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Watchtower Authority and the Bible

Part One

by Robert M. Bowman, Jr.

Part One in a four-part series on Jehovah's 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.

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[1]) 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.[2]


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 occasion.[3]


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 Bible.

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,"[4] which is then identified as the leading teachers and administrators of the Jehovah's Witnesses.

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 says.

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).

Other Prooftexts

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."[5]

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.

End of document, CRJ0026A.TXT (original CRI file name),
"Watchtower Authority and the Bible"
release A, February 7, 1994
R. Poll, CRI

A special note of thanks to Bob and Pat Hunter for their help in the preparation of this ASCII file for BBS circulation.

Copyright 1994 by the Christian Research Institute.

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