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 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.”
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.
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.
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.
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 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?