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The Role of the Individual Christian in the Interpretation of God's Word

Should we judge for ourselves what is right?

The question to be addressed here is as follows: Is a person supposed to use personal judgment when it comes to examining the revelations of God, or should he be told what to believe by a human source that claims divine favor?

Human beings have faculties that the animals do not have. Humans are not governed by blind instinct. A human can think and reason, is capable of forming conceptions of sublime truths, and things that the senses cannot make out. A human can reflect on himself and his actions, deliberate over matters, and choose or refuse to act in a certain way. A human has a consciousness of moral obligations, a spiritual need, put there by God. A human has the ability to distinguish between true and false, right and wrong, to make plans for the future, to foresee the consequences of his actions, and can’t free himself from a sense of propriety or impropriety, of praise or blame for his conduct, which is entirely independent of the opinion of fellow humans.

An examination of our own design suggests that our minds were not meant to be governed by other humans. Otherwise God would have made some humans with faculties that others did not have. To some he would have given greater ability to discern right from wrong than to others. This would have been an indication that the ones with the superior faculties should govern those with inferior faculties. Yet this is not the case.  All humans have these abilities. It is illogical to assume that our Creator formed us with faculties and powers that were not supposed to be used, or not to be used fully. Surely we can’t accuse God of waste.  Would anyone argue that, although God created us with eyes, he did not mean for us to see? Or that he created us with ears, but that he did not mean for us to hear? Similarly, he did not create us with the ability to reason, to weigh arguments, and to exercise free will, if he did not mean for us to use those abilities. Moreover, he would not have made those abilities so expansive if he did not wish us to use them to their full potential.

Now, what more important use is there for these faculties than trying to understand God's revelations? Surely it can’t be thought that our reasoning powers were to be employed merely in secular affairs of this life. Their highest end must be in reference to God and the chief interests of humanity. Religion and reason are the two things that separate us from animal creation. Certainly there must be some connection between the two. Can it be supposed that humans were entitled to act with understanding only in the most ordinary and lowest concerns, but not in whatever has to do with their spiritual interests? Considering that we are instructed to take care of our spiritual needs, including reading God’s Word, are we to believe that when we read something in the Bible, we are not supposed to employ our reasoning ability upon it, but instead should go to some religious authority, ask it to give us the proper understanding, and then believe it implicitly, using our reasoning ability only to understand the authority’s point of view, rather than the Bible’s?

If we examine some of those persons in the Bible whom we might consider religious authorities, we find that they do not hold such a view.

Jesus appealed to reason, rather than to his authority, whenever he taught. He didn't say, "You have to believe what I say, because I am the Son of God." In fact, for a time he tried to keep it a secret. Now why did he not appeal to his authority? Isn't it because he wanted people to use their power of reason? He even condemned the Pharisees for not using their thinking ability: "Why do you not judge also for yourselves what is righteous?" (Luke 12:57).

The apostles made it their practice to encourage freedom of thought, never intimating that this is hazardous to our health.

When Paul writes to the Christians in Thessalonica, he says to them: “Make sure of all things” (1 Thess. 5:21). Paul could have said, “Whatever I or your leaders pronounce true, this is what you are to accept as truth.” But nowhere in his letters does he do so. Instead he says, “Make sure of all things,” implying that even the things he himself was telling them should be tested. This advice was good for Christians, particularly for those who were neglectful of examination and easy to persuade, because there was always a danger of being misled. 

The Jews at Beroea are commended (Acts 17:10-11) for not believing the apostles themselves without critically examining their teaching and comparing it with the writings of Moses and the prophets. The passage thus emphasizes the right, the duty, and the necessity of private judgment in spiritual matters.

When we say the right of private judgment, we mean that every individual Christian has a right to judge for himself whether a teaching that is put before him is the truth or not, whether it is in keeping with the word of God, or whether it is a human teaching.

When we say the duty of private judgment, we mean that God requires every Christian to compare human words with God's revelation, and to make sure not to be deluded and taken in by a false teaching.

And when we say the necessity of private judgment, we mean that it is absolutely necessary for every Christian to exercise his reasoning in these matters in order to prevent being misled into error and to prevent the Christian congregation from being misled into error.

We thus are not to believe things in religion merely because they are said by popes or cardinals, by bishops or priests, by councils or synods, by learned and wise persons, or by a “faithful and discreet slave.” We are not to think: "Such things must be true, because these men say so." We are to prove all things with the Word of God, the power of reason, the moral sense of conscience, and the help of God’s spirit.

