Original published on GospelPrime on March 3, 2021 by Michael Caceres
“It was like a house of cards that has collapsed,” says a former cult elder.
For 40 years of his life, António Madaleno, born in Portugal, was part of Jehovah’s Witnesses, which he defines as a “cult”. He was just one year old when his mother went to the Kingdom Hall, as the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ places of worship are called.
After reaching the top of the Jehovah’s Witness hierarchy, becoming an elder, Madaleno found himself in a situation where he began to address their heresies while his wife was pregnant in 2003.
“As is usual in these cases, the first concern of a Jehovah’s Witness is the question of the need for a blood transfusion,” he tells Gospel Prime, in an exclusive interview.
António Madaleno says that this led him to research, study the Bible and question the teachings of Jehovah’s Witnesses. For the first time, he was using his mind and conscience to seek the truth about what he had learned at the Kingdom Hall, even though he considered himself an expert in the Witnesses’ doctrines.
His research has led him to what he defines as “a house of cards that has collapsed”, as he claims that “it has resulted in many other researches and inquiries”.
“What I came to discover led me to lose all credibility and trust of the Watchtower organization,” he says.
The former elder became what they define as an “apostate”, drifting away from associating with members of the cult and starting to speak out against what happens there, including crimes covered up by the leadership. In an exclusive interview, António Madaleno talks about his experience.
How did you become part of Jehovah’s Witnesses?
Jehovah’s Witnesses came into my life through their usual proselytizing work from house to house. My mother received them at the door at a time in her life when she was very depressed and suicidal. I was about a year old.
Through these visits, she began to study a blue book, called “The Truth That Leads to Eternal Life“, called by many the “blue bomb”. In the 1970s, many people entered Jehovah’s Witnesses through this book, which allegedly unmasked the so-called “Christianity” and presented the religion of Jehovah’s Witnesses as the true religion – the restoration of true Christianity.
At the time, Portugal had just undergone the April 25 revolution. This finally permitted Jehovah’s Witnesses to exercise their religion freely, without fear of reprisals and persecution. It contributed to an increase in membership over the following years.
When did you begin to question the distorted teaching methods of this religious group?
It was after my wife became pregnant in 2003. As is usual in these cases, the first concern of a Jehovah’s Witness is the question of the need for a blood transfusion. As soon as possible, we presented this question to the obstetrician, explaining that if necessary we would refuse a transfusion.
We strongly believed in the doctrine of abstaining from blood, as explained by the organization. I emphasized at the time that I was already an elder in the congregation, the equivalent of a pastor in an evangelical church. So I knew the subject well. But something was already bothering my mind and conscience, which had to do with the use of blood fractions permitted by the organization.
After talking with the doctor, I decided to research the subject thoroughly from several angles: scientific and biblical. Of course, this research led me to realize how wrong Jehovah’s Witnesses were in their doctrinal interpretation regarding the matter. It was like a house of cards that has collapsed, as this research resulted in many other researches and inquiries. What I came to discover led me to lose all credibility and trust of the Watchtower organization.
You often call Jehovah’s Witnesses a “cult.” Why are you so emphatic in this regard?
When you know the characteristics of a Cult or High Control Group and compare it with the practices exercised by the leaders of Jehovah’s Witnesses, it becomes evident that your religious organization is a Cult.
One of the main characteristics of a Cult is blind obedience to the leader or leaders. Everything he teaches or orders to do is law. It is unquestionable! This blind obedience is promoted through intensive and weekly indoctrination, with a routine that leaves little room for the individual. Jehovah’s Witnesses are indoctrinated in such a way that they make little use of their individual conscience.
The rules and laws within the group are numerous, where members live a robotic and programmed life: in addition to the hours they have to dedicate to preaching, they have to prepare for kingdom hall meetings, do family study and bible study with interested ones, attend assemblies and conventions. They have little time to develop their own interests and virtually everything they can or cannot do is dictated by the organization, through its leadership – the governing body. It is almost absolute control. And woe to those who disobey or criticize the leaders!
You say that the cult promotes control of individuals. How does this control happen?
Control is seen in the way the group presents its doctrines as divine guidelines, which have as much weight as, or more than the Bible itself. In other groups, the leader is seen as an avatar or an enlightened being who has contact with the divine. When people follow these leaders, they obey, without doubts or questions.
