[Watchtower study for the week of June 16, 2014 – w14 4/15 p. 17]

 Study theme text: “No one can slave for two masters…
You cannot slave for God and for Riches”—Mat. 6:24

 Some months ago, when I first read this week’s Watchtower study article, it disturbed me. However, I couldn’t put my finger on the reason why. There was of course the fact that some of our brothers and sisters are going to feel publicly humiliated as they sit in the audience while these topics are being discussed. It seems unkind and therefore unchristian to put them on the spot in this way.

There was also, for me at least, the thought that this is a tremendous waste of our dedicated time. Surely we don’t have to spend eight million man-hours studying a topic that only applies to a tiny minority of our brothers? Wouldn’t yet another secondary article on the subject have done the job? Or perhaps a brochure that the elders could bring out whenever these specific issues arise? Surely a one-on-one counseling session would be the most advantageous method of helping our brothers to reason on these principles? That would allow us to then use these eight million man-hours to get into deep Bible study, something sadly lacking from our theocratic curriculum; or we could spend the time getting to know our Lord Jesus Christ better so as to imitate him all the more closely. That is instruction we could all benefit from and something which is also far too scarce in our weekly instruction program.

While all the above may or may not be true depending on your point of view, for me, none of it took away the nagging feeling that something else—something fundamental—was wrong with the article. Some of you might be thinking I’m being unnecessarily critical. After all, the article contains sound Bible principles which seem to apply quite nicely to the cited case histories. Quite true. But let me ask you this? After reading the article, do you believe it is our position as Jehovah’s Witnesses that going to another country to make more money to send home to your family is acceptable, but not preferable? Or do you get the impression that for JWs this is always a bad thing? Did you get the impression that those who do this are just trying to provide for their families in line with 1 Timothy 5:8, or are they doing this to seek riches?[i] Is it your understanding from the article that such ones are not trusting in Jehovah, and that if they just stayed home and made do, all would be well?

This is typical of our one-size-fits-all approach to applying Bible principles, and therein lies the fundamental problem we should all have with this type of article.

We are turning principles into rules.

The reason Christ gave us principles and not laws to guide us through life is two-fold. One: principles always apply despite changing times and circumstances; and two: principles put the power in the hands of the individual and free us from the control of human authority. By obeying principles, we submit directly to our head, Jesus Christ. However, manmade rules take the power away from Christ and put it in the hands of the rule makers. That is precisely what the Pharisees did. By making rules and imposing them on men, they exalted themselves above God.

If you feel I’m being harsh and judgmental, that the article does not make rules, but only helps us to see how the principles apply, then ask yourself again: What impression does the article leave me with?

If you feel the article is saying that it is always a bad thing for a wife to leave home, go to a foreign land, and send money back home for the family, then what you have is no longer a principle, but a rule. If the article is not making a rule, then we would expect to see some counter balance to the points being made; some alternate case history to show that in some circumstances, this solution may be an acceptable option?

The fact is the article calls into question the basic motive of all who would dare to journey abroad in these situations, implying that they are really just interested in seeking riches. The theme text, after all, is Mat. 6:24. From that, what conclusion are we to draw other than such ones are merely “slaving for riches”.

When I pioneered in Latin America, I had many Bible studies with people who were desperately poor. Typical was one family of four who lived in a 10-by-15-foot hut with a sheet metal roof and sides made of splayed bamboo. The floor was dirt. The parents and two kids lived, slept, cooked and ate in the same room. They shared a communal washroom with other families. There was a hotplate on a shelf which was the stove when needed and a tiny sink with a single cold water faucet for doing all the washing, though there was a communal cold water shower. The clothes closet was a string stretched between two nails on one of the walls. I sat on a rickety wooden bench made up of discarded lumber while the four of them sat on the only bed. Their lot in life was similar to millions more. I cannot count the number of homes just like this one which I have been in. If that family had been offered an opportunity to better themselves even slightly, what would you do if asked for advice? As a Christian, you would share the relevant Bible principles with them. You might share some experiences you were personally aware of. However, recognizing in all humility your place before Christ, you would refrain from exerting any pressure so as to push them toward the decision you felt was the right one.

We do not do this in the article. The way it is presented, it creates a stigma. Anyone of our poorer brethren who may be contemplating an opportunity overseas will no longer just be weighing out the Bible principles for themselves. If they choose this course, they will be stigmatized, because this is no longer a matter of principle, but a rule.

It is very easy to sit in cushy offices surrounded by the splendid countryside of Patterson NY or the soon-to-be lakeside dwellings in Warwick and dispense this kind of ah-shucks paternalism that we North Americans are known for the world over. This isn’t exclusive to us as Jehovah’s Witnesses, but is a characteristic we share with all our fundamentalist brethren.

As I said at the outset, this study article had left me with a nagging feeling since I first read it months ago; a feeling that something fundamental was wrong. Odd to get such a feeling from a seemingly well-intentioned Scripturally-based article, isn’t it? Well, that nagging feeling went away once I realized that what was causing it was a subconscious awareness that here again was another subtle example of us imposing our will, our rules, on others. Once more, under the guise of scriptural counsel, we are usurping the authority of the Christ by circumventing the conscience of our brothers and sisters and giving them what we like to call “theocratic direction”. As we now know, that is merely a code phrase for the “traditions of men.”

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[i] It is noteworthy that 1 Timothy 5:8 is not cited anywhere in the article even though this is an overriding principle for all situations where parents are considering options for providing materially and in other ways for their young.