- Three points of agreement and one question
- Two class Christianity versus biblical Christianity
Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God. – John 1:12-13
A few weeks ago, some Jehovah’s Witnesses knocked on my door to invite me to their Easter services. My initial reaction was : “Finally!” I love to talk about theology and it is not often that someone approaches me with the express purpose of engaging me in a theological conversation. Over the next few weeks, I had a wonderful opportunity to talk to these two women. I spent a fair amount of time online learning about Jehovah’s Witness doctrine and reading about approaches used by evangelical Christians to share the gospel with Jehovah’s Witnesses. However, after conversing with my guests for a few weeks about various subjects, I realized that there was a deeper issue that needed to be addressed. The major obstacle to the Jehovah’s Witnesses accepting the gospel did not come from their ideas about God, about Jesus, or about salvation. Instead, the principle obstacle was their underlying belief that the Watchtower organization is the only Christian church and is infallible in all it teaches.
This, I think, is the problem with many of the approaches that I found online. While they did provide extremely compelling biblical evidence to support Christian beliefs, they did not directly address the underlying assumption that the Watchtower Organization is an authoritative source of doctrine. Until this fundamental obstacle is cleared away, our arguments will be unsuccessful. The unspoken belief of a Jehovah’s Witness engaging with any biblical argument will be “This idea can’t be true because it contradicts Watchtower teaching.”
In this essay I’d like to sketch an approach to sharing the gospel with Jehovah’s Witnesses that addresses what I think is this fundamental problem. Consequently, I will not focus on typical issues like the deity of Christ, the nature of the atonement, the Trinity, etc… Rather, I will address the underlying assumption that the Watchtower Society is infallible in its teaching of Scripture. In doing so, my hope is that I will be able to clear away the obstacles preventing Jehovah’s Witnesses from searching the Scriptures for themselves. The end goal is to encourage the Jehovah’s Witnesses to read the Bible on their own and ask whether it is consistent with Watchtower doctrine.
The approach discussed in this essay is quite simple. It consists of three points of agreement which can be affirmed by both the JWs and evangelical Christians, followed by one question. Although the Jehovah’s Witnesses will readily agree with the first three points, it is vital that some time is spent on them so that the JWs themselves can articulate and endorse these statements and then wrestle with the question posed to them on the basis of their answers. The goal in what follows will be to advance the Protestant idea of Sola Scriptura: that the Bible ought to be our ultimate authority on religious questions. From this conclusion, multiple approaches can then be used to challenge the claim that the Watchtower is accurately interpreting the Bible. I offer one example that I think is particularly clear, but others may also be helpful.
Jehovah’s Witness vehemently affirm the inspiration and authority of the Bible. In fact, the booklet given to me on my first meeting with the JW’s was entitled “What Does the Bible Really Teach?” Thus, you will probably have no problem getting the JWs to agree to this point. But before moving on, it is important to establish what it means that the Bible is inspired. I suggest making statements like: “The Bible is God’s message to us”, “The Bible is the only authoritative source for knowing about God”, and “We learn and obey the Bible because that is how we learn about and submit to God.” Jehovah’s witnesses will affirm all of these statements, but it is important that these points be clear in their minds.
Point 2. Because the Bible is God’s Word, we should trust it rather than any human religious institution.
Jehovah’s Witnesses will be eager to affirm this second statement because the Watchtower Society teaches that the Christian church became almost completely apostate until the establishment of the Watchtower Society in the late 19th and early 20th century. To them, the fundamental problem with the modern Christian church is that it subscribes to pagan ideas while the Watchtower alone is faithful to the Bible. To reinforce your statement in the ultimate authority of Scripture, you could say things like “Creeds and church doctrinal statements are not the ultimate source of our beliefs” or “The Bible, not any human religious institution, should have the ultimate authority over our beliefs.” For instance, I suggested that in our discussion, I would not appeal to the Nicene Creed or the Westminster Confession or any other historic creed of the Christian church. I said things like “Since the Bible is God’s Word, I shouldn’t ultimately appeal to the Baptist Faith and Message or the Heidelberg Catechism to defend my religious beliefs. I think our religious beliefs should be based on the Bible, not on any manmade document.”
Point 3. If a religious institution teaches something contrary to the Bible, then we should follow the Bible, not the religious institution.
