On many occasions, when discussing some new or existing scriptural point with a Jehovah’s Witness (JW), they might concede that it cannot be established from the Bible or that it does not make sense scripturally. The expectation is that the JW in question might consider reflecting upon or re-examining the teachings of the faith. Instead, the common response is: “We can’t expect to get everything right, but who else is doing the preaching work”. The view is that only JWs undertake the preaching work among all the Christian denominations, and that this is an identifying mark of true Christianity.
If the point is raised that in many churches people go out and preach in town centres, or through leaflet drops, etc., the reply will likely be: “But who does the house-to-house ministry?”
If they are challenged on what this means, then the explanation is nobody else does the “door-to-door” ministry. This has become a “trademark” of JWs from the second half of the 20th century until now.
Around the world, JWs are mandated (the euphemism often used is, “encouraged”) to partake in this method of preaching. An example of this is given in the following life story of Jacob Neufield taken from The Watchtower magazine of September 1st, 2008, page 23:
“Shortly after my baptism, my family decided to immigrate to Paraguay, South America, and Mother begged me to go. I was reluctant because I needed further Bible study and training. On a visit to the branch office of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Wiesbaden, I met August Peters. He reminded me of my responsibility to care for my family. He also gave me this admonition: “No matter what happens, never forget the door to door ministry. If you do, you’ll be just like the members of any other religion of Christendom.” To this day, I recognize the importance of that advice and the need to preach “from house to house,” or from door to door.—Acts 20:20, 21” (boldface added).
A more recent publication entitled God’s Kingdom Rules! (2014) states in Chapter 7 paragraph 22:
“None of the methods we have used to reach large audiences, such as newspapers, the “Photo-Drama,” radio programs, and the Web site, were meant to replace the door-to-door ministry. Why not? Because Jehovah’s people learned from the pattern set by Jesus. He did more than preach to large crowds; he focused on helping individuals. (Luke 19:1-5) Jesus also trained his disciples to do the same, and he gave them a message to deliver. (Read Luke 10:1, 8-11.) As discussed in Chapter 6, those taking the lead have always encouraged each servant of Jehovah to speak to people face-to-face.” —Acts 5:42; 20:20” (boldface added).
These two paragraphs highlight the importance given to the “door-to-door” ministry. In fact, when the body of JW literature is analysed, it often implies that it is a mark of true Christianity. From the above two paragraphs, there are two key verses that are used to support this activity, Acts 5:42 and 20:20. This article, and the two to follow will analyse the scriptural basis of this understanding, considering it from the following perspectives:
- How JWs arrive at this interpretation from the Bible;
- What the Greek words translated “house-to-house” actually mean;
- Whether “house-to-house” is equivalent to “door-to-door”;
- Other places in Scripture where these terms occur with a view to better understanding their meaning;
- What a closer examination of the Bible scholars cited in support of the JW view reveals;
- Whether the Bible book, Acts of the Apostles, reveals the first century Christians employing this method of preaching.
Throughout this article, the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures 1984 Reference Edition (NWT) and the Revised Study Bible of 2018 (RNWT) will be used. These Bibles have footnotes that seek to explain or justify the interpretation of “house to house”. In addition, the Kingdom Interlinear Translation of the Greek Scriptures (KIT 1985) will be employed to compare the renderings used in the final translation. All these can be accessed online on the JW Online LIbrary. [i]
JWs’ Unique Interpretation of “House to House”
In the book “Bearing Thorough Witness” About God’s Kingdom (published by the WTB&TS – Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania, 2009) a verse-by-verse commentary on the book Acts of the Apostles states the following on pages 169-170, paragraphs 14-15:
“Publicly and From House to House” (Acts 20:13-24)
14 Paul and his group traveled from Troas to Assos, then to Mitylene, Chios, Samos, and Miletus. Paul’s goal was to reach Jerusalem in time for the Festival of Pentecost. His haste to get to Jerusalem by Pentecost explains why he selected a vessel that bypassed Ephesus on this return trip. Since Paul wanted to talk to the Ephesian elders, however, he requested that they meet him at Miletus. (Acts 20:13-17) When they arrived, Paul said to them: “You well know how from the first day that I stepped into the district of Asia I was with you the whole time, slaving for the Lord with the greatest lowliness of mind and tears and trials that befell me by the plots of the Jews; while I did not hold back from telling you any of the things that were profitable nor from teaching you publicly and from house to house. But I thoroughly bore witness both to Jews and to Greeks about repentance toward God and faith in our Lord Jesus.”—Acts 20:18-21.
