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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.”
Awesome Article, but should this surprise us of the Wickedness of the so called organization, let’s read Ephesians 4:7 – 16. Does any verse in there speak of Elders, I will wait. Still waiting. Ah No. Now let’s get the Best Bible Translation in Mankind well according to the Yearbook of 2014 page 4 and let’s get the 1984 NWT reference Bible and let’s look at Ephesians 4:8. What do we find out, well we find that good old In is in Brackets oh how i love those Brackets. Even in there footnotes on the bottt it is literal To… Read more »
We are missing the obvious. 16 minutes of the monthly broadcast can be summed up in two sentences.
1 The troops are acting rebelliously.
2 We need repetition for emphasis to resolve this worldwide problem.
Of late, a letter from the Nigerian branch to HLC directs that all witness medical staffs should stop administration of blood transfusion even if ordered by their superior. Some overzealous HLC elders read the letter to the congregation albeit the letter was not addressed to congregation but HLC with a directive to discuss with jw medical staffs. The letter is a policy change,previously they were allowed to administer if asked by a superior. They were asked to prepare for eventual job loss. So when I got wind of it because it was not read in ours,I made efforts to confirm… Read more »
Quite right, James. They are definitely heading somewhere. They like to apply Proverbs 4:18 to themselves. They’ve got the chapter right, but missed the applicable verse by one. The verse that applies is:
“The way of the wicked is like the darkness; They do not know what makes them stumble.” (Pr 4:19)
Thanks for telling us about this policy. What’s odd is that I haven’t heard about it elsewhere. Is the Nigerian branch going rogue?
So, if the 8 men say “do not listen to the man called Jesus”, all JW’s should listen because like the Pharisees, they were appointed by God?….well they have not said yet Not to Listen but they demand that you see Jesus as they want you to see him, despite what Jesus himself said about himself. The WT is becoming more and more a cult type of organization. Nowadays people in most countries are encouraged to do personal research regarding your medical treatment, to ask questions, or a second opinion. Same with type of school, type of food you eat… Read more »
dear Menrov, I you goal is winning an argument, there is no way with JW organisation. They have to preserve this Monstre, this Golem. This Organisation eats and devour all, included sound reasoning and Truth. There is only one way to help sincere people to escape fron this Monster, ask questions. Questions are like seeds, sooner or later when condition are favourable they wake up and start putting out roots, eroding the environment. Ask why the Translators translate in this way tois anthrōpois. Ask why the translation is “in men” and not “to men” since you learned at school tois… Read more »
Corrado you make a very good point, and it is a very helpful reminder to ask questions when trying to overcome very strong entrenched beliefs of our brothers and sisters who are still indoctrinated by falsehoods. Jesus did the same thing on many occasions allowing the listeners to come to the correct conclusion on their own! Also this puts the onus on the JW to make a defence for their faith and the things they believe in without getting defensive. And thank you for you well researched addition around hypeikete and hypotassesthō. This was very helpful. Of course this discussion… Read more »
Good work Meleti, the information you have presented from the scriptures and with the use of various translations of the Greek scriptural text and Lexicons has thoroughly and completely refuted the Orgs interpretation of the scriptures on the matter. It reminds me of the account of Elijah when he had issue with the priests of Baal and Jah sent down fire that completely ate up the sacrificed bull, the rocks/altar the water and left nothing! Stephen Lett thinks he has gotten in with the “first punch” by himself setting the scope and framework for understanding of the scriptures, the issue… Read more »
I was shocked when I first heard that people with mental diasabilities or sickness would be DF’ed regardless from their condition. I was first told by the presiding overseer in my cong, and since then read e.g. from the Shepherd’s book how people threatening with suicide will only delay a DF, as the JC need to confer with the branch office. What was even more disturbing was that my father in law, who has also been an elder for many years, told my wife that a JC would absolutely consider the mental health of the “transgressor“ (i.e. reduce likelihood of… Read more »
I recall presiding on a JDC dealing with a person with serious mental issues. He had been heavily influenced in his actions by a former witness. We gave him time to do what he could to cut off contact with that person, and met him again at a later time. He needed time and direction to demonstrate some degree of repentance. Looking back, I believe we got it right. I took some flack for handling it that way, though, but, fortunately no one could do anything about it.
Hi Meleti, thanks for your efforts. I would like to add some considerations. In relation with your analysis of Hebrew 13:17 I would like to add these thoughts. The WTS is making a complete eisegesis using the rendering of the translation of the word peithesthe to “obey” exploiting the wide semantics or range of meaning applying to its english translation. I also noticed that the word hypeikete (submit yourselves) is wrongly applied in english as complete submissiveness. Analysing carefully the grammar and the context of its use, I found that hypeikete appears only in this verse in all the NT.… Read more »
Thanks Corrado, for adding this excellent research!
