The first institution of higher learning in the Western World, the Academy of Athens, was founded by Plato in 387 BC. Much of what is bedrock to Western civilization traces back to him. Plato recorded his concept of ideal government in which he advocated rule by “philosopher-kings.” He favored monarchy, but not hereditary monarchy. Instead, his rulers were to be selected, by already-existing rulers, on the basis of merit. This would follow a lengthy period of education designed to separate the wheat from the chaff, so lengthy that it seems nobody under age fifty would be eligible for consideration. Consider an excerpt from ‘The 100,’ an intriguing book by Michael Hart, which undertakes to rate the one hundred most influential persons throughout history (Plato is #40):1
“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 recognize at once that these words almost exactly describe their Governing Body. Only the “mates in common” does not apply. It is too rich: the group who, without fuss, and no doubt unknowingly, actually applies the words of the philosopher Plato, is a relatively uneducated group beneath the notice of many today—Jehovah’s Witnesses. Imagine! The standard-bearer of modern intellectuals devises a system of government that they admire, but cannot reproduce, and then the Governing Body stumbles along and says ‘Hey, we’ll try some of that,’ and implements it without sweat!
One may object that Plato’s recommendation is for the government of nations, whereas Jehovah’s Witnesses are a religion. But the similarities are more striking than the differences. Worldwide, Jehovah’s Witnesses number over eight million, midway on the scale of nations, with about the same population as Switzerland. The Bible speaks of God’s people as “a great nation.” It shouts: “Open up the gates that a righteous nation may enter, one that keeps faith.” It warns religious opponents that “The kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people [translations vary about 50/50, some opting for ‘people,’ others ‘nation’] that will produce its fruit.”2
Scripturally, Jehovah’s Witnesses are a nation as real as any nation on the world’s roster of nations today. In fact, they are more so, since their citizens are more united. Their universal reputation of being moral, decent, and law-abiding people is no accident, nor is it explained solely by their belief in the Bible as the source of divine instruction. It is also the result of effective administration—governing. Many groups that claim to follow the Bible are populated by members whose lifestyles belie the claim, as Sider makes clear in the prior chapter. Jehovah’s Witnesses are unified in a common goal and purpose. They practice what they preach and, heaven knows, they preach. It is all a result of effective governing. They are Plato’s dream come true.
The reason Jehovah’s Witnesses can do it and the intellectuals cannot is that Plato’s system depends upon persons who are neither ambitious, nor materialistic, nor overly proud. It is not that such persons cannot be found among the general population. It is that the values of this world are such that these persons cannot rise to the top. Once they are spotted, they are dismissed as impractical nuts and shunted off to the bottom, as in some great antitypical game of Chutes and Ladders. But in the world of Jehovah’s Witnesses, these people do rise to the top, and part of their very qualifications is that they do not regard themselves as ‘rising to the top,’ but only as fellow Christians willing and able to serve.
One can almost entertain the fantasy of Plato himself appearing on the world stage today. As soon as they discover it, today’s educated best would rush to welcome him into their homes and, of course, he would graciously accept. In time he would learn that, while he was honored with words, he was yet dismissed as an impractical dreamer with regard to his ideas of government. Eventually (it might take a while) he would discover that Jehovah’s Witnesses had put his ideas into practice. He would rush over to Bethel to consult, where they, having no idea who he is, would make him take a number and wait his turn.
In the first century, the “apostles and presbytrs” in Jerusalem formed a governing body to set policy for the rapidly expanding Christian faith. That agency determined how scripture would apply to new developments, much as a Supreme Court might determine how a country’s constitution might apply to new developments. Without such application, a constitution quickly becomes irrelevant. The fifteenth chapter of Acts provides a specific example of how Christians were governed then. The specific issue hardly matters; it is not a burning topic today. It is the template that matters. Today, the Governing Body of Jehovah’s Witnesses uses that template in directing modern Christian activity. Read it and note the dispute and the agreed-upon channel of redress. Note how, prior to reaching a decision, scripture is considered, both historical and prophetic. Witnesses are heard who testify to the role holy spirit is manifestly playing among the congregations. The resulting decision is put into writing and sent to all the congregations: “As they traveled from city to city, they handed on to the people for observance the decisions reached by the apostles and presbyters in Jerusalem. Day after day the churches grew stronger in faith and increased in number.”3
Alas for those who suppose God is an American. Alas for those who suppose Christianity ought to be based upon Western democracy. Churches in America typically paint God as American. He is enthralled with democracy, majority rule and freedom of speech. But it wasn’t guidelines being delivered back then by the apostles and presbyters. It wasn’t suggestions. It wasn’t proposals to be put to popular vote. It was decisions which were to be observed. Nearly all English translations use words as “decisions” or “decrees.” The New International Version calls them “decisions for the people to obey.” The Amplified Bible strays slightly with “regulations,” Moffatt’s New Testament translation: “resolutions,” the Good News Bible: “rules.” Only the ridiculously paraphrased Message translation waters down the phrase to: “simple guidelines which turned out to be most helpful.” Isn’t this what one would expect? If God’s ways are truly higher than our ways and people become Christians precisely for that reason, does anyone really think that God’s ways would be determined by majority vote? If that is the case, what would be the need for God?4
The apostles and presbyters governed from Jerusalem as a God-ordained arrangement. They were not ambitious men seizing power. They were Christians with the most experience, men who had introduced the faith to others, and they saw to their own succession. Is this arrangement to be extended into the present? Jehovah’s Witnesses say yes. It is what they glean from consideration of a passage in Matthew: “Who, then, is the faithful and prudent servant, whom the master has put in charge of his household to distribute to them their food at the proper time? Blessed is that servant whom his master on his arrival finds doing so. Amen, I say to you, he will put him in charge of all his property.”5
At first glance, one might wonder if these verses can refer to governing at all. I’ve had someone tell me they are no more than a nice story with the moral to always do your best. But consider that the verses are embedded in Matthew 24 and 25, two Bible chapters devoted to prophesies and parables about Christ’s return. Matthew 24:3 leads with the question posed by Jesus’ disciples: “Tell us, when will this happen, and what sign will there be of your coming, and of the end of the age?” The next chapter consists of three parables in which the Master returns after a long absence and settles accounts with his slaves. ‘What have they been doing while he has been gone?’ he wants to know. Some have been diligent. Some have been negligent. Some have kept alert. Some have fallen asleep. Some have done well by his brothers. Some have ignored them. As is typical, Jesus speaks in illustrations.
