Part 2: The Society's View of Elders
I am convinced that when the Society's publications imply that elders are directly "appointed by holy spirit" they are on shaky ground. The situation that caused me to come to this conclusion arose about 1977, when an elder in the congregation I was attending attempted to have a ministerial servant disfellowshipped for breaking certain laws of the land. The body of elders was unable to come to a definite decision on the matter. The ministerial servant was privately reproved, and shortly afterwards the reproof was seen to have been in error and revoked. Some disputing arose in the congregation over the conduct of the matter. After many months, the body of elders realized it was unable to come to a decision, and consulted the Society. Elders from a nearby congregation were called in, and the matter was finally resolved by concluding that it never should have been brought up in the first place.
These events caused me to seriously question the idea that elders have been "appointed by holy spirit," since it was clear to me that the elder who started the trouble couldn't have been so appointed, and it was also clear that the other elders were not being directed by holy spirit in their handling of the case. I wrote to the Society explaining these things, and they forwarded my letter to the current circuit overseer. We eventually discussed the events and my questions at length. Finally he gave me a straight answer. He said, rather reluctantly, No, elders are not actually "appointed by holy spirit," in the sense of Jehovah directly appointing a particular individual, but since the elder arrangement is Bible based, it could be said that elders in a general sense are "appointed by holy spirit."
This explanation was enough to satisfy me at the time, but many Watchtower articles and other publications since then convinced me this was not the understanding the Society wanted Jehovah's Witnesses to have. Rather, the thrust of the articles was to enhance the authority of congregational elders by saying that members of the congregation should be submissive to those "appointed by holy spirit," and that criticizing or even questioning elders' decisions was disloyal. Over a period of time it became clear to me that the Society is not particularly interested in the truth of this matter, but is interested only in seeing that people become and remain loyal Jehovah's Witnesses.
Several quotations from a recent Watchtower should illustrate what I mean about the above point and about my concerns on "direct appointment by holy spirit."4
Is this a direct appointment, or an indirect appointment? The statement implies action on the part of the holy spirit, not simply the idea that holy spirit inspired the Bible, and so on.
Is this passage saying, "Let the older men, who preside in a fine way...", or is it saying, "Let the older men who preside in a fine way..."? There is a world of difference in meaning with and without a comma. One implies all older men preside in a fine way, whereas the other implies some may and some may not.
Is this only the goal? Or is this actually realized by the direct action of God?
The phrase "as coming from God" is vague and non-committal. Is the Watchtower saying that when elders give direction, it is always Bible-based and always comes directly from God, or that when elders give direction, it is always Bible-based and therefore comes indirectly from God, or that when elders give direction, it should be Bible-based and we should view it as if it comes directly from God, or what? The example of the Keystone Cops elders I related above certainly was in the "what" category.
A detailed analysis of an article that purports to show why elders are "appointed by holy spirit" shows what I have found to be the usual methods in "proving" the point. This is from "Questions From Readers" on page 31 of the August 1, 1985 Watchtower. Let's see if we can find the answer to the question raised.
Clearly this does not answer the question that was raised. The next paragraph acknowledges this. Also note that Paul was speaking to the elders in Ephesus. The Society must make a clear connection between this and its assertion that elders of Jehovah's Witnesses are the same as the elders in Ephesus. This connection should have been made in the present discussion -- it should not have been assumed from unreferenced prior discussions.
The Watchtower here actually admits that it does not know the answer to the question it has raised. But the article gamely presses on.
So the early Christian governing body said that both it and the holy spirit made certain decisions, but it doesn't say how the holy spirit helped the decision-making process.
So in some unspecified manner the holy spirit caused events to occur, and caused the disciples to do and say various things, that resulted in the disciples' knowing that Gentiles did not need to be circumcised.
Note that "we assume they asked" and then "help may have moved the disciple to...." This is stated after the article says there "were additional operations of the holy spirit...."
Finally the article says something concrete.
A fair conclusion.