The leaders of Jehovah’s Witnesses argue that one may use his or her reasoning ability to determine a trustworthy source of spiritual information, but that the use of one’s reasoning ability should be limited after the source has been chosen.

“If we have once established what instrument God is using as his “slave” to dispense spiritual food to his people, surely Jehovah is not pleased if we receive that food as though it might contain something harmful. We should have confidence in the channel God is using.” w81 2/15 p. 19.

In this same article, the Watchtower argues that the Beroeans were not yet Christians when Paul spoke to them, and so they examined the scriptures to make sure that what Paul told them was true. If they had already been Christians, they would have accepted what Paul said without any skepticism. Is this a valid conclusion?

In their letters, the apostles do not say that one should only use his thinking ability until he finds God's chosen institution and then let the institution do the thinking for him after that. The biblical counsel applies all the time, not just at the beginning of a Christian's learning process. We know this because Paul gives the counsel, not to newly interested people, but to congregation members.

"Consequently I entreat you by the compassions of God, brothers, to present your bodies a sacrifice living, holy, acceptable to God, a sacred service with your power of reason" (Rom. 12:1).

“And this is what I continue praying, that your love may abound yet more and more with accurate knowledge and full discernment; that you may make sure of the more important things, so that you may be flawless and not be stumbling others up to the day of Christ” (Phil. 1:9-10).

“Everyone that partakes of milk is unacquainted with the word of righteousness, for he is a babe. But solid food belongs to mature people, to those who through use have their perceptive powers trained to distinguish both right and wrong” (Heb. 5:13-14).

Look out: perhaps there may be someone who will carry you off as his prey through the philosophy and empty deception according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary things of the world and not according to Christ” (Col. 2:8).

“Beloved ones, do not believe every inspired expression, but test the inspired expressions to see whether they originate with God, because many false prophets have gone forth into the world” (1 John 4:1).

These verses emphasize the need for reason, full discernment, and perceptive powers trained to distinguish right and wrong. That these faculties are not to be employed only in the process of finding a trustworthy spiritual authority is seen by the reference to mature Christians using their perceptive powers to ascertain the truth, and by the comment that these abilities should be used all the way up to the day of Christ.

Some might argue that the warnings in Colossians and 1 John are in reference to deceivers outside of the congregation or to apostates within the congregation who are operating outside of the constituted authority. But is this likely? If Christians already knew that it was only those in authority that they should listen to, why not simply give the warning not to listen to anybody except their religious leaders? The fact that they could be fooled, and had to “look out,” meant that someone in whom they might have previously placed their trust might in the future lead them astray. The argument that these scriptures refer to those who are not in authority would suppose that Christians could know a trustworthy source from an untrustworthy one without even having to ‘test an inspired expression’ at all. But the testing is necessary. And it is a test, not based on who is saying it, but on what is being said. We're not supposed to accept, or not accept, what someone says simply because of who they are. We're supposed to accept it because the reasoning is sound, --or, more accurately, because it passes the tests of truth based on God’s word that we have personally conducted.

All these exhortations given to Christians demonstrate that they are to examine and judge for themselves, and not to submit automatically to the dictates of any other humans, even though they claim some commission from God.  We may dislike this point of view, but there is no doubt that it is continually taught in the writings of the apostles.

Some might argue that the search for truth is an endeavor that the Christian congregation needs to undertake as a whole, that the scriptures applying to the use of reason and sound judgment apply not to individuals, but to the body, and that the interests of the whole outweigh the interests of the one. The BODY needs to decide doctrine. The BODY needs to stand for certain principles. Therefore someone needs to make decisions for the whole group so that unity can be maintained.

"The Bible is an organizational book and belongs to the Christian congregation as an organization, not to individuals, regardless of how sincerely they may believe that they can interpret the Bible" (Watchtower, Oct. 1, 1967. p. 587).

It is first of all to be noted that the scriptures cited above, although possibly applicable to the body as a whole, surely refer primarily to individuals. The Watchtower on many occasions in the past has applied these scriptures on an individual level. 

Second, while it is to be acknowledged that the congregation can maintain a certain amount of unity by having a set of agreed-upon beliefs, there is a difference between having a set of teachings that identify a body of Christians, and enforcing all of those beliefs on the individual members of that body.

