Do we need the Watchtower to understand the Bible?
Summary: The Watchtower Bible and Tract Society claims that a group of “anointed” Christians—the Watchtower’s own leaders—are the one and only “faithful and discreet slave” through whose publications God teaches his people worldwide. One cannot understand the Bible correctly apart from the Watchtower publications.
This article is one of a series of articles explaining in detail the doctrines of Jehovah’s Witnesses and showing why those teachings are not in harmony with the facts and teachings of the Bible. For an overview, see our article on what Jehovah’s Witnesses believe.
What the Watchtower Teaches
Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that the Bible cannot be properly understood today apart from studying and accepting the explanations of the Bible taught in the publications of the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society. There are three essential components of this belief. (1) Believers in Jesus Christ are divided into two classes, the “anointed” and the “other sheep”; the anointed class is destined to rule from heaven over all other saved people who will be living on the earth. (2) A very small subset of the anointed class is the “faithful and discreet slave,” now equated with or identified as the Governing Body of Jehovah’s Witnesses. (3) This “slave” is authorized by Christ to dispense “spiritual food” to everyone else through its publication of the Watchtower Society’s Bible and “Bible-based publications.”
In a later article we will examine closely the Watchtower doctrine of the “anointed” and “other sheep” classes of believers. Suffice it to say for now that the doctrine maintains that throughout history there can only be a total of 144,000 members of the anointed class, all of which have already lived and died except for a remaining few thousand Jehovah’s Witnesses.
For much of Jehovah’s Witnesses’ history, they have been taught that the entire “anointed class” is also called in Scripture the “faithful and discreet slave,” a term that comes from the New World Translation of Matthew 24:45. The following statement from a 1989 publication is representative of this view:
Jesus said that he would have on earth a “faithful and discreet slave” (his anointed followers viewed as a group), through which agency he would provide spiritual food to those making up the household of faith. (Matt. 24:45-47) Jehovah’s Witnesses recognize that arrangement. As was true of first-century Christians, they look to the governing body of that “slave” class to resolve difficult questions—not on the basis of human wisdom, but by drawing on their knowledge of God’s Word and his dealings with his servants, and with the help of God’s spirit, for which they earnestly pray.1
Although the doctrine at that time was that, in theory, the “faithful and discreet slave” consisted of the entire “anointed” class “as a group,” in practice the “slave” was understood functionally as the “governing body” and those working directly under them to produce the literature of the Watchtower Society. This tension was resolved in 2013 when the Society published an article specifically limiting the “slave” to the Governing Body:
Who, then, is the faithful and discreet slave? In keeping with Jesus’ pattern of feeding many through the hands of a few, that slave is made up of a small group of anointed brothers who are directly involved in preparing and dispensing spiritual food during Christ’s presence. Throughout the last days, the anointed brothers who make up the faithful slave have served together at headquarters. In recent decades, that slave has been closely identified with the Governing Body of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Note, however, that the word “slave” in Jesus’ illustration is singular, indicating that this is a composite slave. The decisions of the Governing Body are thus made collectively.2
As the article explains, this interpretation narrows the “narrow and discreet slave”; whereas they previously used that term to refer to the entirety of the “anointed class,” they now apply it only to the small group of the anointed class that leads the religion (the Governing Body, and perhaps individuals working directly with and under them). We see the same claim in the following statement from 2014:
Who Is the Faithful and Discreet Slave? … It is a small group of anointed followers of Jesus. The “slave” is closely identified with the Governing Body of Jehovah’s Witnesses. It dispenses timely spiritual food to fellow worshippers of Jehovah. We are dependent on this faithful slave to keep giving us our “measure of food supplies at the proper time.”3
When the above articles describe the slave as a group that “dispenses spiritual food,” they are referring to the people directly involved in producing the publications of the Watchtower Society, and especially the Governing Body, which determines what content will be published (though other staff may do the actual writing). The teaching dispensed through those publications and through other means, such as their annual conventions, is viewed as the “spiritual food” that the “faithful and discreet slave” was to give the rest of the “household” of faith, according to the Society’s interpretation of Jesus’ parable in Matthew 24:45-47. A 2014 Watchtower publication explains this quite clearly:
