Forging a Spotless Reputation

Alan Feuerbacher

Overview:

The Watchtower Society has often been accused of sidestepping issues of fundamental importance, leaving Witnesses unprepared for charges that God is unloving or that the Society is a charlatan. Apparently the Society feels that by never discussing contrary evidence, it avoids inducing doubts in the faithful. It almost always mentions only the virtues of a position it has taken. Where a problem exists, it is only mentioned if a good argument can be given in explanation.

The Society seems to feel that only it is qualified to think seriously about fundamental religious topics, suggesting that the responsibility of the average Witness is to bring his thinking in line with whatever the Society happens to have published most recently. The February 15, 1981 Watchtower said on page 19:

Jesus' disciples wrote many letters to Christian congregations, to persons who were already in "the way of the truth." But nowhere do we read that those brothers first, in a skeptical frame of mind, checked the Scriptures to make certain that those letters had Scriptural backing, that the writers really knew what they were talking about.

A Firm Guiding Hand

The sentiments expressed here illustrate the Society's attitude about material it publishes and the way it expects Jehovah's Witnesses to view that material as "adjustments in understanding".

The Society often writes articles from the point of view that it expects Witnesses to treat the material as if it came directly from God. For example, the United in Worship book asks several questions:1

Do we truly appreciate how Jehovah is directing his visible organization?

When we appreciatively accept the spiritual provisions that come through the "slave" class and its Governing body, for whom are we showing respect? But what if we were to speak disparagingly of these?

The reader is then referred to Luke 10:16, which says:

He that listens to you listens to me [too]. Moreover, he that disregards me disregards [also] him that sent me forth.

The implication is that an appreciative Witness will accept whatever spiritual provisions the Society makes, as if those provisions came directly from God.

Another example showing the Society's expectations in this regard is found in some Watchtower main study articles "Loyally Submitting to Theocratic Order" and "Each One in His Place." One paragraph says of the "faithful slave":2

Their duties include receiving and passing on to all of Jehovah's earthly servants spiritual food at the proper time.

Another paragraph says:3

How vital it is for everyone in God's family to submit loyally to the teachings and arrangements of the Great Theocrat, Jehovah, and his King-Son, Christ Jesus, as transmitted through the "faithful slave" on earth!

A third paragraph says:4

Jehovah has provided a goodly quantity of aids to Bible understanding in the form of publications...

Another Watchtower article said:5

"One body" is the Christian congregation, of which Jesus is the "head.".... The individual anointed members of this united congregation would all receive the same spiritual food. To that end, their "master" appointed a collective "faithful steward" class, the body of anointed Christians on the earth since Pentecost 33 C.E. Since the "master" found the remaining ones of this body faithfully and discreetly giving out "food supplies" when he arrived for inspection in 1919, he appointed them "over all his belongings.".... The facts show that since 1919 this "steward" has faithfully cared for these "belongings."

To reinforce statements like these, articles often include warning examples of those who failed to submit to "theocratic order", such as the rebellion against Moses by Korah6 or by Miriam and Aaron.7

Inspiration

The Society appears to believe that it is actually inspired by God.

According to Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary, "inspire" means to "influence, move, or guide by divine or supernatural inspiration; to exert an animating, enlivening, or exalting influence on; to spur on, impel, motivate." The above quotations from Watchtower publications make it abundantly clear that the Society feels that its activities fit this definition, although it reserves the word "inspired" for the Bible alone.

The Insight book, vol. 1, says on page 1204:

The men used to write the Scriptures therefore cooperated with the operation of Jehovah's holy spirit. They were willing and submissive to God's guidance..., eager to know God's will and leading.... In many cases they had certain goals in mind or were responding to an evident need..., and God directed them so that what they wrote coincided with and fulfilled his purpose.... As spiritual men, their hearts and minds were attuned to God's will, they "had the mind of Christ" and so were not setting down mere human wisdom nor a "vision of their own heart," as false prophets did.

Note how closely this description fits the way the translators of the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures described their work, in the foreword to the 1961 edition:

The translators who have a fear and love of the divine Author of the Holy Scriptures feel especially a responsibility toward Him to transmit his thoughts and declarations as accurately as possible.... It was with such a sense of solemn responsibility that the committee of dedicated men have produced the New World Translation.... In releasing it for publication we do so with a deep sense of gratitude to the Divine Author of the Holy Scriptures, who has thus privileged us and in whose spirit we have trusted to co-operate with us in this worthy work.

On the other hand, the Society sometimes expresses a point of view in its publications in which it freely admits that it is not infallible, that the writers are not inspired, and that its views on certain matters change from time to time.8, 9, 10, 11 Through a process of searching the scriptures, a clearer understanding is reached on certain matters, and adjustments are made.12 This searching process is illustrated in the article "The Path of the Righteous Does Keep Getting Brighter",13 which compares the searching to the tacking of a sailboat and to the progress of scientific truth.

