Jehovah’s Witnesses & the Governing Body – Part 1: Was There Always A Governing Body?

Today we will be looking into the organizational structure of Jehovah’s Witnesses, specifically the leadership. Jehovah’s Witnesses are organized in a hierarchy and led by a group of leaders that call themselves “the governing body”, also known as “the faithful and discreet slave”. Why is this important? Because the governing body is the ruling authority over the lives of all Jehovah’s Witnesses. They create all of the doctrine, the rules and the policies that Jehovah’s Witnesses around the world must follow or risk getting ostracized by the entire witness community. Where do these men get this authority? According to the book How to Remain in God’s love, in the end notes it says this: The governing body is the group of men with the heavenly hope, who are used by God to direct the work of his people. In the first century, Jehovah used the governing body to guide the early Christian congregation in their worship and their preaching work. Today, the group of brothers who serve as the governing body take the lead in directing, guiding and protecting God’s people. When these brothers make decisions, they rely on guidance from God’s word and His Holy Spirit. Jesus spoke of this group of anointed men as the faithful and discreet slave. In an issue of the Watchtower of July 15th 2013, in an article called Who really is the faithful and discreet slave?, during a paragraph describing a small group of Bible students in the early years of Watchtower history, it says this: In 1919, a time of spiritual revival, Jesus selected capable anointed brothers from among them to be the faithful and discreet slave and appointed them over his domestics. According to these sources, there are three reasons given as to why the governing body has this authority.

First, they claim that Jehovah used the governing body in the first century and that therefore the true religion must have a governing body today. And that they are the ones that are following the biblical example of this set forth in the Bible. Second, they claim that Jesus spoke prophetically of a group of anointed men fulfilling the role of the faithful and discreet slave, this group being the governing body themselves. Third, they claim that this faithful and discreet slave was directly picked by Jesus in 1919.

Let’s take a look at the first of these claims about Jehovah using a group in the first century in part one of our series Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Governing Body. Was there always a governing body? 

Jehovah Witnesses: A governing body was formed in Pentecost in 33 CE, more than 18 centuries before the Pennsylvania Corporation came into existence.

One of the first problems we run into is the simple fact that the governing body doesn’t appear in the Bible, not even once. You would think that the name of the group that was specifically chosen to have authority over the life of every Jehovah’s Witness would have been named in the Bible at least once. But it’s not. That word doesn’t appear in the Bible. Does it mean that the concept and structure of the modern-day governing body can’t be found? In The Watchtower of March 15th 1990, in the article titled The Faithful Slave and its Governing Body, it says: While all anointed Christians collectively form God’s household, there is abundant evidence that Christ chose a small number of men out of the slave class to serve as a visible governing body. The early history of the congregation shows that the 12 Apostles, including Mathias, were the foundation of the first-century governing body. 

