Watchtower Authority and the Bible
by Robert M. Bowman, Jr.
Jehovah's Witnesses claim to believe in the Bible as the unerring word of God and
to base all of their teachings directly on Scripture. Evangelical Christians are glad for
the Witnesses' recognition of the Bible as the sole infallible authority in matters of
faith. However, believing the Bible is more than simply acknowledging that it is
God's word; it is most of all believing what the Bible actually teaches. The
Jehovah's Witnesses claim to being the only religious group which truly honors
God's word must then be tested by examining whether they are "handling the
word of the truth aright" (2 Tim. 2:15, NWT) in their interpretation of Scripture.
In this series of four articles I will present evidence that the Jehovah's Witnesses
not only handle Scripture inaccurately, but "are twisting [it]... to their own
destruction" (2 Pet. 3:16), systematically distorting it to make it fit their
preconceived beliefs. In this first article I will examine the Witnesses' claim that the
only religious group on earth today which can interpret the Bible correctly is the
Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, headquartered in Brooklyn, New York
(hereafter referred to simply as "the Society"). In the next three issues I will
evaluate in turn the Watchtower's New World Translation, their method of
interpreting controversial Bible verses, and their reconstruction of the major
themes and doctrines of the Bible.
Jehovah's Witnesses believe that the structure of leading administrators and
teachers who control the Society represents "God's visible organization on earth."
This organization has been appointed by God with the responsibility of interpreting
the Bible for all those who wish to understand it. The Society's publications warn
the Witnesses that they cannot understand the Bible on their own. "Accurate
knowledge" of the Bible is available only to those who accept without exception
everything the Society teaches. Acceptance must be complete and unwavering,
even if what the Society teaches is later realized to have been wrong, and even if
what it teaches seems wrong at the time.
ARGUING IN A CIRCLE
In order to prove that no one can understand the Bible's teachings apart from
"God's organization on earth," the Jehovah's Witnesses appeal to a battery of
prooftexts from the Bible which supposedly say or imply that such is true.
Unfortunately, such an argument assumes the very thing it is supposed to prove. If
no one can understand the Bible apart from submitting to the teaching of the
organization, then no one can understand these specific texts apart from the
organization. But if that is so, then no one can know that these passages teach the
necessity of submitting to the organization's teaching unless they are already
submitted to it!
This problem will be encountered no matter how many verses the Jehovah's
Witnesses quote in seeming support of their claim. Passages from the Bible simply
cannot be used to prove to those outside one's camp that only those who follow
the camp leaders can understand the Bible. If someone outside the camp who was
not already in submission to the camp leaders were able to read and understand
such passages, it would disprove immediately the camp leaders' claim that the
Bible was a closed book to those who did not submit to their teaching.
In short, the argument is a circular one, as follows: 1) God's organization says you
need it to understand the Bible because 2) the Bible itself says so, and you know
the Bible says so because 3) God's organization says so.
One way to escape from this circle is to say that at least some of the Bible can be
understood apart from God's organization -- those passages which teach the
necessity of God's organization, and perhaps others -- while others cannot be
understood apart from the organization. The problem with such a claim, if it were
to be made (and to my knowledge the Witnesses have never put forward such a
claim), is that the Bible never says anything of the kind.
Another alternative for the Witnesses is to admit frankly that, in their view, no one
outside their camp can understand these passages until they submit to the
organization. The implication of such an admission, however, would be that they
would no longer have any basis for quoting Scripture at all to back up their
teachings when talking to non-Witnesses. Their entire witnessing effort, to be
consistent, would have to consist of urging outsiders to accept the organization in
order to gain access to understanding of the Bible.