Provisional Infallibility

The Society explains its position in two ways. On the one hand, it says that as the "faithful slave" searches the scriptures, its understanding increases,14 and this increased understanding is communicated to readers of Watchtower publications. On the other hand, it says that the increased understanding comes from Jehovah through the channel of the "slave."

On the one hand readers are asked to make allowances for mistakes or misunderstandings in print, but on the other hand they are asked to treat what they are reading as if it came directly from Jehovah.

On the one hand, readers are exhorted to believe that there is a "body of truth" to which "adjustments have been made",15 that the adjustment process shows how Jehovah's Witnesses are "lining up with Jehovah's mind as now revealed."16 On the other hand, this body of truth is said to be adjusted by Jehovah himself, that this body of truth even constitutes "Present Truth."17

The first viewpoint is most compelling. The Society does its best to interpret the scriptures correctly, but sometimes makes mistakes. However, if that is the case, it is hardly fair for the Society to make statements such as quoted in footnotes 2, 3 and 4 above.

Conforming to Scripture

One argument that attempts to justify such statements says essentially, "to the extent that the Society's publications conform to God's Word, it can be said that the "faithful slave" is transmitting Jehovah's thoughts to his people." But this argument requires someone to decide the degree of conformance.

Who is to decide? The only reasonable choices are either the reader or Jehovah. If the reader is to decide, the argument is meaningless because it can be restated thus: "to the extent the reader decides the Society's publications conform to God's Word,...." But if Jehovah is to decide, then the issue is still undecided from any reader's point of view, since Jehovah does not tell readers of his decisions. Saying that Jehovah will make his decision known at some future time does nothing for the present question.

Evidence of Approval

Another argument the Society uses to show it is "God's channel of communication" goes something like this: "The way Jehovah God has prospered the activities carried on under [the faithful and discreet slave's] direction can leave no doubt in the minds of dedicated Christians as to Jehovah God's approval being upon it."18, 19

This argument does not justify the conclusion that Jehovah makes continual adjustments to the "Present Truth" -- especially at a time in human history that the Society considers to be critical. God's approval on an arrangement is no evidence that he directs it, in light of Romans 13:1, 2 which says regarding the present arrangement for ruling mankind:

the existing authorities stand placed in their relative positions by God. Therefore he who opposes the authority has taken a stand against the arrangement of God....

Present Truth: The Heart

In the spring of 1971, several Watchtower articles about the heart,20, 21 contained statements such as:

Where and what is your heart? You may say, What heart are you talking about? You know you have a heart in your chest, one that is pumping blood.... But do you have another "heart" in your head, a "figurative heart"? Is it part of your brain....? No! The brain, in which the mind resides, is one thing and the heart in our thorax, with its power of motivation, is another thing.... The Bible does not speak of a symbolic or spiritual heart in contradistinction to the fleshly or literal heart, just as it does not speak of a symbolic mind, and thus we do not want to make the mistake of viewing the literal heart as merely a fleshly pump as does orthodox physiology today. Most psychiatrists and psychologists.... [look] upon the word "heart" merely as a figure of speech....

These ideas were presented in a drama at the "Divine Name" district assembly the following summer, and illustrated by giant, glowing, talking models of a heart and brain. Did Jehovah direct these articles to be written and did he direct the assembly dramas to be staged? Did Jehovah then change his mind and make a complete turnabout on this question in 1984 and direct that the following statements be written?

What are we to understand, then, by the word "heart"?.... What an amazing number of different functions and capabilities are ascribed to the heart! Do all of these reside in the literal heart? That could hardly be so.... in nearly a thousand other references to "heart" in the Bible, "heart" is obviously used in a figurative sense.... obviously, a distinction must be drawn between the heart organ and the figurative heart.22

Note the sudden change from "literal" to "figurative".

Present Truth: Elder Arrangements

As another example of the Society's changing its collective mind, when the elder arrangement was first discussed in 1971, the Society stated that the chairmanship of the early Christians' body of elders "likely rotated".23 The entire arrangement was implied to be "God's doing."24 But as the years passed, the Society found that, on the whole, things worked better when elders maintained their positions for more than one year. So the rotation arrangement was officially cancelled as of 1983.25

Why the change? Did Jehovah learn from experience and then make this "adjustment to the body of truth" -- or was it the Society?

Present Truth: Organ Transplants

In the November 15, 1967 Watchtower the Society declared its opposition to organ transplants. The section "Questions from Readers" posed the question of how Jehovah's Witnesses were to view transplants, and the Society gave its official answer:26

Is there any Scriptural objection to donating one's body for use in medical research or to accepting organs for transplant from such a source?....

