Our modern-day Governing Body takes as divine backing for its existence the teaching that the first century congregation was also ruled by a governing body comprised of the Apostles and older men in Jerusalem. Is this true? Was there an administrative governing body ruling over the whole of the first century congregation?
First, we have to establish what we mean by ‘governing body’. Essentially, it is a body that governs. It might be likened to a corporate board of directors. In this role, the Governing Body manages a multinational billion-dollar corporation with branch offices, land holdings, buildings and equipment all over the globe. It directly employs volunteer workers numbering in the thousands in a huge number of countries. These include branch staff, missionaries, traveling overseers and special pioneers, all of whom are supported financially to varying degrees.
No one will deny that the diverse, complex and extensive corporate entity we’ve just described needs someone at the helm to function productively. [We are not suggesting that such an entity is needed for the worldwide preaching work to be accomplished. After all, the stones could cry out. (Luke 19:40) Only that given such an entity, a governing body or board of directors is needed to manage it.] However, when we say that our modern governing body is based on the first century model, are we talking about a similar corporate entity existing in the first century?
Any student of history will find that very suggestion to be laughable. Multinational corporations are a fairly recent invention. There is nothing in Scripture to indicate that the Apostles and older men in Jerusalem managed a multinational corporate empire with land holdings, buildings, and financial assets held in multiple currencies. There was simply no infrastructure in the first century to manage such a thing. The only form of communication was correspondence, but there was no established Postal Service. Letters were transmitted only when someone happened to be going on a journey, and given the dangerous nature of travel in those days, one could never count on the letter arriving.
So what then do we mean by a first century governing body?
What we mean is an early counterpart to what we have ruling over us today. The modern Governing Body directly or through its representatives makes all the appointments, interprets scripture and provides us with all our official understandings and teachings, legislates law on topics not explicitly covered in Scripture, organizes and manages a judiciary to enforce this law, and proscribes fitting punishment for offenses. It also claims the right to absolute obedience in its self-proclaimed role as God’s appointed channel of communication.
Therefore, the ancient governing body would have filled these same roles. Otherwise, we would have no scriptural precedent for what governs us today.
Was there such a first century governing body?
Let’s start by breaking this down into the various roles the existing Governing Body has under its authority and then looking for ancient parallels. Essentially, we are reverse-engineering the process.
Today: It oversees the worldwide preaching work, appoints branch and traveling overseers, dispatches missionaries and special pioneers and provides for their financial needs. All these, in turn, report directly back to the Governing Body.
First Century: There is no record of branch offices in any of the countries reported on in the Greek Scriptures. However, there were missionaries. Paul, Barnabas, Silas, Mark, Luke are all noted examples of historic significance. Were these men dispatched by Jerusalem? Did Jerusalem support them financially from funds received from all the congregations of the ancient world? Did they report back to Jerusalem upon their return?
In 46 C.E., Paul and Barnabas were associated with the congregation in Antioch, which was not in Israel, but in Syria. They were sent by the generous brothers in Antioch on a mission of relief to Jerusalem in the time of the great famine during the reign of Claudius. (Acts 11:27-29) Having completed their mission, they took John Mark with them and returned to Antioch. At that point—likely within a year of their return from Jerusalem—the holy spirit directed the congregation of Antioch to commission Paul and Barnabas and send them out on what would become the first of three missionary tours. (Acts 13:2-5)
Since they had just been in Jerusalem, why didn’t the holy spirit direct the older men and Apostles there to dispatch them on this mission? If these men constituted God’s appointed channel of communication, would not Jehovah be undermining their appointed rule, but channelling his communication through the brothers in Antioch?
Upon completing their first missionary tour, where did these two outstanding missionaries return to make a report? To a Jerusalem-based governing body? Acts 14:26,27 shows that they returned to the congregation of Antioch and made a full report, spending ‘not a little time with the disciples’ there.
It should be noted that the congregation of Antioch sent these and others out on missionary tours. There is no record of the older men and apostles in Jerusalem dispatching men on missionary tours.
Did the first century congregation in Jerusalem act as a governing body in a sense of directing and managing the worldwide work of the day? We find that when Paul and those with him wanted to preach in the district of Asia, they were forbidden to do so, not by some governing body, but by the holy spirit. Further, when they later wanted to preach in Bithynia, the spirit of Jesus prevented them. Instead, they were directed by means of a vision to step over to Macedonia. (Acts 16:6-9)
Jesus made no use of a group of men in Jerusalem or elsewhere to direct the worldwide work in his day. He was perfectly capable of doing so himself. In fact, he still is.
