Neil Girrard

Scriptures Referenced in This Article:
          (Follow the Scripture links if you want to study the Scriptures for yourself.)
Isa. 6:9-10 π Mt. 13:14-15 π Mt. 13:16-17 π Mt. 23:3 π Jn. 3:3 π Jn. 3:5 π Rom. 8:9

The origins of the Watchtower Society (Jehovah's Witnesses) lays down strong warning for all groups who would be unwary of the dangers of institutionalization. In the beginning of their history (1921), there was no Watchtower Society as we know it today. There was a loose denomination of "Bible Students." William Schnell, in giving his testimony of his 30 years as a Watchtower slave, [1] writes:

Let me say here that these Bible Student Ecclesias then were a far cry from the present meeting places of Jehovah's Witnesses known as Kingdom Halls. Entirely independent from a central control, they selected their own Elders from the spiritually mature within their midst, in accordance with Paul's instructions to Titus and Timothy. [2] We observed that these people were consecrated Christians. They were rugged individualists, greatly concerned with making their "calling and election sure," and in being transformed into the likeness of the Lord in their thinking, their living and their behavior, as well as their works in their daily lives.

When they gathered in their meetings on Sunday for a Bible discourse and Wednesday night for a prayer and experience meeting, they came to be edified, and to contribute towards such edification themselves. The meetings were true feasts of fellowshiping and Christian love. They were highly instructive - never authoritarian and arbitrary as are now the meetings held in Kingdom Halls of Jehovah's Witnesses. Those who came to these meetings were not only concerned with each other's spiritual welfare, but arrangements were made for visits to the sick and the needy, and funds were provided by the Ecclesia to lend help when needed. These meetings were filling a void in the life of my father and myself. They were a spiritual blessing to us.

Works of charity occupied a considerable time of the Bible Student groups. Not only did they help the need of the congregation but often outsiders, wherever such were found. We would bring such unfortunates in and feed and clothe them. After we had taken care of their physical needs, we would minister to them more valuable things of the Spirit. Many were in this way salvaged from despair and brought into the communion of Christianity.

This description given of these Bible Student groups is identical to many denominations today. For example, Calvary Chapel, one of the fastest-growing "non-denominational" denominations, is made up of a large number of small churches which precisely fit this description. And like the Watchtower Society, the organizational aspects of Calvary Chapel are largely the result of the work and "church" philosophy of one man, Chuck Smith.

In its beginning stages, the Watchtower Society was founded by Charles T. Russell. It was under his leadership that the Bible Students enjoyed the atmosphere described above. Upon his death, however, the institution, through clever manipulation, fell into the hands of an ambitious man, Judge Rutherford. From there, this loose denomination devolved into the highly organized, mass-marketing cult it is today. Schnell, an insider of the JWs from its beginnings, describes the difference:

In Berlin I had moved in the circles of one of the largest Ecclesias of Bible Students in the world, and had thoroughly enjoyed it. The spirit was one of brotherly love and freedom. Ours was an association of Christians, who were spirit-begotten, and who through Christ had a personal standing before the throne of God. All this was for the purpose of fellowshiping and edification.

From out of such fellowship and association I entered into the brisk organizational atmosphere of the headquarters of the Watchtower Society in Magdeburg. In the place of fellowshiping came emphasis on charts, and quotas, discussion of production policy, figuring of cost, and concern for organization. Instead of guidance of the Spirit we heard the directing voice of the Watchtower leadership. Personal freedom was replaced by blind loyalty to the Watchtower directives. While in our Bible Student meetings in Berlin we had occasion to have the "Holy Spirit testify with our spirit that we are children of God," we now had to listen to the Company servant testify that we were good Kingdom Publishers in the measure that we had fulfilled the quotas set for us.

Now it is true that many denominations, in order to cater to the extremely individualistic mindset of most Americans, do not go to this extreme in organization. But the organization, the institution, exists nonetheless - and its leaders often take pride in the fact that it is only loosely organized and not micro-managed like the JWs. But it is still an institution - and because it is, it cannot be a true expression of the body of Christ.

It is also true that most American Christians have never known anything other than the "brisk organizational atmosphere" of the highly institutionalized mega-"church." One statistic claims that over half of all people who claim to be a Christian and who go to "church" go to a mega-"church." The mega-"church," by definition, can only be a bureaucratic organization patterned after the corporate business structure of this world; it has little in common with the teachings and practice of the New Testament.

The Watchtower Society made the same error that is being made by most, if not all churches today. And this can be seen even in Schnell's usage of the word "ecclesia." From all accounts, his notion of "ecclesia" is not very different from the modern notion of "church." Schnell rightly places much emphasis on the relationships the Bible Students had with each other but, throughout his testimony, one gets the idea of meetings held in "church" buildings, of having one or a few men deliver the sermons, of having the congregation sitting and listening passively, etc. All the demonically-inspired flaws of "church" are present in Schnell's understanding of ekklesia - just as it is present in modern day "church" leaders.

For those who don't know the difference between "church" and ekklesia as these terms are used in the Bible, let me offer this brief synopsis. The word "church" is derived from the Greek "kuriakon" and means the "house of the Lord" - the building - (while "kuriakon" simply means "of the Lord"). The word "kuriakon" is used only twice in the New Testament - never referring in any way to the gathering of the believers nor in any way to any building or place of meeting. The word "ekklesia," on the other hand, refers to the citizens of a free state who are called out by a herald to attend to the business of the state. It never has any connotation of building or place of meeting.