Jehovah’s Witnesses are indoctrinated to loyally follow the Governing Body, the top leaders in the organization, even if they do not understand the teaching. Obedience within the group must be absolute and unambiguous. And that causes people to be evaluated for that obedience. Thus, their spirituality is measured in exactly the same proportion as their dedication and loyalty to leaders.
For example, EVERYTHING that a Jehovah’s Witness does is amenable to evaluation by the leaders and can lead to being well-liked or frowned upon within the group. In the latter case, it can result in their expulsion with the consequent ostracization or social death. This is where not even a ‘hi’ can be given when passing by a ‘disfellowshipped’ person on the street and all contact should be avoided.
The leaders promote an atmosphere of condemnation, where people end up watching each other and any misstep can lead to the person being called before the elders. Imagine the fear that each Jehovah’s Witness feels about losing, from one day to the next, their social circle, and even their family relationships because they have been expelled from the group!
Even those who disagree with any teaching or interpretation must remain silent, as they know that if they disclose their disagreement they will be labeled an “apostate”. Otherwise, the consequence is a humiliating expulsion from the group.
In your opinion, what are the most controversial teachings of Jehovah’s Witnesses?
For me, the issue of blood is one of the most controversial doctrines, as it implies life-and-death decisions and has resulted in decades of thousands of deaths that could have been saved by using the blood components prohibited by the organization. Even blood components that are now allowed by leaders, such as albumin, hemoglobin and others, have been banned in the past. Some estimate that no less than 50,000 people may died due to this extremist and incoherent interpretation, worldwide.
Another teaching that few people know – even within the group – is that the religious organization teaches that Jesus is not the mediator of all Christians. According to the leaders, only “anointed” Christians have Jesus as a mediator.
To put it better: in the official teaching of Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christians are divided into two groups. There is one group who will live in an earthly paradise; referred to as the Great Crowd. The other group is a small number of Christians who have the heavenly call – 144,000. Only the latter group has Jesus as mediator and only these can be called “Sons of God”.
For me, this teaching is directly against what is taught in the New Testament, where all Christians have Jesus as their mediator which directly implies the salvation of the individual.
Can Jehovah’s Witnesses be classified as Christians?
That is a good question. I have some reservations about stating that they are not Christians in the absolute sense. They look to Jesus as the model to follow and believe in Jesus as the “Son of God”, who gave his life for us. But they have a distorted view of Jesus there. Since they look at Jesus through the lens of the organization, they have no personal relationship with him. In fact, it is the Watchtower organization, through its leaders, that mediates the relationship of each Jehovah’s Witness with God.
Jesus turns out to be a means to an end, as it is taught that Jesus gave the Watchtower Society His approval to be its representative on earth. Even the organization’s leaders are said to replace Christ, according to the New World Translation of 2 Corinthians 5:20.
Do you believe that there are sincere Christians among them being deceived by the teachings of Jehovah’s Witnesses?
Yes I do believe so! When someone starts studying with Jehovah’s Witnesses and converts to the group, they genuinely believe that they have found biblical truth and that they have the right form of worship that pleases God. However, this faith is then channeled into a form of organizational idolatry, where the person has to prove himself worthy of salvation, practicing the works that the Watchtower requires for him. It is a gradual process and the person does not even realize it.
What is the main characteristic that differentiates Jehovah’s Witnesses from traditional Christian denominations?
I think that there are several characteristics at the doctrinal level, such as the rejection of the teaching of the Trinity, immortality of the soul, Hell Fire, the teaching that Jesus was enthroned king in heaven in 1914, among other teachings. I think it is difficult to highlight just one feature.
The cult has its own “bible” translation, with many distortions in comparison to the original text. Do the members realize this? What is the explanation for these distortions?
Jehovah’s Witnesses have their own teachings, as everyone knows. For decades they used translations that did not support such teachings and over time, the leaders felt the need for a translation that fit their theological vision. I do not go so far as to say that they made many distortions. However, they did make the necessary changes in key texts that were not in harmony with their doctrinal understanding. This is especially true with respect to the divinity of Jesus. They inserted the divine name into the New Testament. And, they use the expression, “torture stake” instead of “cross”.
In each of these cases the organization explains the reasons for the translation and why it believes it is the most correct form. In most cases, from a purely grammatical point of view, these translations are not incorrect. But they diverge deeply from the orthodox form of translation, which is also based on dominant theology. Basically, it is almost always the theology of the translator that is reflected in the translation – whatever it may be.
From a spiritual point of view, it is serious matter to distort biblical texts to adapt their doctrinal view. Can you give an example of this type of change in the text used by Jehovah’s Witnesses?
