Multi-ethnic, mixed age group of people involved in Christian bible study meeting at local church.

With the recent developments at the Annual Meeting of the Watchtower Bible & Tract Society regarding the expanded role of the Governing Body, we thought it would be a good idea to scripturally examine the idea of a governing body directing the worldwide affairs of the disciples of Jesus Christ.

For decades, Jehovah’s Witnesses have submitted to a Governing Body made up of men who profess to be anointed sons of God. Though there have been various changes in the make-up of this Body, the constant is that they believe they are acting in line with an arrangement started by the first century Christians.

    In the Society’s book, Organized to Do Jehovah’s Will, Chapter 3, The Role of the Governing Body, it states concerning the apostles in the first century: “[F]rom their position in the Jerusalem congregation, they served as a governing body for the entire anointed Christian congregation.” Let’s take a look at the Jerusalem congregation of the first century and see how they oversaw and developed the Christian congregation.  And then we can more clearly see the role of the modern day Governing Body of Jehovah’s Witnesses as it applies to each individual Christian.

The basis for the Society’s conclusion that the apostles in the Jerusalem congregation acted as a governing body is found in the 15th chapter of the book of Acts. In their 2012 brochure entitled Who Are Doing Jehovah’s Will Today? on page 20, it explains:

“In the first century, a small group, “the apostles and older men in Jerusalem,” served as a governing body to make important decisions on behalf of the entire anointed Christian congregation. (Acts 15:2) When they made a unanimous decision, it was a result of discussing what the Scriptures say and yielding to the influence of God’s spirit. (Acts 15:25) That pattern is followed today.”

So it does appear that weighty matters were taken to the apostles in Jerusalem and their decision was disseminated to all the other congregations.  However, a closer look at the incident reveals something a little different.  Begin the account at the beginning:

“And certain men came down from Judea and began to teach the brothers: “Unless you get circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” But when there had occurred no little dissension and disputing by Paul and Barnabas with them, they arranged for Paul and Barnabas and some others of them to go up to the apostles and older men in Jerusalem regarding this dispute.”
– Acts 15:1-2

Paul and Barnabas had been teaching the gentile Christians that they did not need to keep the law of Moses. However, “certain men from Judea” – from the Jerusalem congregation – arrived and taught the opposite.  Paul and Barnabas tried to reason with them but when the matter could not be resolved, they took the dispute to the older men in Jerusalem.  Why Jerusalem?  Not because they were the final word on the matter, but because the problem originated from men who hailed from the Jerusalem congregation. They were the ones who started the problem, so it was appropriate to go to the source of the problem for correction.  The account goes on:

“Accordingly, after being conducted partway by the congregation, these men continued on their way through both Phoenicia and Samaria, relating in detail the conversion of people of the nations, and they were causing great joy to all the brothers. On arriving in Jerusalem they were kindly received by the congregation and the apostles and the older men, and they recounted the many things God had done by means of them. Yet, some of those of the sect of the Pharisees that had believed rose up from their seats and said: “It is necessary to circumcise them and charge them to observe the law of Moses.” 
– Acts 15:3-5

On their way to Jerusalem, Paul and Barnabas encouraged the congregations along the way with accounts of the Gentile conversions. But when they told the Jerusalem brothers about it, “the sect of the Pharisees” objected and stated that it was necessary for them to keep the Mosaic Law. Apparently, the Jerusalem congregation was made up of, not only apostles of Jesus, but also a sect of Pharisees who believed in Jesus and accepted the ‘new wine,’ but at the same time, wanted to keep serving the ‘old wine.’ (Luke 5:37-39) It continues:

“And the apostles and the older men gathered together to see about this affair. Now when much disputing had taken place, Peter rose and said to them: “Men, brothers, you well know that from early days God made the choice among you that through my mouth people of the nations should hear the word of the good news and believe; and God, who knows the heart, bore witness by giving them the holy spirit, just as he did to us also.  And he made no distinction at all between us and them, but purified their hearts by faith.  Now, therefore, why are you making a test of God by imposing upon the neck of the disciples a yoke that neither our forefathers nor we were capable of bearing? On the contrary, we trust to get saved through the undeserved kindness of the Lord Jesus in the same way as those people also.”
– Acts 15:6-11

Even with Paul and Barnabas’ explanation that holy spirit had been poured out on those who had not been circumcised, the Jerusalem brothers continued their opposition. Finally Peter stood up and explained that the Mosaic yoke should not be placed upon the Gentile Christians, but that all that was needed was faith in the undeserved kindness of Jesus.     

