Over the history of the Watchtower Society (Jehovah’s Witnesses), the use of the word apostasy as has had two distinct applications. At times this word has been applied accurately as a deviation from exclusive obedience to Almighty God. And at other times it has been used to describe disobedience to the commands of men, particularly the Watchtower organization and its leadership. This term has a meaning that is derived from Holy Scripture and a meaning that is derived from a human definition.
This article will examine the differences between the definition of apostasy as taught in Holy Scripture and the definition of apostasy according to the Watchtower Society. It will also trace the currently taught view of “Jehovah’s Witnesses” to its origins.
The Watchtower, through its publications, has taught two separate and distinct viewpoints based on whatever the desired effect was at the particular time. When speaking concerning other organized religions, they have tended to use the Biblical view. When speaking to those who are part of their organization, they have chosen to use the tradition humanistic view of apostasy or apostasizing.
The Watchtower’s use of the Biblical (God’s) Definition
While there are many examples of the Watchtower organization using the definition based on Holy Scripture, time will allow for just a few to be cited here. Anyone with a Watchtower Library CD can for himself or herself search past publications to determine the accuracy of what has been stated in this essay. Lover of truth will do exactly that.
Note: The Watchtower and its legal apparatus have become very shy of any reprinting of its own words. Therefore, I will not employ the use of any graphics or direct copy of their materials. I will quote from its literature with reference notation to the particular publication. (I have to wonder why anyone who believes that they are the “Truth” and are telling the truth would be ashamed to have their words reprinted.)
First, let’s examine the use of the word ‘apostasy’ as the writers of Watchtower materials have applied it to the wayward ancient nation of Israel. Those who have been associated with Jehovah’s Witnesses should recall that ancient Israel has at many times been referred to as the “apostate nation of Israel”. If one were to insert this phrase in the search box of the WBTS Library CD, they will find the reference material we will consider.
According to the reference volumes “Insight on the Scriptures”, under the topic Isaiah, Book of, Historical Background, this is what is written concerning why it is appropriate to view the nation of Israel in the times of Isaiah as an apostate nation:
Historical Background. Isaiah 1:1 informs us that Isaiah visioned these things in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah. This was a period of severe international tension and one in which false religious attitudes had a profound effect on the people of Judah. Near the beginning of Isaiah’s career King Uzziah died a leper because of his presumptuousness in taking over priestly duties. (2Ch 26:16, 19-21) It is reported that during the reign of Uzziah’s son Jotham, while the king did what was right, “the people were yet acting ruinously.”—2Ch 27:2; 2Ki 15:34.
Next came King Ahaz, who for 16 years set a bad example for the nation, carrying on Baal worship with its rites of human sacrifice. There was “great unfaithfulness toward Jehovah.” (2Ch 28:1-4, 19) It was at this time that the allied kings of Syria and Israel besieged Jerusalem so that Ahaz, ignoring the counsel of Isaiah the prophet, sent to Tiglath-pileser III, the king of Assyria, for military assistance. (2Ki 16:5-8; Isa 7:1-12) By this Ahaz ‘made flesh his arm, his heart turning away from Jehovah.’ (Jer 17:5) Assyria agreed to an alliance, but, of course, was interested mainly in expanding its own power. The Assyrian army captured Damascus of Syria and apparently took into exile those inhabitants of religiously apostate Israel that lived E of the Jordan.—1Ch 5:26.
Let the reader note that the apostasy of the nation is directly linked to the behaviors of wicked leaders who had acted unfaithfully toward Almighty God and had deviated from God’s commandments. King Uzziah is mentioned here as deviating when he usurped priestly function for which he was not anointed. King Ahaz is also mentioned as showing “a great unfaithfulness toward Jehovah” by introducing the worship of false Gods (Baal worship).
Here the Watchtower writers at the time gave no difference to the leadership of the nation. In fact the whole nation is referred to as “religiously apostate Israel” from its kings on down. This publication accurately cites Jeremiah 17:5 as it speaks of King Ahaz and his apostatizing.
So the view expressed here of apostasy is not based on disobedience to a human ruler or ruling body. But rather, it is based on a concept that is in agreement with what actions Jehovah God views as apostatizing from Him. It also points out that those of the nation that followed the same course as that of those leaders where viewed as apostates by God as well. They were not able to beg off from their obligation to Jehovah God, saying in effect “Well, we were just following the Kings orders!” No. History shows they were held accountable for their own individual actions. That is no less true today.