This follows clearly from Point 2 and Jehovah’s Witnesses will again readily affirm this statement. In fact, this is one of the reasons that they are coming to your door! Their belief is that the Christian church is now wholly apostate and that the Watchtower Society is the only organization which follows the teachings of the Bible. Thus, they believe that Christians need to forsake their allegiance to their particular church and submit to the teaching of the Bible by becoming Jehovah’s Witnesses. In other words, they are claiming that my allegiance to the Bible needs to be greater than my allegiance to any particular religious organization. As a Protestant, I agree! But it is extremely important for the JWs to vocalize and affirm this point specifically. For instance, you could say “As a Christian, I should follow what the Bible teaches,” or “If the Bible teaches something different than what my particular religious denomination teaches, then I should follow the Bible, right?”
These three points are essentially restating the traditional Protestant doctrine of sola Scriptura, which holds that the Bible and the Bible alone is the ultimate source of all religious authority. But the reason that it is essential to spend some time on these points, to which JWs will eagerly assent, is that the next point will probably cause them a great deal of difficulty. After establishing the doctrine of Sola Scripture, ask them this crucial question:
Question: If the Watchtower Society teaches something that is contrary to the teaching of the Bible, would you follow the Watchtower or the Bible?
When I finally asked this question, it truly caused the JWs great perplexity. Although they had repeatedly endorsed my assertion that the Bible ought to have ultimate authority over the teaching of my local church or my particular denomination, they had not considered what implications this idea had for them as Jehovah’s Witnesses. When I asked this question, they replied “But the Watchtower teaches what is in the Bible.” “Yes,” I said, “But what if the Watchtower taught something that contradicted the teaching of the Bible?” After a momentary silence, they repeated “But the Watchtower is teaching the Bible.” The idea that the doctrine of Sola Scriptura would be applicable to the Watchtower seemed to be completely new to them. Indeed, I think this idea is the most crucial element of your interaction with JWs. JWs have been taught that, like ancient Israel, the Watchtower is God’s organization on earth. To suggest that some other group might have a better understanding of the Bible than the Watchtower would be like suggesting that the Amalekites, rather than the Israelites, were God’s chosen people. I would take some time to dwell on this point and its implications as it will probably be very new for a Jehovah’s Witness. Use yourself as an example and point out that you are simply asking whether the same standard of biblical authority applies to them as it does to you. Are they asking you to believe the Bible or the Watchtower? If the Bible contradicts the Watchtower, then which should you and I believe?
Our goal in the above discussion is to encourage the JWs to reassert the ultimate authority of Scripture. However, in making this assertion, they must confront the possibility that the Watchtower itself is subject to the same biblical authority to which all individual Christians and churches are subject. The next step is to focus on one or two particular doctrines taught by the Watchtower that have absolutely no biblical support. Pressing these issues after establishing the authority of the Bible will force the JWs to examine the Bible itself apart from Watchtower literature, which is a practice actually discouraged by the Watchtower.
At this point, there are many options. Remember, the ultimate issue here is not any particular doctrine but the authority of the Watchtower and its infallibility on matters of doctrine. For that reason, I think it is not essential to focus on issues like the deity of Christ or the nature of the Trinity. While these issues are extremely important theologically, they may actually involve a large number of Bible passages and sustained reasoning. Instead, I would recommend focusing on issues that -while less significant in themselves- are obvious areas of incorrect teaching by the Watchtower. The issues that are most relevant for this purpose meet three criteria:
- they involve a small number of Bible verses
- they involve basic and fairly simple issues
- they clearly show an obvious error in Watchtower theology or interpretation
There are several issues that I think meet these criteria such as the identification of Jesus as the archangel Michael, the prohibition against celebrating birthdays, or the insertion of the name Jehovah into the New Testament. But for now, let me focus on what I believe is the most clear-cut issue: the Jehovah’s Witness belief that there is an anointed group of 144,000 JWs who will reign with Jesus in heaven. This issue is the one I would start with to demonstrate to JWs that Watchtower theology is completely contrary to biblical teaching.
The issue of the 144,000 anointed believers is an extremely important one for two reasons. First, it is biblically indefensible. Second, it has tremendous implications for how JWs read the entire New Testament. Consequently, it directly and immediately runs up against the previously established criterion of Sola Scriptura. Although this issue is not as central to the Christian faith as the deity of Christ, it ought to lead Jehovah’s Witnesses to question whether the Watchtower is indeed teaching the Bible and if not, whether Jehovah’s Witnesses will acknowledge the Watchtower or the Bible as their ultimate authority on religious matters.
