How Should Jehovah’s Witnesses Examine Their Religion?
In a separate article, we discussed three reasons why Jehovah’s Witnesses should examine their own religion.1 Jehovah’s Witnesses may respond by saying that they have already examined their religion and concluded after studying things that the Watchtower religion is the truth. And they may indeed have done so. However, in this article I would like to suggest an approach to examining the religion of the Jehovah’s Witnesses that many, perhaps most, members have never considered.
Anyone who decides to examine his or her own religion must also decide how to go about making that examination. I cannot tell you what to do; that is something you must decide for yourself. What follows are simply some suggestions or recommendations that Jehovah’s Witnesses (or anyone else) can consider implementing in their personal search to know the truth.
1. Study the Bible in its own context.
Before one jumps into the question of whether a particular contemporary religion is consistent with the Bible, it would be a good idea to work on understanding the Bible in its own context. Instead of reading the Bible to find things that support your religion—or things that challenge or refute it—try reading the Bible to find out what the inspired biblical writers were saying to the people of their own day. Find out what mattered to them before asking about things that matter to you.2 Of course, you probably won’t be able to block completely from your mind your own questions, issues, and concerns, but think of them as sitting in the back seat of the car, or even in the trunk, while you concentrate on the road ahead.
How can you study the Bible in this way? Here are some brief, practical recommendations.
- Read the Bible, not just proof texts from the Bible.
The most basic form of Bible study is Bible reading. This means reading the books of the Bible the way one would read other books. One way to do this, of course, is to start with Genesis 1 and read through the whole Bible until you finish in Revelation 22. That’s an excellent approach, but you can also choose to read whole books anywhere in the Bible. Perhaps you might start with a short book like Jonah or Philippians. The more whole books of the Bible you read, the better you will grasp the Bible’s teachings in their original context. You can also spend time reading and studying key passages, such as the creation narrative in Genesis 1-2 or the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7. Such reading will make you aware of the context of proof texts that your religion (or someone else’s) might be using to prove their doctrine. Understanding the context may confirm a religion’s use of a particular verse, or it might call it into question. Again, though, your goal is first to understand the statements of the Bible in their biblical context. I have written an article that discusses in more detail the various kinds of Bible reading and study plans that may be of interest.3
- Use study tools that emphasize understanding the Bible in its original context.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with using books and various resources to assist in studying the Bible. The belief that the Bible alone is God’s word does not imply that we should never look at anything outside the Bible that might help us grow in understanding and knowledge. However, some extra-biblical materials are more helpful than others if one’s goal is to understand the Bible.
The main criterion that you should keep in mind when looking at resources for Bible study is whether those resources are focused on the biblical writings in their original context. Even books that are called “Bible dictionaries” are not all alike in this regard. To give an extreme example, the Metaphysical Bible Dictionary has as its purpose to interpret biblical names as conveying esoteric (hidden) meanings that just happen to come not from the Bible at all but from modern metaphysical or mind-science thought. For instance, it explains that the name Aaron “signifies the ruling power of the intellectual consciousness.” Such a book tells us a lot about the modern metaphysical religious movement but not much about the Bible.
Although no Bible study reference work or tool is absolutely neutral, there are many excellent resources that maintain a clear and responsible focus on interpreting the Bible in its original historical and cultural context. Our website has several articles reviewing Bible study apps and programs4 as well as study Bibles that provide a wealth of helpful notes, maps, charts, and other resources to assist people in understanding the Bible better.5 It also has a series of articles on how to study and interpret the Bible.6
2. Learn about your religion’s origins and history.
Part of examining any religion is learning something about its origins and history. Since no religion is perfect, one will find people making mistakes and even some people doing bad things in the history of any religion. We do not suggest you reject the Jehovah’s Witness religion merely on the basis of such common manifestations of the fallibility of all human beings. Rather, we recommend you study the origins and history of the Watchtower organization in order to determine if its claims are consistent with its own record.
If you are serious about examining your religion, you will need to expose yourself to information that may be accessible only from sources outside that religion. In many instances what Jehovah’s Witnesses have done is to study Watchtower publications and found them persuasive. There’s nothing wrong with that, but if you have read only Watchtower publications—especially only recent ones—you may not be getting the whole story. Don’t be afraid of information from outside sources; truth is truth. Our website has a research bibliography of literature on Jehovah’s Witnesses, both pro and con, that you can consult for some references on the subject.7
The idea here is definitely not to tell you that you should take the word of outsiders or of former Jehovah’s Witnesses against what the Watchtower Society says. Rather, you should examine what they say carefully, too, in light of the facts.
3. Focus on the essentials.
Every religion that claims to be the only true form of Christianity points to various distinctive features of that religion as support for that claim. Unfortunately, in many instances these distinctive elements are on trivial or secondary issues. One religion claims it is the one true church because it holds its worship services on Saturdays instead of Sundays. Another religion claims it is true Christianity because it celebrates the feasts of the Jewish calendar. Yet another religion claims that its practice of getting baptized for deceased ancestors prove that it is the true church. Each religion has its list of taboo practices and its special activity that few if any other religions do. The fact that they are the only group with their do’s and don’ts gives them a sense of identity based on simply being different from everyone else.
Setting aside the question of whether these taboos and mandated activities are actually required of Christians, this is not the way the New Testament defines the true Christian faith. The issues on which one should focus are the fundamental or essential issues of the Bible. Who is God? What are we human beings and how do we fit into God’s world? What’s gone wrong with the human race? What has God done about it? Who and what is Jesus Christ? What do his death and resurrection mean for us? What is the gospel? How does God save people and what are we supposed to do in order to be saved? These are the kinds of questions that are most important to ask as you examine your religion.
1. Robert M. Bowman Jr., “Should Jehovah’s Witnesses Examine Their Own Religion?” (Cedar Springs, MI: Institute for Religious Research, 2017).
2. Two excellent books that provide an introduction to the Bible with this focus explicitly in mind are Kenneth Berding and Matt Williams, What the New Testament Authors Cared About (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2008) and Jason DeRouchie, ed., What the Old Testament Authors Cared About (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2013). Of course, what these modern writers say about the biblical writers’ concerns and perspectives will need to be compared to the biblical texts themselves.
4. Robert M. Bowman Jr., “Bible Reading and Listening Apps”; “Free Bible Study Apps and Programs”; and “Professional Biblical Studies Programs” (all Cedar Springs, MI: Institute for Religious Research, 2016).
6. The series is entitled “The Bottom-Line Guide to the Bible” and includes “Getting the Most out of Reading the Bible”; “Reading the Bible in Context”; “Recognizing Figurative Language in the Bible”; and “Understanding the Different Parts of the Bible” (all Cedar Springs, MI: Institute for Religious Research, 2016).