15 There are many ways to reach people with the good news today. Like Paul, we strive to go where the people are, whether at bus stops, on busy streets, or in marketplaces. Yet, going from house to house remains the primary preaching method used by Jehovah’s Witnesses. Why? For one thing, house-to-house preaching gives all an adequate opportunity to hear the Kingdom message on a regular basis, thus demonstrating God’s impartiality. It also allows honesthearted ones to receive personal assistance according to their needs. In addition, the house-to-house ministry builds the faith and endurance of those who engage in it. Indeed, a trademark of true Christians today is their zeal in witnessing “publicly and from house to house.” (Boldface added)
Paragraph 15 clearly states that the primary method of ministry is “house to house”. This is derived from a reading of Acts 20:18-21 where Paul uses the terms “… teaching you publicly and house to house…” Witnesses take this as implicit proof that their door-to-door preaching was the primary method used in the first century. If so, then why isn’t preaching “publicly”, which Paul mentions before “house to house”, taken as the primary method, both then and now?
Earlier in Acts 17:17, while Paul is in Athens, it states, “So he began to reason in the synagogue with the Jews and the other people who worshipped God and every day in the marketplace with those who happened to be on hand.”
In this account, Paul’s ministry is in public places, the synagogue and the marketplace. No mention is made of any house-to-house or door-to-door preaching. (In Part 3 of this series of articles, there will be a complete assessment of all ministry settings from the book Acts of the Apostles.) The paragraph goes on to make four further claims.
First, that it is “demonstrating God’s impartiality” by giving all an adequate opportunity to hear the message on a regular basis. This assumes that there is an even distribution of JWs throughout the world based on population ratios. This is clearly not the case as demonstrated by even a casual check of any Yearbook of JWs[ii]. Different countries have vastly different ratios. This means that some might get an opportunity to hear the message six times a year, some once a year, while others have never received the message. How could God be impartial with this approach? In addition, individuals are often asked to move to an area that has greater needs. This in itself shows that all areas are not covered equally. (The need to promote the idea that the preaching of JWs is a manifestation of Jehovah’s impartiality results from the doctrine that all who do not respond to their preaching will die eternally at Armageddon. This is an inevitable consequence of the unscriptural teaching concerning the Other Sheep of John 10:16. See the three-part series “Approaching the 2015 Memorial” for more information.)
Second, “honesthearted ones receive personal assistance according to their needs”. The use of the term “honesthearted” is very loaded. It implies that those who listen are honest in their hearts whilst those that do not, have dishonest hearts. A person might be going through a difficult experience at the moment when JWs show up and could be in no fit state to listen. An individual might have mental health challenges, economic issues and so forth. All of these factors might contribute to not being in a fit state to listen. How does this demonstrate the quality of honesty in their hearts? Further, it might well be that the JW who approaches the householder has an unpleasant manner, or is unwittingly insensitive to the person’s evident situation. Even if a person decides to listen and begin a study programme, what happens when he or she cannot get satisfying answers to a question or disagrees on a point and chooses to end the study? Does that mean they are dishonest? The assertion clearly is difficult to support, very simplistic and without any scriptural support.
Third, “house-to-house ministry builds the faith and endurance of those who engage in it”. No explanation is given as to how this is achieved, nor is any scriptural foundation provided for the statement. In addition, if the preaching work is to individuals, often people might not be home when JWs call. How does knocking on empty doors help build faith and endurance? Faith is built in God and in his Son, Jesus. As for endurance, it results when we successfully undergo tribulation or testing successfully. (Romans 5:3)
Finally, “a trademark of true Christians today is their zeal in witnessing publicly and from house to house.” It is impossible to explain this statement scripturally and the assertion of it being a trademark of true Christians flies in the face of Jesus’ statement in John 13:34-35 where the identifying mark of his true disciples is love.
Furthermore, in The Watchtower of July 15th, 2008, on pages 3, 4 under the article titled “The House-to-House Ministry—Why Important Now?” we find another example of the importance attached to this ministry. Here are paragraphs 3 and 4 under the subheading “The Apostolic Method”:
3 The method of preaching from house to house has its basis in the Scriptures. When Jesus sent forth the apostles to preach, he instructed them: “Into whatever city or village you enter, search out who in it is deserving.” How were they to search for deserving ones? Jesus told them to go to people’s homes, saying: “When you are entering into the house, greet the household; and if the house is deserving, let the peace you wish it come upon it.” Were they to visit without a prior invitation? Note Jesus’ further words: “Wherever anyone does not take you in or listen to your words, on going out of that house or that city shake the dust off your feet.” (Matt. 10:11-14) These instructions make clear that as the apostles “went through the territory from village to village, declaring the good news,” they were to take the initiative to visit people in their homes.—Luke 9:6.
