Are Jehovah’s Witnesses a hierarchical religion? And does it matter?

Jehovah’s Witnesses have long pointed the finger at other religions for being hierarchical, but what does a close examination of their own organization reveal?

As a young boy growing up in the Witness faith, I was taught to think of my religion as an organization with a level playing field, where everyone enjoyed an equal standing before God. Whenever photos were published of the Governing Body, it was always pointed out how approachable and “grandfatherly” they appeared – as though you could walk up to any member and ask him anything!

It was the same with elders, Circuit Overseers and District Overseers. Sure, these men all had lofty titles, but when it all boiled down to it, they were supposed to be no different from ordinary publishers – just with slightly different privileges of service.

As I grew up and began to see different facets of the organization in closer detail, it gradually became obvious that true equality among the brothers was something that existed in theory rather than in practice. A typical example of this could be seen during the twice-yearly Circuit Overseer’s visit, with all the hype and furore surrounding the arrival of a single man and his wife. I could see brothers and sisters bending over backwards to impress this supposedly humble representative of the Society – putting on elaborate dinners for him, taking him on their most impressive calls and bible studies, laughing at his awful jokes, and generally acting all prim and proper whenever in his presence.

Even as an indoctrinated publisher I could see that certain brothers are venerated over others

Even so, regardless of the fact that I saw little practical evidence of true equality among the brothers, I generally accepted the idea that all Witnesses are equal – and that there is no “hierarchy” in our faith. In fact, this wasn’t just an idea circulated among publishers – it was a core concept that was actively promoted in our publications. Other religions may operate a “hierarchical structure,” but not Jehovah’s cleansed people! We are different from false religion. Hierarchical religions, most notably the Catholic Church, are to be vilified and exposed for their “worldly” organizational politics.

To demonstrate, consider the following quotes from the Society’s publications over the decades, each of which denounce the concept of a hierarchical religious structure, or describe it in disapproving terms…

“In contrast with many religious groups in Christendom, Jehovah’s Witnesses do not decide for themselves the form of spiritual government under which they operate. These sincere Christians endeavor to stick to Jehovah’s standards. Overseers among them are not put into office by some congregational, hierarchical, or presbyterian form of church government.” (w01 1/15 p13)

“Sadly, over the centuries this elevated, selfless concept of ministers as self-sacrificing preachers and teachers was distorted. What began as the Christian ministry evolved into a formal, hierarchical institution. Orders and ranks were formed, and they were invested with prestige and power and often accumulated great wealth. This created divisions.” (g00 7/8 p27)

“There was the question of who should serve as elders and deacons in the congregations. To get away from the hierarchical structure prevalent in Christendom, it was concluded that these should be elected democratically by the vote of the members of each congregation.” (w95 5/15 p22)

“As time went by, the number of those claiming to be Christians rose to the millions and then to the hundreds of millions. They developed different kinds of church government, such as hierarchical, presbyterian, and congregational. However, neither the conduct nor the beliefs of these churches reflected the rulership of Jehovah. They were not theocracies!” (w94 1/15 p14)

“Especially since 1919, the enthroned King Jesus Christ has developed a fine condition amid his followers on earth. He has placed among them ‘princes’ (Hebrew, sarim) who do indeed furnish just and loving oversight. In contrast with the oppressive and self-serving rulers so general throughout the world, the King in God’s organization has raised up responsible men who are not revered as hierarchical ‘princes of the church,’ or the like.” (w84 5/15 p16)

“This fading of Christian watchfulness prompted apostate Christians to organize themselves into a well-structured church whose eyes were no longer fixed on the coming parousia, or presence, of Christ but, rather, on dominating its members and, if possible, the world. The New Encyclopædia Britannica states: ‘The [apparent] delay of the Parousia resulted in a weakening of the imminent expectation in the early church. In this process of ‘de-eschatologizing,’ [weakening of the teaching on the ‘Last Things’] the institutional church increasingly replaced the expected Kingdom of God. The formation of the Catholic Church as a hierarchical institution is directly connected with the declining of the imminent expectation.” (w84 12/1 p6)

“In the latter part of the 19th century, the Bible Students had a democratic way of governing their congregations; they wanted to get away from an autocratic hierarchical system.” (w81 12/1 p25)

“One’s qualifying as an ‘elder’ or ‘overseer’ was not a matter of ascending a hierarchical ladder, starting with the lowest rung. Catholic theologian Legrand writes: ‘The ordained ministry is not a cursus honorum [race for honors] to be run like climbing the rungs of a hierarchical ladder. In fact, the word hierarchy is not to be found in the Bible.'” (g76 9/8 p27)

