Part 2: The Society's View of Elders

Alan Feuerbacher

After personal experience and a good deal of research, I see little justification for the statement that elders today are "appointed by holy spirit." The elder arrangement certainly has many benefits to the congregation, but it is the Governing Body or its representative that actually appoints elders to their positions, upon the recommendation of a local body of elders.1, 2, 3 Now please don't interpret what I'm saying here as anything other than precisely what I'm writing. I do not now, and never have, personally had problems with elders. I have had only good relations with elders, and have a great deal of respect for their position and the fine work they do. The material I'm presenting here concerns itself only with the question, Are elders directly appointed by holy spirit?

I am convinced that when the Society's publications imply that elders are directly "appointed by holy spirit" they are on shaky ground. The situation that caused me to come to this conclusion arose about 1977, when an elder in the congregation I was attending attempted to have a ministerial servant disfellowshipped for breaking certain laws of the land. The body of elders was unable to come to a definite decision on the matter. The ministerial servant was privately reproved, and shortly afterwards the reproof was seen to have been in error and revoked. Some disputing arose in the congregation over the conduct of the matter. After many months, the body of elders realized it was unable to come to a decision, and consulted the Society. Elders from a nearby congregation were called in, and the matter was finally resolved by concluding that it never should have been brought up in the first place.

These events caused me to seriously question the idea that elders have been "appointed by holy spirit," since it was clear to me that the elder who started the trouble couldn't have been so appointed, and it was also clear that the other elders were not being directed by holy spirit in their handling of the case. I wrote to the Society explaining these things, and they forwarded my letter to the current circuit overseer. We eventually discussed the events and my questions at length. Finally he gave me a straight answer. He said, rather reluctantly, No, elders are not actually "appointed by holy spirit," in the sense of Jehovah directly appointing a particular individual, but since the elder arrangement is Bible based, it could be said that elders in a general sense are "appointed by holy spirit."

This explanation was enough to satisfy me at the time, but many Watchtower articles and other publications since then convinced me this was not the understanding the Society wanted Jehovah's Witnesses to have. Rather, the thrust of the articles was to enhance the authority of congregational elders by saying that members of the congregation should be submissive to those "appointed by holy spirit," and that criticizing or even questioning elders' decisions was disloyal. Over a period of time it became clear to me that the Society is not particularly interested in the truth of this matter, but is interested only in seeing that people become and remain loyal Jehovah's Witnesses.

Several quotations from a recent Watchtower should illustrate what I mean about the above point and about my concerns on "direct appointment by holy spirit."4

Overseers have been spirit-appointed to care for the spiritual needs of the congregation.

Is this a direct appointment, or an indirect appointment? The statement implies action on the part of the holy spirit, not simply the idea that holy spirit inspired the Bible, and so on.

As Paul wrote: "Let the older men who preside in a fine way be reckoned worthy of double honor...."

Is this passage saying, "Let the older men, who preside in a fine way...", or is it saying, "Let the older men who preside in a fine way..."? There is a world of difference in meaning with and without a comma. One implies all older men preside in a fine way, whereas the other implies some may and some may not.

....only those meeting Scriptural requirements are appointed as elders.

Is this only the goal? Or is this actually realized by the direct action of God?

....let us appreciate and accept the Bible-based direction of the elders as coming from God.

The phrase "as coming from God" is vague and non-committal. Is the Watchtower saying that when elders give direction, it is always Bible-based and always comes directly from God, or that when elders give direction, it is always Bible-based and therefore comes indirectly from God, or that when elders give direction, it should be Bible-based and we should view it as if it comes directly from God, or what? The example of the Keystone Cops elders I related above certainly was in the "what" category.

A detailed analysis of an article that purports to show why elders are "appointed by holy spirit" shows what I have found to be the usual methods in "proving" the point. This is from "Questions From Readers" on page 31 of the August 1, 1985 Watchtower. Let's see if we can find the answer to the question raised.

How does the holy spirit work along with the modern-day Governing Body in the appointment of elders?

The apostle Paul told Christian elders from Ephesus: "Pay attention to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the holy spirit has appointed you overseers, to shepherd the congregation of God, which he purchased with the blood of his own Son." -- Acts 20:28.

Clearly this does not answer the question that was raised. The next paragraph acknowledges this. Also note that Paul was speaking to the elders in Ephesus. The Society must make a clear connection between this and its assertion that elders of Jehovah's Witnesses are the same as the elders in Ephesus. This connection should have been made in the present discussion -- it should not have been assumed from unreferenced prior discussions.

Paul did not explain in detail how God's spirit functioned in such appointments.