There is a third approach which the Jehovah's Witnesses might take to this
dilemma. They could say that the Bible is understandable apart from the
organization, but it is the organization's responsibility to guide God's people in their
reading of the Bible, and anyone who understands and accepts the Bible's teaching
will submit to the organization. This, however, would be a different claim
altogether, and one which the Witnesses cannot afford to make. In general, people
who do not accept everything the organization says without question simply will
not continue believing the Witnesses' doctrines once they have become thoroughly
familiar with the Bible. Even Jehovah's Witnesses who have been thoroughly
schooled in their organization's teachings and who have served faithfully for years
tend to lose faith in those teachings once they begin to study the Bible at all
independently, as the Society's publications have admitted on more than one
PROOFTEXTS FOR THE WATCHTOWER'S AUTHORITY
What, then, about those passages in the Bible which the Witnesses claim say that
we must follow the organization's teaching? It is one thing for the Christian to say
that such a claim does not make sense; it is another thing for him or her to show
that in fact the Bible says no such thing. We need, then, to look at the prooftexts
used by the Witnesses in defense of their claims to unique authority in interpreting
The Faithful and Discreet Slave
The major text on which Jehovah's Witnesses base their claim that accurate biblical
teaching can be found only in their organization is Matthew 24:45-47, where Jesus
gives the following parable: "Who really is the faithful and discreet slave whom his
master appointed over his domestics, to give them their food at the proper time?
Happy is that slave if his master on arriving finds him doing so. Truly I say to YOU,
He will appoint him over all his belongings."
The Jehovah's Witnesses' argument, in a nutshell, is that this passage teaches that
no one can understand the Bible apart from this "faithful and discreet slave,"
interpreted to mean Christ's "anointed followers viewed as a group," which is
then identified as the leading teachers and administrators of the Jehovah's
A number of difficulties with this interpretation of Matthew 24:45-47 may be
mentioned here. Jesus' parable does not end with verse 47, but goes on in verses
48-51 to warn, "but if ever that evil slave should say in his heart, 'My master is
delaying,' and should start to beat his fellow slaves and should eat and drink with
the confirmed drunkards, the master of that slave will come on a day that he does
not expect...." The usual Jehovah's Witness interpretation of this second part of
the parable is that "the evil slave" is "Christendom," that is, all professing Christian
religions and denominations apart from the Witnesses. However, Jesus' expression
"that evil slave" suggests that he is speaking generically of two types of people
who profess to serve Him, those who are faithful and those who are evil. The point
of the parable, then, would be that Christian leaders must be faithful in their
service. If they are, when Christ returns they will be given even greater
responsibility; and if they are disloyal, they will be punished.
Such is even more clearly the point of the same parable in the parallel passage in
Luke 12:41-48. After commending the faithful servant by saying, "Happy is that
slave...," and promising that the master "will appoint him over all his belongings,"
Jesus continues, "But if ever that slave should say in his heart, 'My master delays
coming,' and should start to beat the menservants and the maidservants, and to
eat and drink and get drunk, the master of that slave will come on a day that he
is not expecting...." Thus, comparing the two versions of the same parable makes
it clear that Jesus is not speaking of "the faithful and discreet slave" as a specific
organization or group permanently distinguished from an equally specific "evil
slave." Jesus' whole point is that it is possible for individual men appointed to the
task of feeding God's people to be unfaithful to the point of being evil -- regardless
of what organization they represent.
Moreover, the exhortation of this parable is directed toward those who consider
themselves to be Christ's "slave," not to those who are "fed" by the slave. Nothing
in this parable suggests, as the Society implies, that the "domesics" are supposed
to eat whatever (if anything) the "slave" puts before them, no matter what it is. At
the end of the parable, the rewards and punishments spoken of are meted out to
the slaves for their faithfulness or lack of it, not to the domestics for their
compliance in eating everything the slaves fed them. Thus, the parable is a warning
to those who teach God's word to be faithful, not a warning to believers to accept
uncritically everything some teacher or group of teachers tells them God's word
One other problem of a different sort may be mentioned. The Witnesses argue that
no one can understand God's word correctly without submitting to the teaching of
the "faithful and discreet slave." Yet, on their view, there was no such slave for
almost 19 centuries. This is quite easy to prove. On the Witnesses' own view, the
"slave" is an earthly organization that speaks for Jehovah -- not merely scattered
individuals or home study groups, but a single organization responsible for the
spread of the gospel throughout the earth. If such an organization had existed in
the late 19th century, there would have been no need for C. T. Russell and his
associates to separate from "Christendom" and begin a "modern work" at all. As
soon as the "Bible Students" discovered the earthly organization, they would
simply have allied themselves with it. Since, instead, they created a new
organization, it follows that there was no "faithful and discreet slave" on earth for
centuries. The implication is that God had no true representatives on earth and did
not intend for people to understand the Bible until Russell and his friends came
along -- a conclusion which is very hard to justify biblically (see Matt. 16:18;
28:20; Jude 3).