After more discussion, the disciple James stood up and made a decision that circumcision was not obligatory:

“At that the entire multitude became silent, and they began to listen to Barnabas and Paul relate the many signs and portents that God did through them among the nations.  After they quit speaking, James answered, saying: “Men, brothers, hear me.  Symeon has related thoroughly how God for the first time turned his attention to the nations to take out of them a people for his name. And with this the words of the Prophets agree, just as it is written, ‘After these things I shall return and rebuild the booth of David that is fallen down; and I shall rebuild its ruins and erect it again, in order that those who remain of the men may earnestly seek Jehovah, together with people of all the nations, people who are called by my name, says Jehovah, who is doing these things, known from of old.’ Hence my decision is not to trouble those from the nations who are turning to God, but to write them to abstain from things polluted by idols and from fornication and from what is strangled and from blood. For from ancient times Moses has had in city after city those who preach him, because he is read aloud in the synagogues on every sabbath.”
– Acts 15:12-21

After having reached a decision, the Jerusalem brothers wrote a letter to be taken back to the congregations where the ‘certain men from Judea’ had been misleading them. In the letter, they acknowledged that the problem arose from the Jerusalem congregation and that the Jerusalem congregation was setting the matter straight:

“Then the apostles and the older men together with the whole congregation favored sending chosen men from among them to Antioch along with Paul and Barnabas, namely, Judas who was called Barsabbas and Silas, leading men among the brothers; and by their hand they wrote: “The apostles and the older men, brothers, to those brothers in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia who are from the nations: Greetings! Since we have heard that some from among us have caused you trouble with speeches, trying to subvert your souls, although we did not give them any instructions, we have come to a unanimous accord and have favored choosing men to send to you together with our loved ones, Barnabas and Paul, men that have delivered up their souls for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. We are therefore dispatching Judas and Silas, that they also may report the same things by word.  For the holy spirit and we ourselves have favored adding no further burden to you, except these necessary things, to keep abstaining from things sacrificed to idols and from blood and from things strangled and from fornication. If you carefully keep yourselves from these things, you will prosper. Good health to you!”
– Acts 15:22-29

The letter from the Jerusalem brothers was a letter of apology for interfering in the affairs of the Gentile congregation, reinforced by the personal appearance of certain older men from Jerusalem. The letter acknowledged that holy spirit was working with the Gentiles also, and that they were sufficiently organized. So they felt that no further interference was needed except to remind them to refrain from certain things associated with the Gentile practice of idol worship.  When the letter was read to the congregations, there was rejoicing because again, the brotherhood had been united. And the men from Jerusalem were sent home in peace:

“Accordingly, when these men were let go, they went down to Antioch, and they gathered the multitude together and handed them the letter.  After reading it, they rejoiced over the encouragement.  And Judas and Silas, since they themselves were also prophets, encouraged the brothers with many a discourse and strengthened them.  So, when they had passed some time, they were let go in peace by the brothers to those who had sent them out. - However, Paul and Barnabas continued spending time in Antioch teaching and declaring, with many others also, the good news of the word of Jehovah.”
– Acts 15:30-35

So to recap what happened, the apostle Paul, who was not of the Jerusalem congregation, was teaching the good news of the kingdom to the Gentile brothers in Antioch and other congregations.  At some point, certain men from the Jerusalem congregation came down and began teaching them that they must also keep the Mosaic law.  When the matter could not be resolved, Paul and Barnabas took the issue back to the congregation of the brothers who originated the problem – the Jerusalem congregation. We learn that one reason the Jerusalem brothers were confused is because within their ranks was a sect of Pharisees – Pharisees who had accepted Jesus, but still clung to the Mosaic Law.  After much discussion, it was finally resolved that Paul and Barnabas were correct and a letter of apology was sent to Antioch and other congregations to let them know that the problem caused by the “certain men from Judea” had been resolved.