Religion is the personal business and interest of every person, and every individual must be responsible for his own actions. Each must therefore have the freedom to think and act according to his own best judgment and convictions. Religion primarily and chiefly has to do with the individual. Hence the proverb: “If you have become wise, you have become wise in your own behalf; and if you have ridiculed, you will bear it, just you alone” (Prov. 9:12).

To be sure, Christianity is also a social concern and requires a public institution. It is also true that the opinions people may hold, and the practices that they may follow, may consequentially and secondarily affect others. But since the concern that others have in the faith and actions of a person is not equal to that which the person himself has in them, and since the guilt of his errors or misconduct cannot be transferred from himself to others, he must still preserve the right of pronouncing sentence on his own acts and on his own beliefs. If any human could actually secure a person from error, or answer for his faults, and take all the dangerous consequences that may result from them upon themselves, then they might have a better pretext for assuming a right to dictate absolutely to him what he should believe, and to deny him the right of examining and regulating his own conduct. But Paul says, “Let each one prove what his own work is, and then he will have cause for exultation in regard to himself alone, and not in comparison with the other person. For each one will carry his own load” (Gal. 6:4-5).Welcome the man having weaknesses in his faith, but not to make decisions on inward questionings…. Who are you to judge the house servant of another? To his own master he stands or falls…. Why do you judge your brother? Or why do you also look down on your brother? For we shall all stand before the judgment seat of God…. So, then, each of us will render an account for himself to God.” (Rom. 14:1-4, 10, 12).

Strangely enough, the leaders of Jehovah’s Witnesses recognize that a person must stand on his own before Jehovah, and even acknowledge the role of reason and conscience when it comes to matters of morality and ethics. They allow for a certain amount of freedom and private judgment in such areas. “Unity without uniformity” is the motto. Yet, in matters of doctrine and biblical understanding, no such latitude is allowed. The reason for this double standard is unclear. The Bible makes no distinction between unity in morality and ethics, on the one hand, and unity in doctrine and biblical understanding on the other.

In contrast to the Watchtower leadership, the apostles believed in “unity without uniformity” even when it came to theology. Difference of opinion was not a sin.

In a controversy between the Jewish and Gentile converts at Rome, Paul gave his own sense concerning the subject of debate, and then, like a reasonable man, he concludes: “Let each man be fully convinced in his own mind” (Rom. 14:5). 

Paul argues his positions frequently, but he never gets authoritarian. He doesn't say, "I am God's representative, so listen to me." He says: “I speak as to men with discernment; judge for yourselves what I say” (1 Cor. 10:15). 

There is no evidence that people who were not ‘fully convinced in their own minds’ were held to be sinners, or that those who used their discernment and judged for themselves, but who disagreed with Paul, were behaving in an unchristian fashion. 

In the nature of things, there can be no religion without faith. No person can come to God unless he or she actually believes that God exists. No doctrine can be received as from God unless the testimony that establishes it is believed. No teacher can be followed, no life can be changed, except through faith. Our whole religious life has to be a pure process of faith. Christianity, rightly, reasonably, and necessarily founds itself on faith. It requires faith of those who wish to practice the religion. It insists that, without faith, all is in vain. It would be preposterous to suppose that one may worship an invisible God, may receive the advantages of Christ's teaching and mediation, may have the influences, consolations, and hopes of a spiritual and everlasting life, without believing in it all.  

“Without faith it is impossible to please him well, for he that approaches God must believe that he is and that he becomes the rewarder of those earnestly seeking him” (Heb. 11:6). 

The exercise of faith is not limited to faith in God. It is not limited to faith in our spiritual guides on earth. We exercise faith in all of our beliefs.            

The foundation of faith is the rational assent to evidence (Heb. 11:1). The understanding listens to testimony, weighs probabilities, compares arguments, and decides to believe or disbelieve according to the result. And it cannot, strictly speaking, decide contrary to the strength of evidence, or, should we say, to its own understanding of the strength of evidence. A person cannot refuse to believe what seems proved to be true, nor can a person hold as true what seems proved to be false. In this respect, there is no moral quality involved. It is neither blamable nor praiseworthy to be convinced by evidence, and it is neither blamable nor praiseworthy to be unconvinced. There is thus no reason to punish someone for not believing a doctrine that appears to him unconvincing. 

