The Facebook engine will periodically pop up a reminder of something I’ve posted in the past. Today, it showed me that two years ago I posted a commentary on the August 2016 broadcast on tv.jw.org which was about being obedient and submissive to the elders. Well, here we are once more in the month of August two years later and again they are promoting the same idea. Stephen Lett, in his unique manner of delivery, is utilizing the flawed rendering of Ephesians 4:8 found in the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures to make his case. It reads:
“For it says: “When he ascended on high he carried away captives; he gave gifts in men.”” (Eph 4:8)
When one consults the Kingdom Interlinear (published by the Watchtower Bible & Tract Society and based on the Westcott and Hort Interlinear), it becomes evident that the “in” has been inserted to replace the preposition “to”. Here is a screen capture from the BibleHub.com interlinear:
There are currently 28 versions available on BibleHub.com representing a wide variety of Christian denominations—all with a vested interest in supporting their own ecclesiastical authority structure—and yet not a single one of them mimics the NWT rendering. Without exception, they all use the preposition “to” or “unto” to render this verse. Why did the NWT translation committee choose this rendering? What motivated them to deviate (apparently) from the original text? Does replacing “to” with “in” really alter the meaning of the text in some significant way?
What Stephen Lett Believes
Let’s first catalog all the conclusions Stephen Lett makes, and then we’ll review them one by one to see whether or not going with the original text “to men” would alter the understanding at which he arrives. Perhaps by doing this we will be able to evaluate the motivation behind this word choice.
He starts by claiming that “the captives” Jesus carried away are the elders. He then claims that these captives are given to the congregation as gifts, essentially reading the verse as “he gave gifts in the form of men”.
So Lett claims the elders are gifts from God. He uses the example of treating the gift of a silk scarf or tie with contempt by using it to polish one’s shoes. Therefore, treating the provision of these gifts in men—the elders—without due appreciation for their divine providence would be tantamount to insulting Jehovah. Of course, the priests, pastors, ministers and elders in any other religion would not constitute “gifts in men” since they are not a provision from Jehovah, Lett would surely reason if asked.
The reason that JW elders are different must be therefore that they are from God, their appointment being made under holy spirit. He states: “All of us must make sure that we always show appreciation and respect for this divine provision.”
Lett then uses verses 11 and 12 to speak of the qualities of these elder gifts.
“And he gave some as apostles, some as prophets, some as evangelizers, some as shepherds and teachers, with a view to the readjustment of the holy ones, for ministerial work, to build up the body of the Christ,” (Eph 4:11, 12)
Next he asks us how we should feel about “these hardworking gifts in men”? To answer, he reads from 1 Thessalonians 5:12
“Now we request you, brothers, to show respect for those who are working hard among you and presiding over you in the Lord and admonishing you; and to give them extraordinary consideration in love because of their work. Be peaceable with one another.” (1 Th 5:12, 13)
Brother Lett feels that showing respect to these gifts in men means that we must obey them. He uses Hebrews 13:17 to make this point:
“Be obedient to those who are taking the lead among you and be submissive, for they are keeping watch over you as those who will render an account, so that they may do this with joy and not with sighing, for this would be damaging to you.” (Heb 13:17)
To explain this verse, he says: “Notice, we’re told to be obedient. Clearly, this means we’re supposed to comply with or obey what they tell us. Of course, that would be with the proviso: Unless they tell us to do something which is unscriptural. And of course that would be extremely rare.”
He then adds that we are also told to be submissive, which includes, in his view, the attitude with which we comply with the instructions from the elders.
An Exaggerated Illustration
To illustrate how, in his view, we are to show respect for the elders by submissively obeying them, he gives us “a somewhat exaggerated” illustration. In the illustration the elders decide the Kingdom hall has to be painted, but require all the publishers to use only a 2″ wide brush. The point is that instead of questioning the decision, all should simply comply and do what they are told. He concludes that this unquestioning and willing compliance will gladden Jehovah’s heart and sadden Satan’s. He states that questioning the decision could result in stumbling some brothers to the point they would leave the congregation. He ends up by saying: “What is the point of this hyperbole illustration? Being submissive and obedient to those taking the lead is much more important, than how something is done. That is the attitude that Jehovah will richly bless.”