Today, among Jehovah’s Witnesses, that “faithful and prudent servant,” found by the “master on his arrival” to be giving “food at the proper time,” has been appointed over all [the Master’s] belongings. It defines a governing body which oversees kingdom interests on earth. As closely as possible, it models itself after the pattern set by that first century governing body. In this way, congregations of Jehovah’s Witnesses are governed. They thereby maintain unity and stand for something separate. They do not merely reflect national or cultural norms of the day endorsed and slightly modified with a religious seal of approval.
Members of the Witnesses Governing Body are not bluebloods born into privilege. They are ministers illustrating the root meaning of the word: ‘through the dust.’6 They have not been as lowly as their ‘brothers.’ They have been more lowly than most of them, engaging in the full-time ministry throughout their lives—humble, door to door work, often humbled again through assignments to poverty-stricken locations. To cite author Hart, they have “applied their book learning to the real world” and have “demonstrated that they are primarily interested in the public welfare.”
Even now, they essentially live in dormitories. They are nice dormitories, to be sure, but they are dormitories nonetheless. Their basic needs are covered, but they are not amassing pensions or retirement plans. They needn’t hitchhike to get where they want to go, but they generally relied on public transportation back in the day. Though heading an eight-million-member organization, when they fly, it is via commercial flight. They thus typify again Plato’s ideal government: “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…The compensation of these philosopher-kings should not be material wealth, but rather the satisfaction of public service.”7
Members of the Governing Body could be described as having been set on high, who have prepared for it by time spent in places low. They would say that they strive to be examples of trusting in God. They yet read the Bible regularly, a course they advise for everyone else, reflecting the kings of ancient Israel who were directed to read the Mosaic Law daily. When they devise some new Bible-based training school, they put themselves through it first, where they are ever reminded of what they aspire to be. Yet, even as they are aware of their own imperfections, they do their level best to shepherd the flock, to ward off sectarian influences, and to give direction in order to meet current circumstances. They issue “decisions” as their counterparts did in the first century.
They hold to the Bible as best they can and unabashedly refer to it as “God’s Word,” a designation the more liberal churches abandoned decades ago, possibly so that they would not be looked down upon by intellectuals. They like God’s pleading expressed by Isaiah: “If only you would attend to my commandments, your peace would be like a river, your vindication like the waves of the sea.”8 Peace is a good thing. They are ever vigilant to teach God’s commandments so as to help ones attain it. They take God’s side as the murmurers complain “The LORD’s way is not fair!’ Hear now, house of Israel: Is it my way that is unfair? Are not your ways unfair?” If the brilliant thoughts of those who think them truly were worth the paper they were printed on, surely they would have resulted in a better world by now.9
In view of the modest means of the Governing Body members, Hart’s further assessment is readily understood: “Membership in the guardian class would not appeal to all persons.” There were persons of the first century who wanted Paul’s authority—but not his work. These were the “superapostles,” ambitious men coveting power. Some of them made a grab for power, mostly by disrespecting direction from the “apostles and presbyters” and teaching whatever they pleased within their sphere of influence.
Paul became so fed up with them that he, at one point, seemed to take leave of his senses: “Are they ministers of Christ? (I am talking like an insane person). I am still more, with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, far worse beatings, and numerous brushes with death. Five times at the hands of the Jews I received forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I passed a night and a day on the deep; on frequent journeys, in dangers from rivers, dangers from robbers, dangers from my own race, dangers from Gentiles, dangers in the city, dangers in the wilderness, dangers at sea, dangers among false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many sleepless nights, through hunger and thirst, through frequent fastings, through cold and exposure. And apart from these things, there is the daily pressure upon me of my anxiety for all the churches. Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is led to sin, and I am not indignant?” One can almost picture caretakers hauling him off for a sedative at this point and a check of blood pressure! How much can a man take? He does the work! They grab the credit! Most of Paul’s would-be usurpers were essentially established men comfortable in their home congregations, lacking the track record of Paul but confident that they had the wisdom to compensate for that lack.10
One of that number, Diotrephes, ruled his local roost. The apostle John says: “I wrote to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to dominate, does not acknowledge us. Therefore, if I come, I will draw attention to what he is doing, spreading evil nonsense about us. And not content with that, he will not receive the brothers, hindering those who wish to do so and expelling them from the church.” The same drama plays out in the modern-day with some insistent that they should have greater input in “decisions” that are made through the governing arrangement and who are inclined to second-guess them all.11
Members of the Governing Body are selected by existing members from the tiny subset of Witnesses who profess to be anointed. Details of this anointing are doctrinal and dull to non-Witnesses and well-known to actual Witnesses. Suffice it to say that it is a group numbering just 144,000 (a number taken from Revelation) throughout all Christian history. Consequently, almost all of Jehovah’s Witnesses today look forward to everlasting life on earth under God’s kingdom rule, but this small number profess the hope of being part of that rule in heaven upon their death. There they will be a “kingdom and priests for our God, and they will reign on earth.”12 They ‘profess’ this hope but once a year—never verbally—by partaking of the wine and unleavened bread at the celebration of Lord’s Evening Meal, the only meeting of Jehovah’s Witnesses of which a portion could ever be described as ceremonial.
Since those with the heavenly hope self-identify, is it possible for a person to do so simply to one day assume leadership of the organization? Were mere education the criteria, such might be the case, but since decades of unpaid service is also a prerequisite to such leadership, it is inconceivable. Among the greatest sins one can commit is to ‘partake unworthily,’ falsely partaking of emblems representing the Christ. Dishonest persons might blow past this stricture and do it anyway, but they are not going to supply proof of their ‘qualifications’ with decades of lowly service. In the individual congregations, members professing the heavenly hope—there are only ten thousand or so worldwide—enjoy no special status and are not inclined to draw attention to themselves or their calling. The arrangement is one of the future, not the present, apart from the few who serve as a governing body. At present, that agency numbers eight. The number fluctuates.