One of the most well-known and controversial texts is that of John 1:1, where in the Greek text it is declared that the Word is God and in the New World Translation the indefinite article [a] is added, reading as follows:
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was a god.”
This is perhaps one of the most controversial and debated texts at the doctrinal and theological level against Jehovah’s Witnesses.
How does the hierarchy of Jehovah’s Witnesses work? What does it take to be an elder?
The organization of Jehovah’s Witnesses has a very clear and marked hierarchy, although the organization claims to the seven winds that there is no separation between clergy and laity, as in ‘Christianity’.
At the top of the hierarchy pyramid is the Governing Body, which is a form of ‘collective papacy’. They are the ones who have the effective power over the religious community and consider themselves guardians of doctrine. They are looked upon as representatives of Christ on earth.
Then, at the national level, we have the branches which have a direct link the world headquarters in the USA. These supervise all the congregations in their country, controlling everything that concerns the appointment of elders and ministerial servants (deacons), judicial matters or legal issues, etc.
Representatives of these branches visit each congregation annually, across the country, to take an x-ray of the state of the congregation: their spiritual needs, the promotion of loyalty to the organization, and the fulfillment of the goals it proposes. They are called ‘circuit overseers’.
Then there are the congregational elders, who are appointed by these representatives, at the request of the body of elders who already exercise power over their congregation. To become an elder one must have a ‘clean record’, so to speak: he cannot have a bad testimony, he must be an example in the congregation, have a good monthly average of hours preaching, be a good speaker, and be a quality teacher.
Then there are ministerial servants, the equivalent of a deacon, who provide more practical services in the congregation in support of the elders. Such assistance from the ministerial servants permits the elders to remain devoted to teaching and spiritual shepherding.
The religious organization of Jehovah’s Witnesses is known to have had legal problems with the cover up of child sexual abuse. Is it really that serious?
Yes, indeed! The Watchtower organization, both in the USA and in several countries around the world, has been grappling with successive scandals at this level. Due to their internal policies, thousands of cases of sexual abuse have, for decades, been “swept under the rug” in an effort to hide such abuses from the authorities.
From demanding that a victim have two witnesses before an alleged abuser can be punished internally, to demanding that the victim confront the abuser in front of congregation elders, Jehovah’s Witness leaders have done everything to ensure that the victims does not report such cases to the authorities.
The Australian Royal Commission brought this to the public during a 2015 survey, where they deposed several representatives of the Watchtower Society, including a member of the Governing Body, Geoffrey Jackson. It has been more than proven that the religious organization has not properly looked after the safety of children in the congregations for more than 50 years, because they have not reported alleged abusers to the authorities, and because they have intimidated victims through the use of their harmful internal policies.
And there were many abusers discovered by the Australian Royal Commission. Altogether, they discovered 1006 abusers in the Australian branch’s secret files. Yes, because in Jehovah’s Witnesses there are secret records of such cases, both in the congregations and in the branch.
The same has happened in Brazil, where there are suspicions and denunciations of such hidden cases for decades!
You participated in this exhibition of child sexual abuse cases here in Brazil, correct?
Right! After compromising internal documents came into my hands that revealed that the Brazilian branch of the Watchtower was aware of this type of sexual crimes, I contacted Vana Lopes, victim of Roger Abdelmassih and leader of the group ‘Victims United’, and exposed the situation.
Through it, I got to know the AVARC project, founded by the prosecutor, Celeste Leite dos Santos, and I made the complaint, together with other ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses. This group included several women who were victims of sexual abuse as children or adolescents within the group.
This led to the opening of an investigation process that is still going on, as far as I know.
As I learned, the Brazilian subsidiary itself was the target of searches and seizure of material, in an attempt to find evidence of sexual abuse cover-ups, as reported later in the Brazilian media.
You have a book that deals with Jehovah’s Witnesses. What is the purpose of the book?
That’s true. The book “Apostate! – Why I left Jehovah’s Witnesses” was written at the request of a prestigious international publisher (Penguin Random House in Portugal). This happened after giving some interviews in the Portuguese media regarding my experience as a dissident Jehovah’s Witness.
The book is an autobiography and tells my life story within this religious group, of which I was part of for almost 40 years of my life. It is a testimony and a personal experience that seeks to expose what it means to be educated as a Jehovah’s Witness. It details the experience one has had in the group over the years. It is not a hateful attack on religion, but it exposes what I think is wrong with it, including many things that most Jehovah’s Witnesses and the general public wouldn’t know.
