American Orthodox Catholic Christianity

Faith Of Our Fathers Series

Jehovah’s Witnesses

      According to their own figures, there are more than three million Jehovah's Witnesses world-wide, with branch offices in more than 200 countries. They have made extensive inroads in Third World countries, attracting the poverty-stricken and theologically naive with their insistence that "this system of things" (the corrupt and unjust world as it is now) is about to give way to the "New Order'" (the millennium). Elsewhere, they have gained converts through their aggressive door-to-door witnessing. Indeed, a former member of the cult has called it "the most effective way of error today.'' [l]

      Anyone who has had more than a passing encounter with Jehovah's Witnesses would find it hard to disagree. Their arguments appear so tightly constructed as to be virtually unassailable. Even if one is left unconquered, the experience is frustrating. Is this a no-win situation? It needn't be. But any hope of launching a successful counter-offensive and rescuing the Jehovah's Witness from his captivity to error lies in a basic understanding of the cult's tactics and its fundamental beliefs.


      Charles Taze Russell, the founder of the Jehovah's Witnesses, was born in Pennsylvania in 1852. As a teen-ager he left the Presbyterian Church of his parents and joined the Congregationalists. But that did not satisfy him for long, and he became an avowed skeptic, until one day he chanced upon a Bible study conducted by a Seventh-Day Adventist. His faith in the divine inspiration of the Scriptures was rekindled and he was soon conducting Bible classes himself. Gradually, however, he fell into disagreement with the Adventists over the doctrine of Christ's Second Coming, which he believed would be purely spiritual. He broke away from the Adventists, "convinced that so far no one had understood the Bible properly and that he had been called by God to interpret it correctly."[2]

      In 1879 Russell founded a periodical, Zion's Watchtower and Herald of Christ's Presence, followed in 1881 with the establishment of the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society. He also began work on his seven volume Studies on Scripture, which he promoted more vigorously than the Scriptures themselves.

      Even as he was successfully building up a following, Russell's personal life was crumbling. In 1912 he sued a Baptist pastor for libel and proceeded to perjure himself in court, claiming that he knew the Greek alphabet and then failing to correctly identify the letters of a Greek New Testament passage. He suffered further humiliation when, in 1913, his wife successfully sued him for divorce on grounds of "his conceit, egotism, domination and improper conduct in relation to other women. [3]

      Russell died in 1916 and was succeeded by a prominent lawyer and judge, Joseph Franklin Rutherford, a former Baptist who had joined the Society in 1906. The judge demanded unquestioned authority, provoking a schism in 1918. Although he retained Russell's teachings intact, Rutherford wanted to distance the Society from the disgraced name of its founder (members were originally known as "Russellites"), and in 1931 he changed its name to Jehovah's Witnesses. The focus of the Society also changed--from Bible study to witnessing. In 1940 Witnesses began street distribution of "The Watch Tower." At the same time their tone became more abrasive as Rutherford "scathingly denounced all organized religions and generated among his followers a tone of unmitigated hostility towards Christian churches."[4]

      In 1942, Nathan H. Knorr became president of the organization. The following year he established the Gilead Watchtower Bible School for training Witnesses in proselytizing techniques. Knorr was formerly in charge of the Society's publishing activities, and under his leadership these greatly expanded, even as there was a shift toward anonymity. In 1950 the Society came out with its own translation of the Bible: The New World Translation of the Christian Greek Scriptures (revised 1961). It contains serious errors that are self-serving in terms of Witness doctrine, but the authority of the translators cannot be investigated: they "requested that they remain anonymous even after their death.' [5] Knorr also developed the Society's foreign missions. Today, an estimated two thirds of the Society's membership is abroad; they claim more than 100,000 followers in communist countries and are actively proselytizing among the Orthodox of Greece and Cyprus.