We learn from this account, not that the Jerusalem congregation served as a headquarters or governing body that handed down instruction and guidance for the other congregations. Rather, we learn that some in the Jerusalem congregation were still stuck in the olden ways and they needed correction. When the matter was clear to all, the Jerusalem brothers humbly acknowledged that they were wrong and sent a letter of correction and conciliation to the other affected congregations. Thus, an examination of the entire context of the scriptures dealing with the activities of the Jerusalem brothers reveals that the idea of a centralized governing body is a myth.  That it is a myth is further reinforced by another scriptural account.

Here, again, Peter (Cephas) and other men from the Jerusalem congregation came to Antioch, and while there, freely took meals with the Gentiles. But when James and other men from the Jerusalem congregation arrived, Peter and his Jewish associates withdrew and separated themselves for fear James and the Jerusalem brothers would condemn them for socializing with Gentiles. Paul, who was not a member of the Jerusalem congregation, strongly admonished Peter for this:

“However, when Cephas came to Antioch, I resisted him face to face, because he stood condemned. For before the arrival of certain men from James, he used to eat with people of the nations; but when they arrived, he went withdrawing and separating himself, in fear of those of the circumcised class. The rest of the Jews also joined him in putting on this pretense, so that even Barnabas was led along with them in their pretense. But when I saw they were not walking straight according to the truth of the good news, I said to Cephas before them all: “If you, though you are a Jew, live as the nations do, and not as Jews do, how is it that you are compelling people of the nations to live according to Jewish practice?”
– Galatians 2:11-14

Again, it was Paul who corrected the older men from Jerusalem, not the other way around. The Bible record reveals that practically all of the counsel on congregation arrangements were given in the letters penned by Paul or in the account of the activities of Paul.  In fact, of the 21 letter of the Christian Scriptures, 14 were penned, not by the Jerusalem apostles, but by Paul.  Peter wrote 2, James wrote 1, John wrote 3, and Jude wrote 1.     

So the idea that the Jerusalem brothers served as a centralized headquarters that directed the body of anointed Christians is not accurate. The truth is that the Jerusalem congregation was behind the times, and slow to respond to Jesus’ teachings. They had in their midst a sect of Pharisees who no doubt served as a continual hindrance.  Yes, the idea of a centralized governing body in the first century is a misunderstanding and a myth.

The true driving force for the development of the Christian congregation was the apostle Paul who counseled his Jewish brothers, but focused his ministry primarily on the people of the nations. If the Society seeks an example in directing our congregations, they will do far better to look to Paul rather than the brothers in the Jerusalem congregation.

Notice how Paul handled his ministry. He did not situate himself in one congregation. He had no centralized perch from which to issue decisions on theocratic order. Rather he was a traveling brother visiting many congregation and encouraging them. He would establish congregations and move on, sending back letters of encouragement and reminders when he received reports of trouble. That does not mean that Christians should have one man as head over all. Rather it emphasizes that we, as a Christian body, should be focused on our ministry, not on controlling our brothers.

Each individual Christian, like Paul, should be a source of encouragement to all others.  And those who have the circumstances and the ability to minister should do so. They do not need to wait for instruction from ‘higher ups.’  As John wrote:

“These things I write you about those who are trying to mislead you.  And as for you, the anointing that you received from him remains in you, and you do not need anyone to be teaching you; but, as the anointing from him is teaching you about all things, and is true and is no lie, and just as it has taught you remain in union with him.  So now, little children, remain in union with him, that when he is made manifest we may have freeness of speech and not be shamed away from him at his presence.  If you know that he is righteous, you gain the knowledge that everyone who practices righteousness has been born from him.”
– 1 John 2:26-29

True sons of the Kingdom who remain united with the spirit within them and the anointing of the Spirit of Truth will, of their own volition, practice righteousness, not because men tell them to do so, but because they seek freeness of speech before God.  This method of developing the Christian congregation worked for many decades.