Jehovah provides something else to protect us: timely spiritual food. To help us draw strength from his Word, Jehovah has commissioned “the faithful and discreet slave” to dispense spiritual food. That faithful slave uses printed publications, including the journals The Watchtower and Awake!, as well as meetings, assemblies, and conventions to provide us with “food at the proper time”—what we need, when we need it…. Not only must we regularly read the Bible and the Bible-based publications provided by “the faithful and discreet slave” but we must also endeavor to apply what we learn.4
Thus, Jehovah’s Witnesses do not view their literature as simply good Christian teaching comparable to books by respected Christian authors or popular Christian magazines. Rather, Jehovah’s Witnesses view Watchtower literature as “publications prepared by God’s organization.”5 Talks presented at official meetings are also considered spiritual food from God’s organization:
In addition to producing publications, Jehovah’s organization prepares Bible-based outlines for talks that are delivered at our meetings, assemblies, and conventions…. Jehovah certainly provides us with a spiritual banquet!6
Notice that these publications and talks are regarded as coming from Jehovah himself. This means that the publications carry divine authority and must be read, studied, and accepted (even if, as is occasionally admitted, the publications are not infallible). Here is a representative statement from 2016:
Because we love the Bible, we also love our Bible-based publications. For instance, we appreciate the spiritual food we receive in the form of books, brochures, magazines, and other literature. We know that these provisions from Jehovah help us to stay spiritually alert, well-fed, and “healthy in faith.” …Above all, each one of us should bear in mind that God is the Source of our spiritual provisions.7
Once again, God is said to be the source of the Watchtower publication’s teachings. Jehovah’s Witnesses therefore view Watchtower publications as directives from God to be obeyed:
As individual Christians, how do we view the timely spiritual food that the faithful slave dispenses by means of Bible-based publications and through Christian gatherings? Do we gratefully partake of it and readily apply what we learn? What is our response to organizational decisions made by the slave? Our willing obedience to the direction provided gives evidence of our faith in Jehovah’s arrangement.8
The Watchtower Society not only claims that its publications are authoritative sources of spiritual instruction, but it also actively discourages Jehovah’s Witnesses from publishing their own literature independently of the Watchtower. Witnesses are discouraged from participating in online discussions or debates, creating their own websites, organizing conferences, doing their own independent research, or publishing their own literature. We quote the following 2007 article at some length in order to establish this point:
Does “the faithful and discreet slave” endorse independent groups of Witnesses who meet together to engage in Scriptural research or debate?—Matt. 24:45, 47.
No, it does not. And yet, in various parts of the world, a few associates of our organization have formed groups to do independent research on Bible-related subjects. Some have pursued an independent group study of Biblical Hebrew and Greek so as to analyze the accuracy of the New World Translation…. They have created Web sites and chat rooms for the purpose of exchanging and debating their views. They have also held conferences and produced publications to present their findings….
Throughout the earth, Jehovah’s people are receiving ample spiritual instruction and encouragement at congregation meetings, assemblies, and conventions, as well as through the publications of Jehovah’s organization. Under the guidance of his holy spirit and on the basis of his Word of truth, Jehovah provides what is needed…. Thus, “the faithful and discreet slave” does not endorse any literature, meetings, or Web sites that are not produced or organized under its oversight….
For those who wish to do extra Bible study and research, we recommend that they explore Insight on the Scriptures, “All Scripture Is Inspired of God and Beneficial,” and our other publications….9
In summary, the Watchtower Society claims that only through its publications and other communications can anyone understand the Bible correctly. Moreover, it strongly discourages Jehovah’s Witnesses from doing their own independent research or using literature other than that of the Watchtower.
Do We Need the Watchtower to Understand the Verses that It Uses to Prove We Need the Watchtower?