In order to recognize the importance of this distinction, it is helpful to recognize that Greek has a word, a word used often in the New Testament, to refer to the building or place of meeting with God - "hieron." It is to be noted that this word "hieron," "temple," is never used in reference to an assembled and gathered local body of believers. Greek also has a word to refer to the "house of God," His dwelling place - "naos." This word is often used in the New Testament as well, even to refer to the body of believers as the temple or house of God, but it never refers to any local meeting place of the believers. There is even a third word in Greek which refers to the house or household, whether of God, Israel or of someone else - "oikos." This word too never refers to any local meeting place of believers either.

The twist comes in 1611, in the original King James version of the Bible. Because there was no direct English equivalent of "ekklesia" and because it fit in with the Dark Ages expression of Christianity (that is, cathedrals, chapels, monasteries and "sanctuaries"), the translators used the word "church" wherever they found "ekklesia." The tragedy of this word is blatantly obvious in our century as now, even though most people know dimly that the ekklesia is only people, they still flock to "churches" as if they were one and the same thing. And they will split and divide between these "churches" - convenient places of contrast and disunity - while still believing that they are practicing true Christianity. The religious ritual and customary practice of "church" is in direct contradiction to the spiritual life of the ekklesia.

Ekklesia knows nothing of wasting its temporal resources on artificial buildings but knows a great deal about using its resources to meet the needs of its own poor and of the widows and orphans around it. Ekklesia knows nothing of the need for one man to act as the bridge between the congregation and God though it knows a great deal of the royal priesthood of all believers. Ekklesia knows nothing of training the congregation to be passive listeners though it knows a great deal about raising up spiritual warriors in the order brought on by obedience to the Spirit of God who does not author confusion. Ekklesia knows nothing of a tiny percentage of the people doing all the work and keeping particular denominational distinctives in place though it knows a great deal of empowering each and every believer to become in fullness what God foreknew that individual to become in Christ. Ekklesia knows nothing of a generic, "cookie-cutter press," pre-formatted "Christian" though it knows a great deal about loving and serving one another so that each and every believer becomes precisely the unique individual that Christ intends. Ekklesia knows nothing of anonymous "church" attendance while remaining in a sinful lifestyle but knows a great deal about accountability, vulnerability and inter-dependence.

It is indeed easy to spot the errors of the JWs because there are so many other doctrines which are out of sync with the Bible. It is harder to spot the errors of the many mainline "churches" who preach almost faultless doctrines but whose "church" practices either strip those doctrines of their power in the lives of the congregation or cause those doctrines to become simply the rantings of yet another hypocrite, the kind Jesus would say of, "Do as they say, but not as they do." ( Mt. 23:3; top )

Currently there is a return to apostolic and prophetic teaching in the body of Christ as well as an exodus away from the institutional "church" in attempt to return to the "ekklesia" of the New Testament. This movement must also be wary of the tendency to organize and institutionalize this latest move of God. The movement is already organized - by the Holy Spirit - and it does not need our human organizational talents to improve upon His design. The movement must never become institutionalized - for then it would cease to be the organism known as the body of Christ. It would only be another crippling bondage for the body of Christ to overcome.

This movement knows only one standard for recognizing another believer - he or she has genuinely received new life from God through Christ Jesus. ( Jn. 3:3 , 5 ; Rom. 8:9; top ) No matter how far entrenched one might be in one's "church," the power of Christ is always available to raise that one out of those deceptions and into the fullness of the inheritance of the saints in the ekklesia and kingdom of God.

But if anyone begins to place the apostles and elders in a top-down, hierarchical authority structure or begins to take the ekklesia back into the bondage of a "church," know that the life of the Spirit will soon be lost - just as it has been lost in every denominational hardening of the wineskin after a genuine move of the Spirit. There simply is no place for dividing the body of Christ on the basis of one's doctrines or on the basis of preferring one man's leadership over another.

The "church" is not the vehicle for the movements of the Holy Spirit. The body of Christ, the ekklesia - the company or assembly of citizens of God's kingdom called out of darkness to attend to the business of the kingdom of light - is that vehicle. Any attempt to mingle the practice of darkness with the assembly of the people of the Light will be viewed as enmity against God as He is Himself preparing His ekklesia to be a bride without any spot or wrinkle.

We must come out from all association with darkness. We must no longer handle the unclean things of this world and of Satan. We must be continually renewed and cleansed by the fresh workings of the Holy Spirit who washes us with the Word spoken by God Himself. There can be no compromise in this war. He who compromises is dead already.

My beloved brethren, please, I beg of you, learn the lesson of history the JWs and all the other denominational "churches" present to us. Let us not be like the hypocrites of Jesus' day who, "Hearing you will hear and shall not understand, and seeing you will see and not perceive; for the heart of this people has grown dull. Their ears are hard of hearing, and their eyes they have closed, lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears, lest they should understand with their heart and turn, so that I should heal them." ( Mt. 13:14-15 ; Isa. 6:9-10; top ) Rather let us be like the ones of whom Jesus said, "But blessed are your eyes for they see, and your ears for they hear; for assuredly, I say to you that many prophets and righteous men desired to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it." ( Mt. 13:16-17; top )

[1] 30 Years a Watch-Tower Slave, William J. Schnell, Baker Book House, 1971. back

[2] It is to be observed that this is a mis-statement by Schnell as to what the Bible really teaches. Paul instructed Titus and Timothy, two apostles who worked with him, to appoint elders. Paul did not leave instructions for any local congregation to select their own elders. back

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