The Governing Body’s model is that of ‘rising through the ranks.’ As in the first century, they are “men who have given up their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”13 It is a marked difference between leadership in the Witness organization versus leadership in the greater religious world. There, generally speaking, applicants attend a specialized college, earn a degree, find a church to hire them as pastor or assign them as priest. From that start, there may be a promotional ladder to be climbed. Thus, one may eventually become a church leader having never truly followed. With those who have served on the Governing Body of Jehovah’s Witnesses it has been different. They have spent decades in full-time service performing a ministry more lowly than that of most persons they will one day lead. It is only after, not before, they have “given up their lives” that they receive specialized training to lead.
The Governing Body strives to promote peace with the national “king” in whatever nation in which it operates. No king will find more cooperative citizens than Witnesses so long as he does not insist upon invading God’s turf. “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”14 If Caesar wants you to walk a mile, walk two. Don’t sulk because he is doing something you don’t like—thank him for building the roads you drive on. Don’t test him and take up the side of those making him trouble. Honor him for his efforts to keep the unruly in check. Don’t niggle him out of his taxes. Pay up. Fear his authority, for the verse cautions he “does not bear the sword for nothing.”15
Help him out where he tries to promote moral strength among his people. He sees some of them falling prey to alcoholism, sloth, drugs and petty crime. Be a bulwark against those things. Pick up the litter in the park that his more careless subjects strew about. In fact, even pray for the king, not for the success of his plans, for that is his business, but pray as Paul advised Timothy to pray: “I urge that entreaties and prayers, petitions and thanksgivings, be made on behalf of all men, for kings and all who are in authority, so that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity.”16 Do what the king says. But if he tries to regulate worship or ministry, then there is no choice but to give God’s things to God.
‘Exactly, your honor,’ tell him. ‘We’ll be nothing but model citizens. Please leave us be in our efforts to declare the Bible’s teachings. If we are wrong in our interpretation, we’ll look like fools. We’ll take that risk. But under no circumstances does it ever become a threat to you, for everyone knows we are the most peaceful people in the world. Do not deprive your citizens the right to decide for themselves about all-important spiritual things. Do not take anyone’s word for it that our interpretation of Scripture is wrong, especially when they make little effort to teach it themselves. This advertising of the Bible’s good news (gospel) is what we must do, for “this is good and pleasing to God our savior who wills everyone to be saved and come to knowledge of the truth.”17
Jehovah’s Witnesses are often described as ‘pacifist’ but the description is not technically correct. They are neutral with regard to the conflicts of this world, which goes further than pacifism. They will not fight, but they will also not take a desk job for the war effort. They stay separate from it all. They feel that heroes and villains should be determined by the Bible’s measure, and not by the dictates of the national king. There will typically be heroes and villains on both sides. Can the current military person really fit in with God’s overall purpose? Since they have demonstrated in this world that they will blow my head off with a gun if some man tells them to, there is a problem. They will have to give up that allocation of loyalty before one could trust them in God’s new system.
Still, notwithstanding the seemingly opposite views of Jehovah’s Witnesses and members of the military over how patriotism is best expressed, it is not uncommon for the two to have respect for one another. Both recognize the value of discipline. Both recognize the value of self-sacrifice. A professional soldier will often respect the professional soldier of the other side for serving the cause he believes in. Once they see it is the same with Jehovah’s Witnesses serving their cause, perceptions sometimes change.
Many accept it as normal that perception should be determined by the local king and the immediate country, in line with the conventional goals of the overall world. Mark Smith writes that “the strongest predictors of people’s moral beliefs are not their religious commitments or lack thereof but rather when and where they were born.”18 The Governing Body of Jehovah’s Witnesses does not permit such factors to predominate. It is alarming to some non-Witnesses that religion might cause persons to stray so far from the familiar mindset.
“In the long run, religion is best understood as responding to changing political and cultural values rather than shaping them,” Smith further states.19 The Governing Body does not permit politics or culture to play that trump card among its members. They take a lot of criticism for it. When the herd turns, and they refuse to turn with it, some bruising is inevitable. Often, it will come as charges about controlling people, and can even escalate to charges of totalitarianism.
Smith’s book charts five contentious issues in America’s history: slavery, divorce, homosexuality, abortion, and women’s rights. In each instance he shows how religious leaders have allowed their churches to be molded by changing cultural perceptions, not necessarily immediately, but inevitably. Modern church members have more in common morally and politically with contemporary atheists than they do with their own church counterparts of long ago, he observes.
They reinterpret the Bible when they have to, so as to stay relevant, just as the Russian judge reinterpreted the constitution when he had to. A reviewer of the book declares it “ultimately hopeful” that churches so accommodate present trends. He has in mind secular considerations leading religious ones, not the other way around. It is a reassuring message that he brings to those who would mold politics/culture, and even the anti-cultists, that they need not worry overmuch. Religion may drag its feet a bit, but it will ultimately come around to follow prevailing opinion. However, the Governing Body quotes a line from the book: “Christian leaders have regularly revised their teachings to match the beliefs and opinions gaining support among their members and in the larger society,”20 and says: ‘It doesn’t happen here.’ The heartened book reviewer is displeased about it, formers of politics/culture are displeased, and a worrisome new target presents itself for the anti-cultists. The interests of those who would strive to live by Bible principles are served, however.
The Governing Body doesn’t ‘reinterpret’ anything. Or rather, they do, but it is only in cases where former teachings are seen to stem from influences more cultural than biblical. As an example of the former: the scriptural arrangement of headship is now appreciated purely as a spiritual one and need not dictate matters practical. Should stereotypical roles be reversed with the husband at home with the children, and the wife at work, it raises no red flags. In the Witnesses’ branch organizations, it is routine for women to exercise authority over men in various areas of workplace expertise.