Also, from the reference books Insight on the Scriptures, under the topic Apostasy, under the heading Apostasy in Israel we find:
Apostasy in Israel. The first two commandments of the Law condemned all apostasy. (Ex 20:3-6) And before Israel’s entry into the Promised Land, they were warned against the grave danger of apostasy resulting from marriages with the people of the land. (De 7:3, 4) Even though a person who was inciting others to apostasy was a close relative or a marriage mate, he was to be put to death for having “spoken of revolt against Jehovah your God.” (De 13:1-15) The tribes of Reuben, Gad, and Manasseh were quick to exonerate themselves of a charge of apostasy that arose because of their construction of an altar.—Jos 22:21-29.
Many of the kings of Israel and of Judah followed an apostate course—for example, Saul (1Sa 15:11; 28:6, 7), Jeroboam (1Ki 12:28-32), Ahab (1Ki 16:30-33), Ahaziah (1Ki 22:51-53), Jehoram (2Ch 21:6-15), Ahaz (2Ch 28:1-4), and Amon (2Ch 33:22, 23). In due time a nation of apostates developed because the people listened to apostate priests and prophets (Jer 23:11, 15) and other unprincipled men who, by smooth words and false sayings, led them into loose conduct, immorality, and desertion of Jehovah, “the source of living water.” (Isa 10:6; 32:6, 7; Jer 3:1; 17:13) According to Isaiah 24:5, the very land became “polluted [cha·nephah′] under its inhabitants, for they have bypassed the laws, changed the regulation, broken the indefinitely lasting covenant.” No mercy was to be granted them in the predicted destruction.—Isa 9:17; 33:11-14; Zep 1:4-6.
Here again the publication writers are spot on in defining what real apostasy is all about. Notice the first sentence and the Scriptural support cited in the second sentence(Exodus 20:3-6).
20 And God proceeded to speak all these words, saying:
2 “I am Jehovah your God, who have brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slaves. 3 You must not have any other gods against my face.
4 “You must not make for yourself a carved image or a form like anything that is in the heavens above or that is on the earth underneath or that is in the waters under the earth. 5 You must not bow down to them nor be induced to serve them, because I Jehovah your God am a God exacting exclusive devotion, bringing punishment for the error of fathers upon sons, upon the third generation and upon the fourth generation, in the case of those who hate me; 6 but exercising loving-kindness toward the thousandth generation in the case of those who love me and keep my commandments.
Under this topic consideration,there is no allusion at all indicating a belief that the term apostasy has anything to do with human authority or anything to do with a failure to be obedient to a lesser authority than Almighty God. Deuteronomy chapter 13 verse 5 is referenced and this scripture speaks concerning a “revolt against Jehovah your God.”
Note: The kings, priest, and prophets were the source of the apostasy. The nation became apostate due to their leadership and example. A reasonable person would have to conclude that true apostasy from God’s viewpoint has nothing to do with failure to follow the edicts/commands of men. Rather, it is a deviation from the righteous commands and standards established by Almighty God himself.
The 1957 Watchtower magazine article entitled “Ancient Israel Backslides”, page 339 appears to contradict the present day teachings of the Watchtower Society:
8 The religious leaders of the apostate nation not only refused to heed the prophets themselves, they tried to prevent others from heeding the warnings. Like the dog that bites the hand trying to feed it, these religionists persecuted Jehovah’s servants, even killing many of them. The ill-treatment of the prophets by the backsliding religious leaders and the blind masses following them is summarized at Hebrews 11:36-38 (NW): “Yes, others received their trial by mockings and scourgings, indeed, more than that, by bonds and prisons. They were stoned, they were tried, they were sawn asunder, they died by slaughter with the sword, they went about in sheep skins, in goat skins, while they were in want, in tribulation, under ill-treatment; and the world was not worthy of them. They wandered about in deserts and mountains and dens and caves of the earth.”
Please observe that the Watchtower article refers to an “Apostate Nation” that includes both backsliding religious leaders as well as the blind masses that followed them. A reasonable person would have to conclude that, while one can be following the leadership of a nation or religious group, they could still be found to be apostate based on failure to conform to God’s commands.
The Watchtower has literally limped on two different opinions when it comes to defining apostasy. One is a Biblical, theocratically based definition as seen above. The other is an earthly, unscriptural definition that is based on a humanistic interpretation of the term.
Jehovah’s Witnesses use the term pejoratively when speaking about other professed organized Christian groups as Catholics and of Judaism. They relates its usage to mean some deviation from the truth as taught by Holy Scripture. Then when it comes to controlling the conduct of members internally, the word takes on a meaning conforming to the humanistic view. So that if one accepts this second teaching, then wouldn’t their adherents be encouraging members of other religious groups to commit apostasy since they would be rebelling against the hierarchy of their current or present religion by following Jehovah’s Witnesses and their teachings? By this latter interpretation, the meaning of ‘apostasy’ becomes quite arbitrary and it’s use quite capricious.