      Headquarters for the cult were established in Brooklyn, New York, in 1909, in a thirteen-story building called Bethel House. Local congregations (more than 20,000 of them) meet in buildings called Kingdom Halls. They have no ordained pastors; every active Witness is called a "minister". Those who devote themselves full-time to the service of the cult are called "pioneer publishers".

      Besides being aggressive door-to-door missionaries, Jehovah's Witnesses have defined their public image by their refusal to use blood transfusions (regarding this as a form of cannibalism), observe religious or secular holidays (Christmas, Thanksgiving, birthdays), salute the flag or serve in the armed forces (they recognize Jehovah's organization alone). They proudly bear any criticism on this account, accepting it as the persecution of Jehovah's faithful remnant.


      Doctrinally, Jehovah's Witnesses bear no resemblance whatever to mainstream historic Christianity.  Russell acquired from the Adventists the idea that there is no hell, and no life after death until the Second Coming, when the righteous will be "recreated" (see Part II of this series). In breaking away from the Adventists, Russell only widened his divergence from the Truth, leading his followers far beyond the remotest boundaries of Christian sectarianism. Although some aspects of Jehovah's Witnesses theology is so convoluted as to require mental gymnastics, their fundamental beliefs can be summarized as follows.

      Holy Trinity. According to the Witnesses, "the doctrine of the Trinity originated not with God but with Satan [6] They regard the First Ecumenical Council (Nicaea, 325 AD), which defined the doctrine of the Trinity, as a great victory for apostate Christianity.

      Jesus Christ. The same Council condemned the Arian heresy, which taught that Jesus Christ was created by God in time, and that He was unequal to God. Jehovah's Witnesses is basically a revival of this heresy, although they err even more grievously than the Arians in identifying Jesus Christ, God's first "creation," with the Archangel Michael. Witnesses teach that when He was born on earth, He "laid aside completely His spirit existence" and became a perfect human creature. At His baptism in the River Jordan, the Lord was chosen by Jehovah God and empowered by His Holy Spirit to be a prophet and Messiah, Jehovah's High Priest, the Christ. When He fulfilled His mission and died, being nailed to a stake (Witnesses abhor the cross as a pagan symbol), God rewarded Him with immortality. At Christ's resurrection, He dissolved into gases and was re-created a "glorious spirit," to be head of Jehovah's organization over the universe.

      Witnesses support their repudiation of Christ as perfect God by pointing to John 1:1, which is erroneously translated in their Scripture to read: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was a god--i.e., a creature. Their translation of Colossians 1:16 is similarly altered: By means of Him all other things were created.

      Holy Spirit. Witnesses deny the personhood of the Holy Spirit, teaching that lie is but "the invisible, active force of God.” In their Bible, “spirit” is never capitalized and is always referred to by impersonal pronouns: “it”, “which”.

     Salvation. Christ "did not provide a true ransom for sins but merely gave man an opportunity to merit his salvation either now, or in the millennium?' [7] However, only the anointed class, limited to a literal 144,000 (Rev. 7:4-8), will reign with Christ in heaven. (This number was reached in 1935.) These alone are members of the Kingdom of God. All others who attain salvation, the "sheep," will inherit the earth which will become a new paradise. To merit salvation one must agree with the teachings of the Jehovah's Witnesses. Those who do not, the "goats." will cease to exist.

       Eschatology. From the Adventists Russell inherited an obsession with biblical prophecy, concerning the end times. When their prediction of Christ's return to earth in 1874 proved false, Russell claimed the return was invisible, that actually the date marked Christ's "second presence," i.e., His elevation to active kingship, and the beginning of a forty-year harvest which would culminate in 1914 with the "end of the Gentile times." 1918 was to usher in the millennium.