“The above-mentioned Thascius Caecilius Cyprian was the bishop of the church in Carthage, Africa. He was born about 200 C.E. and died in 258 C.E. He was a clergyman, called here ‘the father of the hierarchical system,’ one of the body of clergy that existed not much more than a century after the death of Christ’s apostles and their close associates. From that time on, throughout the ‘Dark Ages,’ into the time of the Reformation and the beginning of the Protestant Churches, and down to the present, this clergy-laity distinction has existed in Christendom.” (w75 4/1 p202)

“What wonder, then, that intelligent persons of today who are informed on the kind of rule that prevailed during the time of the popish ‘theocracy’ cannot stomach the thought of God’s rule being about to come, if God’s rule means the restoration of such a hierarchical rule!” (w68 10/15 p618)

“Who, then, is doing the discipling work today? There can be no doubt of this. It is the Christian witnesses of Jehovah. The revival of the work of making disciples is to be found in that organization in these last days. They have freed themselves from the constricting creeds and contaminating false doctrines of the nominal churches. They have freed themselves from the hierarchical, congregational and all other forms of church rule that are unscriptural and they are governed by theocratic rule.” (w66 4/1 p205)

“Interesting is the fact that, though forced to meet underground, those primitive Christians by no means kept their light hidden there. As Christ had commanded, they lifted it high on ‘lampstands’ by a work of public testimony. Though this drew the infuriated malice of many, it introduced untold hope to others who proceeded to associate with the Christian community. Charles Maitland, in The Church in the Catacombs, singles out this proselytizing nature of the Christians as the greatest aggravating factor of their persecution, because of which other charges were trumped up by the authorities. Their harmlessness can be seen in that for the mere reason of secretly celebrating the Lord’s Supper they suffered an official ban. From what can be told by the ancient inscriptions those Christians scorned the hierarchical structure which papal Rome copied from pagan Rome.” (w51 8/15 p486)

“With such a breadth of meaning and variety of application of the Hebrew word sar we can appreciate how the heavenly King reigning in righteousness could have his visible servants on the earth during this perilous time and how these would occupy the position corresponding with what Isaiah 32:1 speaks of as princes (sarím). They would not hold such princely office inside the political systems of this world, because, although they are in the world, they are no part of the world. Neither would they have any such combined political, hierarchical offices such as the higher clergy of the Roman Catholic religious system hold, so that they are called ‘princes of the church.'” (w51 12/1 p721)

As can be clearly seen from the above quotes, the hierarchical structure long-ago adopted by the Catholic Church has been routinely denounced by the Society as unscriptural, autocratic, divisive and prone to encouraging corruption.

But what is a hierarchy? One definition describes it as: “an organizational structure where every entity in the organization, except one, is subordinate to a single other entity. This arrangement is a form of a hierarchy.” This unmistakably describes the Catholic Church, with the Pope at the top – answerable to no one. Certainly in all my years growing up in the organization I never thought of it as a fair way of describing the organizational structure of Jehovah’s Witnesses. After all, we are God’s true organization, and therefore unique from all other religions! We have Christ as our leader, and we receive instruction from God’s holy spirit through the Faithful Slave and its representative Governing Body!

Reality sinks in

Then in 2011 I woke up and was finally able to see the organization for what it truly is – just one of many hierarchical Christian denominations claiming to have the sole backing of God. Once I learned to reason for myself, I could plainly see that there was absolutely no relationship between the Faithful and Discreet Slave class (those claiming to be anointed) and the Governing Body, who claimed to humbly serve as their representatives. In reality, it was the small number of men on the Governing Body who were pulling all the strings, without conferring with anyone else. The Faithful Slave teaching was just their “cover story.”

By revealing their “new light” about the faithful slave, the Governing Body has awarded itself Pope-like status

Then, in October last year (2012), things took an unexpected twist. The Governing Body ditched the idea that all anointed ones make up the Faithful and Discreet Slave, and declared that only they could be so identified. In making this change, many would argue that they were only acknowledging what was already widely recognized – that the Governing Body are the only ones dispensing “spiritual food,” and have been for some time. Ordinary anointed ones have never really had any say in what is published in the literature.