Humans were allowed by God to eat animal flesh and to sustain their human lives by taking the lives of animals, though they were not permitted to eat blood. Did this include eating human flesh, sustaining one's life by means of the body or part of the body of another human, alive or dead? No! That would be cannibalism, a practice abhorrent to all civilized people.... To show disrespect for the sanctity of human life would make one liable to have his own life taken....

.... Those who submit to such [transplant] operations are thus living off the flesh of another human. That is cannibalistic.... It is not our place to decide whether such operations are advisable or warranted from a scientific or medical standpoint. It would be well, though, for Christians faced with a decision in this regard to consider the indication as to God's viewpoint presented in the Scriptures....

It should be evident from this discussion that Christians who have been enlightened by God's Word do not need to make these decisions simply on the basis of personal whim or emotion. They can consider the divine principles recorded in the Scriptures and use these in making personal decisions as they look to God for direction, trusting him and putting their confidence in the future that he has in store for those who love him.

The Society proceeded "to decide whether such operations are advisable or warranted from a scientific or medical standpoint" in a series of articles in the June 8, 1968 Awake!, using almost the entire magazine to consider such topics as health, misuse of humans for medical experiments, doctors and their view of organ transplants, experimenting with transplants, and the problems of heart transplants.

The bottom line for Jehovah's Witnesses was presented on page 21, under the sub-heading, "The Scriptural Aspect", which presented no scriptures. This was:

Not to be overlooked are the religious, the Scriptural issues involved. There are those, such as the Christian witnesses of Jehovah, who consider all transplants between humans as cannibalism; and is not the utilizing of the flesh of another human for one's own life cannibalistic?

There the official view remained until the March 15, 1980 Watchtower considered the question of congregational action towards someone who accepted an organ transplant. Here are some excerpts:27

.... It may be argued.... that organ transplants are different from cannibalism since the "donor" is not killed to supply food.... Clearly, personal views and conscientious feelings vary on this issue of transplantation.... While the Bible specifically forbids consuming blood, there is no Biblical command pointedly forbidding the taking in of other human tissue. For this reason, each individual faced with making a decision on this matter should carefully and prayerfully weigh matters and then decide conscientiously what he or she could or could not do before God. It is a matter for personal decision....

The congregation judicial committee would not take disciplinary action if someone accepted an organ transplant.

The June 22, 1982 Awake! reiterated this position, stating:

The Witnesses do not feel that the Bible comments directly on organ transplants; hence, decisions regarding cornea, kidney, or other tissue transplants must be made by the individual Witness.

Thus, the Society's position changed, from the view that organ transplants are cannibalism and akin to murder, to it being a personal decision. Considering that lives were at stake, where was the guiding hand of God?

Inspired or Merely Well-Intentioned?

From these examples, and from many other instances where "adjustments to understanding" have been made, the evidence indicates that Jehovah does not directly cause any particular statements to be written in Watchtower publications nor does he cause any particular actions, such as the presentation of Bible dramas at assemblies, to be taken. He does not directly adjust "Present Truth."

The publications do occasionally admit of this conclusion, but they also exhort the reader to ignore it. The Society strongly discourages readers from questioning or critically viewing the "spiritual food provided by the faithful slave."

We should have confidence in the channel God is using.28

It is as if the Society expects all Witnesses to simply accept the most recently published ideas on any matter as Present Truth, and unquestioningly, unthinkingly, discard anything not in line with it.

The very expressions "Present Truth" and "present body of truth" are oxymorons -- contradictions in terms. Truth does not change and does not depend on time -- only understanding changes. But the Society so strongly wants its readers to believe what it says that it seems to use such terms in an effort to convince people that it is "God's channel of communication."

Personal Musings

I can only imagine the reply I would have received from the Society had I immediately written in response to the 1971 Watchtower article about the heart, saying exactly the same thing as the 1984 article did. I can especially imagine what would have happened if I had told anyone in the congregation what I thought.

Moreover, from the 1984 article I can only conclude that the Society is not particularly interested in telling its readers that it has changed its mind. The article does not explain that this was a change of understanding with respect to the ideas presented in the 1971 article. Nor does the 1980 Watchtower article on transplants mention a word about the earlier views. The 1930-1985 Watchtower Publications Index does not even list the 1967 Watchtower article. This is, in effect, changing history to suit current priorities. How many were injured or disfellowshipped because of following the "leading of men?"

What about the Society's major failed predictions? A great many things, including Armageddon and the bringing of the faithful to heaven, were predicted for 1914, but the Society now only claims that one was fulfilled, i.e., the end of the Gentile Times arrived -- an invisible event. Armageddon was again predicted for 1925, but that also fell through.

