It’s all the rage now to accuse people of the “new religions” [cults, in derogatory-speak] of being “gnostic.” I haven’t figured out why, but it probably is some variation of what PBS observed on the gnostic movement in the early years of Christianity—that the term “is often used as a sort of umbrella term to cover the people that the leaders of the church don't like.” Jehovah’s Witnesses aren’t liked in mainstream Christian circles, hence they must be “gnostic according to this new view.
No, the anointed of Jehovah’s Witnesses are not gnostic. As the PBS article explains, Gnosticism comes from the root word meaning “to know.” It is not a reference to book knowledge, but to a individualized secret knowledge not available to all. That type of knowledge generally translates into one-up-mans-ship—the one who claims it is apt to lord it over the one who do not.
Is that special secret knowledge a characteristic of the Witness governing body? From the October 1, 1984 Watchtower (in a footnote): “Regarding his misguided statements as to what we could expect in 1925, [Rutherford himself] once confessed to us at Bethel, ‘I made an ass of myself.’” How’s that for gnostic? If you say “Not very much,” you have answered correctly.
And yet there is some applicability to the label. There is something to it, if not in the sense the charge is made. To zero in on a few statement from that PBS program on Gnostics in the early developing church (statements all bolded):
“They thought of themselves as Christians who had received, in addition to the other gospels, secret teaching.”
This doesn’t fit the Witnesses’ anointed ones at all. Those anointed among Jehovah’s Witnesses have no source of teaching beyond the Bible itself—nothing at all “secret.”
“And Gnostics were people who claimed to know something special.” No, that doesn’t fit either, but also yes, it does. The anointed have no special source. But the Bible itself speaks to them differently than it speaks to those of the great crowd. Paul writes in Romans 8 that “you received a spirit of adoption as sons, by which spirit we cry out: “Abba, Father!” The spirit itself bears witness with our spirit that we are God’s children.” (15-16) Bible knowledge implants in them the heavenly hope, whereas for the overwhelming majority of Christians today, living forever on a paradise earth is their hope. It is mine.
From PBS: Gnostics convey “the sense that the divine is to be discovered by some kind of interior search.” It doesn’t apply to the Witness anointed, making an interior search, but it does apply to how the exterior source of the Bible, speaks differently to them. Same source, but it implants two hopes in two separate groups. Is that gnostic or not? There are elements of both.
PBS: “This knowledge could be…a kind of propositional knowledge of certain key truths.” Again, the answer is yes and no with regard to the Witness anointed. They do discern “certain key truths,” but it’s not through any hidden source; it is from the Bible. Could it be said that holy spirit opens the Word to them in a way it does not to the other sheep? The “key truths” that identify Jehovah’s Witnesses and Jehovah’s Witnesses alone are found and preserved only where the Witness anointed Governing Body is present. That there is no immortal soul, no trinity, the use of God’s name, the kingdom a real government, everlasting life on earth, why God permits evil, exactly how the ransom works, what happens to the dead—these are all discerned from the Bible by the anointed. They pass them on to the “other sheep” who can easily grasp the truths since they clearly are Bible teachings, but they were not able to discern them independently.
Acquiescing to this apparent means of distribution, the other sheep defer to the Governing Body taking the lead. Clyde Tussen, with a gift for illuminating complex spiritual things so that a child could understand, used to overstate how with Jehovah’s Witnesses all study their Bibles—they don’t all do it, but Clyde lived in a world of his own and for him it was so. Things begin to dawn on members of the Governing Body in the course of their Bible reading, he would say, and they bat it around among themselves. After considerable prayerful discussion, that new point appears in print. He would add: “Now, the thing is, you are studying your Bible too. That new point the Governing Body just wrote about? You may have already noticed that point in your own studying. And if this were Christendom, you'd run out and start your own religion over it.” Because it is not, you wait on them to take the lead.
Luke Timothy Johnson, historian of the early church, presents Gnostics as tremendously disruptive to the order of the developing church. The apostles and presbyters, men with the most experience in the faith, would try to coordinate and unify growth of the congregations. They would apply existing scripture to new developments, as is outlined at Acts 15. They would issue “decrees” or “decisions” based upon that application and convey them to all the congregations, which served to make them “firm in the faith and to increase in number day by day.” (Acts 16:4-5) Thwarting their efforts would be Gnostics popping up in individual congregations, each with his/her own private truth and secret revelation, who soon came to regard themselves as the only real Christians for being so favored with hidden revelations, better than the “proto-orthodox” Christians who did things in an orderly way. The trouble with “truth” arising through personal revelation is that inevitably there arise others who also have had truth revealed that way—only their truths do no agree, in which case how is anyone ever going to get to the bottom of it?
