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Should a Witness Disagree with the Organization Publicly?

The first century precedent

When certain men from Judea came down to the region where the Apostle Paul and Barnabas were teaching and establishing Christianity, they came with a teaching that was contrary to what Paul associated with the Law of the Christ. The account is recorded for us at Acts 15:1. The weight of the enforcement of the teaching was of such magnitude that to refuse to follow it meant a person could not be saved. 

Did these men have authority to bring a new teaching? Clearly they did, for we read further in verse 2 that they themselves arranged for Paul and Barnabas and “some others of them” to take the matter back to Jerusalem. If Paul didn’t recognize their position in the Christian arrangement, he certainly wouldn’t have left it to them to make arrangements to return to Jerusalem, yet the record shows nothing of Paul’s disagreeing with their arrangements—only the teaching they had brought from Jerusalem. 

Did Paul go along with this particular understanding, this policy, because it came from what may have been well-respected elders from Jerusalem? 

Verse 2 reveals the answer for us. There, we find that there was “no little dissension and disputing” between Paul and Barnabas and these men from Jerusalem. Paul did not sit idly by while these men went about trying to institute this policy or doctrine. He did not quietly contact these men and speak with them about his disagreement with what they were saying and trying to get others to follow. He didn’t even sit down to write a letter to the apostles and the older men at Jerusalem to get their opinion. (In fact, the idea of even going up to Jerusalem was concocted by the men who had brought the doctrine.) The fact of the matter is, Paul acted under his own authority not only to confront these men over what he saw as a wrong teaching, but to make it a public forum, likely for the benefit of all who were listening, so there would be no question left in their minds what was of the Law of the Christ and what was not. 

The disputing certainly didn’t end by taking the matter back to Jerusalem, where the apostles and the older men were. Again the matter broke out into “much disputing,” as reported in verse 7. And since there was “much disputing,” it can be understood that everyone must have had an opinion on the matter and they were offering their opinion in the disputes that took place over the rightfulness of the teaching that had gone forth from Jerusalem. 

The end result of the matter was this: the “governing body” of the Christian ecclesias decided to add “no further burden to you, except these necessary things…” and stated what those four simple regulations were, once and for all time. The teaching that had gone forth was rendered incorrect, and dropped as a doctrine. 

Things might have turned out very differently for Christians had Paul and Barnabas chosen not to stand up to these men who had been sent forth to inform the congregations of the first century of a necessary qualification for salvation. 

Unfortunately, it wasn’t too much later that Paul began to realize that word of his standing in opposition had spread far and wide, as accusations of him being an apostate arose throughout the congregations (Acts 21:21). Paul wasn’t teaching according to what others among the Christian ecclesias thought he should be teaching, and it was even suggested that he was “teaching… an apostasy,” or, forming a sect. He was given certain suggestions to help ease the minds of those who suspected him now, and he demonstrated that he was not an apostate, nor seeking to establish a sect, for he was a humble man who always looked out for the best interests of those who might hear him expounding the profound truths of the Christ. He would later write of why he did this in his letter to the Corinthians, where we read that he “became” whatever his audience needed in order that the message he brought would be accepted by them and that he might be a sharer of it with others (1 Corinthians 9:19-23). 

There are two points that we can draw from the above. First, discussing “controversial” matters among those of like faith in a public forum is acceptable and sometimes necessary in order to establish the validity of a teaching, an understanding, or an organizational matter. Obviously, there is an unwritten fact that the parties would approach the issue in a Christ-like matter, not as being superior or in haughtiness, but rather in trying to get to the heart of the matter. Still on that point, we can also recognize that when a dispute is not getting resolved, a special council might be convened to allow all of the “older men” to listen to the dispute and impart their counsel as they may be inclined (Proverbs 11:14). The council called in Acts 15 appears to have been quite a multitude. There is no scriptural evidence that when a matter cannot be resolved by the ones that began the dispute and they seek the wisdom of “older men” that they simply hand the matter over to a select few, while they themselves return home and await a conclusion of the matter. This is clear from the account as recorded in Acts 15:1-35, where nowhere do we read that anyone returned home and awaited an organizational decision. 

The second point that we can look at is that the discussion of “controversial” matters did not take place in “secret” or private, away from the general population of Christians who were present and aware of the disputes. This meant that there was an audience observing the proceedings, listening to the disputes, listening to the various viewpoints and applications of scriptures, and drawing their own conclusions, based on what they heard. They closely observed the ones involved in the dispute. 

The fact that this dispute was known to the congregation at Antioch indicates that Paul was not tight-lipped about it, even before the council met. The fact that said disputes were very public would seem to demonstrate that at times it is appropriate to make them so (or at least not inappropriate). Was Paul disrespectful? No. Did he, by vocally disagreeing with the perceived "light," demonstrate that he wanted the authority over the congregation that others had? Nowhere do we find even a hint of such motive on Paul's part. But he did take a stand for truth and Christianity. 

Here is another scriptural example involving disputes that you may want to consider: 

Acts 6:8-15. Here, we see Jews entering into a dispute with another Jew, namely Stephen. But, just as Jesus promised at Luke 21:15, Stephen had the truth on his side, and the fellow Jews that had hoped to prove him wrong could do no such thing. Angry that they couldn't win the dispute, they brought him before the Pharisees, and the result of the matter was that Stephen was put to death. Similarly, when a Witness becomes involved in a dispute with a number of fellow Witnesses, and he has the truth on his side, and the fellow Witnesses cannot prove him wrong, they seek to do away with him, going so far as to disfellowship him, which is comparable to death from the viewpoint of Jehovah's Witnesses. 