By the time the Society made near predictions for the year 1975, it had learned from its earlier mistakes, so that it avoided directly stating that 1975 would bring Armageddon. Were these things evidence of the hand of God?

I certainly accept that, to be one of Jehovah's Witnesses, one must conform to certain standards, but given its track record, it seems presumptuous for the Society to view its ideas in the same manner as Israelites were required to view Moses' directions. After all, who in the Governing Body or the "faithful slave" speaks to Jehovah "face to face"?

The Basis for Authority

The Governing Body claims that -- as a body -- it was commissioned by God, and that its members are "appointed by holy spirit." In concrete terms, however, the members of the Governing Body of Jehovah's Witnesses can only trace their appointment back to Charles Russell29 in the late 1800s.

The article "A Governing Body as Different from a Legal Corporation", under the sub-title "How the Governing Body Came to Exist",30 manages to avoid being specific about its theme and the point just raised, by using terms such as "evidently", "patently", "according to the facts available", "facts speak louder than words", "the facts speak for themselves", "holy spirit must have been operative", "there came on the scene", and "a governing body made its appearance." Nowhere does the article show why things are evident, refer the reader to what facts it is talking about, or say anything that could possibly be pinned down.

The article certainly does not answer the question as to how the very first appointments to responsibility were made in the late 1800s. It simply states that certain things are so, and implies that all loyal Witnesses of Jehovah must accept these things.

The Effect on the Rank-and-File Member

All these words about remaining loyal, not questioning, appreciatively accepting spiritual provisions, and the like, may well have a good purpose, but they also have a negative effect: it is nearly impossible to discuss a point of difficulty with most Jehovah's Witnesses, because the moment a Witness suspects that someone is not toeing the party line he becomes defensive and closed-minded. This includes elders and circuit overseers, but is especially true of run-of-the-mill Witnesses.

The net effect is that it is nearly impossible to have a reasoned discussion with a Witness on any subject which he suspects might not conform completely to the "body of present truth." The only outlet is to write to the Society. That is not always possible, and the Society usually does not answer.

Conclusions

I would certainly appreciate a clear response on the issues I've raised above. They can be condensed to three conclusions:

  1. The "faithful slave" is fallible.
  2. For all practical purposes the "faithful slave" requires Jehovah's Witnesses to act as if it were infallible.
  3. For all practical purposes Jehovah's Witnesses are not allowed to converse with their fellows on controversial topics.

Footnotes

1 United in Worship of the Only True God, p. 123, Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc., Brooklyn, New York, 1983.

2 The Watchtower, p. 17, Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc., Brooklyn, NY, June 1, 1982.

3 ibid, p. 17.

4 ibid, p. 24.

5 ibid, p. 19, September 15, 1983.

6 ibid, p. 13, December 1, 1981.

7 ibid, p. 17, June 1, 1982.

8 ibid, p. 19, February 15, 1981.

9 ibid, p. 29, March 1, 1981.

10 ibid, p. 20,27, December 1, 1981.

11 ibid, p. 26, January 1, 1972.

12 ibid, p. 701, November 15, 1971.

13 ibid, pp. 26-31, December 1, 1981.

14 ibid, p. 29, March 1, 1981.

15 ibid, p. 19, February 15, 1981.

16 ibid, p. 13, September 1, 1984.

17 ibid, p. 25, December 15, 1981.

18 ibid, p. 18, February 15, 1981.

19 Members of the Assemblies of God churches claim virtually the same thing. They have even more basis than do Jehovah's Witnesses to claim prosperity, as they have gone from almost no members in 1900 to more than 100 million in 1995. Mormons have increased from a few thousand in the early 1800s to some 5 million today. Seventh-Day Adventists have increased to some 3 million since the mid 1800s. Jehovah's Witnesses' figure of some 5 million publishers is right in the middle. As for fast rates of growth, the Unification Church started in 1954 and had 2 million members by 1981. The Transcendental Meditation Church started in 1958 and had 2 million by 1981. The Divine Light Mission went to 8 million between 1960 and 1981. The top performer is the Church of Scientology, starting in 1954 and having 20 million members by 1981.

20ibid, pp. 133-152, March 1, 1971.

21 ibid, p. 134, March 1, 1971.

22 ibid, pp. 3-7, September 1, 1984.

23 ibid, p. 685, 691, November 15, 1971.

24 1975 Yearbook of Jehovah's Witnesses, p. 250, Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc., Brooklyn, New York, 1974.

25 Organized to Accomplish Our Ministry, p. 41, Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc., Brooklyn, New York, 1983.

26 The Watchtower, op cit, pp. 702-704.

27 The Watchtower, op cit, p. 31.

28 The Watchtower, op cit, pp. 18-19, February 15, 1981.

29 ibid, p. 760, December 15, 1971.

30 ibid, p. 760, 761.


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