The talk Sunday, one of about 150 in rotation, not counting special talks, was entitled, “Your View of Authority Matters to God.” It is one of the hottest topics of our time. People aren’t keen on authority, lest it be abused, as it certainly will be if put it into the hands of humans. Yet, whose else’s hands is it going to be put into? You’re stuck with humans. Anarchy is worse.
The speaker came to the congregation via Zoom, unusual since the post-COVID 19 resumption of in-person meetings. He didn’t make the mistake of shutting down his camera immediately upon conclusion of his talk. It’s tempting to do that because otherwise, with no seat to return to, you risk looking like a deer caught in the headlights. But if you shut down the camera, your name blazes across the screen, as though rolling the credits for the star of the show.
People are touchy on authority, especially in the West. It’s in the air. One prior speaker spun it as if alerting another to his tire low on air. “Oh, yeah? Well, you’re car has a dented fender!” comes the retort.
The talk broke authority down into three areas: with regard to family, with regard to government, and with regard to congregation. Most people are familiar with family and government authority. Jehovah’s Witnesses know the added concept of authority in the congregation.
It is a concept all but incomprehensible to even much of the church world. Ronald J. Sider’s book, The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience, quotes Haddon Robinson on the current church climate, a climate he calls ‘consumerism:’
“Too often now when people join a church, they do so as consumers. If they like the product, they stay. If they do not, they leave. They can no more imagine a church disciplining them than they could a store that sells goods disciplining them. It is not the place of the seller to discipline the consumer. In our churches, we have a consumer mentality.”
It once not this way. Sider writes: “Church discipline used to be a significant, accepted part of most evangelical traditions, whether Reformed, Methodist, Baptist, or Anabaptist . . . In the second half of the twentieth century, however, it has largely disappeared.”
But in the world of Jehovah’s Witnesses, it has not. Moreover, it is hard not to connect retaining authority with how Witnesses have stayed the course on many moral issues over which mainstream religion long ago threw in the towel.
In time, the Witnesses’ rare breed of authority becomes the special target of a world intent on embracing new mores. It becomes the special target even of former members who want to bring those new mores into the congregation so as to keep up with the times. Do it too insistently and they can find themselves disfellowshipped by a congregational authority that aids members to stay true to what they signed up for.
That human authority ultimately traces up to the Jehovah’s Witness Governing Body. It thereby becomes the focus of special criticism. Sometimes it becomes the focus of outright attack through ‘framing mischief by decree.’ (Psalm 94:20) In the eyes of their burgeoning critics, its member become sinister cult ‘manipulators’ intent on ‘controlling’ people. An industry of ‘anticult’ activists plots their downfall.
Completely lost is that if they are a cult, it is because the Bible is a cult manual. The Witness Governing Body is but an authority holding to traditional Christian discipline, which Sider states was once common, but is now scarce.
The Witness Governing Body is scrutinized for misstep or evidence of human frailty. Should they show any, they are promptly pilloried over it. Even when they don’t, it is reinterpreted that they do. In such a climate, how can they not look inwardly and hope that any flaw on their part, or any perceived flaw, does not become the rationale for stumbling people?
It is impossible for me to think that Psalm 69:5-6, when applied to the modern day, is not primarily about them:
“O God, you are aware of my foolishness, And my guilt is not hidden from you. May those hoping in you not be put to shame because of me, O Sovereign Lord, Jehovah of armies. May those seeking you not be humiliated because of me, O God of Israel.”
Many verses of Psalm 69 are prophetic of Jesus. See, for example, verses 4, 7, 8, 9, and especially 21. Sometimes the connections are made by the New Testament writers themselves. Sometimes they are just so plain that few Bible commentators fail to pick up on them.
But verses 5-6 falter when applied to Jesus. What “guilt” did that one have? What blunders did he commit so that he might worry ones be “put to shame” or “humiliated because of me?” Paul specifically calls him “innocent, undefiled, separated from the sinners.” (Hebrews 7:26) Of course, he was found “guilty” in Pilate’s court of law, such as it was, and his ‘guilt’ was used to shame and humiliate his followers, not to mention discourage others from becoming such, but none of that was due to his own “foolishness.” Our Lord was a victim of slander.