4 The Bible specifically mentions that the apostles preached from house to house. For example, Acts 5:42 says of them: “Every day in the temple and from house to house they continued without letup teaching and declaring the good news about the Christ, Jesus.” Some 20 years later, the apostle Paul reminded the older men of the congregation in Ephesus: “I did not hold back from telling you any of the things that were profitable nor from teaching you publicly and from house to house.” Did Paul visit those elders before they became believers? Evidently so, for he taught them, among other things, “about repentance toward God and faith in our Lord Jesus.” (Acts 20:20, 21) Commenting on Acts 20:20, Robertson’s Word Pictures in the New Testament says: “It is worth noting that this greatest of preachers preached from house to house.”
In paragraph 3, Matthew 10:11-14 is used to support the house-to-house ministry. Let us read this section in full[iii]. It states:
“Into whatever city or village you enter, search out who in it is deserving, and stay there until you leave. 12 When you enter the house, greet the household. 13 If the house is deserving, let the peace you wish it come upon it; but if it is not deserving, let the peace from you return upon you. 14 Wherever anyone does not receive you or listen to your words, on going out of that house or that city, shake the dust off your feet.”
In verse 11, the paragraph conveniently leaves out the words “… and stay there until you leave.” In the society of Jesus’ day, the providing of hospitality was very important. Here the Apostles were strangers to the “city or village” and they would be seeking accommodation. They are instructed to find this accommodation and to stay put, and not move around. If a Witness really wants to follow the Bible counsel and apply the context of Jesus’ words, he would not go from house to house once he has found someone deserving who listens.
In paragraph 4, Acts 5:42 and 20:20, 21 are quoted with an interpretation of the meaning. Along with this, a quote from Robertson’s Word Pictures in the New Testament is provided. We will now explore these two verses using the NWT Reference Bible 1984 as well as the RNWT Study Edition 2018 and the Kingdom Interlinear Translation of the Greek Scriptures 1985. As we consider these Bibles, there are footnotes that contain references to various Bible commentators. We will look at the commentaries in context and get a fuller picture on the interpretation of “house to house” by JWs in the follow-up article, Part 2.
Comparison of Greek Words Translated “House to House”
As previously discussed there are two verses that JW theology uses to support the door-to-door ministry, Acts 5:42 and 20:20. The word translated “house to house” is katʼ oiʹkon. In the above two verses and Acts 2:46, the grammatical construct is identical and used with the accusative singular in the distributive sense. In the remaining four verses where it occurs—Romans 16:5; 1 Corinthians 16:19; Colossians 4:15; Philemon 2—the word is also used but not in the same grammatical construct. The word has been highlighted and taken from the KIT (1985) published by WTB&TS and shown below:
Three places Kat oikon is translated with same distributive sense.
The context of each use of the words is important. In Acts 20:20, Paul is in Miletus and the Elders from Ephesus have come up to meet him. Paul gives words of instruction and encouragement. Just from these words, it is not possible to claim that Paul went from door to door in his ministry work. The passage in Acts 19:8-10 gives a detailed account of Paul’s ministry in Ephesus. It states:
Entering the synagogue, for three months he spoke with boldness, giving talks and reasoning persuasively about the Kingdom of God.9 But when some stubbornly refused to believe, speaking injuriously about The Way before the crowd, he withdrew from them and separated the disciples from them, giving talks daily in the school auditorium of Ty·ranʹnus. 10 This went on for two years, so that all those living in the province of Asia heard the word of the Lord, both Jews and Greeks.”
Here it is clearly stated that all living in the province got the message through his daily talks in the hall of Tyrannus. Again, there is no mention of a “trademark” ministry by Paul that involved house-to-house preaching. If anything, the implied “trademark” is to have daily or regular meetings where people can attend and listen to the discourses. In Ephesus, Paul went to the weekly meeting at the Synagogue for 3 months and then for two years in the school auditorium of Tyrannus. No mention of house-to-house work is given in Acts 19 during his stay in Ephesus.
Please read Acts 5:12-42. In Acts 5:42, Peter and the other apostles have just been released after a trial in the Sanhedrin. They had been teaching in Solomon’s colonnade in the temple. In Acts 5:12-16, Peter and other apostles were performing many signs and wonders. The people held them in high esteem and believers were being added to their numbers. All the sick brought to them were healed. It does not state that the Apostles went to the houses of the people, but rather that people came or were brought to them.
- In verses 17-26, the high priest, filled with jealousy, arrested them and put them in prison. They are freed by an angel and told to stand in the temple and speak to the people. This they did at day break. Interestingly the angel does not ask them to go door to door but to go and take a stand in the temple, a very public space. The temple captain and his officers brought them not by force but through a request to the Sanhedrin.
