[This article was contributed by Apollos]
To avoid any possible confusion I will begin this article by an unequivocal statement: It is my firm belief based on scripture that Christians are under obligation to spread the Gospel.
Furthermore I think most Christians recognize that fact too. In our door to door ministry I have on many occasions raised this point with persons who have a Christian belief. I will usually lead with Matt 24:14, and ask the person how they feel that this scripture is being accomplished. Of course, my hope has always been that they will connect the dots. I am there at the door, and JWs are known for this work, ergo JWs are the ones fulfilling this commission. This is a long-standing line of reasoning from our literature and website. To support that perception we collect and publish numbers – lots of them – about our preaching and teaching activity.
The response I often receive is that the person fully accepts the need to spread the Gospel, and that they and their church do indeed do that. They may go on to cite different methods used to reach out to those in certain sectors of the community, or programs for young people, and generally talking to others when the opportunity arises. If you check any church website at random you will find that they rarely ignore the need to evangelize altogether and will usually have some set of programs for doing so. To my shame I have often judgmentally dismissed such claims in the past as some sort of token evangelism.
Of course it is impossible to say exactly what each individual is or is not doing in this regard. We can only really look at the results and note that different religions are expanding or contracting at different rates in different parts of the world. Jehovah’s Witnesses still enjoy growth overall, but are not particularly exceptional in this regard. In fact, growth has been slowing over the past few years.
What can be said with some certainty is that no religion grows without some program of evangelism or preaching. We can proudly proclaim our numbers in terms of hours, Bible studies, literature placed, etc, but what really should matter are results in terms of growth. This was the only statistic proclaimed by the early church – not the level of activity, but rather the rapid growth (Acts 2:41; 4:4; 5:14; 6:7). Do you not think that if our growth rate was exceptional in comparison to other religions that such statistics would not be proclaimed loudly by the leadership? But in reality the figures primarily tell us how busy we are, rather than how successful we are.
This whole preamble is to set up an examination of our claims to be the one religion truly preaching and teaching the Good News as prophesied in Matt 24:14.
Clearly to be certain that this is so, we not only have to be putting in the effort to do so, but also making sure that our message and methods are correct. Otherwise we could be “beating the air” (1 Cor 9:26), or worse still, be putting people on the wrong path (Matt 23:13,15). This is certainly how we interpret the efforts of other religions to evangelize.
How can we analyze our own organization in this regard? As with all aspects of our worship we should use the teachings of Jesus and the pattern of first century Christianity as our guide.
The Process Leading to Baptism
One thing that has stood out to me for a long time now is the evident discrepancy between the process of first century conversion to Christianity, and the extended study program used by Jehovah’s Witnesses in order to “qualify” to get baptized.
The book of Acts gives several specific examples of Christian baptism, and in every case the only prerequisite was that the person needed to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ in order to be saved (Acts 16:31; 18:8).
The argument sometimes used to explain the discrepancy with our modern methods is that those people already had a foundational knowledge and that today people do not have that. This is a weak argument for at least three reasons:
- It is simply not true that those examples in Acts are all of people who would have had a foundational knowledge. If the Ethiopian Eunuch didn’t understand that one passage in Isaiah then it is unlikely he would have understood the rest of the Hebrew scriptures in full detail. Cornelius was a Gentile and still serving as an army officer. The jailer and his family were Gentiles and there is no reason to believe they had any foundation in the doctrines of the Jews.
- God could easily have provided examples of individuals or groups who had to undergo longer study programs due to lack of foundational knowledge. He did not.
- People today who take an interest in Jehovah’s Witnesses come from a wide variety of backgrounds. Some Jewish, some Christian, but mostly from either a position where they don’t know God at all, or in many cases from a Catholic or similar background whereby once they see some error in their own religion they are persuaded that JWs have the truth. If the reasons for the differences with the first century qualification for baptism were true then we would expect to see a wide range of time spans for coming into “the truth”. Indeed we do, but crucially the range starts at a minimum time span of approximately six months – the time it takes to study the “Bible Teach” book with a person. It is this minimum period that is still grossly at odds with the first century pattern.