This is why, in the Bible, a mere acknowledgment that the Gospel history is true and that Jesus is the Savior of the world is nowhere spoken of as having any value. It isn’t what the Scriptures applaud. Jesus reproved those who ‘honored God with their lips, but whose hearts were far removed from him’ (Matt. 15:8). So a public acknowledgment of the trueness of a doctrine is simply not enough. Belief is necessary. 

And yet, our religious leaders, though admitting to this principle when it suits them, deny it when it does not.  

“If we fail to understand fully certain Bible texts or explanations provided in Watch Tower publications, do we have reason to become impatient? Awaiting Jehovah’s appointed time to clarify matters is the course of wisdom. ‘For the Sovereign Lord Jehovah will not do a thing unless he has revealed his confidential matter to his servants the prophets.’ (Amos 3:7) What a marvelous promise! But we must realize that Jehovah reveals his confidential matters at the time he deems advisable. For that purpose God has authorized a ‘faithful and discreet slave’ to provide his people with ‘their [spiritual] food at the proper time.’ (Matthew 24:45) There is, therefore, no reason for us to become overly concerned, or even agitated, that certain matters are not fully explained. Rather, we can be confident that if we patiently wait on Jehovah, he will provide, through the faithful slave, what is needed ‘at the proper time.’” W99 10/1, p. 5. 

"What if we individually have difficulty understanding or accepting a certain point? We should pray for wisdom and undertake research in the Scriptures and Christian publications. (Proverbs 2:4, 5; James 1:5-8) Discussion with an elder may help. If the point still cannot be understood, it may be best to let the matter rest. Perhaps more information on the subject will be published, and then our understanding will be broadened. It would be wrong, however, to try to convince others in the congregation to accept our own divergent opinion." w96 7/15, p. 17.

“At times, some bring to the attention of the ‘slave’ class various doctrinal or organizational matters that they feel ought to be revised. Certainly, suggestions for improvement are proper, as are inquiries for clarification…. The proper spirit after offering suggestions is to be content to leave the matter to the prayerful consideration of the mature brothers directing the work in Jehovah’s organization. But if those making the suggestions are not content with that and continue to dispute the subject in the congregations with a view to getting others to support them, what then? That would create divisions, and could subvert the faith of some. So Paul counsels: ‘Keep your eye on those who cause divisions and occasions for stumbling contrary to the teaching that you have learned, and avoid them.’ Paul also counseled Titus to ‘reprove those who contradict,’ adding: ‘It is necessary to shut the mouths of these, as these very men keep on subverting entire households by teaching things they ought not . . . For this very cause keep on reproving them with severity.’—Romans 16:17, 18; Titus 1:9-13.” W82 6/1, p. 20. 

Note that when a Christian finds that he cannot believe something the Watchtower teaches (the leaders refer to this as ‘failing to understand’), then they are told to suspend their judgment until such time arrives when they can believe what the Watchtower teaches. They are to do research in "Christian publications," which on the surface sounds like an openness to free examination, but the "Christian publications" are Watchtower publications (not publications presenting the various sides of an issue). In other words, the Christian is to read the Watchtower publications over and over and over again until the teaching becomes palatable. If that time never comes, then so be it. They are not to form an opinion contrary to what the Watchtower has taught. If they express those opinions, they are “teaching things they ought not.” By requiring this, the leadership is not only asking its members to suspend judgment, but to suspend their faith as well, because no faith can be built upon a teaching that is not believed or understood.  

This is contrary to what the Bible teaches. It is, in fact, a Christian’s obligation to reject whatever teaching he believes to be founded on the doctrines and commandments of humans, in imitation of Jesus (Matt. 15:9).

Whatever is not done in faith, with personal persuasion of the truth of a matter, is a sin. It is not respect or conformity to an external law or the injunctions of a human authority that will make anything an act of true religion. When even the best system of faith and the purest form of religion are professed and adhered to in contradiction to what we actually believe, they lose their value, and to ask someone to do this is to damage that person’s faith and injure their conscience.

Now someone might say that the leaders of Jehovah’s Witnesses allow us to use our reasoning ability. They might point out that the Watchtower articles often reason on various points and would not do so unless they expected their readers to use their reasoning faculties.