The early Christian congregations were congregationally associated. They were not centralized in a hierarchical arrangement. That did not occur until the fourth century when the Christian writings were canonized, and a priestly class was re-established, relegating the brothers and sisters in the congregation to a subclass much the way matters were conducted under the Law Covenant. Jesus did not approve of such a division.  He said:

“But you, do not you be called Rabbi, for one is your teacher, whereas all you are brothers.  Moreover, do not call anyone your father on earth, for one is your Father, the heavenly One.”
– Matthew 23:8-9

But it seem the Judaizers won out and perpetrated their form of Christianity for many centuries until the Reformation.

If we truly want to model our association after the first century Christians, our leadership must re-examine itself and make humble adjustments according to their self-appointed exemplars – the brothers in the Jerusalem congregation. When these men were corrected by Paul, an outsider, they responded favorably. And not only did they themselves realize their errors, they wrote a letter of apology to the congregations and even dispatched certain men to explain the letter to the various congregations that had been affected by their erroneous counsel.  It took a great deal of humility for those brothers to make these adjustments.  We hope we can expect the same of our leadership.  We hope they are willing to conduct a thorough self-examination and align themselves with the true Christian arrangement.

In spite of the clearly expressed model of Christian organization in the Bible, the fact remains that the Governing Body is at the helm of the organization of Jehovah’s Witnesses and is exercising authority according to its own understanding of its role.  So how should we as individuals respond?

Is this an opportunity for us to attack our Governing Body as false leaders?  Should we berate them as apostates?  Should we revolt?  No! Definitely not!  When knowledge causes one to attack, such an attacker has only gained facts, not truth. Truth originates in spiritual depth, the ability to examine a matter from all angles: 

“But a physical man does not receive the things of the spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot get to know [them], because they are examined spiritually.  However, the spiritual man examines indeed all things, but he himself is not examined by any man.  For “who has come to know the mind of Jehovah, that he may instruct him?” But we do have the mind of Christ.”
– 1 Corinthians 2:14-16

It is the mind of Christ that will allow us to have a proper response:

“. . . in order that you may be thoroughly able to grasp mentally with all the holy ones what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of the Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness that God gives.”
– Ephesians 3:18-19

The sons of God put on ‘the mind of Christ’ and are led by spirit.(Romans 8:14) Our behavior is conditioned by an outpouring of the fruitage of the spirit “love, joy, peace, long-suffering, kindness, goodness, faith, mildness, self-control.” (Galatians 5:22-23) Yes, we have knowledge about how our organization should be operated, but that knowledge should move us to readjust our brothers, not attack.  As Paul wrote “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” (1 Corinthians 8:1)

A wiser course is to appeal to our governing brothers’ sense of reason and their own representation that they ‘follow the lamb wherever he goes.’ (Revelation 14:4) At the same time, we stand firm in our loyalty to the Father and to the Christ, and we obey men only so far as such obedience does not infringe on our superior obligations to the Father.  (Acts 5:29)

We must acknowledge that such a change may take time.  Perhaps our governing brothers are trying to pivot to a position more in line with the scriptures and with the leadings of the Spirit of Truth.  

In the meantime, sons of the Kingdom must fortify themselves by regular study of the Bible, by participation in the ministry of the true good news of the kingdom, and by incessant prayer (1 Thessalonians 5:17) for wisdom, patience and strength, not for our own salvation, but for the salvation of the brothers taking the lead.  The judgment for those who have taken positions of authority is great.

“. . . Indeed, everyone to whom much was given, much will be demanded of him; and the one whom people put in charge of much, they will demand more than usual of him.”
– Luke 12:48

We pray that our governing brothers are pivoting toward truth. If not, perhaps through the encouragement from our local brothers and sisters, they can be ‘brought to their senses’ like the prodigal son. (Luke 15:17) We must respect their humanity and their ability to correct themselves; they are only men subject to error just like us; and they are still our brothers.  We should also take seriously to heart Paul’s counsel:

“Brothers, even though a man takes some false step before he is aware of it, you who have spiritual qualifications try to readjust such a man in a spirit of mildness, as you each keep an eye on yourself, for fear you also may be tempted. Go on carrying the burdens of one another, and thus fulfill the law of the Christ.”
– Galatians 6:1-2

Related Question

06/05/13 - Why do we characterize the letter from the Jerusalem congregation as an apology rather than as a directive.


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