There is one more circumstance in which the Governing Body actually reinterprets quite a bit, but not the matters that Mark Smith writes of. They do not reinterpret matters of morality clearly defined in Scripture. However, they lay no claim to being inspired or infallible, but only to taking the lead in the Christian work. “The Governing Body is neither inspired nor infallible. Therefore, it can err in doctrinal matters or in organizational direction,” they have written. Who is not disarmed by such frank statements?21
There is no finer way to get some grousers going than to say: “Oh, we changed that.” Hostile people scour past Watchtower publications and discover positions that have altered, and pounce over the ‘flip-flop.’ It is not a piece of cake looking into the future. Everyone knows that. So if you miss the mark, you back up and tackle the subject anew. The Witness organization does it all the time. For decades, Watchtower publications have spoken of ‘tacking’ and the ‘light getting brighter.’ What is that if not an admission that they have often been wrong? They are very open about it, so when detractors complain about teachings that have changed, they look pretty silly if they harp on it. It has never been said that they didn’t.22
The present explanation is always a tentative explanation, the best out there. If it proves insufficient, they will in time re-examine and present things afresh. They ‘tack’ in ‘ever brightening light’ routinely. They will no doubt continue to do it as the situation warrants. They make no secret about it. Nor is anyone required to shout from the rooftops any current interpretation. Witnesses trust headship as they would trust the airplane pilot and take for granted he is handling the turbulence as best as can be expected. They don’t expect the cockpit door to swing open and the pilot shout: “Hey, anybody here know how to fly this thing?” Though the flight attendants may retreat with their refreshment carts of coffee and juice, passengers fasten their seatbelts as advised to ride out the rough patch without undue concern. They don’t reach for the flotation seat cover. They know that if God is worth his salt, he can provide capable human leadership. They know they haven’t signed on to a democracy.
That other point the Governing Body just clarified? You may have pondered that point some time ago in your own private study of the Bible. And if this was the greater church world, you would have run out and started up your own sect over it. Instead, Witnesses wait on the human authority they are convinced God has provided. Sometimes that authority has been wrong in expectations. When they are, it is like misreading a bus schedule and is not the basic fabric of the faith. It is a disappointment, but it does not change anticipation of the bus’s arrival. This author goes way out on a limb with a flippancy unmatched to liken several missed date perceptions of the early 1900s to the time you missed the nail with the hammer, and in frustration, swung several times more, again missing each time. What can you do? It would be nice had it not happened, but it did. If one has to go back over a century to dig up dirt, there can’t be that much dirt to dig up. Nor do they do anti-types anymore—“this is an anti-type of that’—probably because too many have blown up in their faces. You get almost as much bang for the buck, with no downside, by saying “This reminds us of such and such.” Who is there that can come along later and say that it did not?
The things Jehovah’s Witnesses have reinterpreted, or even flip-flopped on, are all superfluous things. They are all trimmings on the tree, and not the tree itself. The essential doctrines of Jehovah’s Witnesses that distinguish them from any other religion have been solidly established for over 100 years: teachings that the Trinity is unscriptural, for example, and that the soul does not live on after death. These are the important points that one should focus on. No one else figured it out. Forerunners of today’s Governing Body did, constituting powerful evidence that they are indeed led by God’s spirit.
Among the basic tenets discerned 100 years ago is that human salvation is not the prime issue before all creation, but the vindication of God’s name and purposes is.23 It is a huge distinction between Jehovah’s Witnesses and the general world of churches. It is the approach of the latter who say that it is all about us: all about our own personal salvation and relationship with Jesus. It invariably makes one self-centered. Invariably it leads to emphasis on rights outstripping responsibilities.
If the Governing Body has made some mistakes, they nonetheless man up and move on. They are not the cat that Mark Twain wrote about: “A cat that sits on a hot stove will never sit on a hot stove again. Nor will it sit on a cold one, for they all look hot.” They take heart that similar blunders occur repeatedly in Scripture. In the first century the word went out among the congregations that the apostle John would not die until the Lord’s return. It took John himself to set the record straight. He didn’t bother doing so until nearing the end of his life. Perhaps he had thought it himself.24
The apostle Peter declares that: “The end of all things has drawn close.” When the established Jewish world effectively ends with the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE, that is not the end he had in mind. Nevertheless, he probably drops to his knees and thanks God that he was not among those at the Jerusalem Hyatt for celebrations just then. He doesn’t grumble about being misled by whomever that 70 CE was not the big one. It was big enough. When they tell him they were just tacking, he doesn’t complain about it.25
Apparently, God is okay with it all, all of the ‘tacking,’ all of the ‘light getting brighter.’ If he was upset, he would short-circuit JW.org so that it would read in English and Pig Latin only and not the 900 languages in which it does read. If there was a substitute somewhere that did all that the Witness’ organization does in furtherance of the good news, minus the missed hammer swings, the best course would be to go there. But there is not, and it becomes apparent that God puts up with people who miss even as he is trying to overhaul them into people who do it less often. ‘They’re all imperfect people,’ he says in effect, ‘they’ll just have to sort through their own blunders.’
There are many examples in the Bible of faithful ones doing or saying things that did not pan out. Take, for instance, King David, troubled that he was living in a palace, and God was not. He plans to remedy that disparity by constructing a huge temple. Nathan the prophet gives him the green light. “Whatever is in your heart, go and do, for the LORD is with you,” he says. But God tells the prophet to back off. He points out that he has wandered about with the Israelites for centuries, perfectly content with the tabernacle he himself directed be made. Did he ever say that he wanted a house more permanent? However, he does allow that one will be built in the future, only not by David—he is a warring king and the symbolism is not right. It will be built by his son, Solomon, who will preside over an unprecedented period of peace. David wasn’t going to build any house! Solomon was!26 Nathan was wrong! Was he a ‘false prophet?’ Did he carry on over being second-guessed by God? Did David complain about being misled? There is no record of it.