But is the reasoning they encourage the same sort of reasoning the Bible calls for? Reasoning involves free examination, weighing arguments for and against with impartiality, as the way to find the truth. A reasoning person honestly accepts as truth whatever there appears evidence for, without trying to evade it, to shift it off, or stifle the conviction of his own mind. To look into the evidence serves no purpose unless we follow it wherever it leads and gladly receive the truth wherever it is to be found, whatever notions it may contradict, whatever condemnations it may expose us to. It would be a waste to examine something if we are determined beforehand to keep our opinions as they are, or to come to the same conclusion that our religious leaders came to. A person is not really trying to find the truth unless he determines right from the start to have no superstitious veneration for a group of men, but to openly accept the evidence that presents itself.

So the question arises: Does the Watchtower encourage this sort of unbiased examination? How far will they let you exercise your faculties? Will they allow you freely to arrive at different conclusions than they do? On the contrary, they have made it very clear that they will only allow you to arrive at the same conclusions that they do. If your reasoning leads you to another conclusion, then your reasoning is considered impaired. You're wrong, and if they find out that you disagree with them, you will not be allowed to be an associate of theirs. Now is that really allowing you to use your reasoning? Is that allowing private judgment?

As an illustration, let's say that you see something in the distance, and your friend asks you to look and see and ascertain what the object is. You swear you see an elephant. And then your friend corrects you and says it is a giraffe. "Well, it looks like an elephant to me," you say. But no, he insists it is a giraffe, and makes you agree with him. Then he says, "Let the matter lie. Don't think about it. Just assume it's a giraffe so that we don't have to argue, okay?" And so you agree.

Now we ask you, is he really letting you use your eyes?

Someone might point out that Christ appointed men to instruct people in what the Bible means. He would not have done this had he not wanted them to teach us. So it is our duty to learn from them and not to take on the right of judging for ourselves, and to accept their instructions without disputing the truth of what they say in the name of God.

It is true that Jesus appointed instructors for the congregation. But supposing we have found the ones whom Jesus appointed to be his representatives, it does not mean that they are to be implicitly believed in everything they say, or even in anything. No human is to be believed implicitly. There is a difference between having a divine commission to teach and having no error. Someone who has a divine right to instruct others in religion may possibly teach false things. God has given them a right to teach, but it is only to teach truth. They don't have the right to teach falsehood. So we don't have to accept something we believe to be false. We have to examine all that they say, and either accept or reject it as evidence of its truth does or does not appear. Even the apostles themselves, as shown above, never claimed such a right of dictating to others what they should believe.

In colleges, we have professors and teachers of many subjects, who know many things. But what school insists that we have to accept everything that these professors say without examining the evidence and coming to a personal conclusion? None do. So even an authorized instructor in religious matters should not expect this. Sure, the instructor may be right and the student wrong, and if the student rejects the truth when it is sufficiently proved, he does it at his own peril. But still we should have the freedom to examine and judge for ourselves, just as the early Christians taught and believed. 

As the Bible says, “Do not put your trust in nobles, nor in the son of earthling man, to whom no salvation belongs” (Ps. 146:3). Even instructors in the Christian faith are ‘sons of earthling man,’ with all the imperfections that we might expect from human beings.

Many have argued that, if people were allowed to think and judge for themselves, then many would fall into erroneous and harmful opinions. Heresy and apostasy would enter into the congregation. It would lead us away from the truth, not towards it. Moreover, it would make people begin to disrespect the shepherds of the congregation.

But what some may not realize is that we enter into false teachings by suppressing thought and speech from others. When we restrict what people can think or say, we are creating a breeding ground for falsehood, because the fewer minds that think about something, the less likely we are to find the truth. Truth is obtained through the sharing of ideas, from the research and investigation of many minds, not the restriction of examination and the closing of mouths.

“In the multitude of counselors there is accomplishment” (Prov. 15:22).