Though somewhat predictable, for myself and many like-minded individuals this change was profound. The Society had, without great fanfare, neatly removed the last distinction between themselves and other hierarchical religions such as the Catholic Church. Previously, they had hidden behind the Faithful and Discreet Slave doctrine as an excuse to wield power. Now it was surplus to requirements. They declared themselves to be God’s sole channel, giving themselves Pope-like authority in the process.

The changes start to take effect

And it wasn’t long before this authority started to be drilled home unmistakably in our literature. Take a look at this recent illustration from the April 13th Watchtower on page 29…

It doesn’t take a genius to see what is being depicted in this illustration. This is a clear and unambiguous example of a hierarchy – right down to the numbering of the various groups or positions. It is a list of the various operational elements of the Watch Tower Society in a descending order of importance. When you look closely, you notice that even the chairs are more comfortable the higher up the ladder you happen to be! Governing Body members get plush leather executive chairs, while branch office members must make do with plain office swivel chairs. If you are an elder, you can consider yourself lucky to get a school canteen chair! Evidently the more privileged you are in God’s organization, the more seat padding you require.

The Governing Body is now so comfortable with its authority that it sees nothing inappropriate about identifying the individual members on an organizational chart

But there are other things that are noticeable about this illustration on close inspection. You notice that the current Governing Body members have vainly had their likenesses depicted in the illustration so that, when you look closely enough, they are individually recognizable.

Perhaps of most striking significance is the one notable absentee from the illustration – Jesus Christ. True, the Society would likely argue that this is a picture depicting the earthly part of God’s organization, and Christ is in the heavenly part. Even so, this hasn’t stopped the Society from depicting Jehovah on his heavenly chariot in the same illustration. Even some of the angels are present. So why no Jesus? Especially if he is supposed to be “head of the congregation?” (Eph. 5:23)

The answer is simple. Christ plays no role whatsoever in this organization and never actually has. His absence from this illustration may well be an oversight, but it is a telling one. The Governing Body is well and truly in charge, and they want us to know it. They take their orders from nobody but themselves. In this way, they are really no different from the Pope. In fact, take a look at this diagram I have prepared, which I believe demonstrates quite clearly that the hierarchical structures of the Catholic Church and Watch Tower Society are now eerily similar.

If you are one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, the above diagram may seem shocking, but it accurately reflects the way things truly are in the organization. It also shows how organizationally similar the Watch Tower Society is to the Catholic Church – the very religion it has spent decades criticizing.

The Society is happy to say one thing in its publications, and another thing in court

Furthermore, you may be shocked to learn that, in at least one court case, Watchtower lawyers have openly admitted that the religion IS a hierarchy just like the Catholic Church. In a recent lawsuit surrounding an ugly power struggle in the Menlo Park congregation, California, a Watchtower attorney by the name of Calvin Rouse told a judge: “We are a hierarchical religion just like the Catholic Church.” A clipping of this shocking statement from the official court manuscript may be viewed below. If you would like to read more about the case in question and download the manuscript, you can do so by clicking here.

And so, even if the Society can’t admit to being a hierarchy in writing (mostly due to the stigma it has attached to that word over the decades), it is quite open about its hierarchical nature in illustrations and when pressed on the matter in a court of law.

Does it matter?

Perhaps, having considered the above information, you are saying to yourself: “But things have always been like this. Why is it such a big deal?” Well, the fact that the Watch Tower Society is a hierarchy is significant for two reasons. Firstly, because a hierarchical structure goes against scripture, and secondly, because they criticize other religious organizations for using the exact same system.

Consider Christ’s words at Matthew 23:6-12

“They [the Pharisees] like the most prominent place at evening meals and the front seats in the synagogues, and the greetings in the marketplaces and to be called Rabbi by men. But YOU, do not YOU be called Rabbi, for one is YOUR teacher, whereas all YOU are brothers. Moreover, do not call anyone YOUR father on earth, for one is YOUR Father, the heavenly One. Neither be called ‘leaders,’ for YOUR Leader is one, the Christ. But the greatest one among YOU must be YOUR minister. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” (New World Translation)

By embracing a system where certain brothers in responsible positions are exalted above others, the Society has organized itself in direct contradiction of Christ’s words above. As seen in the Watchtower illustration, the Governing Body has now occupied the most exalted position – just a nudge away from heaven! Everyone else is beneath them. Not only that, everyone must humble themselves before the Governing Body by obeying everything they say. Those who don’t obey them or recognise their leadership are to be disfellowshipped as “apostates” and shunned by their Witness relatives.