The Watchtower publications cite various biblical texts to support its claim that the Watchtower Society’s publications are indispensable to an accurate knowledge of the teachings of the Bible. We will take a look at the most important text below. Before doing so, however, we should point out the viciously circular nature of the Watchtower’s reasoning here. The claim is that the Bible cannot be accurately understood apart from the guidance and instruction given in the publications of the Watchtower Society, because its leaders constitute the “faithful and discreet slave” that Christ put in charge of teaching people today. In order to legitimize this claim, the Watchtower appeals to various texts in the Bible (about the “slave,” for example). But this appeal to the Bible presupposes that readers can see for themselves what the Bible means in order to confirm the validity of the Watchtower’s claim. Thus, the argument is quite circular. Consider the following hypothetical conversation:
JW: In order to understand the Bible, you must learn what it means from the Watchtower.
Non-JW: How do you know the Watchtower’s teaching is necessary to understand the Bible?
JW: Because the Bible says….
Non-JW: How do you know that what the Bible says there means what the Watchtower says?
At this point the Jehovah’s Witness, to be consistent, should appeal to the Watchtower’s supposedly authoritative interpretation:
JW: Because the Watchtower says so.
This response, of course, would expose the vicious circularity of the claim. Any other response, on the other hand, would deny the claim: The Jehovah’s Witness would in effect be admitting that it is possible to understand the Bible (at least parts of it) without accepting the authority of the Watchtower. For example, any attempt to defend the Watchtower’s interpretation by offering an exegesis of the text (a close interpretation of the words of the text in context) would presuppose that the text is understandable on its own terms, in its own context. Any appeal to interpretations of the biblical passage from non-Watchtower commentaries or other scholarly sources would likewise be concessions to the possibility of understanding the Bible apart from the Watchtower.
It is possible for Jehovah’s Witnesses to escape this circular reasoning by moderating the claim somewhat. For example, they could claim that the Watchtower’s teaching provides necessary guidance to understand the Bible as a whole accurately but that strictly speaking any part of the Bible can be understood apart from (though not against) the Watchtower publications. They could also argue that the Watchtower has been enabled by God to direct people consistently to the correct understanding of the Bible but that this understanding can be confirmed through personal study of the text.
The point here is not merely to “trap” the Jehovah’s Witness in a logical quagmire. Rather, the point is to encourage Jehovah’s Witnesses to think about the text on their own. If a Witness claims to believe that he can defend his understanding of the Bible just fine without appealing to the interpretive authority of the Watchtower, we should encourage that belief. Reading the Bible without constantly deferring to the interpretation of the Watchtower Society has often proved to be the road to emancipation from the religion of the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
The primary biblical passage to which Jehovah’s Witnesses appeal in support of the authority of the Watchtower Society is the first part of Jesus’ parable of the faithful and wicked slaves. This is how it reads in the NWT:
“Who really is the faithful and discreet slave whom his master appointed over his domestics, to give them their food at the proper time? Happy is that slave if his master on coming finds him doing so! Truly I say to you, he will appoint him over all his belongings” (Matt. 24:45-47 NWT).
As quoted earlier, Jehovah’s Witnesses claim that in this passage, “Jesus said that he would have on earth a ‘faithful and discreet slave’ (his anointed followers viewed as a group), through which agency he would provide spiritual food to those making up the household of faith. (Matt. 24:45-47).”10 This “slave” group “is closely identified with the Governing Body of Jehovah’s Witnesses,” and God’s people “are dependent on this faithful slave” to feed them their spiritual food in the form of the teachings found in the Watchtower publications.11
The main problem with the Watchtower’s interpretation of Matthew 24:45-47 is that it misunderstands the “slave” of the parable to refer to a concrete, specific group of people. In actuality, “the faithful and wise servant” (Matt. 24:45 ESV, NIV) is a generic representation of anyone who professes to be Christ’s servant and who is faithful in that service. We can see this readily by reading the second half of the parable:
“But if ever that evil slave says in his heart, ‘My master is delaying,’ and he starts to beat his fellow slaves and to eat and drink with the confirmed drunkards, the master of that slave will come on a day that he does not expect and in an hour that he does not know, and he will punish him with the greatest severity and will assign him his place with the hypocrites. There is where his weeping and the gnashing of his teeth will be” (Matt. 24:48-51).