Thanks Eric for the interesting analysis and thanks Corrado for you interesting comment. Corrado, after spending quite some quality time with the Strong’s Concordance and other sources I agree with your conclusions about the meanings of hypeiko and hypotasso and the meaning of He 13:17, and of Lett’s misuse of this verse. However, while the word hypotasso seems to indeed carry mostly the meaning of “vertical” submission (people to authorities, people to God, all things to Christ, wives to their husbands, slaves to their masters etc.), there are two use cases of hypotasso which seem to be exceptions. Eph 5:21… Read more »
Thank you tyhik for your comments. I believe that even those verses you referred to demonstrate the same thesis. Unfortunately, our vision and understanding of the Christian congregation is strongly coloured by our years within the WTS. The structure of the elders as understood in the WTS congregations is very far from that of the first century christian congregation. Let us remember that the Christian congregation had a very short life. From the death of Christ, about 30 years after the corruption of the congregation was already at work. Let us remember that the Christian society of the first century,… Read more »
Pointed and accurate article, as always. Reminds me of Universal Soldier by Buffy Sainte Marie. “He’s the Universal soldier and he really is to blame”. might seem a bit unfair, but everyone is encouraged to read God’s word for themselves. If we simply accept what we are told, it is because we have trusted men, just as soldiers have at war time. Listen to the song again, if you are not familiar with it.
Very nice article. Thank you. I remember a circuit overseer giving a talk around two years ago about being obedient to the governing body and he read from Acts 21:20-26 but he mostly emphasized the words in vs. 23 where the elders in Jerusalem told Paul, “SO DO WHAT WE TELL YOU:”. The c/o then went on to tell everyone in the Kingdom Hall that since he’s a direct representative of the governing body he could include himself when saying to the congregation, ‘SO DO WHAT WE TELL YOU’. Just as a side note the issue going on in the… Read more »
My brother in-law (elder for many years) used the same scriptures and reasoning with me. Because Paul submitted to the Jerusalem elders (on this account, without this compromising his conscience and bearing in mind that Paul was willing to be “anything” for all sorts of people), we should submit as well. No questions asked. Guess he has not analyzed those scriptures up against Galatians ch 1 and 2.
That’s very true. The letter to the Galatians has been a very special book over the last couple years in helping me to understand things that were hidden to me while in the org mindset. I think if anyone today said anything about the governing body of Jehovah’s Witnesses close to what the apostle Paul said in Galatians 2:6 regarding the elders in Jerusalem, they would probably be disfellowshipped or at least stripped of all so called privileges or high regard in the org. “ But regarding those who seemed to be important—whatever they were makes no difference to me,… Read more »
Thank you for discussing this lecture by Stephen Lett so quickly. “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.”” Is that the only proviso for when a Christian should not obey the Elders – when they tell us to do something that is unscriptural? It is very scary that a JW must obey the Elders to such an extent. Let’s use another… Read more »
Nice focus and advice Eric. I would have to say that if for some impossible reason I were in a congregation, I would have to respect and cooperate with the elders just as much as I would respect and cooperate with “an ordinary publisher.” Otherwise favoritism will exist. Certainly Christlike love and respect should be given in the same amount to a publisher as an elder. And as you say, our obedience belongs to Christ. Jesus did not give priority to those who had privileges of authority given by men, over those who were lowly. If that is what attracts… Read more »
I have always liked the articles you, Tadua and other contributors have published at this site. The recent ones even more so. Thanks. It seems increasingly likely to me that the GB makes them self culpable of the sins of the Man of Lawlessness, 2 Thes 2. I have inserted a quote from “..Christian Freedom”, Franz, p. 17, which I find relevant wrt the obedience the GB require for them selfs and its “lieutenants”: “Those under the authority are thus robbed of the freedom to decide for themselves whether the information is factual or false, beneficial or detrimental. And the… Read more »
Thanks for the context analysis. Gifts to men is in harmony with the context, and as apostle Peter says to all Christian-1 Peter 4:10 “To the extent that each one has received a gift, use it in ministering to one another as fine stewards of God’s undeserved kindness that is expressed in various ways.” The agenda of unquestionably obedience is always their priority, imagine the hyperbolic illustration of not questioning 2″ brush. I once had a discussion with an elder last year on this issue, he said even if GB are wrong on a scriptural issue I should obey, and added… Read more »
Would you know if “letting the GB carry your sins” has been made “written JW” law, or is it something that has filtered down in e.g. COs’ elder meetings?
The thinking seems unbiblical:
If anything, it’s only Jesus who are able to “carry our sins”, through his sacrifice.
I do not believe it is written law as far as I have seen.
From my own experience though it does seem to be a common feeling of thought among those still believing the org is “the truth”.
A sister expressed to me a couple of months ago that she felt all accountability is on the governing body and all she had to worry about was to listen and follow them.