Utter Hypocrisy

It is also worth remembering the countless instances over many decades where the Society has denounced the Catholic Church for operating as a hierarchy. Now the “Faithful Slave” doctrine has been re-written, and what do we see? The Watch Tower Society now has an almost identical organizational structure to the religion it has spent decades criticizing – even claiming to be fulfilling prophecy in the process (in the Revelation Climax book). Yes, our organization really is no different from any other Christian denomination, and the hypocrisy of it all is breathtaking.

The gradual and insidious nature of the Governing Body’s aquisition of greater power and prominence is reminiscent of Orwell’s Animal Farm

The whole thing reminds me of the much-loved parable “Animal Farm” by George Orwell, which I was taught in school. Intended as a cautionary warning against communism, Orwell’s story describes an uprising in which a group of animals seize control of their own farm by ousting their abusive farmer overlord. However, once the animals gain control, gradually the “top” animals who are in charge (the pigs) become corrupt. They begin with a commandment that reads “all animals are equal,” but gradually, over a period of time, this is changed to read “all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” By the end of the story, the pigs become just as abusive as the farmer they ousted.

The overall message of Orwell’s short story is that “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” When you look at the Governing Body and the way they are gradually maneuvering doctrine to further exalt their position in the organization, it is not difficult to draw parallels with the pigs in Animal Farm. If you haven’t yet read the story, you can download it as a PDF on this link.

A reason to stop and ponder

In conclusion, I believe that thinking Witnesses all over the world need to pause and meditate on page 29 of the April 15th 2013 Watchtower. They need to look long and hard at that illustration and ask themselves the following difficult questions:

  • Is this really what I dedicated my life to serve when I got baptized?
  • Are Jehovah’s Witnesses really any different from any other religion if they have such a clearly defined hierarchy, which is almost identical to the Catholic Church?
  • How can the Governing Body justify performing such a huge u-turn by awarding itself Pope-like status?
  • Why observe their command to not investigate objective information about the organization when it is changing before my very eyes into something I can no longer respect or admire?




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326 Responses to Are Jehovah’s Witnesses a hierarchical religion? And does it matter?

  1. anonymous says:

    They aren’t treated as somebody special and they belong to congregations in the area, just like all other Bethelites? Do they go in service and have Bible studies? Do they have cars provided to them? Do they have to have jobs to provide for themselves or do they live off the contributions? Do they have servants at Bethel? Do they have to do their own laundry and cook their own food? What are their living accommodations like? Do they live like the rest of the Bethelites or do they have much nicer apartments? Do they get to decide what is policy for the rank and file? Who buys their suits? Do they get to travel to other countries by plane to give special talks? Do they get to delete elders? Can I call these men on the phone and have a phone conversation with them? At assemblies, could I approach a member of the Governing Body and ask them a question?

    Are you saying there is no difference between the rank and file and these Governing body members?

    • CARLOS says:


      All traveling overseers have insurance living and health covered for them if i am not mistaken. the people at Bethel have room cleaning and laundry done for them too, health care and living expenses are covered.

      From what i have seen, it was months before it was known that anointed brother from the governing body was there.

      Members of the governing body have been disfelloshiped.

      that shows me that it is most likely that we all all thought of as same that not.

      It is very usual for pastors and priest to be noticed, i don’t see that here.

  2. anonymous says:

    @Carlos. Are you saying that the members of the Governing Body belong to regular congregations and aren’t treated any more special than any other of the rank and file? Do they go in service and conduct Bible studies? Do they have nice cars and car insurance provided for them? Do they have to worry about how to pay for doctor’s bills and dentist’s bills? Do they have to work at jobs to earn money for food and rent and clothing and gas? Do they get to travel to other countries to give special talks? Do they get their pictures put in the magazines and books? Do they have servants at Bethel or do they have to do their own laundry, cooking and cleaning? Do they have part in preparing the “Spiritual food” that comes out in the Watchtower and Awake? Can I call them up on the phone and talk to them? Can I approach them at assemblies and ask them questions? Do they pitch and clean the toilets at Bethel? Who pays for their clothes?
    Can the appoint elders and circuit overseers and delete them? Are they to be obeyed? Do they claim to speak for God?

    Tell me and be honest. Are they really no different than you and me? Just saying that they are better than the Catholic church, isn’t the answer.

    • alanv says:

      All JWs home in on is the fact that the gov body members do not wear any special garb. They completely miss and put out of their mind all the questions you asked. They are very different to the normal rank and file witness.