I do not believe there is a need to present proof from recent Watchtower magazines or from their oral presentations that reveal what the current prevailing teaching from the organization’s governing body is regarding what constitutes an apostatizing. The basis upon which a great many are being thrown out of the congregation is proof of which definition they have chosen to accept.
But it is important to examine the roots of where this humanistic view of apostasy comes from. Is it possible to limp on diametrically opposed opinions with regard to these two distinct interpretations of this word and still be pleasing to God?
Lord Jesus Christ spoke aptly about the problem:
15 Then there came to Jesus from Jerusalem Pharisees and scribes, saying: 2 “Why is it your disciples overstep the tradition of the men of former times? For example, they do not wash their hands when about to eat a meal.”
3 In reply he said to them: “Why is it YOU also overstep the commandment of God because of YOUR tradition? 4 For example, God said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘Let him that reviles father or mother end up in death.’ 5 But YOU say, ‘Whoever says to his father or mother: “Whatever I have by which you might get benefit from me is a gift dedicated to God,” 6 he must not honor his father at all.’ And so YOU have made the word of God invalid because of YOUR tradition. New World Translation
One view invalidates the other view. One must make a choice.
As discussed earlier, ancient Israel transgressed against God by failing to offer Him their exclusive devotion and by their failure to subject themselves in complete obedience to His commandments. At the time Jesus spoke the words quoted above, the Jewish religious leaders had created a code of conduct based on their own viewpoint of what they felt satisfied God’s righteous requirements. The example that Jesus raised, showed that their tradition invalidated the very intent of God’s commandment requiring children to honor and care for their aged parents. They put on a front as if their motives were based on a desire to please God. But, it was all a screen that covered over their desire to be greedy and stingy while circumventing God’s commands.
That is why Jesus also pointedly stated what is quoted below:
7 It is in vain that they keep worshiping me, because they teach as doctrines commands of men.’ 8 Letting go the commandment of God, YOU hold fast the tradition of men.” New World Translation
These leaders, teachers, and those that followed them had chosen to abandon true worship of Jehovah based on God’s Divine Hierarchy and created and man-made hierarchy owing allegiance to human authority.
By examining some of the Jewish oral teachings that apply to this subject, we can best see the thinking of the teachers of Judaism both then and now. Compare them to the practices and teachings of the Watchtower Society.
Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees
The following oral laws which are still taught by the Jewish Rebbe (Rabbi’s), seem to lay the foundation for considering deviating from the oral laws as the same as apostasy away from God. The teachers of oral tradition put on even par the teachings of man with the teachings of the Divine One.
Torah (God’s written Law) versus Jewish Oral Tradition (Talmud)
Jewish Oral Teaching (Talmud)
Negative Commandment 312
The 312th prohibition is that we are forbidden from disagreeing with the Sages who pass down the Oral Tradition (may they rest in peace), or from deviating from any of their instructions in Torah matters.
The source of this prohibition is G�d’s statement (exalted be He), “Do not stray from the word that they declare to you.”
The Sifri says, “The verse, ‘Do not stray…’ constitutes a prohibition.”
One who violates this prohibition, i.e. a zaken mam’re, is executed by strangulation if all the conditions described in the end of Sanhedrin are fulfilled. The details of this mitzvah are explained there.
end of Rebbe comments
The teachers of oral law cite Deut. 17:11 as the basis for this teaching. However if taken in context, the cited versus seems to refer to matters of civil or criminal nature taken before the High Court and does not refer to commands and judgments that deviate from God’s Law.