Let’s take a look at this “abundant evidence” of a first-century governing body. In the booklet Who are doing Jehovah’s will today?, the first paragraph of Lesson 20 says this: “In the first century, a small group, “the Apostles and elders in Jerusalem” served as a governing body to make important decisions on behalf of the entire anointed Christian congregation (Acts 15:2). Let’s stop right here and take a quick look at the events of Acts 15 for a little context. Acts 15 is talking about what Bible scholars call “the Jerusalem Council”. It begins by describing a group of men from Judea who traveled to Antioch and started telling everyone in the congregation that a Gentile could not be saved unless they abided by the Mosaic law of circumcision. After a bit of infighting, it was decided that Paul and Barnabas and some other man would consult the Apostles and Elders in Jerusalem regarding this issue. Once there, the Apostles and Elders, along with Paul and Barnabas and the rest, discuss the matter. After some deliberation, the issue was decided in favor of the Gentile Christians, that they were not bound by the Mosaic law on circumcision. This decision was then delivered and read to the congregations that were affected. With all this in mind, the organization of Jehovah’s Witnesses uses Acts 15:2 to assume that because this issue was taken to the Apostles and Elders in Jerusalem, that it must mean that this group of men were there for the ruling authority over the lives and decisions of the entire Christian congregation, essentially ruling as a first-century governing body that mirrors the modern-day governing body. But is this what the Bible teaches? If we look at the context, we can see that Acts 15:23 tells us that the letter that they wrote with their decision was only to the brothers at Antioch, Syria and Cilicia. This was not a decision made by an authoritarian group of men that ruled over every congregation. This was simply a council that was assembled specifically to deal with a local issue that happened only to the congregations in Antioch and the surrounding areas. Besides this Council, no other instance of a council of Apostles and is ever again mentioned in the Bible. To say that there is abundant evidence of a small group of Apostles and Elders in Jerusalem that serves as a governing body that ruled over and made all the decisions on behalf of the entire Christian congregation after just one mention of a Council in the Bible is to make a giant assumption. Wouldn’t there be more than just one example if Jehovah and Jesus really wanted to set a pattern to follow. I encourage you to read the entire Acts 15 and see if any of it comes remotely close to being evidence of a centralized authoritarian group of men. In fact, there seems to be a bit of evidence to the contrary, that this group of Apostles and Elders did not make all the decisions for the entire Christian congregation when it came to the preaching work or doctrine. Evidence can be found by looking into the story of the Apostle Paul. According to the Bible, the resurrected Jesus revealed himself to Paul (formerly known as Saul of Tarsus). This is the event that led him to convert to Christianity. Paul is regarded as one of the most important figures in Christian history. He is said to have been on four missionary journeys across land and sea and is credited by some as writing 14 of the books found in the New Testament. Surely Paul must have been eager to meet with a first-century governing body in Jerusalem so that they can assign him to the preaching work. Let’s take a quick look at Paul’s words in Galatians 1:15-19 “But when God…thought good to reveal his son through me so that I might declare the good news about him to the nations, I did not immediately consult with any human nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were Apostles before I was, but I went to Arabia and then I returned to Damascus.” Then three years later, I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas (also known as Peter) and I stayed with him for 15 days. But I did not see any of the other Apostles, only James the brother of the Lord.” According to this, Paul didn’t consult with anybody about the preaching work, including the so-called “first century governing body”. He wasn’t told where to go or even what doctrine to teach. He just went out there and started preaching to the people about Jesus. It was a full three years before he finally went up to Jerusalem and the only Apostles that he visited were Peter and James for a grand total of 15 days before continuing to travel. Look at what Paul says in Galatians 2:1 “Then after 14 years I again went up to Jerusalem with Barnabas and also taking Titus along with me.” It took Paul another 14 years to even return to Jerusalem. Does it sound like an overseer that receives all of his doctrine and preaching assignments from a central authoritative group of leaders? 

None of what we have examined so far as proof points to the existence of a first-century governing body. In fact, we’ve already discussed a few arguments against it. But let’s assume for a quick moment that there was a first-century governing body and that their example is firmly established in the Bible as the Watchtower claims it is. Was the first century governing body inspired? Their counsel and decisions did make it onto the pages of the Bible and according to 2 Timothy 3:16 “All scripture is inspired of God” so we can reasonably assume that the members of the first-century governing body were inspired if their decision made it onto the pages of the Bible. This would mean then, by following the pattern of the first-century governing body, that the modern-day governing body must also be inspired since that’s the example that’s set for us in the Bible. But since the modern-day governing body claims to not be inspired, that would mean that they aren’t following the example found in the Bible. But someone might say “Where in the Bible does it say that the governing body must be inspired?” In fact, where does the Bible talk at all about the requirements or qualifications of a governing body? There are none. The Bible is silent on this position of responsibility and its qualifications. Why is it that the Bible lists positions of responsibility like Elders or ministerial service, along with a clear list of requirements (1 Timothy 3), but makes no mention of arguably the most important position of responsibility of all time. 

It seems that the organization’s claim that there was a governing body is lacking any sort of evidence at all. Not only that, but the organization claims that there’s always been a governing body even in the modern history of Jehovah’s Witnesses. They claim that when the Watchtower Society was incorporated in 1884, that a governing body made its appearance. Referring to a speech given by the Vice President of the Watchtower Society Frederick Franz in 1971, and then later published in a 1971 Watchtower that talked about this exact issue, Raymond Franz, a member of the governing body for nearly a decade, had this to say. “The problem was that they presented a picture that was completely contrary to fact. A governing body did not control the corporation, not at the time that the aforementioned talk was given by the Vice President, nor at the time this material was published, nor for some four years thereafter. The picture presented eventually did come to be true, but only as a result of a very drastic adjustment., one presently fraught with heated emotions and considerable division.” Strange as it may seem to most Jehovah’s Witnesses today, the kind of governing body described in that talk had never existed in the whole history of the organization. It took over 90 years for it to come into being and its present existence dates only from January 1st 1976 or about one-fifth of the organization’s history. So not only was there no governing body in the first century, there wasn’t even a governing body in the early history of Jehovah’s Witnesses in the capacity that we see today until the 1970s.