Let me begin by establishing how tenuous is the biblical support for the 144,000. The 144,000 are mentioned in only two places in the Bible: Rev. 7 and Rev. 14. Here are the passages in context:
“Then I saw another angel coming up from the east, having the seal of the living God. He called out in a loud voice to the four angels who had been given power to harm the land and the sea: “Do not harm the land or the sea or the trees until we put a seal on the foreheads of the servants of our God.” Then I heard the number of those who were sealed: 144,000 from all the tribes of Israel. From the tribe of Judah 12,000 were sealed, from the tribe of Reuben 12,000, from the tribe of Gad 12,000, from the tribe of Asher 12,000, from the tribe of Naphtali 12,000, from the tribe of Manasseh 12,000, from the tribe of Simeon 12,000, from the tribe of Levi 12,000, from the tribe of Issachar 12,000, from the tribe of Zebulun 12,000, from the tribe of Joseph 12,000, from the tribe of Benjamin 12,000. After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.” (Rev. 7:2-9)
“Then I looked, and there before me was the Lamb, standing on Mount Zion, and with him 144,000 who had his name and his Father’s name written on their foreheads. And I heard a sound from heaven like the roar of rushing waters and like a loud peal of thunder. The sound I heard was like that of harpists playing their harps. And they sang a new song before the throne and before the four living creatures and the elders. No one could learn the song except the 144,000 who had been redeemed from the earth. These are those who did not defile themselves with women, for they remained virgins. They follow the Lamb wherever he goes. They were purchased from among mankind and offered as firstfruits to God and the Lamb. No lie was found in their mouths; they are blameless.” (Rev. 14:1-5)
I would begin by asking the Jehovah’s Witnesses whether 144,000 in these passages is a literal number of people or whether it is some kind of figurative number of completeness. They will say that this number is absolutely literal: it refers to the 144,000 anointed believers who will reign with Jesus in heaven. Then, following along with the text from Revelation, ask them several other questions:
- Are the 144,000 all male? (Rev. 14:4)
- Are they all literal virgins who have never had sex with women? (Rev. 14:4)
- Are they all literally Jews? (Rev. 7:4)
- Are there literally 12,000 from each of the twelve tribes? (Rev. 7:5-8)
They should answer that all of these details are figurative, in accordance with Watchtower teaching. The next question is then: “How do we know which details in these passages are figurative and which are literal?” Jehovah’s Witness theology dictates that the number 144,000 is literal and all the other details are symbolic, but it does not explain how we know that the 144,000 is a literal number and that all the other details are symbolic. Essentially, the appeal the JWs must make is to the infallibility of the Watchtower, not to the text itself. I think that either a literal or figurative interpretation of all these details is possible, although I would strongly favor a figurative interpretation. But what is almost impossible to defend is how we could single out one particular detail as literal while treating all the rest as symbolic. Ask the JWs how they know which details are figurative and which are symbolic? Can they tell this from the Bible? Or are they learning this fact from the Watchtower?
Nonetheless, the exact number of the “144,000” is obviously not the important issue. The far more important issue is how the idea of the “anointed class” absolutely permeates Jehovah’s Witness theology. For instance, here are a few of the doctrines which Jehovah’s Witnesses believe regarding this limited 144,000-member anointed class of Christians:
- Only the anointed class is born again
- Only the anointed class are adopted sons of God
- Only the anointed class are justified by faith
- Only the anointed class are called “saints”
- Only the anointed class will reign with Jesus in heaven
The extreme untenability of this position is why this particular issue is such a useful one for probing the practical implications of the authority of the Bible. As I’ll show in what follows, our goal should be to show not only that the Bible clearly contradicts the idea that there is a special anointed class of believers, but that this doctrine makes large portions of the New Testament completely irrelevant. It is not merely a choice between believing in the 144,000-member anointed class and some alternative interpretation of Rev. 7 and 14. Instead, it is a choice between the 144,000-member anointed class and the relevance of enormous swathes of the New Testament, including Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and 1 Peter.