The closer to significant events, the more eager become the ‘prophets.’ “Lord, are you restoring the kingdom to Israel at this time?” the apostles asked the resurrected Jesus. ‘No, I’m not. Mind you own business and carry on in the disciple-making work’ was, in essence, his answer.27
When they had asked him about it previously, for “they thought that the kingdom of God was going to appear instantly,” he told them a parable designed to show that it would yet be a while and that they should keep busy in his work while he is away: a certain man of noble birth was traveling to a distant land in order to secure kingly power and return. Before leaving, he gives his slaves funds and says they should put them to good use. Upon his return, he finds that the first two slaves have done business and have doubled his money. The third slave has sat idle. “Lord, here is your gold coin that I kept hidden away in a cloth,” the fellow explains. “You see, I was in fear of you, because you are a harsh man; you take what you did not deposit and you reap what you did not sow.”28
What is he saying to the Lord but: “You want disciples? Get off your rear end and make them yourself!” The attitude of the ‘wicked slave’ finds a counterpart in some opponents in modern times who balked at the prospect of preaching to the general public, preferring the more comfortable model of preaching to the congregation—never mind if that is the biblical pattern or not. The ‘winners’ among them reintegrate back into the greater world and resume life. The ‘losers’ among them mask their reason with complaints about direction and governance in the congregation and attempt to undermine the work of those who have stayed the course.
In answering the ‘wicked’ slave, the master does not deny that he reaps where he does not sow. He even lets stand the slave’s perception that he was thereby ‘harsh.’ Furthermore, he even indicates that he could have worked with such a flawed attitude. Had the slave deposited the money in the bank, a one-time trip, so as to start the ball rolling accruing interest, the master could have worked with it. He may not have jumped for joy, but he would not have delivered the rebuke he did. The parallel account in the 25th chapter of Matthew shows the ‘wicked’ slave digging in the ground, working up a sweat, to bury the master’s money and thus thwart any possibility of his interests benefiting. How can this not correspond to former adherents actively opposing what they once espoused?
Not all members of the faith are zealous in the ministry, though zeal is ever encouraged. Those who refuse are not the same as those who decline to do it. The latter do not deny the ministry; they simply feel, for whatever reason, that they are not up to it. The former turn against it. The latter agree with Jesus that if you have good news, you do not just sit on it; you put your lamp on the lampstand. The public ministry grounds a person. Stray from it at your personal spiritual peril. To the extent possible, members of the Governing Body engage in the house to house work just like everyone else.
The other action of the ‘wicked slave’ is to beat his fellow slaves when the master is delaying. Says Matthew: “But if that wicked servant says to himself, ‘My master is long delayed,’ and begins to beat his fellow servants, and eat and drink with drunkards, the servant’s master will come on an unexpected day and at an unknown hour and will punish him severely and assign him a place with the hypocrites, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.”29 Molasses hardly delays more than the Master does these days, in the eyes of some grousers, the ‘wicked slave’ counterparts, and they take out their frustrations in attacking those taking the lead, with charges of totalitarianism and mind control.
The Governing Body has framed witnessing about the kingdom as natural an activity as the sunrise and sunset, to Witnesses and non-Witnesses alike. They have made it a third inevitability that must be acquiesced to. There is death, there is taxes, and there is Jehovah’s Witnesses. The message is presented tactfully (ideally). It is augmented these days by methods less ‘in-your-face’ than house-to-house visits: via Internet and public displays of Bible literature staffed by Witnesses ready, but not insisting, to explain the contents.
It is no small feat to position kingdom preaching this way, for the message is not popular among humanists who would have us believe society ever moves onward and upward. It is not popular among religionists, for it overturns many a cherished teaching. It is not even popular always with the Witnesses themselves. They see the need for it, and have signed on to the program, but the desire to preach can be tempered by fear of man, leading one to yield to the implicit conviction of many that religion is just not something one speaks of openly—that it is a personal matter as delicate as explaining the facts of life to a child. The Governing Body at times experienced some pushback from those who wanted the faith but also a ‘normal life.’ ‘How can one lead a normal life in an abnormal world?’ was their answer. They have largely won that battle. They have held the course. They have furthered the course with ministry expansion worldwide. They are aided by daily news events clearly demonstrating that they are correct in describing the world as ‘abnormal.’
Just how God influences this small group is unlikely to ever be clear. The topic is not off limits, but one can only go so far in explaining how it works. Most likely they don’t know themselves. They are the imperfect vessels molded by the perfect potter. We don’t have to know everything. In fact, we cannot, for here we are peering into the divine/human interface. “The Spirit itself intercedes with inexpressible groanings,” says Romans.30 Just try demanding that it enunciate properly. “Just as you do not know how the life breath enters the human frame in the mother’s womb, so you do not know the work of God,” says Solomon.31 Just try setting him straight on that point. This will be one of those areas in which we can glimpse the fringes of God’s ways and no more.32
It is better for one to focus on manifestations that it works, demonstrated by accomplishments replicated nowhere else. Only the rare passenger, or even driver, is called upon to explain the inner workings of his automobile. Few can. All they really have to know is how to ride in it, work a few controls, and suffer through the potholes it will occasionally hit. It is ever the fascination of persons to describe just how government works. Pundits pry and attempt to worm their way into the inner circle, and usually get it wrong; at best they get a glimpse. If that is true with human things, how much more so with spiritual things? God has never signed a disclosure agreement.
In some respects, the closer one gets to the ‘inside’ of theocratic things, the more challenge it is perceiving God’s direction. Rank and file Witnesses will marvel at how God has supplied just the right understanding at just the right time. “Yeah, it’s only because so-and-so is too stubborn to…” the jaded insider will say. This is how God ‘works in mysterious ways’—the phrase is an escape clause reserved for when religionists must extract themselves from the corner their own doctrines have painted them into. In the case of how God directs humans, however, it is spot-on. We are not going to know it. The critical thinkers are checked. Some of them will overturn the entire chessboard on that account and stomp home.
God does use a human organization; this much is evident if only by its accomplishments and unity. He uses imperfect humans who have differences and opinions, and somehow hammers out leadership from them. To suggest otherwise is to suggest the Witnesses’ critics are right: that Jehovah’s Witnesses are brain-washed zombies. No, they are regular people, with differences even at the top and yet somehow God makes it all work. In some strange way that probably they themselves are not aware of, God works through this assembly as they read and meditate upon his written word and as they meet together to discuss it. Things gradually dawn upon them. They have a bevy of helpers, no doubt, to draw upon, but in the end, God works through them.
