Are Jehovah’s Witnesses in danger of becoming like the Pharisees?
Comparing any Christian group to the Pharisees of Jesus’ day is equivalent to comparing a political party with the Nazis. It’s an insult, or to put it another way, “Them’s fightin’ words.”
However, we should not let a gut reaction inhibit us from examining possible parallels. As the saying goes, “Those who will not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”
Who Were the Pharisees?
According to some scholars, the name “Pharisee” means “Separated Ones”. They viewed themselves as among the holiest of men. They were saved while the masses at large were despised; an accursed people.[i] It isn’t clear when the sect came into existence, but Josephus makes mention of them as far back as the latter half of the second century before Christ. So the sect was at least 150 years old when Christ arrived.
These were very zealous men. Paul, himself a former Pharisee, says they were the most zealous of all the sects.[ii] They fasted twice a week and tithed scrupulously. They extolled their own righteousness for men, even using visual symbols to proclaim their righteous status. They loved money, power, and flattering titles. They added to the law with their own interpretations to such an extent that they created an unnecessary burden upon the people. However, when it came to matters involving true justice, mercy, faithfulness, and love of fellow man, they came up short. Nevertheless, they went to great lengths to make disciples.[iii]
We Are the True Religion
I cannot think of another religion on earth today whose members commonly and frequently refer to themselves as being “in the truth”, as do Jehovah’s Witnesses. When two Witnesses meet for the first time, the conversation will inevitably turn to the question of when each first “came into the truth”. We speak of young ones growing up in a Witness family and reaching an age when “they can make the truth their own”. We teach that all other religions are false, and will soon be destroyed by God but that we will survive. We teach that all people who do not enter the ark-like organization of Jehovah’s Witnesses will die at Armageddon.
I have talked with both Catholics and Protestants in my career as a Jehovah’s Witness and on many occasions while discussing false doctrines such as their official belief in Hellfire, I was surprised to learn that the individuals accepted that there was no such literal place. It really didn’t bother them that much that their church taught something which they did not believe to be scriptural. Having the truth wasn’t that important; indeed, most felt as Pilate did when he said to Jesus, “What is truth?”
This is not the case with Jehovah’s Witnesses. Having the truth is absolutely intrinsic to our belief system. Like myself, many who frequent this site have come to learn that some of our core beliefs—those that distinguish us from other churches in Christendom—are not Scriptural. What follows this realization is a period of turmoil, not unlike what the Kübler-Ross model details as the five stages of grief. The first stage is denial.
Our denial is often manifest in a number of defensive responses. Those I have personally encountered, or which I myself proffered when going through this stage, always ended up focusing on two things: Our growth and our zeal in preaching. The reasoning goes that we must be the true religion because we are always growing and because we are zealous in the preaching work.
It is noteworthy that we never pause for an instant to question the fact that Jesus never used zeal, proselytizing, nor numerical growth as a measuring stick for identifying his true disciples.
The Record of the Pharisees
If you mark the beginning of our faith with the publication of the first issue of the Watchtower, we have been around for almost a century and a half. For a similar time period, the Pharisees had been growing in numbers and influence. They were viewed by men as righteous. In fact, there is nothing to indicate the initially they were the most righteous sect of Judaism. Even by the time of Christ, there were evidently righteous individuals among their ranks.[iv]
But were they righteous as a group?
They truly tried to conform to the law of God as laid down by Moses. They went overboard in applying the law, adding laws of their own in an effort to please God. In doing so, they added unnecessary burdens to the people. Still, they were noteworthy for their zeal for God. They preached and ‘traversed dry land and sea to make even one disciple’.[v] They viewed themselves as saved, while all non-believers, non-Pharisees were cursed. They practiced their faith by regular attendance to their duties such as weekly fasting and dutifully paying all their tithes and sacrifices to God.
By all observable evidence they were serving God in an acceptable manner.
Yet when the test came, they murdered Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
If you had asked any of them in 29 C.E. if they or their sect would possibly end up murdering God’s Son, what would the answer have been? Thus we see the danger of measuring ourselves by our zeal and strict adherence to sacrificial forms of service.