Therefore I find it reasonable to conclude that the true reason for an in-depth study requirement is not that it takes a person that amount of time to come to know Jesus Christ, but rather that it takes a person that amount of time to become familiar with all of the key unique teachings to Jehovah’s Witnesses.
We should remember too, that it was not always thus, even within our own modern movement. At one time a person did not even have to be re-baptized if s/he believed that his or her previous baptism in another Church was valid. This held true even after the Witnesses became a distinct religion under Rutherford. It was not until 1956 that re-baptism became mandatory . Another significant step took place in 1985 when the baptismal questions were changed to include the pledge of allegiance to an organization, rather than simply to God and His Christ. Clearly this was a point of departure from the original command by Jesus to baptize “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the holy spirit”. No provision was made in scripture for the process of baptism to include a commitment to any man-made entity.
That being the case we do well to consider what the implications are of this extended teaching program. After all some may argue that to provide more knowledge is just a safer thing to do, and does not have any downside.
First of all, since salvation is dependent on baptism (1 Pet 3:21), to unnecessarily delay the baptism of an individual who genuinely wants to come to Christ is surely a problem in itself. For an organization that thrives on stressing the nearness of the end, and the precarious position of those “outside the ark”, one would think that obstacles to baptism would be the last thing that it would want to introduce. Notwithstanding the threat of Jehovah’s day striking at any moment, the individual in question may die unexpectedly at any time. It is no wonder that the early Christians urged others to be baptized “without delay”, and that many responded just as quickly (Acts 2:38; 8:36-38; 16:14,15,33; 18:8; 19:5; 22:16).
Foundational Scriptures for the Organization’s Approach to Preaching
At this point let us consider the two key scriptures that are used to justify the heavy emphasis that the organization places on its brand of evangelism.
And the Good News about the Kingdom will be preached throughout the whole world, so that all nations will hear it; and then the end will come. (Matt 24:14, NLT)
The first thing to note is that this is not a commission or a command. It is simply a prophecy as to what would occur. How it would be accomplished this scripture does not say, although the apostle Paul apparently claimed that the preaching activity referred to was fulfilled before the end of his own lifetime (Col 1:23). In the light of that, and the aforementioned facts that all growing religions today involve themselves in some method of recruitment, is there strong evidence to suggest that one religion alone today is fulfilling this particular scripture? To reach such a conclusion we would have to determine that the message – “the Good News about the Kingdom” – is uniquely found only in JW doctrine.
Go, therefore, and make disciples of people of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the holy spirit, teaching them to observe all the things I have commanded you. And look! I am with you all the days until the conclusion of the system of things. (Matthew 28:19, 20, NWT)
One question we might ask is who Jesus’ audience was on this occasion. Verse 16 made clear that it was the eleven remaining disciples at that time. Now I am not for a moment suggesting that the commission was limited to the eleven, but it is curious how on other occasions we (JWs) limit the scope of doctrine according to the audience.
For example we are asked to limit the scope of Jesus’ sayings at the Lord’s evening meal based upon who his audience was actually comprised of. This is key to almost all Jehovah’s Witnesses NOT partaking of the bread and the wine at the memorial of his death. And yet for this scripture in Matthew 28 we entirely ignore the context of who the audience was, and declare a commission incumbent upon all Christians. We might argue that Jesus’ promise to be with his followers “all the days until the conclusion of the system of things” warrants the extended application, but even if we ignore the possible preterist interpretation of that verse, this only extends the time span so that we can be sure that some successors of the apostles would continue to spread the Gospel down to the end. Applying the same logic as for the memorial it would not automatically mean that all Christians would do so following a strict program of evangelism.
Should All Christians Be Teachers?
Consider the following verses:
(Ephesians 4:11) And he gave some as apostles, some as prophets, some as evangelizers, some as shepherds and teachers
(1 Corinthians 12:27-29) And God has assigned the respective ones in the congregation: first, apostles; second, prophets; third, teachers; then powerful works; then gifts of healings; helpful services; abilities to direct; different tongues. Not all are apostles, are they? Not all are prophets, are they? Not all are teachers, are they? Not all perform powerful works, do they?