The Watchtower here actually admits that it does not know the answer to the question it has raised. But the article gamely presses on.

However, we can gain insight from what occurred when the first-century governing body considered a question concerning circumcision. In summarizing their conclusion, they wrote: "For the holy spirit and we ourselves have favored adding no further burden to you, except these necessary things." (Acts 15:28) How did God's spirit, his impersonal active force, contribute to the binding decision reached at that time?

So the early Christian governing body said that both it and the holy spirit made certain decisions, but it doesn't say how the holy spirit helped the decision-making process.

Acts chapter 15 shows that first Paul and Barnabas outlined the question. Then a discussion took place. The apostle Peter related what had led up to baptism of the uncircumcised Gentile Cornelius and his household. Peter explained that 'God bore witness by giving them the holy spirit, just as he did to us also.' (Acts 15:7, 8; 10:9-48) Next Paul and Barnabas 'related the many signs and portents that God did through them among the nations.' (Acts 15:12) Thus, by its operation on Peter, Cornelius, Paul, and Barnabas, the holy spirit indicated that Gentiles did not need to be circumcised.

So in some unspecified manner the holy spirit caused events to occur, and caused the disciples to do and say various things, that resulted in the disciples' knowing that Gentiles did not need to be circumcised.

Yet there were additional operations of the spirit involved in that decision reached by the governing body. We can assume that they had asked for the help of the spirit on their deliberations. Such help may have moved the disciple James to recall the prophecy at Amos 9:11, 12, and to see its application. That prophecy had, of course, been written under the inspiration of the holy spirit. (Acts 15:13-20)

Note that "we assume they asked" and then "help may have moved the disciple to...." This is stated after the article says there "were additional operations of the holy spirit...."

Furthermore, "the apostles and older men in Jerusalem" who made up the governing body were Christians who were anointed with holy spirit and who manifested its operation in their lives, such as by producing its fruits. -- Acts 15:2; Romans 8: 14-17; 1 Corinthians 7:40; Galatians 5:22,23.

Finally the article says something concrete.

So without there being some audible directive from heaven on the circumcision question, those of the governing body could accurately say that "the holy spirit" had led to their decision.

A fair conclusion.

It is similar with the appointment of Christian men to be elders, or overseers, in the congregations today.

The conclusion does not follow. Does this statement mean that all the events just described as happening with the early Christians in connection with the circumcision issue are similar to what happens with appointment of Christian men to be elders, or does it mean that this appointment is similar to what is about to be described in the rest of the paragraph? I hardly think it can be the first alternative, because who today is anointed by holy spirit with "tongues as if of fire" visible to others as a sign? Who gets personal visitations from the resurrected Jesus, as did Paul? Who gets dreams from God, as did Peter? Who performs miracles, as did some of the disciples? So the second alternative must be the choice: appointment of elders in the congregation today will be described in the rest of the paragraph.

Periodically a group of elders (likely including a traveling overseer of the Society) meet to consider recommending brothers for appointment as overseers. Those in the group have themselves been appointed as elders and they manifest in their lives that they have the spirit. Their discussion is opened with prayer for the spirit's guidance.

Does this mean that the holy spirit somehow "tweaks" some of the elders' minds during the discussion? If so, which ones, and how would anyone be able to tell?

Then, during the meeting, they analyze whether each brother being considered measures up to the qualifications for elders set out in the Bible, which have been recorded under the direction of holy spirit. (1 Timothy 3:2-7; Titus 1:5-9)

Setting up for the indirect appointment argument.

They also consider whether the brother evidences in his manner of life that he is "full of spirit and wisdom." (Acts 6:3) If they agree that he is of that sort and meets the qualifications to a reasonable degree, their recommendation is forwarded to the spirit-designated Governing Body or its chosen representatives.

Where files are checked to see if there are any problems with this candidate the local elders don't know about, and the Governing Body or its representatives pray over many similar matters and then record the appointment in their files.

Later the congregation may be informed that the brother has been appointed.

In summary, this paragraph states that the local elders talk about the candidate, pray about his appointment, and get the Governing Body's official approval. The paragraph implies, but does not explicitly state, that because various pieces of the appointment process (the local elders, the traveling overseer, the Bible, the Governing Body and its representatives) have been put in place by God's work through the holy spirit, the resulting appointment is also a result of God's work through the holy spirit. But this process is not the same as direct action on God's part, in the manner that Bible writers are said to be inspired by God. This was the essence of my complaint to the Society years ago, as a result of which the circuit overseer admitted to me that this is not what actually happens, but which fact the Society does everything in its power to conceal. You should note that the Society has not made a clear connection between the conclusion of the last paragraph and its assertion that elders of Jehovah's Witnesses are the same as the elders of the first century. It has simply assumed this from unreferenced prior discussions.

