culture” or “locality” where beards “are not considered acceptable for Christian ministers”, that one comment by the circuit overseer dominated the rest of discussion. It wasn’t long before someone else commented that the Society’s artwork never shows brothers with beards. Then another commented that none of the governing body has a beard—despite the odd (and I really do mean odd) moustache being evident. Another commenter even highlighted how a picture of J F Rutherford’s governing body in the 1920s was devoid of all beards, comparing it to their predecessors in the 1800s. “We’re not living in the 1800s now” was his concluding remark.
And so it was, the one opportunity we had to put all this nonsense behind us was lost on my congregation at the time. Fortunately, the elders were fairly reasonable guys, so nothing was said to me personally and I continued with my privileges, “reaching out” to serve as a ministerial servant or an elder again. I specifically asked an elder if my beard would prevent me from serving again. He said it wouldn’t, but counselled me that if I wanted to be really useful to Jehovah and serve on assembly programmes and “special assignments” I might want to consider shaving. He likened the shaven man to a “Swiss Army knife”, useful for multiple purposes. Then he told me I currently was “a spoon”.
The same brother who called me a spoon told me a story of a brother he knew who had gone to serve at Bethel. He’d gone to the Bethel barbers to have his hair cut. Like a scene out of North Korea, he was given a choice of “approved” Bethel haircuts. He chose one and thought everything was good until the day he was called into the Branch Committee’s office. They had a problem with his hair. He replied that it was a “Bethel haircut” but they said it looked “worldly”. He was ordered there and then to get it cut, again, which he did. It turns out, though, there was nothing wrong with his hair. It was all just a test to see if he was humble enough to follow “theocratic direction”.
That got me thinking. Could I be that humble? As I began to consider serving again I thought about losing my beard. After all, it was just hair, right? Why allow a bit of hair in the “wrong place” to hold me back from being of more use to the brothers and sisters? I especially got thinking when one of the serving elders decided to join me in my beardedness. He turned up at a meeting with his new beard and was immediately taken into the back room by a couple of elders. “Shave it off,” was the direction, “or don’t be an elder.” He complied, but later he realised he was in a cult and left the organisation, regrew his beard, and even got a tattoo.
In 2019 I shaved off my beard. I was immediately commended by the elders and cleared to receive one congregation assignment after another. Life started getting really busy again. The only way was up. I was no longer a spoon! The elders began to hint at me serving with them again, and not just as a ministerial servant. As an anointed brother, with years of experience in the pioneer ministry, and past experience of serving as an elder, it was suggested that I could be appointed directly to eldership: I was an excellent example in the ministry; I was a good teacher and shepherd; I was 50 years old; and I was now beardless. My beard was gone! There was nothing holding me back from them recommending me to serve as an elder again.
So, can a Jehovah’s Witness have a beard? Short answer, yes. Long answer, no, not if he wants to be considered a “spiritual man”, at least not if he wants to move forward as a brother unencumbered by other people’s personal opinions, and it is, largely, a matter of personal opinion. I know congregations that are absolutely fine with their brothers having beards. They have elders with beards. They even send their bearded elders out to other congregations to give public talks, although that has been known to backfire on them. Some congregations on the other hand have a strictly “no beard rule”. If you sprout a beard you will get taken in the ominous back room like a naughty school boy and counselled. Obviously, they can’t be ripping said beards off the faces of brothers—we’re not talking stick-on beards like in convention dramas here—but they can, and they do, exert peer pressure to “shave it off”, and if you don’t comply you can be assured that you will not “qualify” for certain privileges.
Personally, I think I got off fairly lightly as a bearded man. Assignments I received whilst bearded included:
- Regular pioneering;
- Serving in a foreign language group;
- Giving talks on the Theocratic Ministry School;
- Platform and sound duty at the Kingdom Hall;
- Reading The Watchtower at meetings;
- Opening and closing with prayer at the meetings;
- First aid trainer for circuit assemblies and regional conventions;
- First Responder at circuit assemblies and regional conventions;
- and Attendant at meetings, circuit assemblies, and regional conventions.
I think I could have got appointed as a ministerial servant with a beard. I know for certain I would not have been used for assembly or convention platform assignments with a beard, and I think it would have been strongly suggested to me that I shave in order to become an elder. It may have been tolerated in my last congregation, but I think I might have been excluded from visiting other congregations to give public talks, and if I had progressed on to more “special” avenues of service such as attending the Kingdom School for Evangelisers or serving as a temporary circuit overseer, I’m absolutely sure I would have had to lose my beard.
Fortunately, before my beard ever came up for discussion again, I was disfellowshipped a second time.
Now I have a beard, and I might even get a tattoo.
Thanks for joining me again. Bye for now.