These passages make clear that some Christians would be more suited to certain aspects of furthering the Gospel than others. Just as not all would be suited to be shepherds, not all would be suited to be evangelizers or teachers. Paul specifically states “some as … teachers” and asks “ not all are teachers are they?”.
This brings us to an important distinction based upon what has been presented above about the message itself.
Jehovah’s Witnesses require that all members be preachers and teachers of doctrine. Not just basic doctrine foundational to Christian faith as we saw was required for baptism in the first century, but considerably more esoteric doctrine unique to the organization. Increasingly many are being put in a position where they must be teachers of doctrine which they themselves doubt, or cannot really explain. It seems evident from comments on internet forums that many Witnesses are now torn on some of these issues. They feel compelled to preach the Gospel – and rightly so – but at the same time they wonder about how our heavenly Father views us teaching doctrines that are not found in scripture. An awful lot of rationalization is taking place, and in many cases members seem to be experiencing stressful cognitive dissonance as they strive to resolve these issues.
It might cause us to soberly consider the words of James:
Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more severely than others. (James 3:1, ISV)
Those who preached the Gospel in the first century and brought others to baptism were unlikely to fall foul of this admonition, since the only truths they were required to proclaim were absolute bedrock – belief in God, and that Jesus Christ died and rose for our salvation (Acts 2:38,39; 10:2,34-43; 16:31-33). If a Christian were to proclaim these basic doctrines, and baptized someone who believed, then they would surely be on firm ground.
Ah, but returning to the current JW mindset, what about the dangers inherent in such a procedure? Wouldn’t such a situation result in anarchy? For a certainty it would result in a higher number of members who would subsequently challenge esoteric doctrine. Why was that not a problem in the early church? Could the answer be that those brothers and sisters were bound through unity in Christ rather than uniformity in doctrine? Yes divisions arose and were exposed and were dealt with if the differences were serious enough. This was apparently a price worth paying for the growth of Christianity at the time. And when we think about it, wasn’t there a far greater danger to the nascent church than there ever could be to an established church in our day?
Consider the case of the Corinthian congregation, which arguably receives the most reprimanding epistle of the Apostle Paul. Along with their various misdemeanors they strayed doctrinally from the hope of a resurrection. It was necessary for Paul to correct them through a reminder of the most basic of teachings – that of Christ dying for our sins and rising on the third day (1 Cor 15). He goes on under inspiration to reveal more detailed insights into the future in order to strengthen the point being made, but it is of note that a congregation of spirit anointed Christians needed to receive this most basic teaching of Christ’s death and resurrection over again. What would happen today if a congregation had the mindset of the Corinthians? If they were faced with the full range of the doctrines of Jehovah’s Witnesses it’s hard to imagine how they would be brought to order. No doubt some HQ representatives would be sent in to root out the “apostasy”. And yet Paul found it necessary only to send firm but loving reminders of the basic teachings.
The Hebrews are told that they “should in fact be teachers by this time” (Heb 5:12, NET). At face value that seems to stand in contrast to the words of James above, but in context we can see that Paul was not so much focusing on their roles as active teachers, but rather that their spiritual level of maturity should in principle enable them to be such. Like the Corinthians they needed someone to teach them the basics over again because they had become dull in their hearing. (Interestingly this scripture receives attention 147 times in the Watchtower, compared to only 61 times for the aforementioned James passage. Source – Watchtower Library 2013)
Rather than support the idea that all in the congregation should be teachers of deep doctrine, these examples demonstrate that such doctrine was something acquired later – after baptism and spirit anointing.
