The sad story of Emma Gough, the 22 year-old Jehovah’s Witness mother-to-be who died after giving birth to healthy twins because she refused to accept a blood transfusion, hit the headlines recently. She lived in Telford, 45 minutes from Wolverhampton and her death has affected many local people, including a sister of someone in our congregation, because the JWs are thriving in Wolverhampton with around 13 congregations. It must be so hard for Emma’s husband and family to be left with infant twins and no mother, especially when a simple blood transfusion would have saved her life. It must also be hard for those who adhere to the strict blood transfusion law of the Watchtower. I’ve decided to post this blog to help anyone who is affected by this teaching to ask; does the bible prohibit blood transfusions? If you are a Jehovah’s Witness, I have used the New World Translation in this work in the hope that you will read this post and think prayerfully about what the bible teaches.
I understand that this is a sensitive and controversial subject for Jehovah’s Witnesses. The Watchtower has changed its position on the use of blood products but maintains a policy of automatic self-disfellowshipping for any transgressors of this “law”.
I also understand that the “law” on the use of blood products stems from the letter to the Gentiles recorded in Acts chapter 15, which asks Gentile believers to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat strangled animals and from sexual immorality.
The historical and wider biblical context and reason for the Jerusalem council edict must be understood before we can answer the question “does the bible prohibited blood transfusions?” Three questions apply to Acts 15 before the issue can be properly understood:
- What it is the context in which the Jerusalem council made it’s decision?
- Why were the Gentiles asked to abstain from these four areas and not from stealing, lying, coveting and other such biblical laws?
- How are we to read Acts 15 in light of 1 Corinthians 8:7-8, where Paul is legally indifferent to the eating of meat sacrificed to idols? “7 But not everyone knows this. Some people are still so accustomed to idols that when they eat such food they think of it as having been sacrificed to an idol, and since their conscience is weak, it is defiled. 8 But food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do.”
In Luke’s account in Acts, James said to the council, most especially the circumcision party, that they must recognize and embrace Gentile believers as brothers and sisters in Christ, and not burden them or put stumbling blocks in the way of the salvation of other Gentiles by asking them to add to their faith in Jesus either circumcision or the whole code of Jewish practices (v13-18). At the same time, having established the principle that salvation is by grace alone through faith alone, without works (v8-11), it was necessary to appeal to these Gentile believers to respect the consciences of their Jewish fellow-believers by abstaining from a few practices which caused offence to them and which put stumbling blocks in the way of fellow Jews coming to faith in Christ. For, James went on to explain, Moses had been preached in every city from the earliest times and is still being read in the synagogues on every Sabbath (v21). In such contexts, where the teachings of Moses were well known and highly respected, Jewish scruples were sensitive and out of charity should not have been violated by Gentile believers. This is the same argument applied by Paul in 1 Corinthians 8. As knowledge puffs up and love builds up, so believers must do the loving thing for those who’s conscience is weak by abstaining from meat sacrificed to idols. Paul knew that food was not defiled by being sacrificed to idols and so it could be eaten by followers of Christ. Some immature Christians, however, were uneasy when they saw other Christians eat idol-food. Paul was, therefore, willing to stop eating meat for the sake of his weaker brother.
In the case of the four abstentions listed in Acts 15, the “weaker brother” appears to be the Jewish believers whose ceremonial customs, all matters of external purity, were being violated by the Gentile believers and this made the Jewish brothers uneasy, their conscience was defiled. So by eating meat sacrificed to idols, eating or drinking ‘blood’ and ‘eating the meat of strangled animals’ Gentile believers broke the ceremonial food laws recorded in Leviticus (Lev. 17:6-15). Sexual immorality was also a matter of Jewish purity, outlawed in Leviticus (Lev 15:16-33). For Gentile believers who came from a background of temple prostitution and general promiscuity the issue needed addressing. This sexual immortality was associated with cultic practice and so it overlapped with both the ceremonial and moral aspects of God’s law.
In essence, the Jerusalem council agreed that all believers in Christ are saved by God’s grace though faith. They are justified and made righteous by hating their moral sin and loving Christ for dying in their place on the cross. As for the law, it is divided into moral and ceremonial and whilst the moral law still stands today the ceremonial law is swallowed up in the cross as Christ fulfills the requirements of the sacrificial system. All believers are held to the moral law of God but not the ceremonial. Whilst the Jews who had come to trust in Christ is their Messiah knew that he had fulfilled the ceremonial laws and so abolished them, it still pricked their conscience when they saw their Gentile brothers breaking those ceremonial laws. God had already revealed through Peter’s visions in Acts 10 and 11 that the food laws were abolished under Christ. All things were now “clean” to eat because the ceremonial law was fulfilled in Christ. Jewish believers could now eat all sorts of meat and blood products, yet it left them feeling uneasy, so Gentiles were asked to abstain for the love of their Jewish brethren.
Carrying this principle forward to today’s ethical dilemma created by the Watchtower, it is clear that blood transfusions do not fit the category of Jewish ceremonial law as no sacrifice for sin or guilt is performed in the donation of blood. Blood donors may believe that they are making a small sacrifice to make them right with God but the bible teaches that only one sacrifice is acceptable to God, the death of Jesus on the cross (1 Peter 3:18). Blood given for transfusion and the blood of animals used in sacrifice are not in the same ceremonial category.
So, do blood transfusions fall into the category of something believers should abstain from because of the uneasy conscience of some? It might be true that Jehovah’s witnesses feel uncomfortable with the idea of having the blood of another person pumped into their veins. The question remains, does the Bible ask people to abstain from the practice of blood transfusion for this reason?
I believe the teaching of Jesus in Matthew 12 sheds some light on the situation. The disciples go into a grain field, pluck heads of grain and eat them on the Sabbath. The Pharisees are angry because Jesus’ disciples are breaking the Sabbath law “do no work”.
Jesus’ reply takes the following line of argument:
- The priests “worked” every Sabbath in the temple and so “broke” the law yet remained innocent because their temple work took precedent over the law not to work on the Sabbath. The authority of God’s law allowed them to work (v5).
- Jesus himself is greater than the temple system, he fulfills the law for people and has authority to allow them to do acts of mercy on the Sabbath (v7)
- Mercy takes precedent over sacrifice (v7)
To prove his point, Jesus then healed a man with a withered hand, on the Sabbath in the synagogue (v9-13) and the strict law keepers wanted to kill him, not for showing mercy but for breaking the law which said “do not work on the Sabbath” (v14). Yet, the same Pharisees would work on Sabbath by rescuing a sheep from a ditch! And Jesus said that a man’s life is worth more than a sheep’s. So, as healing people is a work of re-creation, Jesus himself taught and demonstrated that mercy takes president over sacrifice.
Presuming that someone still argued that the laws of Leviticus 17 stand today, that they were not swallowed up in the sacrificial death of Christ, and that blood transfusions break those laws, Jesus teaches and demonstrates that healing someone is more important than keeping such laws. Jesus “went through the land doing good and healing all those oppressed by the Devil; because God was with him” (Acts 10:38). Saving the lives of people and healing them falls into the category of mercy. Jesus said “I want mercy, not sacrifice”. It is, therefore, necessary for believers to show and receive mercy, to heal people, before adhering to any ceremonial laws on blood.
If you are a Jehovah’s Witness I hope this gives you the courage to accept a blood transfusion as an act of mercy and not to be concerned about breaking ceremonial laws concerning blood.