“. . .And when it became day, the assembly of elders of the people, both chief priests and scribes, gathered together, and they led him into their San′he·drin hall and said: 67 “If you are the Christ, tell us.” But he said to them: “Even if I told you, you would not believe it at all. 68 Moreover, if I questioned you, you would not answer.” (Lu 22:66-68)
Jesus could have questioned his accusers to show them up as unreasonable and unrighteous, but he knew they would not cooperate, for they were not interested in finding the truth.
They would not answer.
Refusal to answer a direct question was but one of the tactics the Pharisees used to attempt to hide their true nature and motivation. Of course, Jesus could read hearts, so they were an open book to his piercing vision. Today, we do not have the benefit of his level of insight. Nevertheless, we can determine motivation over time by reading the signs that are visible to our eyesight. “Out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks.” (Mt. 12:24) Conversely, by its refusal to speak in certain circumstances, the mouth also reveals the heart’s abundance.
The Pharisees are long gone, but their breed lives on as Satan’s seed. (John 8:44) We can find them in all the organized religions that call themselves Christian today. But how can we identify them so as not to be taken in, perhaps even becoming unwitting participants in their destructive course.
Let’s start by reviewing the tactics employed by their first century counterparts—tactics that characterize the spirit of the Pharisee. When confronted with questions they could not answer without revealing their own error, bad motives and false teachings, they would resort to:
- Silence: Luke 20:26
- Or an evasive response: Matthew 21:23-27
- Or a false accusation to shift focus away from them: John 8:48
- Or an appeal to authority to intimidate the questioner: John 7:47, 48; Acts 23:4
- Or threats, even outright violence, to silence the questioner: John 9:21-23; Acts 23:2
Throughout my life as a Jehovah’s Witness, I believed we were free from the spiritual malaise of Pharisaism. It has been said that over the shoulder of the Christian lurks the shadow of the Pharisee, but I believed this applied to us only on an individual level, not organizationally. To me, back then, we were led by humble men who willingly acknowledged their imperfections, made no claim to inspiration, and were willing to accept correction. (Perhaps at that time we were.) I had no illusion that they were anything but ordinary men, capable of making silly mistakes at times; like all of us do. When I saw such errors, it helped me to view them as what they really were, and not to be in awe of them.
For example, in Aid to Bible Understanding, under the topic “Miracles”, they explained that miracles do not require Jehovah to break the laws of physics. He may simply be applying laws and conditions we are not yet aware of. I completely agreed. However, the example they used to make this point showed a ludicrous misunderstanding of elementary science—not the first time they’ve goofed when trying to explain scientific principles. They stated that the metal, lead, which is “an excellent insulator” at room temperature becomes a super conductor when cooled to near absolute zero. While the latter is true, the statement that lead is an excellent insulator is demonstrably false as anyone who has ever jump-started a car can attest. At the time of the publication of that tome, car batteries had two thick studs to which the cables were attached. These studs were made of lead. Lead, as everyone knows, is a metal and a characteristic of metals is that they conduct electricity. They are not insulators—good or otherwise.
If they could be so wrong about something so obvious, how much more so when interpreting prophecy? It didn’t bother me, because back in those days we were not required to believe everything printed, or else…. So with the naiveté shared with many of my witness brethren, I believed they would respond well to any correction offered when an error or inconsistency appeared with regard to some published teaching. However, under the Governing Body arrangement, I have learned this is not the case. Over the years, I have written in when some particularly glaring inconsistency has caught my eye. I have consulted with others who have done likewise. What has emerged from this shared experience is a consistent pattern that has much in common with the list of Pharisaical tactics we’ve just considered.
The first response to one’s letter—particularly if one has no history of writing in—is usually kind, but somewhat dismissive and patronizing. The central idea is that while they appreciate one’s sincerity, it is best to leave matters up to those commissioned by God to attend to them and that one should be more concerned about getting out there and preaching. A common element in their correspondence is to not answer the central question.[i] Instead, the Organization’s official position is restated, usually with references to publications dealing with the matter. This is called “Staying on Message”. It is a tactic politicians frequently use when confronted with questions they cannot or dare not answer. They respond to the question, but they do not answer it. Instead, they simply restate whatever message they are trying to convey to the public. (See bullet points 1, 2 and 4)
Things change if one does not leave it at that, but instead writes in again, stating as nicely as possible, that while one appreciates the counsel given, the actual question asked was not answered. The response that will then come back often contains a restatement of the official position followed by several paragraphs implying that one is being presumptuous and that it is best to leave these matters in Jehovah’s hands. (Elements of 1, 2, 3, and 4)
These correspondences are filed and tracked by the Service Desk. If it occurs several times, or if the letter writer is particularly persistent in trying to get an honest and forthright response to his question, the C.O. will be informed and more “loving counsel” will be given. However, the actual question raised in the chain of correspondence will still go unanswered. If the individual in question is a pioneer and/or appointed servant, it is likely that his qualifications will be called into question. If he persists in demanding the scriptural proof for the issue in question, he may very likely be accused of apostasy, and so we can add the fifth pharisaical element to our scenario.