  3. anonymous says:

    Carlos, who cleans their rooms? Do they do it themselves or is it done for them? Somebody has to do that work and it isn’t the Governing Body. It’s sisters that do that. Somebody has to do it. Just because others at Bethel have their rooms cleaned, doesn’t make it so that the Governing Body does it themselves. Somebody has to do all the physical work and it isn’t the Governing Body. The Governing Body live off contributions with cars provided, insurance provided, health insurance proved through contributions, food provided through contributions and on and on. There is absolutely nothing that the Watchtower does that makes money. Everything they do is only possible through contributions. It isn’t a business that supports itself. All of the offices and buildings are paid for through contributions. If it was a business that made a product that could be sold, then it could be self-supporting but then it wouldn’t be considered a charity would it and they’d have to account for all those contributions they get.

    The Apostle Paul and the other first century apostles and older men were self-supporting. If the Watchtower is nothing but a printing company, then either it makes money off a product or it doesn’t. If it doesn’t make any money on a product that can be bought and sold, then it is dependent on contributions. Do you understand what I am getting at? Working at Bethel, isn’t a paying job and those working at Bethel don’t get paid. Everything done at these Bethels are paid for from people who back home actually do have jobs and not only support themselves and their families, but also support all those working for free at Bethel and those at the Bethel homes. The Governing Body live off the flock without paying jobs. Even those working at Bethel, turning turning out magazines that are given away for free isn’t a paying job.

    I had a cousin that worked cleaning for a man for a year and the guy he was cleaning for wouldn’t pay him and wouldn’t pay him but my cousin kept cleaning his house. The guy never paid him so he did it for free. You are foolish to work for nothing. It’s money that pays the bills and keeps a roof over your head.

    Somebody has to pay for all that literature and it’s hard working people like you and me who don’t get insurance provided or get cars provided to us or food or rent provided to us for free and we don’t get our pictures in the magazines for all the work we did to put that money in those contribution boxes. That money that supports them comes from actual jobs from lowly individuals who work hard for that money. The Society is no different than the Catholic Church and it is a hierarchy and their only job is to be obeyed and shown special honor and they don’t have to answer to anybody for anything.

  4. Allan says:

    Who is Jehovah?

  5. Mae says:

    At the same time we are raised to believe that it is downright ‘wrong’ and ‘worldly’ to get a real job of any kind (ie. equip ourselves to earn a half decent wage – wow – there it is. I actually said it. A statement you would never even dare utter to another witness, let alone discuss properly). We are ‘enouraged’ to leave school as early as possible to get a low paying job and pioneer. Disapproval (often delivered by facial expressions and body language rather than actual words) is strong if you talk about getting any useful qualifications. Especially if you’re a “sister.” The (unspoken but powerful) message is that you’re supposed to get married and be provided for. Even though many never find anyone to marry (in some countries this is a very ratio) and women are paid less than men so do need a half decent job to survive solo in this world. When they write articles about “Singleness” it is always assumed that you have stayed single to pioneer, as if no other possibility exists. Nothing is ever written that caters to the reality of most of those who have ended up single in the truth, or on how to cope with that – in real terms.
    I gave in to this pressure re “careers” – a term you won’t even hear mentioned in the organisation. Yet Jesus himself trained as a carpenter even though he wasn’t on this earth for long. I’m sure he’d want single sisters now to be practical about preparing for all the possibilities life may deliver. My mother – even though she was realistic enough (read rebellious in witness talk) to always say back in the 70’s that all the comments in the literature and comments telling us to “leave school and pioneer” was never translated into local conditions, that it was written in America, not New Zealand – so kids there weren’t leaving school at 15, but were much older if they “left school to pioneer.” Nevertheless I was never encouraged to take school seriously, or get any qualifications at all, such was her fear that I might “leave the truth.”
    Now I am seriously asking myself – Why all this prohibition, much of it not in actual writing (clever?) but there is still plenty of written proof in the paper trails. Why all this shame about having any kind of a “real job” especially for sisters, if the organisation is relying on our contributions? I do now have to ask if it is indeed a control tactic. Keep us chasing our tails, working a lot to break even, reading mountains of literature, spending more and more hours witnessing, and contributing. Keeping us guilty no matter how much we do. Keeping us too busy to think?
    There has been the rare person I have known who has quietly gone off and qualified as teachers etc, but no one discusses it openly. I never had the guts myself, which has seriously affected my life. And now they are demanding more money from us…….?????? Things just aren’t adding up any more

  6. Robert Cerda says:

    Que Viva Christo Rey!

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