On the surface, this all seems reasonable. After all, if there are elders who are truly working hard in serving the flock and who are giving us wise and accurate Bible counsel, why wouldn’t we want to listen to them and cooperate with them?
Did the Apostle Paul Get It Wrong?
That being said, why didn’t Paul speak of Christ giving “gifts in men” rather than “gifts to men”? Why didn’t he word it the way the NWT does? Did Paul miss the mark? Has the NWT translation committee, under the guidance of holy spirit, corrected Paul’s oversight? Stephen Lett says that we should show respect for the elders. Well, the Apostle Paul was an elder par excellence. Is it not disrespectful to twist his words into something he never intended to say?
Paul wrote under inspiration, so we can be sure of one thing: his words were carefully chosen to give us accurate knowledge of his meaning. Instead of cherry-picking verses and summarily giving them our own interpretation, let’s look at the context. After all, just as a tiny off-course deviation at the start of a journey can result in missing our destination by a mile, if we start off on a false premise, we can lose our way and stray from truth into falsehood.
Is Paul Speaking about Elders?
As you read Ephesians chapter four, do you find evidence that Paul is speaking to the elders only? When he says in verse 6, “…one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all…” is the “all” he refers to restricted to the elders? And when, in the next verse he says, “Now undeserved kindness was given to each one of us according to how the Christ measured out the free gift”, is the “free gift” given only to the elders?
There is nothing in these verses that restricts his words to the elders only. He is speaking to all the holy ones. So, when in the next verse, he speaks of Jesus carrying away captives, does it not follow that the captives would be all his disciples, not just a tiny subset of them restricted to males, and an even smaller subset restricted to elders?
(Incidentally, Lett cannot seem to bring himself to give Jesus the credit for this. Whenever he speaks of Jesus, it is “Jehovah and Jesus”. Yet Jehovah did not descend to the lower regions (vs. 9) nor did he ascent again (vs 8). Jehovah did not carry away captives, but Jesus did (vs 8). And it is Jesus who gave gifts to men. Everything Jesus did and does glorifies the Father, but it is only through him that we can approach the Father and only through him that we can know the Father. This tendency to minimize Jesus’ divinely endowed role is a hallmark of JW teaching.)
The rendering “gifts in men” actually conflicts with the context. Consider how much better things fit when we accept what the text actually says by “he gave gifts to men”.
(In those days—as is the case often today—saying “men” includes women as well. Woman actually means ‘man with a womb’. The angels appearing to the shepherds were not excluding women from the peace of God by their word choice. [See Luke 2:14])
“And he gave some as apostles, some as prophets, some as evangelizers, some as shepherds and teachers,” (Eph 4:11)
“Some as apostles”: Apostle means “one sent forth”, or missionary. It appears there were women apostles or missionaries in the early congregation as there are today. Romans 16:7 refers to a Christian couple. [i]
“Some as prophets”: The prophet Joel foretold that there would be women prophets in the Christian congregation (Acts 2:16, 17) and there were. (Acts 21:9)
“Some as evangelizers…and teachers”: We know that women are very effective evangelizers and to be a good evangelizer, one must be able to teach. (Ps 68:11; Titus 2:3)
Lett Creates a Problem
The problem that Lett introduces is the creation of a class of men who are to be viewed as a special gift from God. His interpretation that Ephesians 4:8 applies only the elders in the congregation, diminishes the role of all other Christians, male and female, and exalts the elders to a privileged status. Using this special status, he instructs us not to question these men, but to comply with their commands submissively.
Since when has unquestioning obedience to men ever resulted in praise to God’s name?
With good reason the Bible instructs us not to put our trust in men.
“Do not put your trust in princes Nor in a son of man, who cannot bring salvation.” (Ps 146:3)
This is not to suggest that we shouldn’t show respect to the older men (and women) in the Christian congregation, but Lett is demanding much more.
Let us begin by acknowledging that all the counsel is directed to those under the authority of the elders, but no instruction is being given to the elders themselves. What responsibility do the elders have? Are elders to expect that anyone who questions their decision is a rebel, a divisive person, one fomenting discord?
For example, in the “painting illustration” Lett gives, what should the elders have done in issuing the demand. Let us look at Hebrews 13:17 again, but we’ll turn it on its ear and in doing so reveal yet more translation bias, albeit one shared with most other translation teams who also have a vested interest in supporting the authority of their own church ecclesiastical heirarchy.