       After the failure of Russell's prediction, Rutherford wrote that "in 1925 we can expect to witness the return of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and other stalwarts of the Old Testament. They will rise again and be restored to perfect humanity in order to be the visible, lawful representatives of the new order of things on earth [8] When 1925 came and went without any sign of the Old Testament prophets, the Judge decided that henceforth there would be no further "announced dates," but that "the resurrection of the dead will soon begin. By 'soon' we do not mean next year. But we confidently believe that it will happen before another century has passed . [9]

       Witnesses now teach that Christ's "second presence'' occurred in 1914, and that Satan was so angered at Christ's enthronement that he entered into combat with Christ (World War I). This was cut short in 1918 when Christ "cleansed" Jehovah's temple (this is variously interpreted by the Witnesses) and "re-created” the deceased (extinct) members of the anointed class, who now reign with Him in heaven. Since that date, Christ has been judging the nations, separating people into "sheep" and "goats", a process that will culminate in the Battle of Armageddon when the combat between Satan and Christ will be resumed as a world-wide holocaust. Arrayed against Jehovah on the side of Satan will be all organized religions, Christian and non-Christian, as represented in scriptural prophecy by the whore of Babylon. Witnesses believe this battle is imminent (hence their slogan, "Millions now living will never die!"), and that it is their mission to convert people to the "right" side, because no one who opposes Jehovah's organization (the New World Society of Jehovah's Witnesses) will survive this battle.

      Judgment. In the ensuing millennium, Satan will be bound and the vast majority of mankind will be raised from the graves with physical bodies (i.e., brought back from non-existence) and given a chance to prove their "unbreakable steadfastness" by passing various tests in order to spend eternity on the paradise earth. Clearly, for Jehovah's Witnesses the judgment is based "not on deeds done in this life but on what is done during the millennium." [10] At the end of the millennium the final test will come when Satan is loosed. Those who join his assault against God's holy ones will be thrown with him and all his hordes into a lake of fire where they will be annihilated.

      Witnesses feel compelled to prove themselves worthy to survive Armageddon. Their faithfulness is measured by their zeal in canvassing their neighborhoods and promoting their system. They distribute and sell more than 150 million books and magazines every year, in more than 55 different languages. "Passive members are not tolerated....We are thus dealing with a movement which aims at world conquest and employs to this end vast sums of money and the most modern methods of propaganda.' [11] 

    If an Orthodox Christian finds a Jehovah's Witness at the door, the best approach to take is that of clarification: ask insistently about his beliefs concerning Jesus Christ, his definition of salvation and eternal life. In order to bear up against the Jehovah's Witness's arguments, however, the Orthodox Christian must himself be well-versed in the Scriptures He should be able to point out those passages that support the Church’s teaching about the nature of Christ and tile Trinity, For example, how do Jehovah's Witnesses explain I John 5:7 There are those that bear record in heaven: the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit: and these three are one? Or again, how is it possible to grieve the Holy Spirit (Eph. 4:30) if, as Jehovah's Witnesses teach, He is an impersonal "force"? Most Christian bookstores have pamphlets on "how to respond to.." groups like the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Perhaps the best source in English for any Orthodox who engages in apologetics is Orthodox Dogmatic Theology by Protopresbyter Michael Pomazansky. His section on 'The Oneness of Essence, the Equality of Divinity, and the Equality of Honor of God the Son with God the Father" is particularly useful in offering a clear and concise refutation of the Jehovah's Witnesses doctrine. 

Fr. Alexey Young (Russian Orthodox Church Abroad)


 1  William I. Schnell, Into the Light of Christianity, Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, MI, 1986, p. 206.

 2 Konrad Algermissen, Christian Sects.

 3 Bruce M. Metzget, cited in The Four Major Cults by Anthony A. Hoekema, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, MI, 1963, p 227

 4 Kenneth Boa, Cults, World Religions, And You, Victor Books, Wheaton, IL, 1977, p. 74.

 5 Hoekema, p. 233

 6 Ibid., p. 242.

 7 Boa, p. 77.

 8 Rutherford, Millions of People now Living will never Die, 1920 ed.

 9 Rutherford, Hell.

 10 Hoekema, p. 321.

 11 Algermissen.

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