Think about it. When have the greatest advancements in religious truth been made? It has been when people have exercised their duty of private judgment, often in defiance of the constituted authorities. Jesus did not “humble” himself before the religious leaders of his day when it came to the interests of truth. He put the cause of truth ahead of Jewish religious unity and encouraged his followers to do the same.  Many throughout the centuries stood up to the Catholic Church when it came to interpretation of the Bible. They did what they did, suffered what they suffered, proclaimed what they proclaimed, simply because they exercised their private judgment about what was the truth. Private judgment made the Waldenses, the Albigenses, and the Lollards put their lives in jeopardy rather than believe the doctrines of the Church of Rome. Private judgment made Wycliffe search the Bible, translate the Scriptures into the common language, and stand up to the Catholic Church. Private judgment made Francis David and Michael Servetus speak against the Trinity doctrine. It made Luther examine the system of indulgences by the light of the Bible. Private judgment made the Reformers examine for themselves, and inquire for themselves, and circulate the Bible among the “laity.” They dared to think for themselves. At the sacrifice of unity, they refused to take for granted Rome's pretensions and assertions. They examined all teachings by the Bible for themselves. The Church would not abide that examination, saying it was a threat to unity. Did the Reformers do the right thing? Charles Russell and the early Bible students advanced the right of private judgment in the face of the established religions of his day and did not think it a sin to speak up about it. Many of the truths that are taught today among Jehovah’s Witnesses are able to be taught only because right-hearted individuals in the past exercised their own powers of reason upon the Scriptures and stood up and spoke up about it. We are indebted to people who dared to think for themselves. All that we are enjoying at this very day, we owe to the right exercise of private judgment. Surely if we do not honor private judgment, we are thankless and ungrateful indeed!

Is it said that our leaders would be disrespected if they allowed for individual judgment when it came to the interpretation of God’s word? We think history shows that it is just the opposite. Religious leaders are more disrespected when they do not allow for private judgment.

To be sure, private judgment has been used poorly by some. It has even been abused. But what good gift of God has not been abused! What high principle can we name that has not been employed for the very worst of purposes? Because something may be used improperly, are we, therefore, to give it up altogether?

Even if we thought that the cause of truth might suffer in some way by persons exercising their right of private judgment, this is no just reason for denying them the right given them by God, and no human has a right to deprive another of it, under a notion that he will abuse it. We might as well pick our neighbor's pocket, for fear he should spend his money poorly, as take from him his right of judging for himself what the Bible means.

The biggest concern the Governing Body of Jehovah's Witnesses has had in the matter of private judgment is the cause of unity.

"When the Scriptural direction may seem to us to be open to different opinions, we need to demonstrate the humble responsiveness that was shown by the early Christians and accept decisions and directions from God’s congregation.... Are you willing to manifest that spirit? If so, you are showing a fine sense of balance, recognizing that peace and unity are more precious than your own personal opinion." w89 2/15, p. 20.

"If we are not careful, we could be tempted to weave personal preferences or opinions in with our teaching. That would especially be a risk for a person tending to be confident in his own conclusions even when these contradict what Jehovah’s organization is teaching. But Malachi chapter 2 [verse 7] shows that we should expect congregation teachers to hold to knowledge from God and not to personal ideas, which could stumble the sheep." w02 5/1, p. 16

Some might point to history and argue that, when Christians are left to interpret the Bible for themselves, all kinds of sects spring up among us, which destroy the peace and unity of the Church. Without some common rules of faith, worship and discipline, even beyond what the early Christians did, there can be no sufficient bond of union among Christians.

The Catholic Church has argued the same thing. They point to all the Protestant denominations and accuse them of dividing the Church. The Protestant churches, in turn, point the finger at all those who divide off from them. Jehovah’s Witnesses are a group that divided themselves off from other churches. All these viewed the interests of truth as of greater importance than uniformity with the nominal Church.  

But such division need not have happened. If the greater churches allowed for private judgment, no one would have to go anywhere. The Bible does not say that uniformity in doctrine is what gives the congregation its unity. It says that LOVE is a perfect bond of union (Col. 3:14). If that was good enough for the apostles, it should be good enough for us. If even the apostles say that we should be able to judge what certain things mean for ourselves, then that is what their congregations back then did, and if we think that uniformity was necessary, then we must also think that the first century congregation must not have had any peace or unity and was not well governed. But it was fine. If it worked then, it can work now.

Since no human company has any apostolic authority to enforce the belief of any articles of faith that are not expressly and explicitly pointed out by the apostles, so neither will enforcing those beliefs preserve the peace and harmony of the church. Instead of spending their zeal upon trivial matters, the instructors in the congregation should be teaching mutual forbearance and expansive love. Jesus and his apostles left matters so that there may be a considerable latitude and difference in the sentiments of good Christians, and in the manner of their worship. But his "ambassadors" have found out that this is a great defect. So they undertake to add to his words under the notion that it preserves the peace of the congregation. And this is what has been, and will continue to be, the cause of angry debates and endless contentions, a means of dividing the congregation, instead of uniting it, and of inspiring Christians with mutual distaste for one another, instead of mutual love and brotherly affection. 

