All Saints Benhilton
Sunday 23rd June, 2002
Last week two strangers called at my house, and they were Jehovah's Witnesses.
I asked them in, and an hour or more later they left in a state of confusion: not because they'd been converted by our discussion, but because they began to realise that those of us whose faith differs from theirs are not merely being thick-headed., as they've been taught to believe, but have good reasons for believing what we do.
You're bound to come across a Witness sooner or later, so let me tell you about their history and beliefs and how they've gone off the rails. If you find this helpful then we'll do the same about the Mormons and Seventh Day Adventists in August.
So, if you're sitting comfortably, let's begin.
First, some history: Jehovah's Witnesses, like many religions first saw the light of day in 19th Century America. It was an idea which entered the mind of Charles Taze Russell in 1872. Russell lived near Pittsburgh. After a number of name-changes the followers of his brainchild finally settled on Jehovah's Witnesses in 1931 some fifteen years after Russell's death.
Russell was a wealthy haberdasher who had inherited a chain of shops from his father. Shortly after discovering his new faith he sold the shops, to devote his entire life to the dissemination of his ideas.
Russell was a compelling speaker and a competent organiser. However, unlike, Judge Rutherford who succeeded him after his death in 1916, Russell was a curiously disreputable person. His wife divorced him – a petition which was readily granted. He advertised ordinary corn as "Miracle Wheat" for sale at sixty dollars a bushel (I don't know what ordinary corn sold for in those days), but when challenged withdrew his claim to its miraculous nature. He claimed to be a Greek scholar whereas he didn't even know the letters of that alphabet, and he had the effrontery to suggest that his commentary on the Bible entitled Studies in the Scriptures was more important than the Bible itself. All of which meant that the Witnesses remained a relatively small operation.
However, his successor, the so-called 'Judge' Rutherford, (Judge was a nickname, he was only an attorney) was a far more successful. Though he admired Russell he outshone him in every way: public speaking, organisation, in business acumen and, not least, morally. So a movement which might have simply faded away, as many others did, during the First World War, took on a new lease of life, and by his death in 1942 Rutherford was presiding over the world-wide following which it enjoys today.
This is a good moment to ask why such movements , today as then, continue to attract people.
There are three related reasons. First the attraction of belonging to a minority. If that sounds strange just think how many people want to be chosen for a sports team, or a member of a club, or to work their way to the top of the ladder in their firm: First XI, Club and Boardroom are all by nature minorities to which people strive to belong. But getting into them is easier said than done. It may call for more money, skills and perseverance than many people possess. So for those whose resources are small, there's an attraction belonging to a small group where their sense of inferiority is more than made up for by belonging to an organization which claims to have "that little extra something that the others haven't got"?
Second, Witnesses are an autocratic and hierarchical organization. Every unit, from the all-powerful International Board of Directors down to the local Kingdom Hall with its Elders is structured in this way. Far from making their members feel more inferior still, this gives the individual members of such groups a sense of self-worth and security. They immediately gain a place within their structure, so individual Witnesses cease to feel they're a Nobody and become a Somebody the moment they join.
Attraction Three is the mutual support and oversight which is given by, and expected from, all Jehovah's Witnesses. Everyone takes the spiritual and material wellbeing of their fellow Witnesses very seriously indeed, whoever they may be. Whilst we Christians get away with giving very little time or money, no Witness is allowed to be idle or half-hearted about his faith – and just because it is demanding, its followers value it having invested so much of themselves in it. The Cheap Grace which you and I enjoy, quickly loses its shine once its novelty has worn off.
A world-wide movement like Jehovah's Witnesses has to have some distinctive beliefs. Without these beliefs it would become just "one more Religion" amongst many. One of their selling-points is their claim to exclusive possession of the truth about God. So now let's look more closely at what Witnesses believe.
At the very heart of their creed is the belief that Jesus Christ is not God, nor is he "of one substance with the Father" as the Creed says. Instead he's a semi-divine being who was known before his Incarnation as the Archangel Michael. As an angel Michael-Jesus might well be thought of as being of a similar substance with God the Father, but emphatically he wouldn't be of one substance.
The interesting thing is this: a man called Arius who was a priest living in the third century Alexandria had almost exactly the same idea. He taught people that "Jesus is godlike" rather than "Jesus is God". Arius attracted a enormous large following till, as someone said, "one morning the whole world woke up and groaned to find itself Arian".
What's the attraction of Arianism? Well, part of it's attraction is the fact that if Jesus is not God then there's less reason for giving weight to what he said and did. At a pinch, if his commandments run contrary to one's natural inclination it's possible to argue along the lines that Jehovah-God (the real God so to say) has said something different. Russell maintained, you remember, that his Studies in the Scriptures was more important than the Bible itself. So where there is any uncertainty about a matter of faith or morals, every Witness knows where to turn to find the answer!
But there's another reason why Arianism became popular. Christians were from time to time persecuted for saying that Jesus is God. How much safer to say "well, what I mean is that he's like God" and answer the question "Are you a Christian?" by being able to reply, as Arians and the Jehovah's Witnesses do "yes – but not in the sense you're using the word.".
Neither Witnesses nor Arians believe that the redeeming work of Christ was completed on the Cross when he offered himself as the perfect sacrifice to his heavenly Father. So our salvation must ultimately depend not upon what or in whom we believe, but in the quality of life which we lead. As Russell taught his followers that:
[every man] each for himself has the full chance to prove, by obedience or disobedience, his worthiness or unworthiness of life eternal.
This is justification by works, not justification by faith – the very error that Paul was trying to clear up in the minds of his followers when he wrote his letters to the Romans and the Galatians.
Witnesses don't believe that Jesus rose from the dead in his human body on Easter Day. "He was raised from the dead as a spirit being of the highest order of the divine nature" according to Russell, and his permanent status is described as the Chief Executive Officer of Jehovah.
Like many other American religions, Witnesses are fascinated by trying to date the end the world. Russell, in 1872, worked out from the Bible that it was due to end in 1914. It didn't – though some dramatic things did happen that year. So Witnesses weren't slow to say that what Russell had really meant, of course, was that a particular phase in world history was going to come to an end then, the final dénouement being due somewhere around 1984.
When that expectation also remained unfulfilled, it was discovered (and this is something which I only learnt from my witness-visitors the other day) that there had been yet another misunderstanding about Russell's calculations. Instead of eternal life being, as Russell thought, the sole privilege of the 144,000 mentioned in the Book of Revelation, further study has made it clear that this number refers to those Witnesses who will inherit the Kingdom of Heaven and rule it as a sort of celestial civil-service under Jehovah-God. The rest of us will inherit the earth and live on it in a reasonable degree of comfort and satisfaction. Knowing what I do about the Civil Service as I do, my reaction to is that I'd prefer good old Mother Earth any day, rather than some heavenly version of Whitehall!
There we must end. If you want to disconcert a Jehovah's Witness , all you have to do is say to them, in the most friendly manner possible "Now, I believe you're Arians: aren't you?" They won't have a clue as to who Arius was or what he believed, but if you've done your homework properly so that you'll be able to tell them, and also both Arius and the Jehovah's Witnesses have managed to get the facts about our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ so utterly wrong as they have done.
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