The model followed by Jehovah’s Witnesses is:
- learn basic truth
- learn detailed “truth”
- make lifestyle changes as required (often in parallel with #2)
- become a teacher of detailed “truth”
- make a dedication to God and a commitment to join the organization
- be baptized
In contrast the first century pattern that we have examined was as follows:
- learn basic truth
- repent and be baptized
- make lifestyle changes and become an evangelizer
- for some, become a teacher of detailed truth
Some may argue with placing “make lifestyle changes” after baptism. But what of the Bible examples we saw? In particular what of Cornelius who was baptized while still an active serving army officer? Did he change career afterwards? We are not told. Evidently it is not all that important for us to know. Even if we make the assumption that he did choose a different career immediately, it is clear that whatever changes took place were as a result of becoming Christian, not as a qualification for it.
From personal observation I note that there are many churches out there who essential follow the first century pattern. From the perspective of a long time Witness, just accepting people into the congregation without a long program of study, and without seeing them become a teacher of doctrine themselves, may seem like anathema. Nevertheless we do well to stand back and examine who (if anyone) has got it right in the light of scripture.
It seems clear that we (JWs) have developed this protocol over time in direct relation to our notions that our unique doctrines make us the one true religion. The higher we’ve built the fence between “us and them”, the more it has become necessary to create a higher level of qualification for entry. If we did not do so we would no doubt run into some serious retention problems. One can easily imagine people accepting the basic message of repentance and salvation, but later preferring to leave when they hear that it is mandatory to accept overlapping generations, an invisible presence, family shunning, no blood, etc. Our rules on disassociation themselves would make it unethical to allow people to be baptized without fully informing them of the harsh consequences of a subsequent resignation.
Baptism Into … ?
A further impediment to following the pattern of first century baptism is that we do not accept that new recruits are being “baptized into Christ” (Rom 6:3; Gal 3:27). Perhaps this is the real but unstated reason why we have to have a long study program. Whereas the early Christians were all led by God’s spirit (Rom 8:14), which would have been a protection to the congregation as a whole, new members of our modern organization are not taught that they can enjoy such leading by the spirit. Rather their “leading” is by the teachings of the “faithful slave”. This creates an entirely different paradigm to first century Christianity and it follows that such a shift would require different methods. After all Romans 8 makes clear that a person is either one of God’s sons led by His spirit, or one who is still being led by the flesh. In the latter case we would be just like the Jews under law. We could be trying to do the right thing and have a “zeal for God” but by seeking to establish our own righteousness through works, we will continue to lean on the “doctrine of men” (Matt 15:9; Rom 10:2-4).
This being the case it becomes necessary for a new member to fully learn that doctrine prior to commitment, just as most converts to Judaism are expected to understand and accept the duties of the Jewish Law. It also requires that others are available to teach those doctrines or laws. And thus we find ourselves in a situation where, contrary to scripture, every existing member of our organization is expected to be a teacher of doctrine, even prior to their own baptism.
As an organization we herald our preaching and teaching work as a sign that we are the true Christian religion. And yet there are significant differences from first century evangelism and conversion that require explanation.
- The first century message was evidently much simpler. It could be preached and understood in a very short amount of time. In contrast the JW study program requires a long period of in-depth study in order to “qualify” for baptism.
- Not all in the first century were teachers, and it is clear that being such was not a prerequisite to one’s own baptism and salvation. The organization of Jehovah’s Witnesses demands that all its members be teachers of extensive and exclusive doctrine.
- First century baptism into Christ evidently meant that new converts were led by God’s spirit. This is not the baptism held out to new converts to the organization today, and as a result much more emphasis is placed on obedience to the teachings of the organization than any leading by the spirit.
I am quite sure that as an organization we are way past the “point of no return” in this regard. The structure of the organization and the complex doctrines that have been created over time necessitate that people undergo these measures of indoctrination and qualification.
The question remains as to whether this is the fulfillment of the worldwide preaching of the Gospel, or is “the truth” far simpler, just as it was in the first century?
 “Yes, one must be baptized again. Obviously, by any of such religious systems one was never in reality baptized “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the holy spirit,” because had he been so baptized he would have appreciated the authority and office of such true Higher Powers.” Watchtower 1956 Jul 1 p.406