- In verses 27-32, they are questioned by the high priest about why they were doing this work when previously ordered not to (see Acts 4:5-22). Peter and the apostles give a witness and explain that they have to obey God and not men. In verses 33-40, the high priest wants to kill them, but Gamaliel a respected teacher of the law, advised against this course of action. The Sanhedrin, took the advice, beat the apostles and charged them not to speak in the name of Jesus and released them.
- In verses 41-42, they are rejoicing at the dishonour suffered, as it is for Jesus’ name. They carry on in the temple and again from house to house. Were they knocking on people’s doors, or were they being invited into homes where they would preach to friends and family? Again, it cannot be deduced that they were visiting door to door. The emphasis is in the very public manner of preaching and teaching in the temple accompanied by the signs and healings.
In Acts 2:46, the context is the day of Pentecost. Peter has delivered the first recorded sermon after the resurrection and ascension of Jesus. In verse 42, the four activities that all believers shared is recorded as:
“And they continued (1) devoting themselves to the teaching of the apostles, (2) to associating together, (3) to the taking of meals, and (4) to prayers.”
This association would have taken place in homes as they shared a meal afterwards. Thereafter, verse 46 states:
“And day after day they were in constant attendance in the temple with a united purpose, and they took their meals in different homes and shared their food with great rejoicing and sincerity of heart,”
This provides a glimpse into the earliest Christian life and preaching method. They were all Jewish Christians at this stage and the temple was the place where people would visit for matters of worship. This is where they congregated and in the following chapters in Acts we see more details being added. It seems like the message was given at Solomon’s Colonnade to all the people. The Greek words cannot really mean “door to door” as that would mean that they went eating “door to door”. It must mean that they met at the homes of different believers.
Based on Acts 2:42, 46, it is highly likely, that “house to house” meant that they congregated in each other’s homes to discuss the teachings of the apostles, fellowshipped, ate meals together and prayed. This conclusion is further supported by considering the footnotes in the NWT Reference Bible 1984 for the above three verses. The footnotes clearly state that an alternative rendering could be “and in private houses” or “and according to houses”.
In the table below, there are three places where the Greek words katʼ oiʹkon appear. The table includes the translation in the NWT Reference Bible 1984. For completeness, the accompanying footnotes are included as they provide possible alternative renderings:
There are four other occurrences of “Kat oikon” in the New Testament. In each of these occurrences, the context clearly shows that these were homes of believers, where local congregation (house church) fellowshipped and also partook of meals as already discussed in Acts.
1 Corinthians 16:19
Having analyzed these scriptures in context, we can list the main findings:
- The contextual analysis of Acts 5:42 does not support the house-to-house theology of Jehovah’s Witnesses. The indicators are that the Apostles preached publicly in the temple area, in Solomon’s colonnade, and then the believers met in private homes to further their learning of the Hebrew Scriptures and the teachings of the Apostles. The angel that freed the Apostles directs them to stand in the temple and there is no mention of going “door to door”.
- When Acts 20:20 is considered with Paul’s work in Ephesus in Acts 19:8-10, it becomes clear that Paul taught daily for two years in the auditorium of Tyrannus. This is how the message spread to everyone in the province of Asia Minor. This is an explicit statement in Scripture that the JW Organization ignores. Again, their theological interpretation of “house to house” is not sustainable.
- Acts 2:46 clearly cannot be interpreted as “house to house” as in every home, but only as in believers’ homes. The NWT clearly translates it as homes and not as “house to house”. In doing this, it accepts that the Greek words can be translated as “homes” rather than “house to house”, as they do in Acts 5:42 and 20:20.
- The other 4 occurrences of the Greek words in the New Testament are all clearly referring to congregation meetings in homes of believers.
From all the above, it is clearly not possible to draw the JW theological interpretation of “house to house” means “door to door”. In fact, based on these verses, the preaching seems to be done in public places and the congregation met in homes to further their learning of Scripture and the teachings of the apostles.
In addition, in their reference and study Bibles, various Bible commentators are quoted. In Part 2 we will examine these sources in context, to see if the interpretation by these commentators agrees with JW theology about the meaning of “house to house”.
[i] Since JWs prefer this translation, we will refer to this in the discussions unless otherwise stated.
[ii] Up until last year, WTB&TS published a yearbook of selected stories and experiences from the previous year and provides data on the progress of the work in individual countries and globally. The data includes number of JW publishers, hours spent preaching, number of people studying, number of baptisms, etc. Click here to access the Yearbooks from 1970 to 2017.
[iii] It is always useful to read the entire chapter to get a fuller sense of the context. Here Jesus is sending out the newly chosen 12 Apostles with clear instructions on how to accomplish the ministry on that occasion. The parallel accounts are found in Mark 6:7-13 and Luke 9:1-6.