It has received fantastic criticism from the Portuguese public, and even from the Brazilian public that has read it. As it is a Portuguese edition it is only available as an e-book for the Brazilian public through Amazon Brazil and Google, or by ordering the physical book through WOOK.pt.
I have been looking for a Brazilian publisher that may be interested in editing the book so that the book can also be read in Brazil. There are many people interested in having the book in their hands and I believe that it would also be in high demand.
Do you believe that through your experience you can help prevent other people from being deceived by cults?
Without a doubt! Only those who go through the experience of belonging to such a group can appreciate and understand the mechanisms and processes used in these groups, from recruitment to indoctrination, through the so-called ‘brainwashing’, and the adoption of a personality in the image of the leader and group.
Over the years I have used my experience to help many people who have turned to me for opinions, advice and practical help. Basically, my autobiography was the culmination of this process that has been going on since 2006 when I anonymously started exposing Jehovah’s Witnesses and the issue of blood online.
It has been compared to a David fighting a Goliath. Do you see yourself this way?
I am not exactly short, as I measure 1.86 meters (he laughs). But yes, anyone who decides to expose a religious multinational such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, with a vast real estate and financial empire, becomes a David in a figurative sense.
But my goal is not to ‘kill’ anyone! My goal is to expose what I know, sharing information that I believe is vital for a person to have a clear view on things so they can act with ‘informed consent’, so to speak.
I have nothing against Jehovah’s Witnesses as individuals and I abhor any religious persecution. People have the right to practice their faith and to belong to a religious group. But I believe that just as they have this right, I and others who belonged to this religious organization for decades, and everything we know about it, we also have the right to expose what we believe to be wrong and that can even adversely affect the life of people and families.
So, I believe that anyone BEFORE becoming a Jehovah’s Witness should research the group very well, not just by reading the information that Jehovah’s Witness leaders want them to read, but by researching what former members have to say about the subject. This applies to any group, not just Jehovah’s Witnesses. I believe that my book, in that aspect, can be of help!
You have a course on cults. Is it only about Jehovah’s Witnesses?
It aims to expose accurate and clear information about these types of groups. It is not about Jehovah’s Witnesses, nor does it focus on any particular high-control group. The course is transversal to all the Cults and High Control Groups that exist.
The information provided in the course, in video-class format, is based on the subject matter of specialists in these groups and seeks to transmit in a simple but authoritative way, what is known about the subject: what are the characteristics and way of acting in these groups, the psychological mechanisms used by leaders, the group dynamics that exist in them and much more.
Unfortunately, most people don’t know anything about it or have distorted notions about it. The course does not focus on discussing religious or theological doctrines. All the material I pass on to the student is based on academic material and from internationally renowned specialists, such as Steven Hassan, Janja Lalich and others.
What are the characteristics of cults?
There are several characteristics, but one of the main ones that I mentioned earlier is that in a Cult everything revolves around the leader. The latter has absolute and unquestionable power within the group and demands blind obedience to its rules and laws.
They are usually narcissistic people, and megalomaniacs. Some suffer from mental disorders such as delusions of greatness, others are likely to suffer from the Messiah Syndrome, believing that they were commissioned by God to carry out his divine plan in some way. Others are true charlatans who use their magnetic personality to their advantage and use people only to achieve personal and material interests.
The leaders of such groups use 3 tools, so to speak, to manipulate members: authoritarian leadership, deception, and mind control. In my course I explain this in detail. I believe that it is very interesting and helps us to understand how, many times, intelligent people end up joining these groups, ending up losing their individuality, and critical capacity. They become totally dependent on the leader and the group, regressing to a kind of mental childhood, where even to make simple decisions they have to consult the leader or group.
It is a subject that deserves research and investigation, since every year thousands of people are attracted to these type of groups. The aim of my course is to help expose the subject so that people are not deceived. I believe that psychologists, psychiatrists and mental health therapists in general would benefit greatly from taking this course, as they could better help people who have gone through such experiences.
Even religious leaders should know this issue, as they often focus on doctrinal and theological issues and forget that these groups have ways of persuading people that go beyond doctrinal issues. It is a true psychological game!
What is your relationship to faith after a negative experience in a cult?
Despite being disillusioned with organized religion, I consider myself a Christian and have not lost my faith. I simply came to value my personal relationship with God more, through Christ, without feeling the need for human intermediaries, who often only serve to abuse individual faith and end up leading it to organizational idolatry.