The clearest way to show the serious implications of the doctrine of the anointed class to the relevance of the New Testament is to ask the JWs to whom the New Testament epistles are addressed. Are they addressed to all believers in Jesus Christ? Or are they only addressed to the anointed believers? The opening verses of nearly all the New Testament epistles clearly identify the intended recipients of the letter as “the saints” which, in JW theology, is a term applicable only to the anointed class. For instance, consider the following passages found in the introduction of the various New Testament epistles:
- “To all those in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints.” – Rom. 1:7
- “To all the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours” – 1 Cor. 1:2
- “To the church of God that is in Corinth, with all the saints who are in the whole of Achaia” – 2 Cor. 1:1
- “To the saints who are in Ephesus, and are faithful in Christ Jesus” – Eph. 1:1
- “To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the
- overseers and deacons” – Phil. 1:1
- “To the saints and faithful brothers in Christ at Colossae” – Col. 1:2
If JW theology is true, then these letters were not addressed to all believers in Jesus Christ and are not directly applicable to them. Moreover, there are numerous passages throughout the letters which the JWs believe are also applicable only to the anointed class. So not only are the letters explicitly addressed to the anointed class, but some material in the body of the letters apply only to the anointed class. The essential question to ask is how we can know which material in these letters applies only to the anointed class and which applies to non-anointed believers? For instance, are the ethical commands in the epistles given only to the anointed class? Are the theological statements about being justified by faith alone given only to the anointed class? Stress the difficulty that is raised by this division and ask how the JWs determine which passages are applicable to them.
If the JWs respond that we can tell which group is addressed by referring to Watchtower publications, then ask them: “I thought the Bible was the ultimate source of our doctrine? Does this theology come from the Bible or can I only know it from Watchtower publications? If we were only reading the Bible, how would we know which material applies to which group?” These question should cause the JWs to question whether the Bible or the Watchtower is their ultimate source of authority.
Second, we can consider some of the particular distinctives of the anointed class and ask whether the Bible limits these characteristic to some subset of Christians or whether they apply to all Christians. For instance, consider the idea that only the “anointed class” are adopted sons of God. In Galatians 3:26-28, Paul writes: “in Christ Jesus, you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male or female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Note the universality of Paul’s statement that “you are all sons of God.” JW’s may counter with the idea that the Bible teaches that all human beings are “sons of God” because God created them. But here Paul ties the “sonship” to which he is referring to faith in Jesus Christ, which not all human beings have. Moreover, he says that “as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” So again, the clear implication is that all those who believe in Jesus are sons of God in a very different sense than all human beings can somehow be called “sons of God.” This adopted sonship comes to all who trust in Christ, not only to some select anointed class. See also John 1:12-13 “Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— 13 children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.” or Romans 8:15 “For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, ‘Abba, Father.'”
An even more difficult passage for JWs to reconcile with their theology is Eph. 1:4-5 where Paul writes “In love, he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ.” Note that this statement is linked to all of the preceding and subsequent statements detailing the many blessings that all Christians receive in Christ. Indeed, in the Greek, verses 1:3-14 all form one long sentence! The question that resurfaces is how we know which material applies to the anointed class and which applies to non-anointed Christians? It might be helpful to go through all of the blessings that Paul recites in Eph. 1:3-14 with the JWs and ask which of these apply only to the anointed class and which to all Christians? For instance, ask “Are we all chosen to be blameless and holy in God’s sight? Do we all have redemption? Do we all have forgiveness of sins in accordance with the riches of God’s grace? Were we all included in Christ when we heard the message of truth? Were we all marked with the seal of the Holy Spirit as a deposit on our inheritance?”
When phrased this way, the JWs will probably want to say yes, but they will have to say no. Although they might want to claim that some of these blessings apply to all Christians, they will have been taught that others apply only to the anointed class. Yet if some of these verses apply only to the anointed class, then how do we know which verses apply to all Christians? Indeed, just a few sentences later we read “it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.” (Eph. 2:8-9). Yet the Watchtower teaches that this passage applies only to the anointed class. The question to press is two-fold: how can the JWs know which verses apply to the anointed class and which apply to all Christians when they alternate so rapidly? And did Paul intend these verses to apply only to one special class or to all Christians?