Can those ‘helpers’ be identified, particularly if they are acknowledged experts in this matter or that—say, in ancient history upon which any explanation of prophesy must rest? Doubtless there are some who would love to be a fly on the wall at the weekly meetings of the Governing Body. It is unlikely they will be permitted to be. Likely those participants savor the feeling of letting God’s spirit direct them wherever it will. But as soon as someone pins them down with this or that name of a recognized expert, that freedom is compromised. They know that expert will henceforth be monitored to get the inside scoop about how things that are spirit work in a human way. Anointed ones are unlikely to discuss it with John Q. Publisher, especially since the ability to keep a confidence is such a rare commodity these days.
This writer has chosen the role of an apologist. I’ll defend what they do. I’ll brace myself for the inevitable charges of being a ‘lapdog.’ My support doesn’t mean I don’t acknowledge some things might be done differently or that they cannot make mistakes—they have acknowledged that themselves. It simply is not my role to push for changes. If they decide to do things differently, I'll spin positively that new policy too. It’s the part I have chosen.
The Western model of journalism is that of ‘exposing’ errors that it assumes no responsibility to fix, nor any responsibility to deal with the consequences of stirring up discontent among persons not previously disposed to be discontent. There is no biblical precedent for it and much biblical precedent that would argue against it. This ultimate issue is: What does one prefer—‘leadership by the people’ or being ‘taught by the LORD?’33
Do the Governing Body arbitrarily decide things without input from ‘the people?’ That can hardly be said. Each week every circuit overseer in the world sends in a report from the congregation he has served. A cynic would say that they are ‘yes men,’ and admittedly, all are loyal to the cause, but it is hardly a given that an organization must send out its agitators to represent it. The circuit overseers, especially the more experienced ones, can be trusted to give input about whatever is affecting the congregations. In this manner, it is ‘taught by the LORD’ and not ‘leadership of the people,’ since the latter does not always lead to fine ends. It is largely an article of faith in today’s world that it does, but a perusal of history reveals that it only occasionally does.
The Governing Body has its hands full coping, and they are overall doing well in catering to God and not just the individual. I won’t tell them where they are going wrong. How would I know? For every line of intelligence I have, they have fifty. Unlimited free speech is a Western concept, not a biblical one. The Bible speaks of ones whose mouths it is necessary to silence, others who should be told not to teach what is false, and others who ought to be rejected after a warning or two for insisting upon having their own way. Many are those who want “to be teachers of the law, but without understanding either what they are saying or what they assert with such assurance.” I’ll try not to be one of them.34
The Governing Body plunks along, deferring to what the Scriptures say, I am convinced. They go wherever the Bible indicates to them that they should go. If it gets them in a jam with some component of the present world, they are content that God will somehow get them out of it. They are like the leaders of the first century who were loath to abandon teaching of the word so as to wait on tables.35 That’s what helpers are for. Here and there they shoot themselves in the foot. As low-key as possible, they extract the bullet with a grimace at their own mistake and carry on. They will refine and shift and ultimately something will come down through congregation channels and I will say: “Yep, it must work, or there would not be the 900 languages.”
The application of Bible principles is always a qualification of authorship for Watchtower paper or digital publications. Some recognized scholar of the greater world might submit a guest article on nearly any outlet, but it will not happen on JW.org. One must apply Christian principles in order to have a voice. They may or may not in the scholastic world, but in that of the Governing Body, they do. Doubtless they miss out on some scholarship through such insistence, but they also safeguard themselves from much error, as it is not uncommon for yesterday’s scholarship to become today’s trash.
Granted that the ship may not always turn on a dime in secular waters. It takes a while to establish that something really is something and not just the tossing of flotsam on the waves and the trickery of men. On the Internet there are many who would tell the Governing Body what to do. It is the Internet and people can do what they want. But such correction by the people, though popular today, is not the Bible pattern. When David truly was being a scoundrel, and really did need correction, it was not the people who called him on it, but an already established prophetic channel.
Leadership by apology is in vogue today. Should the Governing Body apologize for any wrong interpretations they ever offered up? Apostates demand it, though one gets the sense their motivation is primarily to make their former associates squirm. How much and how often leadership should apologize is a matter of style. Suffice it to say that among determined opponents anywhere, an apology only stimulates demands for more apologies, and the more apologies never lead to forgiveness, but only demands for resignation. The technique is employed everywhere, not just, or even primarily, in religion. But when it happens in religion, it plays into the greater goal of halting the preaching of the gospel worldwide.
The worldwide disrespect of authority of any kind is shocking to behold for someone raised just two generations prior. It is people in ecstasy to tear down with nary a care over the rebuild. ‘The people flounder where there is no wise direction,’ says the scripture, yet the anthem of today is the words of the second Psalm: ‘Let us cast their chains from among us!’ Witnesses don’t go there. It is enough to occasionally admit to blunders, such as was done with overemphasis on a 1975 date and cover the rest with tacking and lights getting brighter.36 Everyone knows that humans are imperfect and make mistakes. What is important is to conduct oneself with humility and to ‘pour oneself out’ in God’s service. This the Governing Body has done.