Our most recent Watchtower study had this to say:
“Certain sacrifices are fundamental for all true Christians and are essential to our cultivation and maintaining a good relationship with Jehovah. Such sacrifices include devoting personal time and energy to prayer, Bible reading, family worship, meeting attendance, and the field ministry.”[vi]
That we would consider the wondrous privilege of prayer to be a sacrifice says a lot about our current mentality with regard to what is acceptable worship. Like the Pharisees, we calibrate our devotion based on measurable works. How many hours in the field service, how many return visits, how many magazines. (We have recently begun to measure the number of tracts each individual places in a campaign.) We are expected to go out regularly in field service, once a week at a minimum ideally. Missing a full month is viewed as unacceptable. Missing six months in a row means our name is taken off the posted membership role.
The Pharisees were so fastidious in the payment of their sacrifices that they measured out the tenth of the dill and the cumin.[vii] We feel it is important to count and report the preaching activity of ailing ones even in quarter-hour increments. We do this so as to helps such ones not feel guilty, because they are still reporting their time—as if Jehovah is looking at report cards.
We have added to the simple principles of Christianity with a series of “directions” and “suggestions”, which have the virtual force of law, thereby laying unnecessary and at times heavy burdens on our disciples. (For instance, we regulate minute details involving medical treatments which should be left up to one’s conscience; and we regulate even simple things such as when it is righteous for person to applaud at a meeting.[viii])
The Pharisees loved money. They loved to lord it over others, instructing them what to do and threatening all who would challenge their authority with expulsion from the synagogue. They loved the prominence their position afforded them. Are we seeing parallels in the most recent developments of our Organization?
When identifying the true religion, we used to present the evidence and allow our readers to decide; but for years now we, like the Pharisees, have publicly proclaimed our own righteousness, while condemning all others who do not hold to our faith as wrong and in desperate need of salvation while there is yet time.
We believe we are the only true believers and we are saved by virtue of our works, such as regular meeting attendance, field service and loyal support for and obedience to the faithful and discrete slave, now represented by the Governing Body.
Paul discounted the zeal of such ones because it was not performed according to accurate knowledge.
(Romans 10:2-4) “…they have a zeal for God; but not according to accurate knowledge; 3 for, because of not knowing the righteousness of God but seeking to establish their own, they did not subject themselves to the righteousness of God.”
We have misled people repeatedly about the fulfillment of Bible prophecy causing them to alter their life course as a consequence. We have hidden the true nature of the good news about the Christ by telling our disciples that they have no hope of being with him in heaven and that they are not God’s sons and Jesus is not their mediator.[ix] We have told them to disobey Christ’s express command to commemorate and proclaim his death by partaking of the emblems as he indicated.
Like the Pharisees, there is much that we believe which is true and in line with Scripture. However, also like them, not all we believe is true. Again, like them, we practice our zeal but not according to accurate knowledge. Therefore, how can we say we “worship the Father in spirit and truth”?[x]
When sincere ones have tried to show our leaders the error of some of these key yet erroneous teachings, using only the Scriptures, we have refused to listen or to reason but have dealt with them just as the Pharisees of old did.[xi]
There is sin in this.
(Matthew 12:7) . . .However, if YOU had understood what this means, ‘I want mercy, and not sacrifice,’ YOU would not have condemned the guiltless ones.
Are we becoming, or have we become like the Pharisees? There are many, many righteous individuals trying sincerely to do God’s will within the faith of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Like Paul, there will come a time when each will have to make a choice.
Our Song 62 gives us serious food for thought:
1. To whom do you belong?
Which god do you now obey?
Your master is he to whom you bow.
He is your god; you serve him now.
You cannot serve two gods;
Both masters can never share
The love of your heart in its ev’ry part.
To neither you would be fair.
[i] John 7:49
[ii] Acts 22:3
[iii] Mt 9:14; Mr 2:18; Lu 5:33; 11:42; 18:11, 12; Lu 18:11, 12; John 7:47-49; Mt 23:5; Lu 16:14; Mt 23:6, 7; Lu 11:43; Mt 23:4, 23; Lu 11:41-44; Mt 23:15
[iv] John 19:38; Acts 6:7
[v] Mt 23:15
[vi] w13 12/15 p. 11 par.2
[vii] Mt 23:23
[viii] w82 6/15 p. 31; km Feb. 2000 “Question Box”
[ix] Gal. 1:8, 9
[x] John 4:23
[xi] John 9:22