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The Changing Elder Arrangement


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Watchtower has made a number of changes to the elder arrangement throughout their history. Whilst policy changes are acceptable, the way this has been done indicates human direction and not that of God, despite Watchtower claims to the contrary.

This section is of interest in that it highlights a technique Watchtower uses to gain acceptance of changing doctrine. Assertions regarding early Christian behaviour are made without evidence, followed by dogmatic claims that Jehovah is behind the changes.

The Christian Scriptures do not provide any specific process or hierarchal structure for setting up and maintaining congregations. A person is spiritually mature enough to be considered one of the older men - elders - if meeting a simple set of criteria, as listed at First Timothy chapter three. The Watchtower Society has made several major changes to the Jehovah's Witness elder arrangement, showing how easily they are able to meld Scriptural principles to fit desired outcomes.

Russell held to the orthodox view that the congregation select elders by vote.

"Among God's people from the 1870's down into 1932, men who had been voted into the office of elder congregationally supervised congregational Bible studies and lectures. The elders and deacons were elected congregationally each year by a showing of hands on the part of persons associated with each congregation." Yearbook 1975 p.164

In the 1930's, a major change came, with elders to be appointed "by the governing body at headquarters." Between 1932 and 1938 the governing body appointed the service director, and from 1938 the entire elders body.

"... congregation by resolution asked for the governing body to appoint for it a “service director,” this officer to have a committee of assistants who would be selected by the majority vote of the congregation. ... This altered arrangement for the congregations of Jehovah's witnesses continued on from October of 1932 down to 1938. In this latter year the June 1 and 15 issues of The Watchtower published the two parts of the article "Organization" on what was set out as theocratic organization of the congregations. After that all the officers of the congregation were appointed by the governing body at headquarters." Watchtower 1971 November 15 p.693

The justification for this change was an alternate understanding that in Apostolic times the Greek word "ordained" meant to be appointed by the governing body, rather than voted in.

""As to voting," explains Herbert H. Abbott, "then it was thought that at Acts 14:23 the Greek word rendered 'ordained' [King James Version; "appointed," New World Translation] related to stretching forth the hand and meant to be a voter at those elections of class leaders. [See Acts 14:23, Rotherham.] We did not then know that it came to be used in the sense of appoint or designate by the apostles or governing body." Yearbook 1975 p.164

This reasoning contains hypothetical assertions. It admits that for many decades Watchtower was promoting an incorrect interpretation. Or, maybe the current interpretation is wrong. On the other hand, the term "governing body" does not appear in the Bible and there is no evidence of a "Governing Body". Watchtower takes the concept of a Governing Body from Acts 15, yet this sole mention of a gathering to decide doctrine included all the elders, not just a small group of leaders.

By preventing congregations selecting their own elders, Rutherford created a hierarchal structure, transferring further control to the leadership at head office.

In 1971, another significant change came with the introduction of a body of elders. The body was to rotate individual responsibilities annually, with the Watchtower 1971 November 15 p.685 and p.691 noting that the Early Christian elder bodies "likely rotated." It is common for Watchtower to introduce a comment that has no solid basis with phrases such as "of course" and it is "likely".

"Of course, in such a congregational presbytery or “body [assembly] of older men” there would have to be a chairman, to direct the order of meetings of the “body of older men.” Just how a member was appointed as the chairman is not shown in the Scriptures. It would not be a permanent chairmanship, but likely it was ternporary, for a period of time, and was rotated among all the coequal members of the “body of elders.” Watchtower 1971 Nov 15 p.691

Four years later, the 1975 Yearbook praised the success of this new arrangement as "God's doing."

"Reflecting on the new congregational arrangement providing for elders and ministerial servants, Roger Morgan was moved to say: "This is God's doing." Doubtless others will agree, since they may have considered the resulting benefits. The first shifting of responsibilities began in September 1972, and by October 1 the arrangement of things in most congregations had been adjusted. ... The Watchtower remarked: "Truly, Jehovah is bringing his congregated people into an organizational condition in which they will be able to ride out Armageddon into God's new order under divine rulership."" Yearbook 1975 p.250

However, rotation did not work effectively and it was done away with in the 1983 Organized to Accomplish You Ministry, page 41.

"The elders do not serve in these positions on a rotational basis." Organized to Accomplish You Ministry p.41

How can a procedure be God's doing with Biblical backing if within a few years it required removal? Watchtower justifies this as refinement.


Watchtower 2014 Jan 15 p.15

Back and forth changes to organisational structure are not refinements from God, they are simply different management decisions, as occur in any corporation. If Jehovah really had directed the arrangement to be in line with the early Christian example, he would have gotten it right the first time around.

Bethel Elders

A further concept with no Biblical basis was the 'Bethel Elder' arrangement.

"6. BETHEL ELDERS: Bethel elders are those who qualify to serve in a special capacity in Bethel in addition to their assignment as elders in a congregation. They are appointed by the Governing Body from recommendations made by the Branch Committee. A Bethel elder not only meets the Scriptural qualifications for elders in a congregation, but does so in a fuller and more complete way, so that he is equipped to handle more exacting responsibilities in the realm of Bethel service.-Luke 12:48" Branch Organization Manual pp.2-1, 2-2

On the 1st of March 2006 a letter was read at each branch that as of August 31st 2006 the Bethel Elder Arrangement will be dissolved, after 36 years. Another arrangement discarded due to its introduction having no Scriptural basis in the first place.

To change arrangements is perfectly acceptable. However, it is the way Watchtower does this that raises concern. It is false manipulation of followers to promote restructures as "Jehovah's direction" or "God's doing", under the guise that Jehovah is moving his Organization closer to that of the early Christians. These types of statements are common in totalitarian groups and referred to as Mystical Manipulation. Ongoing changes show men, and not Jehovah, directed the Watchtower elder arrangement, regardless of how Watchtower likes to introduce them.

Written 2007. Latest update Oct 2016.

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