Several other prooftexts cited by the Jehovah's Witnesses in defense of their
ascribing sole interpretive authority over the Bible to the Watchtower Society may
briefly be examined. In Acts 8:30-31 Philip asks the Ethiopian eunuch if he
understands what he is reading (Isa. 53:7-8), to which the eunuch replies, "Really,
how could I ever do so, unless someone guided me?" Certainly this passage does
indicate the need of guidance, or "help," in studying the Bible, but it does not
prove that some organization exists whose pronouncements on biblical
interpretation may not be challenged. In this passage we find one Christian
preaching Christ directly from the Bible, not an organization with a magazine or a
book, and an individual who believes on his confession of faith and is sent on his
way rejoicing -- with no organization to join.
2 Peter 1:20-21 is often cited by Witnesses, with emphasis on its disavowal of
"private interpretation," as a refutation of the "Protestant principle" that every
Christian is responsible for reading and obeying the word of God. However, Peter is
not talking about Christians interpreting the Bible at all, but about how the Bible
came to be written originally. As the Watchtower reference work Aid to Bible
Understanding has correctly explained, "Thus, the Bible prophecies were never
the product of astute deductions and predictions by men based on their personal
analysis of human events or trends."
If we read on in 2 Peter, the very next words of the apostle are a warning
concerning false teachers (2:1) who lead people astray into certain judgment
(2:2-22). The way to avoid "destructive sects" (2:1), according to Peter, is to
"remember the sayings previously spoken by the holy prophets and the
commandment of the Lord and Savior through YOUR apostles" (3:2). That is, the
way to tell true teaching from false teaching is to compare the teaching with what
the Bible itself says, not, as the Jehovah's Witnesses argue, by appeal to what
"God's organization" says the Bible means.
Finally, the Witnesses also cite the words of Peter to Jesus, "Whom shall we go
away to?" (John 6:68), and apply them as follows: Where shall we go for
instruction in the Bible if we leave the Watchtower? Peter's next words, though,
suggest something different. "You have sayings of everlasting life; and we have
believed and come to know that you are the Holy One of God" (6:68-69). In fact,
the Witnesses have left out the first word of the sentence they do quote: "Lord,
whom shall we go away to?" Surely the problem here does not need much spelling
out. To apply these words, acknowledging Jesus as the only hope of eternal life, to
a human organization is both foolish and blasphemous.
1 All biblical quotations are taken from the New World Translation of the Holy
Scriptures: With References (Brooklyn, NY: Watchtower Bible and Tract Society
of New York [hereafter WTBTS], 1984).
2 See, for example, The Watchtower, 1 July 1973, 402; 15 Feb. 1981, 19; 15
Aug. 1981, 28-29; 1 Dec. 1981, 27; Qualified to Be Ministers (WTBTS, 1967),
156. This article will focus on giving biblical responses to the Jehovah's Witnesses'
claims, and therefore will not provide extensive documentation proving what the
Society's publications actually say. Such documentation has already been compiled
in excellent fashion by Duane Magnani and his associates at Witness, Inc., P.O. Box
597, Clayton, CA 94517. I cannot recommend this ministry too highly for those
who wish to learn the truth about what the Society has taught in the past and
continues to teach today.
3 The Watch Tower, 15 Sept. 1910, 298; The Watchtower, 15 Aug. 1981, 28-29.
4 Reasoning from the Scriptures (WTBTS, 1985), 205. Of course, the early
Witnesses (or "Bible Students," as they were then known) thought that the "slave"
was one man, Charles Taze Russell, but this position has been repudiated by the
Society, which claims it was never taught by the organization. On this question,
see Duane Magnani, Who Is the Faithful and Wise Servant? (Clayton, CA:
Witness, Inc., 1988).
5 Aid to Bible Understanding (WTBTS, 1971), 839.
This article is Part One in a four-part series on Jehovahís Witnesses and the Bible, from the
Christian Research Journal, Fall 1988, page 19. The Editor-in-Chief of the Christian Research
Journal is Elliot Miller. Copyright © 1994 by the Christian Research Institute, P.O. Box 7000,
Rancho Santa Margarita, CA 92688-7000. Faith and Reason Forum would like to thank CRI for
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