It is hoped that the Scriptural evidence presented herein adequately demonstrates that there is an allowance for disputes even within the ranks of Jehovah's people as it was in times past, and that there are additional similarities to the examples Jehovah preserved for us, both in the way that our brothers and sisters might respond to our sincere questions, and in the Pharasaic appeal to authority as though nobody else has the right to inform them on any matter or teaching. 

Paul later recorded that there was to be a principle for such disputes, not only because of the need for Christ-like behavior during “controversial” discussions, but for the sake of the audience. He wrote from personal experience and practiced what he spoke of in all that he did. In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul explains that we are to “let all things take place decently and by arrangement.” (1 Corinthians 14:40) 

Having a willingness to discuss even difficult or controversial matters openly would also prevent inaccurate assessments of a decision that was made. Everyone would be clearly aware of every side of an issue, once and for all time. Thus disagreements, and even disputes, between fellow believers is allowed in light of Acts 15, so long as 1 Corinthians 14:40 is in effect. 

Even Jehovah God himself set the example of not allowing controversial topics to be kept “under wraps,” so to speak. In the book of Job, we read how the angels came before Jehovah God, and along with them came Satan. In a conversation, Satan challenged Jehovah in front of the other angels that were looking on. Jehovah could have told Satan that he would be happy to discuss the issue with Satan, but that it would have to take place in private, away from the other angels, some of whom might be “stumbled” if the conversation were allowed to take place in front of them. But he did not handle the matter in such a way. If he had, what might have been the result? Might the angels have supposed that Jehovah was hiding something from them? That he wouldn’t have been able to meet Satan’s challenge? Indeed, truth will always prevail, even when tested, will it not? Jehovah had no reservations about discussing matters with Satan publicly, because he knew that his audience would see that righteousness would prevail. He even allowed Satan to bring whatever evidences Satan thought would prove his case. That is how confident one can be when they are truly operating from a position of truth and righteousness. 

The organization of Jehovah’s Witnesses, which prides itself on conforming to the example of the first century Christian ecclesias, and relies upon the Word of God as its foundation for its policies, falls far short of following the examples set out above. Disagreements are not only disallowed among Jehovah’s Witnesses in relation to organizational understanding, but those who choose to follow the example as set forth by Paul and others in addressing teachings that are scripturally wrong are shunned and cast out of the organization and branded as heretics or apostates. The same spirit can be seen in Witness internet forums professing to be open to discussions of even “controversial” issues, which refuse to allow a fellow believer to engage in them unless that Witness sides with them in their view. Otherwise, the fellow Witness is directed to discuss the matter privately. 

The recurring question is this: Where would the Christian congregation be today if Paul and Barnabas had followed the demands of the Watchtower and not spoken up that what was coming from Jerusalem was in error? Even the apostles that had walked with Christ during his ministry did not see the error of such a teaching going forth, as recorded in the account in Acts 15, until Paul and Barnabas forced the issue into their laps. And what would the angels have thought had Jehovah told Satan that if Satan had an issue or disagreement, then Satan would have to discuss the matter with him privately, not in front of his angelic brothers? 

If only Witnesses, who notice an error in a teaching, could act in the same manner as Paul and Barnabas and not suffer being cast from the "synagogues"! Yet how encouraging it is to have to suffer such for the sake of the Christ, knowing that we are being punished for doing righteousness. 

Those who take a firm stand for truth are called rebellious, lacking faith, desiring the authority that Jehovah has granted to the Slave class... all of which never ever address the issue that is raised. Only the so-called motive and character of the person that is raising the debate is addressed. Can you imagine Paul being treated in such a manner? If the principle of Luke 21:14-15 can be applied to situations where the organization is being opposed by one of their own people, can it really be said that verse 15 holds true? Rather, the verse says that Jesus would give it a response that no opponent, no apostate could resist or dispute. 

Interestingly, when a man who had been healed by Christ was brought before the Pharisees for questioning, he, too, began to question them in turn, and their response was similar to the sort of questioning a Witness receives today when brought before local elders or even those higher in authority within the organization: 

In answer, they said to him: "You were altogether born in sins, and yet are you teaching us?" And they threw him out (John 9:34). 

(Contributed by Timothy B Kline, Mason, MI)

See also, "Is Reform a Good Idea?".

Criticism as an Act of Love
"We have a kind and loving interest in people of all religions, but when their religious beliefs and practices are false and merit God’s disapproval, it is showing love to bring this to their attention by exposing falsehood. Jesus clearly showed up the error of the religious practices of the scribes and Pharisees of his day, saying that their religion was in vain. (Matthew 15:1-14; 23:2-32) It is God’s Word that exposes and condemns wrong religious practices carried out in his name. We follow in Jesus’ footsteps by drawing attention to what God’s Word says, which can be to the everlasting benefit of those who will hear." (Awake, 7/8/88, p. 28)
Receiving Criticism
"Receiving criticism can hurt. You may wish people would leave you alone, stop passing judgment on you, stop making ‘helpful suggestions.’ But wishing and resisting will not stop criticism. Being critical is part of human nature now. Furthermore, you do not have control over the measure of tact others use when giving unrequested advice. Instead of fretting, take advantage of what you can control: your response. Use some of the suggestions above to cope with criticism and soften its sting. You will be glad you did. (Awake, 2/8/91, p. 22)
Discussion Forum
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Sites of Interest
Note: The following sites are supportive of the faith of Jehovah's Witnesses. At the same time, they promote, in one way or another, freeness of speech about the workings and teachings of the JW organization and show where improvement is needed..

Beth Sarim

Our partner site, dedicated to providing a place of shelter from storms both within and without the Witness community.

Make Sure of All Things
New Light on Blood
Silent Lambs
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