Prominent ones in Bible times were wrong about many things, yet I cannot recall one of them apologizing, other than Paul for insulting the high priest who had slapped him. When he learned it was not a common thug, but the high priest of God, he apologized. It is the only example that comes to mind.37 Honest-hearted persons do not demand apologies. Persons not honest-hearted are not satisfied with them. What! When Jesus says his followers would be hated by all the nations, it is because of missteps of the Governing Body? Jesus would be wrong, and the whole world would love Christians today were it not for the miscues of clumsy ones?38
The Governing Body has assumed an almost impossible task: that of representing Christianity before a hostile world. It is made impossible once more by representing authority in a world that despises authority. Governing Body members strive to be ‘infants as to evil.’ They distrust the greater world’s higher education. They think of Paul who considers it ‘so much rubbish.’ Having little of it, they find it hard to separate the wheat from the chaff, and so are apt to say it is all chaff. That’s what they have helpers for: to figure out the separation. Unfortunately, the helpers may not be up to speed either. Ah, well—their world works and the one based upon human wisdom does not. They don’t lose too much sleep over their lack. “The spiritual person can judge everything but is not subject to judgment by anyone,” they cite the verse. One can worry too much.39
If a platform can be built upon, surely that argues in its favor. If it cannot be, surely that argues against it. Much of contemporary life is predicated upon lofty ideas that fail when implemented. Strangely, that failure does little to cool the ardor of true believers. The platform of the Governing Body does not fail, because it is based upon the Bible’s pattern, not their own, which they maintain is of God. Bible teachings implemented have enabled diverse persons to cooperate and build a structure for advancement of the good news that is unparalleled. One is reminded of the scriptural admonition to ‘taste and see.’ One cannot prove something tastes good. One has to taste to find out.40
Much Bible education laid out for Witness consumption is laid on with a trowel—the Governing Body is not subtle. Let the Witness be warned by Jesus words: “Every scribe who has been instructed in the kingdom of heaven is like the head of a household who brings from his storeroom both the new and the old.”41 It will not be just the new. It will also be significant repetition of the old. No matter. It is a battle for hearts and minds being waged. Does the Devil state his point once and then discreetly retire? No. He will be like the computer app that notices you checking out vacation cruise prices and thereafter drowns you relentlessly in ads until you crack open that wallet and book a few trips. It is not easy instructing a group, for one person will barely notice that which has pummeled his neighbor into the ground. Let them err on the side of clarity if they are to err. Pummel them all if they must. It is their role to coordinate the chorus of Ephesians 4:11-16:
“And he gave some as apostles, others as prophets, others as evangelists, others as pastors and teachers, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of faith and knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the extent of the full stature of Christ, so that we may no longer be infants, tossed by waves and swept along by every wind of teaching arising from human trickery, from their cunning in the interests of deceitful scheming. Rather, living the truth in love, we should grow in every way into him who is the head, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, with the proper functioning of each part, brings about the body’s growth and builds itself up in love.”
Are they ‘authoritarian’ as has been charged? They do no more than reflect the sentiments of Jesus, who said the road to life would be constricted and narrow. Do they emphasize obedience? They do no more than reaffirm Paul, who even added ‘submissive’ to the list. They do no more than advocate the wisdom from above that James speaks of, which is ‘compliant.’ They don’t want to find themselves in Lot’s shoes, giving direction at a crucial moment only to find that his sons-in-law think he is pulling their leg. Leave them be to operate. Everyone knows a back-seat driver is obnoxious, especially when he tries to grab the wheel. Critics groused about leadership all during Moses time, too, even trying to redirect the bus back to Egypt.42
Are they ‘controlling?’ From the world’s point of view, that of ‘anything goes,’ they are. But if you weigh their policies against commentary of freedom of speech and independent thought found in the scriptures, they are easily within the ballpark. A person who represents them in some capacity, say as an elder or pioneer, will find it necessary to become ‘an example’ of the faith, and reign in some personal freedoms that the rank-and-file need not do. The former can lose privileges by flying in the face of counsel as to what is locally acceptable or has been published. It is that way in any organization. “Much will be required of the person entrusted with much, and still more will be demanded of the person entrusted with more.”43
Jehovah’s people are not belligerent or headstrong and are not inclined to blow off counsel or a certain peer pressure as nothing. They are inclined to heed the “wisdom from above,” which is “compliant.” Elders are not control freaks or micro-managers. It is never a matter of petty rules enforced by people who just like to meddle. Anyone who carries on like that jeopardizes his reputation as a ‘reasonable’ person—one of the criteria for serving as an older man. Continual training serves to refine and improve elders, who are people, after all, with all of the baggage that people carry.44
Nobody has any problem with God. It is always with his human representatives. This was true with Moses, as has been seen. It was true even with Judas. He and God were tight. But Jesus looked pretty human to him, not at all qualified to do what the Messiah was supposed to do. And those yokels he was attracting! It was just too much. Judas wanted refined people.
There are those approved in Revelation who keep following the Lamb “no matter where he goes,”45 In whose eyes? If it is only in their own—well, everybody does that. Everybody follows the Lamb per their own standards. The whole phrase becomes silly and should be replaced with: “each one did what was right in his own eyes,” because that is what it will inevitably default to. In the absence of human authority, if the counsel or method seems not attractive, you simply interpret it away. No harm done.
The very basis of the Governing Body’s authority is challenged by some today with respect to their claims to represent Christ. Follow just Christ, the critics say, not some human agency. Practically speaking, just how does a faith wishing to stay relevant do that? It is possible to set the bar so low that anything can be claimed as a victory. Thus, one churchman acknowledged that his faith had made a great impact upon him but not the world. Was it a failure on that account? Not at all. Who is to say the world wouldn’t have been worse without it? It is rather like the ne’er-do-well parent responding to the complaints of his jailbird kids. Without his parenting that they have found fault with, why—maybe they would be doing life in prison and not just ten years.
Contemporary grumbling over humans brings to mind those who groused at the marked difference in both direction and style from Charles T. Russell to Joseph Rutherford to Nathan Knorr, successive Watchtower presidents leading up to establishment of the present arrangement of a Governing Body. They are fixated on men. If they are going to harp on this, they ought to follow through. Tell them to ignore Paul and focus only on what Jesus said. The good news enjoyed tremendous growth under Paul? Big deal. It has done the same under the direction of the Governing Body today, yet that makes no difference to their critics.
If we step outside the world of Bible-believing people, we find this is exactly how those of critical thought regard Paul. They essentially treat him as a person who founded a separate religion, reinterpreting the words and teachings of Jesus, linking them to Old Testament events that Jesus himself never specifically linked them to. It cannot be that God works through a group of men today? Don’t be so half-hearted. Extend the logic to Jesus and Paul. Take the Bible and rip out every book after John.
Remarks from the disgruntled often assume an ‘us versus them’ mentality: the boss class dictating to the worker class. The Governing Body doesn’t look at it that way. When they say: “Some brothers in the past thought such-and-such,” they mean themselves as much as any in the ranks. They do not draw a distinction between themselves and the rest of the brotherhood. Instead, it is the way of Matthew 23:8-10 with them: “But you, do not you be called Rabbi, for one is your Teacher, and all of you are brothers… Neither be called leaders, for your Leader is one, the Christ.” Members of the Governing Body do not view themselves as leaders, but as fellow brothers who are taking the lead. There is a difference. The leader is Christ.