Today: All congregations are controlled through traveling representatives and branch offices that report back to the Governing Body. Finances are controlled by the Governing Body and its representatives. Likewise the purchase of land for Kingdom halls as well as their design and construction is all controlled in this manner by the Governing Body through its representatives at the branch and in the Regional Building Committee. Every congregation in the world makes regular statistical reports to the Governing Body and all the elders serving in these congregation are not appointed by the congregations themselves, but by the Governing Body through its branch offices.
First Century: There is absolutely no parallel for any of the foregoing in the first century. Buildings and lands for meeting places are not mentioned. It appears that congregations met in the homes of local members. Reports were not made on a regular basis, but following the custom of the time, news was carried by travellers, so Christians journeying to one place or another made reports to the local congregation of the work going on wherever they had been. However, this was incidental and not part of some organized controlling administration.
Today: The Governing Body performs a legislative and judicial role. Where something isn’t clearly stated in Scripture, where it may have been a matter of conscience, new laws and regulations have been put in place; for example, the injunction against smoking, or viewing of pornography. It has determined how it may be appropriate for brothers to avoid military service. For example, it approved the practice of bribing officials in Mexico to get a Military Service Card. It has ruled what constitutes grounds for divorce. Bestiality and homosexuality only became grounds in December of 1972. (To be fair, that wasn’t the Governing Body since it didn’t come into existence until 1976.) Judicially, it has created many rules and procedures to enforce its legislative decrees. The three-man judicial committee, the appeal process, the closed sessions that bar even observers the accused has requested are all examples of the authority it claims to have received from God.
First Century: With one notable exception which we will address presently, the older men and apostles did not legislate anything in the ancient world. All new rules and laws were the product of individuals acting or writing under inspiration. In fact, it is the exception that proves the rule that Jehovah has always used individuals, not committees, to communicate with his people. Even at the local congregation level, divinely inspired direction came not from some centralized authority but from men and women who acted as prophets. (Acts 11:27; 13:1; 15:32; 21:9)
The exception that proves the rule
The sole basis for our teaching that there was a first century governing body centered in Jerusalem arises from a dispute over the issue of circumcision.
(Acts 15:1, 2) 15 And certain men came down from Ju·de′a and began to teach the brothers: “Unless YOU get circumcised according to the custom of Moses, YOU cannot be saved.” 2 But when there had occurred no little dissension and disputing by Paul and Bar′na·bas with them, they arranged for Paul and Bar′na·bas and some others of them to go up to the apostles and older men in Jerusalem regarding this dispute.
This occurred while Paul and Barnabas were in Antioch. Men from Judea arrived bringing a new teaching which caused quite a bit of contention. It had to be resolved. So they went to Jerusalem. Did they go there because that is where the governing body existed or did they go there because that was the source of the problem? As we shall see, the latter is the most likely reason for their journey.
(Acts 15:6) . . .And the apostles and the older men gathered together to see about this affair.
Considering that fifteen years earlier thousands of Jews were baptized at Pentecost, by this time, there must have been many congregations in the Holy City. Since all the older men were involved in this conflict resolution, that would make for a considerable number of older men present. This is not the small group of appointed men that is often depicted in our publications. In fact, the gathering is referred to as a multitude.
(Acts 15:12) At that the entire multitude became silent, and they began to listen to Bar′na·bas and Paul relate the many signs and portents that God did through them among the nations.
(Acts 15:30) Accordingly, when these men were let go, they went down to Antioch, and they gathered the multitude together and handed them the letter.
There is every indication that this assembly was called, not because all the older men of Jerusalem had been appointed by Jesus to rule over the worldwide first century congregation, but rather because they were the source of the problem. The problem would not go away until all the Christians in Jerusalem could agree on this issue.
(Acts 15:24, 25) . . .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, 25 we have come to a unanimous accord and have favored choosing men to send to YOU together with our loved ones, Bar′na·bas and Paul,
A unanimous accord was arrived at and both men and written confirmation were being dispatched to put the matter to rest. It only makes sense that wherever Paul, Silas and Barnabas traveled after that, they would take along the letter, because these Judaizers were not done yet. Some years later, in a letter to the Galatians, Paul makes mention of them, wishing they would get themselves emasculated. Strong words, indicating that the patience of God had worn thin. (Gal. 5:11, 12)
Viewing the whole picture
Let’s assume for a moment that there was no governing body directing the worldwide work and serving as God’s sole channel of communication. What then? What would Paul and Barnabas have done? Would they have done anything different? Of course not. The dispute was caused by men from Jerusalem. The only way to resolve it would be to take the matter back to Jerusalem. If this is proof of a first century governing body, then there would have to be corroborative evidence in the rest of the Christian Scriptures. However, what we find is anything but.