But drop a notch down and the verses can readily be applied to his apostles and to those spearheading the work he launched, that of proclaiming the gospel worldwide. And if so in the first century, why not today as well? These undershepherds will be the “earthen vessels” in which we have the “treasure” that is the ministry. (2 Corinthians 4:7) These ones, particularly when put under the microscope, will continually provide pretext for slander, for followers to be “put to shame” or “humiliated.” All humans will. It’s part of the definition of being human.
This application of verses 5-6 to the Governing Body is nothing that body has ever made to itself, to my knowledge. It is mine. Its members will frequently apply such verses to the Christian congregation as a whole, but not specifically to themselves. They are not out there crying, ‘Poor me.’ And of course, the beauty of the Scriptures is that they can be widely applied to persons in all sorts of difficulties, whether of there own making or not.
But I think the first application is to them. After all, there is a limit to how many people most of us can cause to be “put to shame” or “humiliated.” Most don’t get around enough for that to happen. “Ah, well, we always knew Harley is a yo-yo,” a few can say, as only a handful of others dumb enough to hang onto his every word will be distressed. But every word of the Governing Body is carefully measured. Every word or action can come back to bite them. It’s tricky enough to live in a fishbowl. To live in a fishbowl where enemies hope to break the glass is trickier still.
In a world hyper-sensitive to authority, they must wonder as to how to present themselves. They must wonder whether they are doing so too forcefully or not forceful enough. They are the shepherd, insofar as that term devolves to humans. The trouble with shepherding a multitude of people is that one will say, “Thanks for the new rule!” whereas his fellow will say, “Huh? Did you say something?” They don’t want be overbearing, but neither do they want to find themselves in the shoes of Lot, whose sons-in-law thought he was joking.
They can and do identify themselves with the 2 Corinthians 1:24 verse of being “not masters over your faith but fellow workers for your joy.” Nonetheless, there will be plenty of people to take their word almost as though the word of God. It’s how people are. Does that distress them? Or do they say, “Well, they’ll grow eventually. Meantime, that’s not an unsafe place to be.” Or, has their harshest critics allege, do they say, ‘hee hee hee—we hope to keep them that was forever?”
And why can’t you skip over to the next psalm, psalm 70, and also apply it to those taking the lead in the worldwide congregation? Here, verse two, “May those seeking to take my life be put to shame and disgraced. May those who delight in my calamity retreat in humiliation,” is qualified by verse four, “But let those who are seeking you exult and rejoice in you. May those who love your acts of salvation always say: “May God be magnified!”—so you know that everything is in the context of worship. It’s not just the boilerplate Machiavellian scheming characteristic of many elements societal elements.
What of this taking “delight in my calamity?” Who does that? I have suffered some calamity in life, as have most people. Nobody took delight in it. They all felt bad. At worst, they shrugged it off as, ‘Well, that’s his problem, not mine.’ But I nobody piled on. People just aren’t that way unless they have a serious score to settle. Even then, they often aren’t. They know their turn to suffer “calamity” will also come some day.
But the Christian headship that has authority to discipline and even to expel? Oh yeah! In a previous age, people allowed discipline to do its work. “You need to endure as part of your discipline,” says Hebrews 12:7. “God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father?” Quite a few of them, these days. It’s not the slam-dunk rhetorical question it once was.
Nor is the verse 9 statement, “Furthermore, our human fathers used to discipline us, and we gave them respect.” Neither discipline nor respect are the staples they once were. So, the statement of verse 11 is lost upon many: “True, no discipline seems for the present to be joyous, but it is painful; yet afterward, it yields the peaceable fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.” An individualistic world fumes at the notion of being “trained” by another and looks for opportunities to kick back at the source.
It is well to yield to discipline, even knowing it will be called incorrectly from time to time. Every so often, the sports ref makes a clunker of a call and there you are in the penalty box for a dumb reason. Nobody quits the game on that account. And when they drag out the instant replay equipment, sometimes it reveals that the ref had a point after all.
****** The bookstore