Here “that evil slave” is contrasted with “the faithful and discreet slave.” Both figures are described as servants put in charge of their master’s household, which simply does not fit the Watchtower’s claim that it alone has been put in charge of teaching God’s people today. Both figures in the parable are generic representations, contrasting faithful, wise servants of Christ with evil ones who are unfaithful and foolish. Sometimes Jehovah’s Witnesses misread the definite article the in the expression “the faithful and discreet slave,” concluding that the expression must refer to one specific person or group of persons. The definite article the, however, is often used generically. For example, when Jeremiah says, “Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom” (Jer. 9:23 ESV), he is not referring to a specific wise man (nor, of course, to a collective group bearing that name), but is telling anyone who is wise not to boast in his wisdom.
This same parable appears in the Gospel of Luke, where it is perhaps even clearer that Christ was speaking generically about anyone in positions of Christian leadership:
“Who then is the faithful and wise manager, whom his master will set over his household, to give them their portion of food at the proper time? Blessed is that servant whom his master will find so doing when he comes. Truly, I say to you, he will set him over all his possessions. But if that servant says to himself, ‘My master is delayed in coming,’ and begins to beat the male and female servants, and to eat and drink and get drunk, the master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he does not know, and will cut him in pieces and put him with the unfaithful. And that servant who knew his master’s will but did not get ready or act according to his will, will receive a severe beating. But the one who did not know, and did what deserved a beating, will receive a light beating. Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required, and from him to whom they entrusted much, they will demand the more” (Luke 12:41-48 ESV, emphasis added).
This passage is clearly not talking about two specific entities, a faithful slave group and a wicked slave group. It is urging disciples to discharge their service faithfully or suffer the consequences if they don’t.
More importantly, in this parable Jesus is warning disciples in leadership to be faithful, not warning believers to trust in the teaching of those in leadership. The Watchtower Society turns this parable inside out by using it to warn rank-and-file members to accept uncritically and trustfully whatever it teaches and to discourage them from studying the Bible independently.12
Ironically, then, the Watchtower’s handling of Matthew 24:45-47 is a striking instance of its failure to interpret the Bible correctly.13
1. Reasoning from the Scriptures (Watchtower, 1989), 205.
2. “Who Really Is the Faithful and Discreet Slave?” Watchtower, July 15, 2013, 21, emphasis in original.
3. Jehovah’s Will (Watchtower, 2014), Lesson 19, “Who Is the Faithful and Discreet Slave?” (emphasis in original).
4. Close to Jehovah (Watchtower, 2014), 76, 228.
5. “Do You Appreciate Jehovah’s Watchful Care?” Watchtower, April 15, 2014, 28.
6. “Are You Receiving ‘Food at the Proper Time’?” Watchtower, Aug. 15, 2014, 4.
7. “Benefit Fully from Jehovah’s Provisions,” Watchtower, May 2016, 23-24.
8. “They ‘Keep Following the Lamb,’” Watchtower, Feb. 15, 2009, 28.
9. “Question Box,” Kingdom Ministry, Sept. 2007, 3, bold emphasis from opening question removed. The quotation uses several ellipses only so as to keep the quotation close to what is usually considered “fair use,” but the whole article is relevant.
10. Reasoning from the Scriptures, 205.
11. Jehovah’s Will, Lesson 19, “Who Is the Faithful and Discreet Slave?”
12. I discussed the Watchtower’s interpretation of the parable (which was slightly different at the time than it is now) in somewhat more detail in Understanding Jehovah’s Witnesses: Why They Read the Bible the Way They Do (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1991), 58-61.
13. For brief comments on other commonly cited proof texts for the Watchtower’s authority claims, see Robert M. Bowman Jr., Jehovah’s Witnesses, Zondervan Guide to Cults and Religious Movements (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995), 18-19.