Another objection that might be raised is that if everyone were permitted to judge what is right in their own eyes, it would put all beliefs, true and false, on the same level. It would give false teaching the same privilege and virtue as true teaching. This can hardly be right!  

To this we reply that, if private judgment is suitable in certain matters governing behavior, as the Watchtower Society has allowed for, then certainly it can be so in matters of interpretation. If a Christian decided it were acceptable to go and see a particular movie, listen to certain music, or watch certain TV shows, and another did not, and we allowed for that, would we be putting improper actions on the same level as proper actions? Do we not need someone to tell us which actions are acceptable and which are not, so that improper actions would not get the same privilege as proper actions? Of course not. And why is that? Because there are certain matters that simply are not important enough for us to take a stand on. It is the same when it comes to the interpretation of God’s word. Some beliefs are important, either because of the way they reflect on God or because they affect our more important actions. But others are not as crucial. There are many passages in the Bible that we still do not know the truth about. Does this matter? Not really. We are still serving God, and he accepts our worship, even though all our beliefs are not 100% true. So if some biblical passages are left up to personal judgment, what of it? 

It is also important to remember that the truth of a matter is not affected by someone’s belief in it. Our opinions do not alter the nature of things. So just because someone believes a false teaching does not make that teaching true. Therefore, it will never be on the same level or enjoy the same privilege as a true teaching. The Apostle Paul, in the very case in which he allows every person to be fully convinced in his own mind, and in which he supposes that Christians might differ (such as the issue of eating meats and observing days), does not say that both have equal right and reason on their side. He believed that his own view was correct: "I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is defiled in itself" (Rom. 14:14). But, while all had not attained that knowledge, their opinion was to be put up with, without forcing those who were mistaken to act against their conviction.

“Yes,” someone may say, “but to decide in matters of religion is a task that most people simply don’t have the ability and skill for. Everyday people, if left to themselves, could never come to a determination about them. The Bible is a difficult book. We are told that it contains “some things hard to understand, which the untaught and unsteady are twisting” (2 Pet 3:16); so without the decisions of the “faithful and discreet slave,” we would be lost. Don’t you recall the story of the Ethiopian eunuch, who needed someone to explain to him what he was reading (Acts 8:26-39)? Therefore it must be the better way to trust entirely to the judgment of our superiors."  

This indeed would be the easier way, if it were a wise or a safe one. But a person who says this perhaps has forgotten that the brothers who make up the “faithful and discreet slave” are everyday people too. They are proud of this fact, and have often emphasized that they do not need special wisdom from the world to understand the Bible, but only the spirit of God to help them. "Where is the wise man? Where the scribe? Where the debater of this system of things? Did not God make the wisdom of the world foolish?" (1 Cor. 1:20). “Jesus said in response: ‘I publicly praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and intellectual ones and have revealed them to babes. Yes, O Father, because to do thus came to be the way approved by you.’” (Matt 11:25-26).Jesus said to them: ‘Yes. Did you never read this, “Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings you have furnished praise”?’” (Matt 21:16) Who are we, then, to say that our fellow brothers and sisters, or that we ourselves, are incapable of examining the Scriptures to see if they things we are taught are really so? “All Scripture is inspired by God and beneficial for teaching, for reproving, for setting things straight, for disciplining in righteousness, that the man [individual] of God may be fully competent, completely equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17). Notice how Timothy is told that the Scriptures are not only beneficial to the individual person, but also sufficient to make him completely equipped.

This is not to say that a person can simply approach the Bible, having done no research or investigation, and be able to interpret it well. It does not mean it is not necessary to seek expert knowledge from others either. After all, this is why we have teachers in the congregation. It simply means that ultimately we have to make our own decision, based on what we have heard, as to what is true or false. We have God’s spirit to help us, just as the spirit helps all of our brothers and sisters. It is promised to all believers (John 14:16-17).

In the case of the Ethiopian eunuch, the example for Christians is set, not by the eunuch, who was not yet a Christian, but by Philip, who was. We, like him, are encouraged to explain the Scriptures to others, to the best of our ability. But the eunuch does not represent a member of the congregation and should not be used as an example of such. 

Finally, someone might argue that it is the course of proper Christian humility not to question the teachings of our Governing Body, that to wish the freedom of making our own decisions in these matters is a form of sinful pride.