The conclusion does not follow. Does this statement mean that all the events just described as happening with the early Christians in connection with the circumcision issue are similar to what happens with appointment of Christian men to be elders, or does it mean that this appointment is similar to what is about to be described in the rest of the paragraph? I hardly think it can be the first alternative, because who today is anointed by holy spirit with "tongues as if of fire" visible to others as a sign? Who gets personal visitations from the resurrected Jesus, as did Paul? Who gets dreams from God, as did Peter? Who performs miracles, as did some of the disciples? So the second alternative must be the choice: appointment of elders in the congregation today will be described in the rest of the paragraph.
Does this mean that the holy spirit somehow "tweaks" some of the elders' minds during the discussion? If so, which ones, and how would anyone be able to tell?
Setting up for the indirect appointment argument.
Where files are checked to see if there are any problems with this candidate the local elders don't know about, and the Governing Body or its representatives pray over many similar matters and then record the appointment in their files.
In summary, this paragraph states that the local elders talk about the candidate, pray about his appointment, and get the Governing Body's official approval. The paragraph implies, but does not explicitly state, that because various pieces of the appointment process (the local elders, the traveling overseer, the Bible, the Governing Body and its representatives) have been put in place by God's work through the holy spirit, the resulting appointment is also a result of God's work through the holy spirit. But this process is not the same as direct action on God's part, in the manner that Bible writers are said to be inspired by God. This was the essence of my complaint to the Society years ago, as a result of which the circuit overseer admitted to me that this is not what actually happens, but which fact the Society does everything in its power to conceal. You should note that the Society has not made a clear connection between the conclusion of the last paragraph and its assertion that elders of Jehovah's Witnesses are the same as the elders of the first century. It has simply assumed this from unreferenced prior discussions.
The last paragraph, justifiably confident that readers will not have seen the subterfuge, continues:
It should be evident by this point why I do not believe that the Society wants Jehovah's Witnesses to understand that elders are not actually "appointed by holy spirit" in the sense of Jehovah directly appointing a particular elder. It should also be clear that this question is part of the reason I am unconvinced of the Society's devotion to truth.
This is not a trivial point, whether elders are directly or indirectly appointed. Anyone may claim that if he uses the Bible as a basis for his decisions, then to the extent that he uses it correctly he is guided by God. But Witnesses would not accept this explanation from a Catholic for the reason that they believe the Catholic church is not directed by God in any manner. But the question of whether Catholics are or are not directed by God has no relevance to the Society's claim that its use of the Bible as a basis for the elder arrangement, and elder's correct use of the Bible, are bases for claiming guidance by God. By the same token the Society is not justified in implying that because elders may in a certain sense be indirectly "appointed by holy spirit" they are also directly "appointed by holy spirit." If the Society wants to make this claim it should do so on grounds which are explicitly and clearly explained.
I would appreciate clarification of these points. In particular I should like to know whether what the circuit overseer told me years ago was correct at the time, or not.
I wish to comment on one more point concerning elders. Occasionally it is admitted that elders can do wrong or even make mistakes. For example, a Watchtower article said regarding how appropriate it is to obey authority in the Christian congregation:5
These are fine words and I agree wholeheartedly with them. However, the article says not a word about what one should do if one ever finds something coming from the Society that one cannot in good conscience agree with. And at no time have I seen published material stating what a publisher should do if an elder does something he thinks is unquestionably wrong, but that is not in the disfellowshipping category. The Society provides no formal outlet for dealing with this, and without a formal outlet, most Witnesses will act like horses or mules because that is the way the Society has trained them.
1 Organized to Accomplish Our Ministry, p. 41, Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc., Brooklyn, New York, 1983.
2 Organization for Kingdom-Preaching and Disciple-Making, p. 69, Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc., Brooklyn, New York, 1972.
3 The Watchtower, pp. 699-700, Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc., Brooklyn, NY, November 15, 1971.
4 ibid, pp. 20-25, September 15, 1989.
5 ibid, p. 30, April 1, 1988.