8 “In case a matter for judicial decision should be too extraordinary for you, one in which blood has been shed, in which a legal claim has been raised, or a violent deed has been committed, matters of dispute, inside your gates, you must also rise and go up to the place that Jehovah your God will choose, 9 and you must go to the priests, the Levites, and to the judge who will be acting in those days, and you must make inquiry, and they must hand down to you the word of the judicial decision. 10 Then you must do in accordance with the word that they will hand down to you from that place which Jehovah will choose; and you must be careful to do according to all that they instruct you. 11 In accordance with the law that they will point out to you, and according to the judicial decision that they will say to you, you should do. You must not turn aside from the word that they will hand down to you, to the right or to the left. 12 And the man who will behave with presumptuousness in not listening to the priest who is standing to minister there to Jehovah your God or to the judge, that man must die; and you must clear out what is bad from Israel.” New World Translation
8 If cases come before your courts that are too difficult for you to judge—whether bloodshed, lawsuits or assaults—take them to the place the LORD your God will choose.9 Go to the Levitical priests and to the judge who is in office at that time. Inquire of them and they will give you the verdict. 10 You must act according to the decisions they give you at the place the LORD will choose. Be careful to do everything they instruct you to do.11 Act according to whatever they teach you and the decisions they give you. Do not turn aside from what they tell you, to the right or to the left. 12 Anyone who shows contempt for the judge or for the priest who stands ministering there to the LORD your God is to be put to death. You must purge the evil from Israel.” New International Version
That this Scripture could not apply to directives that disagree with God’s directives is seen by the fact that throughout the history of the Hebrew nation, God held accountable all who chose to be disobedient to Him despite being instigated to do so by leaders (kings, priest, etc.) The words of Deuteronomy speak about civil disputes that needed to be decided judicially and not about blinding obeying higher human authorities no matter what.
Recently, the Watchtower has tried to dispel concerns of continuing members by assuring them that even if they are receiving instruction that disagrees with Scripture they will not be harmed by choosing to follow and by teaching them. These forget that Almighty God has said, “Each will be judged according to their own individual deeds”. It also brings to mind what Satan told Eve. That she could could break Almighty God’s commandment and still live. The teachers of the Watchtower Society are saying this very thing.
This teaching handed down from the Watchtower governing body merely echoes the taught “traditions of men”. Let’s consider 173rd positive oral teaching of Judaism. It speaks about obedience to the sages and to the anointed king. While it teaches that the king is to be absolutely obeyed under penalty of death, in the fifth paragraph are the words, “We are required to fulfill any command the king issues unless it contradicts a command of the Torah.” (Torah refers to God’s written law)
Jewish Oral Teaching (Talmud)
The 173rd mitzvah (oral command)is that we are commanded to appoint over ourselves a Jewish king to speak for us1 and lead us.
The source of this commandment is G�d’s statement (exalted be He), “You shall appoint for yourselves a king.”
As we have previously, the statement of our Sages in the Sifri, “The Jewish people were commanded three mitzvos upon entering the Land of Israel: to appoint a king, to build the Holy Temple, and to destroy the descendants of Amalek.” Our Sages also said in the Sifri, 5 “The verse, ‘You shall appoint for yourselves a king,’ constitutes a positive commandment.”
This commandment is explained as follows: 6 “The verse, ‘You shall appoint for yourselves a king,’ means that you must instill in yourselves awe of him.” We should think of him with the greatest possible respect, and awareness of his great and exalted status, to the extent that in our eyes he is greater than any of the prophets of that generation.
8We are required to fulfill any command the king issues unless it contradicts a commandment of the Torah. If a person transgresses the king’s command and does not fulfill it, the king is allowed to execute him by the sword. Our ancestors, may they rest in peace, accepted this upon themselves when they said [to Joshua], “Whoever rebels against your statement, and does not obey all your commands shall be put to death.” Anyone who rebels against a king who was appointed in accordance with the Torah, may be executed by the king.
All the details of this Mitzvah are explained in the second chapter of tractate Sanhedrin, 10 the first chapter of Kerisus, 11 and the seventh chapter of Sotah.
(end of Rebbe comments)
Were kings like Manasseh and Ahaz to be strictly followed and obeyed? Were the priests of Ezekiel’s day to be strictly listened to and obeyed? Whether or not to cooperate with another should involve considering what you are being asked to cooperate with. All authority below Heaven is relative and obedience is therefore conditional. The obedience to be given the king as stated above was on the condition that his edict does not contradict the written commands of God.
The Watchtower teachers are following the established oral tradition as taught in Judaism.
The next two examples from Jewish oral tradition will demonstrate how these traditions are put on equal par with the written commands from God and are even made superior in the matter of obedience.
Oral teaching 174
The 174th mitzvah is that we are commanded to obey the Beis Din HaGadol and act in accordance with all their instructions regarding what is prohibited and what is permitted. There is no difference whether it is something they received by Oral Tradition; derived using one of the principle of Torah extrapolation; decreed in order to correct some laxity or in response to some other situation where they found it appropriate and that it would strengthen Torah observance. We are required to obey all such directives and to act in accordance with their words, not to transgress them.
The source of this commandment is G�d’s statement1 (exalted be He), “You must keep the Torah as they interpret it for you [and follow the laws that they legislate for you].”