We could also consider whether all Christian are justified by grace through faith, a teaching denied by JWs. A recent article published by the Watchtower states their theology very plainly. Speaking about Romans 4, the Watchtower writes:
Jehovah did not declare [Abraham] righteous in the sense that he does those whom he anoints with spirit to be “joint heirs with Christ.” The limited number of that group are “called to be holy ones” and are accepted as “God’s sons.” (Rom. 1:7; 8:14, 17, 33) In contrast, Abraham came to be “Jehovah’s friend”—and that before the ransom sacrifice was offered. (Jas. 2: 23; Isa. 41:8) What, then, about true Christians who hope to live in the restored earthly Paradise?These have not received “the free gift of righteousness” with heavenly life in view “through the release by the ransom paid by Christ Jesus.” Rom. 3:24; 5:15, 17) … Thus, Jehovah can view these as righteous in tthe sense that he did Abraham. The gift such ones receive —friendship with God—differs from “the free gift” the anointed receive. Yet, it certainly is a gift that they accept with deep gratitude. (June 15, 2011 Watchtower Study Edition, p. 15)
Note that the Watchtower quite clearly states that non-anointed Christians “have not received ‘the free gift of righteousness'” which is mentioned in Romans 3:24, 5:15, and 5:17. Rather, they receive a different gift. Here are two crucial questions to ask JWs regarding Paul’s argument in Romans 3-5:
1. The Watchtower does teach that the anointed class, including the apostles, did receive this free gift of righteousness. So all of Paul’s “we” and “our” language in Romans 3 refers to the anointed class whom he is representing. But then why does Paul write that “the promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace and may be guaranteed to all Abraham’s offspring—not only to those who are of the law but also to those who have the faith of Abraham. He is the father of us all” (Rom. 4:16). If Abraham was not a member of the anointed class and is not a model for the anointed Christians, then why is he held up as one who received “the promise…by faith…by grace” as “the father of us all” who have faith in Christ?
2. The Watchtower teaches that through Adam all died and that all of us are dead in sin. Yet it then teaches that the “free gift” of remission of sin is given only the anointed class. If that is the case, then how can the sin of non-anointed people be remitted? Are we still dead in sin? If the teaching about sin in Romans 3 applies to all people, then how does the teaching about salvation by free gift in Romans 3 also not apply to all people?
All of these examples are merely illustrations. The repercussions of the JW two-class theology are so severe that it is hard to underestimate its impact on their reading of the New Testament. I greatly hope that readers will be encouraged to question JWs themselves and to probe problematic passages together with JWs. As always, the goal is not to challenge any particular doctrine, not even the Watchtower’s two-class theology. Rather, it is to point JWs towards the doctrine of Sola Scriptura and encourage them to subject the Watchtower to the same biblical scrutiny to which the Bereans submitted even the apostles’ teaching (Acts 17:11).
Finally, I would encourage Christians to study a single passage or book of the Bible with the JWs. I’ve noticed that the Jehovah’s Witnesses I’ve interacted with have a very specific method of Bible study. Rather than reading through a whole book of the Bible, they read a particular article or booklet published by the Watchtower to learn their doctrine and refer to single verses in the Bible primarily as a reference. Even when they read the Bible, they will rely heavily on JWs marginal cross-references, rather than reading a particular verse in its own context. Even suggesting that we should read the Bible as it was originally written, as individual letters or books, should be a radical and highly subversive idea to JWs. I would strongly recommend reading (in order of increasing length) John 1:1-18, Galatians 3, Romans 1-5, or 1 John. Taking the time to walk JWs through these books and asking them to explain these passages should show them how much their interpretation is imposed on the text by Watchtower teaching and how little it emerges from the text itself.
I hope this essay has provided a helpful approach for engaging Jehovah’s Witnesses. As always, the goal is not to win an argument or correct some particular point of doctrine. The goal is to gently challenge the obstacles the JWs have built up to the gospel itself: the gospel of free, unmerited grace and favor through the substitutionary death of Jesus. Our goal as Christians should be -in love- to show them our need as sinners and God’s provision of salvation, based not on our works or merit but based on His grace and mercy.
I owe great debts to Robert Bowman and Mike Felker for their help on this essay. For more information on Jehovah’s witnesses, I highly recommend the Institute for Religious Research and Robert Bowman’s excellent set of four mp3 lectures found here under Understanding Mormons & Jehovah’s Witnesses, lectures 5-8.