At its worst, this scenario has led to sincere Christians who merely asked too persistently for the scriptural proof of some core JW belief being hauled before a judicial committee. Invariably, the committee members will not address the main issue. They will not answer the question being asked because that would require them to prove the matter scripturally. If that could be done, then they would never have even reached this stage. The committee members—often sincere believers themselves—are in an untenable position. They must support the official position of the Organization without God’s Word backing them up. In these situations, many relay on faith in men, believing that the Governing Body has been appointed by Jehovah and therefore right or wrong, its teachings must be upheld for the good of the whole. Ironically, this is similar to the reasoning of the ancient Pharisees who approved of the murder of Jesus for the sake of the nation—and their positions in it, of course. (The two go hand in hand.) – John 11:48
What is being sought in these instances isn’t to help the individual to an understanding of truth, but rather to get his compliance with the directives of an Organization, whether it be of Jehovah’s Witnesses or of some other Christian denomination. However, if the individual facing the judicial committee tries to get to the heart of the matter by insisting he get an answer to his original question, he will find that the reality of Jesus situation before the Sanhedrin is being repeated. ‘If he questions them, they will not answer.’ – Luke 22:68
Christ never resorted to these tactics, because he had truth on his side. True, at times he would answer a question with a question. However, he never did this to evade the truth, but only to qualify the worthiness of the questioner. He would not throw pearls before swine. Neither should we. (Mt. 7:6) When one has truth on one’s side, there is no need to be evasive, dismissive, or threatening. The truth is all one needs. Only when one is perpetrating a lie must one resort to the tactics employed by the Pharisees.
Some reading this may doubt that such a situation exists in the Organization. They may think I’m exaggerating or that I merely have an axe to grind. Some will be very offended at the mere suggestion that there could be any link between the Pharisees of Jesus’ day and the leadership of our Organization.
In answer to such ones, I first should state that I make no claim to be God’s appointed channel of communication. Therefore, as an aspiring Beroean, I would encourage all who doubt to prove this for themselves. However, be warned! You do this of your own initiative and under your own responsibility. I take no responsibility for the outcome.
To prove this point, you could try writing in to the branch office in your country to ask for scriptural proof that, for example, the “other sheep” of John 10:16 are a class of Christian without a heavenly hope. Or if you prefer, ask for scriptural proof of the current overlapping generation interpretation of Mt. 24:34. Don’t accept interpretation, nor speculation, nor sketchy deductive reasoning, nor evasive answers. Demand actual Bible proof. Keep writing in if they respond without a direct answer. Or, if you are particularly adventurous, ask the C.O. and don’t let him off the hook until he shows you the proof from the Bible, or admits there is no proof and that you just have to accept it because those instructing you are appointed by God.
I want to be clear that I am not encouraging anyone to do this, because I firmly believe based on personal experience and the accounts of others that there could be serious repercussions. If you think I’m being paranoid, run this idea past a few friends and gauge their reaction. Most will advise against it out of fear. That is a common response; one which goes to proving the point. Do you think the apostles ever feared questioning Jesus? They did so often in fact, because they knew “his yoke was kindly and his load was light”. The yoke of the Pharisees on the other hand was anything but. (Mt. 11:30; 23:4)
We cannot read hearts like Jesus did, but we can read actions. If we are searching for the truth and want to determine whether our teachers are helping or hindering us, we simply have to question them and watch to see whether they demonstrate the characteristics of the Pharisee or that of the Christ.
[i] To be clear, we are not discussing questions for which a clear scriptural answer exists such as: Is there an immortal soul? Rather, the questions they do not answer are those that have no scriptural support. For example, “Since the only Scripture used to support our new understanding of overlapping generations is Exodus 1:6 which only speaks of overlapping lifetimes, not overlapping of whole generations, what is the scriptural basis for our new understanding?”