Serving humanity, websites like CultBeGone.com keep us up to date on who the cults are, so we can watch out. Lately, trying to make me mad, they've started including us! My people! Jehovah's Witnesses! They never used to do that. They used to just call us a religion, albeit an oddball one. Cults used to be Jim Jones or Waco or that Japanese Subway Poison Gas gang....groups that physically isolate themselves, fall under control of some highly charismatic character, and act downright weird....I mean, socially destructive...so much so as to trigger a shoot-out with the Feds or a mass suicide. But in recent years, the ranks of those who track such groups have swollen beyond mere religious academics to include folks with an agenda, most notably evangelicals and atheists. To the former, anyone rejecting the Trinity is a cult. To the latter, anyone not rejecting God is a cult, save only the mainest of the mainstream faiths. So here we are stuck between these two overbearing factions, just like our Lord impaled between two thieves. Both readily throw the cult label at us, altering the traditional definition so as to include whoever they don't like.
If you don't like a group, it is a sect. If you really don't like it, it is a cult. Is it really that different from the first century, the birth-century of Christianity? Representing the new Christian faith, Paul, a former Jewish leader, checked into the synagogue at Rome to see what sort of slanderous reports they'd heard from opposers: "They said to him: “Neither have we received letters concerning you from Judea, nor has anyone of the brothers that has arrived reported or spoken anything wicked about you. But we think it proper to hear from you what your thoughts are, for truly as regards this sect it is known to us that everywhere it is spoken against." (Acts 28:21-22)
The whole of Christianity was a "sect." And it was "everywhere spoken against."
Ironically, during the time we might conceivably have been called a cult, at least by one measure, we weren't. Joseph "Judge" Rutherford, second president of the Watchtower Society, was the outspoken public voice of JW publications throughout his term. A larger than life character...a man of pure charisma. His was the booming voice of Enemies. I don't accept the 'cult' label for even back then, mind you, but at least by that one measure...having a charismatic leader...we qualified.
But Nathan Knorr succeeded Rutherford as WBTS President in 1942, and he was plain vanilla, no razzle-dazzle at all. Brother Knorr was the visiting Bethel convention speaker one summer here in Rochester....I think in the late 1970's. As he spoke at the War Memorial (since renamed Blue Cross Arena) the bright lights overhead showed up clearly the wrinkled mess of a suitjacket he wore. Probably from sitting in those arena seats, when you'd take your jacket off because the AC back then was temperamental, and it would slip to the back of the seat where it was promptly scrunched into a wad....I've had it happen to me often enough. Trust me....we were glad to hear from him knowing his role and responsibility....but he was not charismatic.
In the 1970's, duties were divided up among a governing body, men with equal rank, the number varying, from what I've heard, between 9 and 18. Now...it wouldn't be kind to call them colorless. But they didn't stand out. If one of them came to town you'd probably go hear him speak, but that's only because you were with the program. They had no drawing power in themselves. Though I'm sure their pictures have been published, I wouldn't recognize one were he to knock on my door....they just don't strive for prominence. They live in modest circumstances at Watchtower worldwide headquarters. Paradoxically, they resemble (I'm sure not by design) Plato's philosopher-kings, described in The Republic. As outlined in Michael Hart's The 100:
Only those persons who show that they can apply their book learning to the real world should be admitted into the guardian class. Moreover, only those persons who clearly demonstrate that they are primarily interested in the public welfare are to become guardians.
Membership in the guardian class would not appeal to all persons. The guardians are not to be wealthy. They should be permitted only a minimal amount of personal property, and no land or private homes. They are to receive a fixed (and not very large) salary, and may not own either gold or silver. Members of the guardian class should not be permitted to have separate families, but are to eat together, and are to have mates in common. The compensation of these philosopher -kings should not be material wealth, but rather the satisfaction of public service.
Anyone familiar with Jehovah's Witnesses will realize at once that this description fits the governing body almost to a "T". Only the "mates in common" does not apply.
They're not known to be especially riveting speakers. Maybe some a bit like Paul? who was a little.....ahem....dull in speaking, or at least rough. He summed up his own reputation: "For his letters, say they, are weighty and powerful; but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech contemptible." (2 Cor 10:10) Paul even killed a person with his late night speech: "Seated in a window was a young man named Eutychus, who was sinking into a deep sleep as Paul talked on and on. When he was sound asleep, he fell to the ground from the third story and was picked up dead." [!] (Acts 20:9 NIV) Fortunately for him, his is one of a handful of resurrections reported in the NT. As it should be. If you're going to bore someone to death, you ought to at least be able to raise him up again. But that might not happen today.
No they have no star power, these GB members, neither then or now. "Unlettered and ordinary," is how the Jewish high court described Christian leaders of the first century. (Acts 4:13) It's not so different today.
GB member Maxwell Friend (now deceased) actually showed up one evening at a Service meeting, much to my surprise. Turned out he was personal friends with someone in the sister congregation, which met in our same Kingdom Hall. His visit was a bit distressing to me, since, as a Ministerial Servant, I'd been assigned a Q&A part that night, and didn't feel optimally prepared. Great...just great! I fretted...I'm going to be stumbling and stammering in front of a governing body member! But the part went well. Brother Friend sat in the audience like everyone else, and raised his hand....I called on him....and he made some ordinary comment...not some Great Profound Biblical Truth comment.... just a regular comment like anybody else. Nobody made a great fuss over him. He didn't put on airs in any way.
I crossed paths with another one of that group, sort of. By odd coincidence, one of my pals has the same name, Christian and surname, as this other governing body member. Only the middle initial is different. My friend entered Bethel himself around 1980, and while at Bethel, he married. Mrs Sheepandgoats and I sent him a card on his first wedding anniversary and it was the governing body member who replied! (I discovered later they get their letters crossed all the time) He thanked us for our kind wishes, he related what he and his wife had been doing lately...how they'd been to Australia for the District Convention, and then Africa....boy, he sure gets around for being just a year at Bethel, said I to Mrs Sheepandgoats. But the wives' first names didn't match. Hmmm. Maybe the name we had was just a nickname, we mused, but then the truth dawned on us. And blew us away. Here is a GB member taking time to respond to an anniversary card....writing a few chatty paragraphs to people he did not know, not wanting to hurt anyone's feelings...I mean, these are not pretentious people.
Jesus once said to his disciples: "You know that the rulers of the nations lord it over them and the great men wield authority over them. This is not the way among you; but whoever wants to become great among you must be your minister, and whoever wants to be first among you must be your slave." (Matt 20:25-27) In my experience, this description fits very well members of the JW governing body. Not cult-like at all.
[Edit 11/3/11 A brother emailed me to say that, although Max Friend had been in Bethel forever and ever, and had done many things, he was never on the governing body. Naw....can't be, I said. But then I checked and....sure enough, it was true. Where did I ever get this idea in my head? Gasp.....does this mean I could also be wrong on other things?]