The Sifri says, “The verse, ‘Follow the laws that they legislate for you’ constitutes a positive commandment.”
The details of this mitzvah are explained in the end of tractate Sanhedrin.2
(end of Rebbe comments)
Here it is stated that there is to be no distinction made from teaching handed down through oral tradition and those derived directly from the Torah. According to this teaching God’s commands and man’s commands have the same weight when it comes to obedience.
Earlier, it was mentioned that the Watchtower governing body is teaching that their commands have to be followed even though what they are teaching is in contradiction to the commandments of God. They have often identified themselves as a “John class” or prophetic channel of God. As such, they demand the final say as to how Scripture is to be interpreted. If a person disagrees with this governing body’s interpretation, the WT governing body’s thoughts and behaviors mirror those found in the 172nd Jewish oral teaching. This oral tradition also applies to the “prophet”. It states that if the prophet’s words must be followed even if this temporarily requires one to transgress the written commands from God:
The 172nd Mitzvah is that we are commanded to obey each of the Prophets, may they rest in peace, and to fulfill all their instructions. Even if his instructions contradict one or many of these commandments, [we are commanded to obey him] as long as his instructions are temporary. This does not apply, however, if he permanently adds or subtracts [from the commandments], as we explained in the Introduction to our Commentary on the Mishneh.1
The source of this commandment is G�d’s statement (exalted be He), 2 “To him you must listen.” In the words of the Sifri: “The verse, ‘To him you must listen,’ means that even if he tells you to temporarily transgress one of the commandments of the Torah, you must listen to him.”
One who transgresses this mitzvah is punished by Mita bidei shamayim, as it says in G�d’s statement (exalted be He) 4 “If any person does not listen to My word that he declares in My name, I will punish him.” It has been explained in tractate Sanhedrin that three are punished by mita bidei shamayim: one who disobeys the prophet, a prophet who disobeys his own prophecy, and a prophet who conceals his prophecy. All of them are derived from the phrase, “If any person does not listen.” Our Sages said, “The phrase, lo yishma ['does not listen'] can also be read, lo yishamei ['does not listen to himself'] and lo yashmia ['does not make others listen'].”
The details of this mitzvah have been explained in the end of tractate Sanhedrin.
(end of Rebbe comments)
As is the case among current Jehovah’s Witnesses today, the threat of death, albeit spiritual, is held out as a consequence of failing to following their sages with godly obedience.
If one were to adopt this humanistic view of what an apostate is, then they would have also agreed with those who persecuted Lord Jesus Christ to death. Because he would not subject himself to the authority of the then ruling priesthood, he was branded as an apostate in their terms. They accused him of blasphemy for stating that the Temple would be thrown down. However, he was determined on doing God’s will. He gave exclusive devotion and obedience to the Father.
This pattern is the same one that has been being played out since the first renegade made a choice to deviate from God’s righteous requirements. It always invariably involves a choice to listen to someone or something else other the voice of the commands of God. Almighty God scolded Adam for listening to another voice. Before sentencing him, God said, “Because you listened to the voice of your wife…”. Jesus stated regarding the temple preistly class, “Letting go the commandment of God, You hold fast the tradition of men”.
As professed followers of Christ, we should follow his lead. We should have his view of what real apostasy is. The Apostle Paul wrote to be on guard against deceptive reasoning:
8 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; New World Translation
It is true that this tradition has not only affected Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Watchtower organization. After the first century, it did not take long before Christendom was formed based on honoring a human hierarchal organization.
It has been no accident that throughout the entire history of the Bible Students/Watchtower/Jehovah’s Witnesses era there have existed two distinct entities within. One is of members who were and are truth seekers and wish to be part of the Christian congregation. The other is a hierarchal corporate structure and it’s blind followers who are bent on maintaining and worshiping a human institution.
As is evident by the publications from the Watchtower that were cited in this essay, there have been periods when those who were intent on teaching truth held sway. There have been other periods when the teachings were at best skewed. The organizational forces won that struggle. This fit with the outcome the Bible foretold.
The Watchtower uses the word ‘apostasy’ in the sense that conforms to Jewish oral tradition and which has no basis of validity according to Holy Scripture. Like Jewish oral tradition, their teachings must be accepted as having equal weight with God’s even when theirs are in conflict with God’s written word. To teach such is to teach an apostatizing. And this is what Jehovah’s Witnesses will readily tell you; if it is about someone else. How could one be rendering exclusive devotion and obedience to God while living and teaching contrary to His word?
We will all have an accounting with Almighty God on the central question, “Whom will you obey?”