There are many facts that support this view.
Paul had a special appointment as an apostle to the nations. He was appointed directly by Jesus Christ no less. Would he not have consulted the governing body if there were one? Instead he says,
(Galatians 1:18, 19) . . .Then three years later I went up to Jerusalem to visit Ce′phas, and I stayed with him for fifteen days. 19 But I saw no one else of the apostles, only James the brother of the Lord.
How very odd that he should willfully avoid the governing body, unless no such entity existed.
Where did the name “Christians” come from? Was it a directive issued by some Jerusalem-based governing body? No! The name came by divine providence. Ah, but did it at least come through the Apostles and older men of Jerusalem as God’s appointed channel of communication? It did not; it came through the Antioch congregation. (Acts 11:22) In fact, if you wanted to make a case for a first century governing body, you’d have an easier time of it by focusing on the brothers in Antioch, since they appear to have had a greater influence on the worldwide preaching work of that day than did the older men of Jerusalem.
When John received his vision in which Jesus addressed the seven congregations, no mention is made of a governing body. Why would Jesus not follow channels and direct John to write to the governing body so that they could perform their role of oversight and take care of these congregational matters? Simply put, the bulk of evidence is that Jesus dealt with the congregations directly throughout the first century.
A lesson from ancient Israel
When Jehovah first took a nation to himself, he appointed a leader, gave him great power and authority to free his people and lead them to the promised land. But Moses did not enter that land. Instead he commissioned Joshua to lead his people in their war against the Canaanites. However, once that work had been accomplished and Joshua had died, an interesting thing happened.
(Judges 17:6) . . .In those days there was no king in Israel. As for everybody, what was right in his own eyes he was accustomed to do.
Simply put, there was no human ruler over the nation of Israel. The head of each household had the law code. They had a form of worship and of conduct that was laid out in writing by the hand of God. True, there were judges but their role was not to govern but to resolve disputes. They also served to lead the people in times of war and conflict. But there was no human King or governing body over Israel because Jehovah was their King.
Though the judges-era nation of Israel was far from perfect, Jehovah set it up under a pattern of government that he approved. It would make sense that even allowing for imperfection, whatever form of government Jehovah put in place would be as close as possible to that which he originally intended for perfect man. Jehovah could have set up a centralized government of some form. However, Joshua, who communicated with Jehovah directly, was not instructed to do any such thing following his death. No monarchy was to be put in place, nor a parliamentary democracy, or any other of the myriad forms of human government we’ve tried and seen fail. It is significant that there was no provision for a central committee—a governing body.
Given the limitations of any imperfect society coupled with the drawbacks inherent in the cultural environment—such as it was—back then, the Israelites had just about the best lifestyle possible. But humans, never content with a good thing, wanted to “improve” on it by setting up a human king, a centralized government. Of course, it was pretty much all downhill from there.
It follows that in the first century when Jehovah again took a nation unto himself, that he would follow the same pattern of divine government. The greater Moses freed his people from spiritual captivity. When Jesus left, he commissioned twelve apostles to continue the work. What followed as these died off was a worldwide Christian congregation over which Jesus ruled directly from heaven.
Those taking the lead in the congregations had written instructions progressively revealed to them by inspiration, as well as the direct word of God spoken through the local prophets. It was impractical for a centralized human authority to govern them, but what is more important is that any central authority would have inevitably lead to the corruption of the Christian congregation, just as the central authority of the Kings of Israel led to the corruption of the Jews.
It is a fact of history as well as a fulfillment of Bible prophecy that men within the Christian congregation rose up and began to lord it over their fellow Christians. In time, a governing body or ruling council was formed and began to dominate the flock. Men set themselves up as princes and claimed that salvation was only possible if they were given complete obedience. (Acts 20:29,30; 1 Tim. 4:1-5; Ps. 146:3)
The situation today
What about today? Does the fact that there was no first century governing body mean there should be none today? If they got along without a governing body, why can’t we? Is the situation so different today that the modern Christian congregation could not function without a group of men directing it? If so, how much authority should be invested in such a body of men?
We shall attempt to answer those questions in our next post.
A Surprising Revelation
You may be surprised to learn that much of the scriptural reasoning contained in this post parallels that found in a talk given by brother Frederick Franz to the fifty-ninth class of Gilead during their graduation on September 7, 1975. This was just before the formation of the modern-day governing body on January 1, 1976. If you wish to hear the discourse for yourself, it can be easily found on youtube.com.
Unfortunately, all of the sound reasoning from his discourse was simply ignored, never to be repeated in any of the publications.