The Greek word, peithó, rendered “Be obedient” in Hebrews 13:17 actually means “to be persuaded”. It doesn’t mean “obey without question”. The Greeks had another word for that kind of obedience and it is found at Acts 5:29. Peitharcheó carries the English meaning for the word “to obey” and essentially means “to obey one in authority”. One would obey a Lord this way, or a king. But Jesus did not set up some in the congregation as lords or kings or governors. He said we were all brothers. He said we were not to lord it over one another. He said that only he is our leader. (Mt 23:3-12)
Should We Peithó or Peitharcheó Men?
So giving unquestioning obedience to men goes against the instructions of our one true lord. We can cooperate, yes, but only after we have been treated with respect. Elders treat the congregation with respect when they openly explain their reasons for some decision and when they willingly accept counsel and advice from others. (Pr 11:14)
So why doesn’t the NWT use the more accurate rendering? It could have translated Hebrews 13:17 as “Be persuaded by those taking the lead among you…” or “Allow yourselves to be convinced by those taking the lead among you…” or some such rendering that imposes the responsibility on the elders to be reasonable and convincing rather that authoritarian and dictatorial.
Lett says we should not obey the elders if they ask us to do something that goes against the Bible. In that he is correct. But here’s the rub: How are we to evaluate whether or not that is the case if we are not allowed to question them? How can we get the facts so as to make a responsible adult decision if the facts are kept from us for reasons of “confidentiality”? If we cannot even suggest that maybe the idea of painting the hall with a 2″ brush is wrong headed without being labelled as divisive, how are we going to question them on bigger matters?
Stephen Lett is quite happy to admonish us using 1 Thessalonians 5:12, 13, but he ignores what Paul says just a few verses farther on:
“. . .Make sure of all things; hold fast to what is fine. Abstain from every form of wickedness.” (1Th 5:21, 22)
How are we to “make sure of all things”, if we can’t even question the choice of a paint brush? When the elders tell us to shun someone with whom they have met secretly, how are we to know that they are not acting wickedly by shunning the innocent one? There are documented cases of victims of child sexual abuse who have been shunned but who have not committed any sin. (See here.) Lett would have us unquestioningly comply with the command of the elders to disassociate ourselves from any they have flagged as undesirable, but would that make Jehovah’s heart glad? Lett suggests that questioning the decision to paint the hall with a 2″ brush might cause some to stumble, but how many “little ones” have been stumbled when their loved ones have turned their backs on them because they have loyally and unquestioningly obeyed the commands of men. (Mt 15:9)
True, disagreeing with the elders may result in some discord and division within the congregation, but will someone be stumbled because we stand up for that is good and true? However, if we comply for the sake of “unity” but in so doing compromise our integrity before God, will that bring Jehovah’s approval? Will that protect the “little one”? Matthew 18:15-17 reveals that it is the congregation that decides who remains and who is cast out, not a threesome of elders meeting in secret whose decision must be accepted without question.
Our Shared Guilt
By their flawed translation of Ephesians 4:8 and Hebrews 13:17, the NWT translation committee has laid the foundation for a teaching that requires Jehovah’s Witnesses to unquestioningly obey the Governing Body and its lieutenants, the elders, but we have seen from personal experience the pain and suffering that has caused.
If we choose to comply with this teaching as espoused by Stephen Lett, we can make ourselves guilty before our Judge, Jesus Christ. You see, the elders have no power, other than the power we grant them.
When they do well, then yes, we should support them, and pray for them, and commend them, but we should also hold them accountable when they do wrong; and we should never surrender our will to them. The argument, “I was only following orders”, will not hold up well when standing before the Judge of all Mankind.
[i] “In Romans 16, Paul sends greetings to all those in the Roman Christian congregation known to him personally. In verse 7, he greets Andronicus and Junia. All early Christian commentators thought that these two people were a couple, and for good reason: “Junia” is a woman’s name. …the translators of the NIV, NASB, NW [our translation], TEV, AB, and LB (and the NRSV translators in a footnote) all have changed the name to an apparently masculine form, “Junius.” The problem is that there is no name “Junius” in the Greco-Roman world in which Paul was writing. The woman’s name, “Junia”, on the other hand, is well-known and common in that culture. So “Junius” is a made-up name, at best a conjecture.”