While pursuing the pathway to become a Witness, nothing about the way God uses a human agency to direct his people is ever hidden. It is manifest from the start. It seems disingenuous to grouse about being misled, should anyone do it. Instead, some simply reassess matters over time. They decide the cost is too high, and the reason for paying it too nebulous or too far off. They depart because they were “not of our sort.” They decide that they like this present world after all, or at least do not dislike it enough to keep such distance.46
The exception already touched upon would be those raised in the faith. They never did see both sides. Or, rather, to the extent most of them did, it was both sides presented through the eyes of the theocratic organization, which hardly represents the other side as that side would represent itself. How to solve this? I don’t know. It may already be solved to the extent it can be. The reason Obi-wan does not want Luke to go over into the dark side is that he really thinks it is the dark side. He is not trying to control Luke. He is not trying to deprive him of anything. He is looking out for him. He truly believes the dark side is bad, and he doesn’t say: “Why don’t you go over there and roam around for a while so that you can make an informed choice?”
So it is with the Witnesses’ Governing Body. Charges that they try to control people are so juvenile, so adolescent, that they are hard to countenance. How could anybody think that way? No. They truly believe the theocratic side is good and the other side is, well—the dark side. Though that viewpoint is objectionable to some, it is exactly how the Bible presents matters. I don’t know how you get around it, or if you even want to, though it does result in the above dilemma.
Furthermore, if the Governing Body ever ‘misrepresents’ the non-Witness world, it is not because they are sinister. It is because they do not know it themselves. They take their own counsel, which is that of the Bible, and they do not go there. They are lowly people who have poured themselves out and who now find themselves in places that are high for them. There are places not just ‘high for them’—they are actually high. They do not puff themselves up over it. They trust in God and, like the kings of old were directed to do, they actually read the scriptures daily. They keep away from what is ‘falsely called knowledge’ and from the ‘empty philosophies that violate what is holy’ that ‘toss people about as though on the waves of the sea.’ They have lived their own lives with the lesson of Haggai ever foremost: clean will be contaminated by unclean, not the reverse, and so they do not go there. Because they do not go there, they know it only through the lens of Scripture.47
If the Bible says, in effect, that the ‘world will chew you up and spit you out,’ they assume that it does. If they find someone who says it in exactly those words, they eat it right up and broadcast it. And who is to say the words are untrue? Some get chewed up and spit out so promptly and decisively that no one would ever deny it, but with others? Who is to say the scriptures are wrong on that point? It may just take a longer time to get chewed up and spit out. Many senior citizens have encountered calamity, even contrived calamity, and have seen everything they had worked for drained away. Even the powerful are not immune as their strength and faculties wane.
The true freedom Christians have is the hope of everlasting life on earth, which no government or religionist can take away. They can make your life most uncomfortable but generally the tribulation is ‘momentary and light.’ Even in the worst-case scenario that it is not, it ends with one’s death, for they cannot touch one’s ‘soul,’ the true life.48 In contrast, what do the guards have from the Regional Convention video? If they are atheist guards they have three or four decades, after which is a permanent death that may not be dignified. Even the head officer threatening Sergei will fare no better.
It is a challenge piloting Christianity in an increasingly irreligious world in which the very notion of ruling on morality is spun as a negative, as a scheme to manipulate people. The world pushes hard for the viewpoint that, if you must have religion, make it bland and let it not interfere with serious things of life.
I do not know any Governing Body members, past or present, but I did once receive a personal letter from one. By odd coincidence, a personal friend has the same first and last name as one of that group. He entered Bethel around 1980 and there married. My wife and I sent him a card on his first wedding anniversary, and it was the Governing Body member who replied. He thanked us for our kind wishes, he related how he and his wife had been traveling, 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, we thought. Funny that the wives’ names didn’t match. Ah, well—maybe someone has a nickname. How could we have known? Here was a Governing Body member taking time to respond to a card, writing a few chatty paragraphs to people he did not know, for fear he might hurt someone’s feelings. That says it all. These are not pretentious people.
From the book Dear Mr. Putin - Jehovah's Witnesses Write Russia (see also safe version)
- Michael Hart, The 100- A Ranking of the Most Influential Persons of History (New York: Citadel Press, 1992) 213-216
- Genesis 12:2, Isaiah 26:2, Mathew 21:43
- Acts 15: 6-21, Acts 16:4-5
- Isaiah 55:9
- Matthew 24:45-47:
- The NAS New Testament Greek Lexicon - Diakonos, Strong’s Number: 1249, accessed March 28, 2018, http://biblehub.com/greek/1249.htm
- Hart, The 100, 215
- Isaiah 48:18
- Ezekiel 18:25
- 1 Corinthians 1:23-29
- 3 John 9-10
- Revelation 5:10
- Acts 15:26
- Mark 12:17
- Romans 13:4
- 1 Timothy 2:1-2
- 1 Timothy 2:3-4
- Mark A. Smith, Secular Faith: How Culture Has Trumped Religion in American Politics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015) see jacket dust cover
- “Who is Leading God’s People Today?” The Watchtower – study edition, February 1, 2017, 28
- Ibid., 26
- Proverbs 4:18
- God’s Kingdom Rules (Brooklyn, Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania, 2014) 45
- John 21:21
- 1 Peter 4:7
- 2 Samuel 7:2-13
- Acts 1:7
- Luke 19:11-21
- Matthew 24:49-51
- Romans 8:26
- Ecclesiastes 11:5
- Job 26:14
- Isaiah 54:13
- Titus 1:10, 1 Timothy 1:3-8, Titus 3:10
- Acts 6:2
- 1980 Yearbook of Jehovah’s Witnesses (Brooklyn: Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, 1979) 30-31
- Acts 23:4
- Matthew 24:9
- 1 Corinthians 14:20, Philippians 3:8, 1 Corinthians 2:15
- Psalm 34:9
- Matthew 13:52
- Matthew 7:14, Hebrews 3:17, James 3:17, Genesis 19:14, Numbers 14:4
- Luke 12:48
- James 3:17
- Revelation 14:4
- 1 John 2:19
- 1 Timothy 6:20, Ephesians 4:14, Haggai 2:12
- Luke 12:4