If there is anything in Witness congregations corresponding to this disruptive brand of gnosticism, would it not be found in those apostates who claim anointed status and thereafter are unwilling to cooperate with the organized arrangement coming from the Governing Body? For the most part, the remnant of anointed Christians today recognize their calling is for that of a future heavenly assignment, not a present one. At present, they set an example in following a unified arrangement, setting an example and building up ones in their proximity. But there’s that tiny group who simply won’t do it; they are gnostic in the PBS sense, thinking themselves privy to special insight that entitles them here and now to a place of authority. That not being granted, they work to “draw away the disciples” after themselves. (Acts 20:30) Imagine! a crazy system in which anyone can take the lead simply by saying that they should take it! No wonder Luke Johnson says order and unity went right out the window when those guys came around!
Now, the Governing Body whose members take the lead—these members too received their commission through a heavenly calling, “gnostic” in some ways, not in the source, but in that the Bible implants through holy spirit a hope in them not implanted in the bulk of Witnesses. But they are not asked to become a part of that body before a lifetime of humble full-time service, so that their faith is amply testified to and reinforced by their works. Should the need arise to replace someone who has died, the Governing Body looks within the ranks of anointed for one who also has decades of faithful experience. Thus, they combine the gnostic tradition with the orderly tradition. The “gnostic” in their case does not work to divide but to unite.
Instead of division, we have applications such as in the commentary on Ezekiel, Pure Worship of Jehovah—Restored at Last, of the stick of Joseph uniting with the stick of Ephraim. (Ezekiel 37:15-19) The two sticks are to become one. The stick of Joseph can well foreshadow the anointed, for it included the priestly tribe of Judah. The stick of Ephraim was just about everyone else, barring only the Benjamanite tribe. They unite. We may not do type/anti-type as before, but this one fits because the verses themselves find later fulfillment in the Book of Revelation. (compare Ezekiel 37: 26, 27 with Rev 7: 9,15)
The gnostic movement in church history divides. In Witness context, it unites. Can we call the first the “worldly” gnosticism?
A final point on Gnostics from the PBS article was that “they're very much interested in getting into the world of spirit, removing themselves from the world of matter.” The worldly gnosticism presents these ones almost as too ethereal to exist shoulder to shoulder with the orderly believers, for they count themselves better Christians and insist upon grabbing the wheel. The gnosticim of the Witness anointed turns disunity into unity, all the while preserving their “interest in the world of spirit.” Let’s face it—there’s no way on God’s green earth that I will ever become one of the anointed, because it is on God’s green earth that my hope lies, as though on one of those back-to-nature camping trips that you wish would never end and in the new system it never will. But the anointed—that just doesn’t register with them. They see it, but it is not the portion of scripture that speaks explicitly to them. Their preoccupation is of “the world of spirit” from which they will comprise a part of Christ’s heavenly rule over earth.
I once asked one of the anointed to fill in for me on a Bible study while I was away. It was a study decades ago with a Czech woman old enough to be my grandmother, and in hindsight she probably regarded me as a grandson. Trust me on this: that Czech woman would NOT have experienced the heavenly calling even had she endured, which she did not.
To her anointed visitor, she told me later how she had offered some cake and coffee, same as she always offered them to me—and they were good, too. “No thank you,” the elderly anointed sister said, “my food is to do the will of him who sent me.”
“It’s theater!” sputtered my exasperated would-be grandma when I saw her the next week. “It’s just coffee and cake! You don’t need to make a speech about it!”
Well, I guess they don’t have coffee and cake in heaven. Much to my surprise, years later I learned that the anointed woman’s fleshly sister, just as faithful, had never believed her sister was really anointed, but was delusional in some way. Everyone else believed she was—reading that into her partaking of the emblems. I suppose that she was, too. But who can say? It is an individual calling, an individual experience. It is always recommended we don’t get too intrusive with them, grilling them on what their anointed experience feels like, for example. Maybe it is for their sake that counsel is given, so that they are content to remain in their present role, and not have people oohing and ahhing over them, that they do not go worldly gnostic on us, carrying on and on about their special commission, demanding their own platforms in the here and now, as well as anointed-only conventions in which to reconnoiter.