The Watchtower claims to structure its leadership hierarchy after a model set by a first century, Christian governing body. However, the term “governing body” does not appear in the New Testament. Neither does the concept of a small, centralised group of leaders.
Governing Body 2007
First Century Governing Body?
The Watchtower claims that a formal governing body was established in the first century, which is used as the basis for how the Governing Body of the Watchtower Society operate today.
“While all anointed Christians collectively form God’s household, there is abundant evidence that Christ chose a small number of men out of the slave class to serve as a visible governing body. The early history of the congregation shows that the 12 apostles, including Matthias, were the foundation of the first-century governing body.” Watchtower 1990 Mar 15 p.11
The term “governing body” is ‘loaded language’ as it never appears in the Scriptures and so has unique application within the pages of the Watchtower. How does the Watchtower justify a Governing Body when the term does not exist in the Bible? This is by reference to the issue of circumcision as discussed in Acts chapter 15. This is the sole Bible example of brothers convening to establish doctrine.
On this occasion, it cannot be said that the decision was made by an established governing body. Acts 15:2 says:
“… they arranged for Paul and Barnabas and some others of them to go up to the apostles and older men in Jerusalem regarding this dispute.”
Rather than showing the existence of a small number of 12 leaders being referred to as a governing body, Acts describes a large gathering. This was comprised of the apostles, older men (elders), Paul and Barnabas, who were travelling missionaries, and others. This large group combined to decide on an important issue affecting the local congregations.
The history of the Apostle Paul also shows that there was no centralized governing body directing the early Christians. After Paul’s conversion, he did not convene with a governing body or go to Jerusalem to receive an assignment. Rather, he immediately embarked on his missionary work under direction of the Holy Spirit. Paul did not make his first trip to Jerusalem until three years after his conversion, and even then he did not meet with a group of leaders, but just with Peter and James.
Galatians 1:17-19 “Neither did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles previous to me, but I went off into Arabia, and I came back again to Damascus. Then three years later I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas, and I stayed with him for fifteen days. But I saw no one else of the apostles, only James the brother of the Lord.”
Paul then did not go back to Jerusalem for another fourteen years (Galations 2:1-3), possibly for the occasion described in Acts 15.
Schaff’s History of the Christian Church shows that after the issue of circumcision was resolved, “we have no trace of Councils before the middle of the second century.”
Since incorporation in 1884, the Watchtower Society was led by a President and board of directors. The first three Presidents, Russell, followed by Rutherford and Knorr, had complete control over doctrine. It was not until 1976 that this power was shifted from a single individual to a group, referred to as the Governing Body.
The term governing body was not applied to the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society until the Watchtower 1943 July 15 p.216, which described it as a “legal governing body”. In the Watchtower 1944 November 1 p.328, it was discussed that “a visible governing body under Jehovah God and his Christ” be involved in the election of elders and the 1955 Qualified to be Ministers p.381 applied this term to “the board of directors of this corporation.” Although this governing body had legal and operational powers, matters of doctrine remained at the discretion of the President.
Board of Directors, referred to as a governing body between 1944 and 1971. Left to right – Lyman Swingle, Thomas J. Sullivan, Grant Suiter, Hugo Reimer, Nathan H. Knorr (President), Fred W. Franz (Vice-President) and Milton G. Henschel.
Until 1971, the term governing body was spelt with a small g and b, as a description of the operational function the board played. In the Watchtower 1971 December 15, the term was capitalised as the “Governing Body of Jehovah’s witnesses”, and explained to be the group leading the religion, separate from the board of directors, although the membership of the board of directors was comprised only of Governing Body members until 2000. Their power was still limited until January 1st 1976, when authority was shifted from the President to operating committees comprised of Governing Body members.
To see the distinction between the capitalisation of Governing Body, see the Watchtower 2001 January 15 pp.28-29. This shows the formal introduction of the word as a proper noun when applied to the Watchtower leaders in 1971, as opposed to a governing body in the first century and when applied to the Watchtower board of directors.
When introducing the new concept of a Governing Body that represents the Faithful and Discreet Slave, the Watchtower 1971 made the claim that “a governing body made its appearance” after the 1884 formation of Zion’s Watch Tower Society (December 15 p.761). This backdating attempted to include Russell and the early leaders as part of the governing body.
Attempting to include the early leaders and board of directors as the governing body creates the discrepancy that Hayden Covington, who was not one of the anointed and was a Director and Vice President between 1939 and 1945, must be considered one of the governing body, despite this only being open to the anointed. (See Watchtower 2001 Jan 15 p.28.)
The Watchtower shows dishonesty by presenting a revisionist history when it indicates that there was a Governing Body since 1944, by capitalising the letters GB, even though the term was not capitalised until 1971 and the “theocratic” leadership was not shifted from the President to the Governing Body until 1976. An example of this appeared in 2012.
“After his evening discourse in a school, Hugo Riemer, who later became a member of the Governing Body, answered Bible questions until past midnight.” Watchtower 2012 Aug 15 p.31
Hugo Riemer was not a member of the Governing Body, but rather the governing body, from 1943 until his death in 1965, whereas the Governing Body was not established until 1971, six years after Riemer’s death.
A 1971 illustration from the Watchtower positions the Governing Body as representatives of the Faithful and Discreet Slave, which included all of the Anointed. This was never in effect the case, as only the Governing Body ever had any final say over procedure and doctrine. In the Annual Meeting of 2012, the Governing Body finally openly proclaimed that they alone had this power vested in them.
The Governing Body rules by fiat; that is, they have absolute authority. It is said that the Watchtower Governing Body must be submitted to because Jesus actively directs them.
“Naturally, all elders must submit to Christ’s “right hand” of control, guidance, and direction, which he exercises by means of the spirit and the spirit-begotten members of the Governing Body.” Watchtower 1987 Aug 1 p.19
As shown in the chapter on the Mediator, the Governing Body assumes the role of spiritual mediators for the Great Crowd. Recognizing the insertion of an intermediary organization in place of Jesus is important, as it is a common practice by groups using cohesive persuasion. In Robert J. Lifton’s The Future of Immortality and Other Essays for a Nuclear Age (New York, Basic Books, 1987) he writes;
“Mystical manipulation can take on a special quality in these cults because the leaders become mediators for God.”
The claim that there is just one true Organization and that Jehovah uses the Governing Body of the Watchtower Society to direct his followers gives these leaders great power. It becomes justification for why a Jehovah’s Witnesses must unquestioningly obey edict written in the Watchtower as if it is “the voice of God” (Watchtower 1957 June 15 p.370). It allows the Governing Body to disfellowship as apostates anyone that does not agree with all their doctrine, regardless of the ongoing changes that are being made. It allows them to add to the reasons that the Bible specifically lists as worthy of shunning. It has also permitted the Governing Body to create rules covering all areas of worship; such as, how many meetings to attend, how to preach, what to wear, what to say, how often to go and how to report, criteria that have become viewed as important for salvation.
Power is known to corrupt, and leaders tend to relish the power they have over their followers. Paul offers sage advice:
1 Corinthians 7:23 “You were bought with a price; stop becoming slaves of men.”
The Governing Body attempt to draw a parallel between themselves and the structure of Christianity in first century, drawing upon Acts chapter 15. However it is simply not the case that this Scripture can be used to imply there was a small, set group of leaders, referred to as governing body.