Such humility is not proper humility, but a false humility, an extreme form of humility that the Bible never calls for. It strips a person of responsibility and throws the whole burden of his Christian belief into the hands of others. It gives a person a mere vicarious religion, a religion by which he places his conscience and all his spiritual concerns under the care of others. One need not trouble oneself! One need not think for oneself! Call it rather laziness. Call it idleness. It is a neglect of our Christian obligation. It is a good thing our forefathers did not act upon such principles! Had they been “humble,” we might have been bowing down to the image of the Virgin Mary at this moment, or praying to the spirits of departed saints. This so-called humility is a humility created by people who have no humility, because, in asking this humility of others, they magnify themselves.

In the eyes of authoritarian religious leaders, restriction of thought is a necessary evil. To them, strict unity is more important than strict truth. To them, all reformation of established corruptions are unwarranted and impracticable. This is not surprising. A voluntary relinquishment of a corrupt system by those who have been long active and interested in its support has rarely been seen in history, and, humanly speaking, can hardly be expected. But all the evidence suggests that their position is an imposition.

All who in any way discourage freedom of inquiry and judgment in interpreting the Bible, all in general who set themselves up to judge for their brothers, all who are for imposing their own opinions upon others, all who in any way distress those who differ from them in their interpretation of the Bible, all who use any other weapons besides those of reason and argument in order to expose error and show truth, are encroachers upon the natural rights that God gave us and prevent us from doing our Christian duty. They are inhibitors of truth because free examination is the way to truth. If a person has a right to judge for himself, certainly no one else has a right to judge for him.

Think of the account you will have to make to God. We won’t be judged by organizations. We won’t be judged by congregations. We will be judged individually (Rev. 20:13). So, on that day, are we going to say, "Lord, Lord, I believed everything the faithful and discreet slave told me. I received and believed everything the elders set before me. I thought that whatever the Watchtower said must be right, and I did whatever it said"? Will that work if we have believed some deadly error? Surely, God would say, "You had the Scriptures. You had your conscience. You had your thinking ability. You had my holy spirit. Why didn’t you make sure of all things and keep clear of error?" What would be your answer?

Beware of the blindfold system. Have an opinion of your own. Make sure of all things. Never be ashamed to question what humans say in the light of the Bible, of reason, of conscience, and the holy spirit you receive. Test every inspired expression and every uninspired expression.  When wisdom enters into your heart and knowledge itself becomes pleasant to your very soul, thinking ability itself will keep guard over you, discernment itself will safeguard you, to deliver you from the bad way” (Prov. 2:10-12).




See further, "Repression of Thought," "Is it Christian to Exclude and Denounce Those With Different Opinions?" and "Are There Apostates in the Organization?" on the Beth Sarim website.



Suspension of Belief is a Protection
"Not all doubt is bad. At times, you need to suspend acceptance of something till you are sure of the facts. Religious exhortations to the effect that you should just believe and should doubt nothing are dangerous and deceptive. True, the Bible says that love “believes all things.” (1 Corinthians 13:7) A loving Christian is certainly ready to believe those who have proved trustworthy in the past. But God’s Word also warns against ‘putting faith in every word.’ (Proverbs 14:15) Sometimes a person’s past record gives legitimate reason for doubt. “Although [the deceptive talker] makes his voice gracious,” the Bible warns, “do not believe in him.”—Proverbs 26:24, 25. The apostle John also warns Christians against blind belief. “Do not believe every inspired expression,” he writes. Rather, “test the inspired expressions to see whether they originate with God.” (1 John 4:1) An “expression,” a teaching or opinion, might appear to emanate from God. But did it really come from him? Exercising some doubt, or suspending belief, can be a real protection because, as the apostle John says, “many deceivers have gone forth into the world.”—2 John 7." (Watchtower, July 1, 2001, pp. 18-19) 
Truth More Important than Church
"Notice that worship in 'truth' is a must! It is therefore impossible to worship God acceptably without a deep love of the truth. The true Christian religion must be founded on the truth, not on traditions, creeds, dogmas and articles of faith that are often hard to understand because they defy all the faculties of reasoning with which God created us. Now what is the Christian standard for measuring truth? Is it not the Bible? So if there should prove to be contradiction between the tenets of a church that claims to be Christian and the plain statement of truth found in the Holy Scriptures, which should come first in your worship—your church or God’s Word, the Bible? What will be your answer if you sincerely desire to be 'the kind of worshipper the Father wants'?" (Watchtower, 1/15/70, p. 38)
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