The last paragraph, justifiably confident that readers will not have seen the subterfuge, continues:

Understandably, the appointed elder is still imperfect and may have limitations. But the apostles were imperfect, both before Jesus chose them and later when they served on the governing body. (Luke 9:46,54; 22:54-62; Galatians 2:11-14) They certainly did, though, have God's spirit and were appointed under its guidance. Comparably, brothers and sisters can be confident that 'the holy spirit has appointed the overseers, to shepherd the congregation.' (Acts 20:28) It is regarding such men that the counsel is given: "Remember those who are taking the lead among you, who have spoken the word of God to you, and as you contemplate how their conduct turns out imitate their faith." -- Hebrews 13:7.

It should be evident by this point why I do not believe that the Society wants Jehovah's Witnesses to understand that elders are not actually "appointed by holy spirit" in the sense of Jehovah directly appointing a particular elder. It should also be clear that this question is part of the reason I am unconvinced of the Society's devotion to truth.

This is not a trivial point, whether elders are directly or indirectly appointed. Anyone may claim that if he uses the Bible as a basis for his decisions, then to the extent that he uses it correctly he is guided by God. But Witnesses would not accept this explanation from a Catholic for the reason that they believe the Catholic church is not directed by God in any manner. But the question of whether Catholics are or are not directed by God has no relevance to the Society's claim that its use of the Bible as a basis for the elder arrangement, and elder's correct use of the Bible, are bases for claiming guidance by God. By the same token the Society is not justified in implying that because elders may in a certain sense be indirectly "appointed by holy spirit" they are also directly "appointed by holy spirit." If the Society wants to make this claim it should do so on grounds which are explicitly and clearly explained.

I would appreciate clarification of these points. In particular I should like to know whether what the circuit overseer told me years ago was correct at the time, or not.

I wish to comment on one more point concerning elders. Occasionally it is admitted that elders can do wrong or even make mistakes. For example, a Watchtower article said regarding how appropriate it is to obey authority in the Christian congregation:5

But it does not mean that we obey such authority without giving due consideration to what is being said. Why?

The apostle John offered this counsel: "Do not believe every inspired expression, but test the inspired expressions to see whether they originate with God".... This does not mean that we should be suspicious of everything others tell us. Rather, we bear in mind Paul's words at Galatians 1:8: "Even if we or an angel out of heaven were to declare to you as good news something beyond what we declared to you as good news, let him be accursed."

Is the information before us different from what we have been taught through "the faithful and discreet slave"? Is the person spreading that message speaking to honor the name of Jehovah, or is he trying to exalt himself? Is the information in harmony with the overall teachings of the Bible? These are questions that will help us in 'testing' anything that may sound questionable. We are admonished to "make sure of all things; hold fast to what is fine."....

Jehovah does not expect us to show blind credulity. He does not want from us the kind of obedience that a trainer gets from a beast with a bridle or a whip. That is why he told David: "Do not make yourselves like a horse or mule without understanding, whose spiritedness is to be curbed even by bridle or halter." (Psalm 32:9) Rather, Jehovah has endowed us with thinking ability and discernment so that, based on understanding, we can choose to obey him.

In Japanese, the word kiku (to hear) includes the meaning not only of listening and obeying but also of judging whether a thing is good or bad. When someone speaks to us, it is good to listen in this sense so that when obeying, we do so not by mere credulity but by choice. When our heavenly Father, Jehovah God, speaks, whether through his Word, the Bible, or through his earthly organization, it is all the more important for us to listen and obey, thus proving that we are obedient worshipers who do not ignore the loving reminder: "Did you hear me?"

These are fine words and I agree wholeheartedly with them. However, the article says not a word about what one should do if one ever finds something coming from the Society that one cannot in good conscience agree with. And at no time have I seen published material stating what a publisher should do if an elder does something he thinks is unquestionably wrong, but that is not in the disfellowshipping category. The Society provides no formal outlet for dealing with this, and without a formal outlet, most Witnesses will act like horses or mules because that is the way the Society has trained them.


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

2 Organization for Kingdom-Preaching and Disciple-Making, p. 69, Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc., Brooklyn, New York, 1972.

3 The Watchtower, pp. 699-700, Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc., Brooklyn, NY, November 15, 1971.

4 ibid, pp. 20-25, September 15, 1989.

5 ibid, p. 30, April 1, 1988.