Understanding Headship in the Congregation – Study 7/2021
“The Christ is head of the congregation, he being a savior of this body.” Ephesian 5:23.
[Study 7 from ws 2/21 p.14, April 19 – April 25, 2021]
Headship, what headship?
The only point that is certain about this week’s Watchtower Study Article is the readers will be none the wiser as to whether headship should really exist in the Congregation. It also leaves questions unanswered on other teachings on headship that were attempted in the previous two weeks articles with regard to women and men.
Is Every Brother the Head of Every Sister?
For example, the theme for paragraph 8 & 9 is “Is every brother the head of every sister?”. “The short answer is no!” is the answer given. According to the article “A brother is not the head of all sisters in the congregation; Christ is (Read Ephesians 5:23)”. That is the sum total of explanation! Why? Is it because the Governing Body say so? Given that the interpretation the Organization gave of this verse in the previous week’s articles was that head meant headship in Ephesians 5, there should be some explanation at least. However, no explanation is given as to how it only applies to wives as opposed to all women, (not just sisters).
Besides which as a reminder the verse in Ephesians 5:23 should be translated as “[likewise] the wives to their own husbands, in the manner [they are] to the Lord”. (For an examination of this scripture see the review for the previous weeks Watchtower article here.) [i]
Furthermore, it goes on to claim “And in the congregation, the elders have only limited authority over sisters and brothers. (1 Thessalonians 5:12; Hebrews 13:17)”. These are the two scriptures trotted out regularly as the proof of their claim. But is it a slam dunk for the Organization or are there problems with their understanding and translation of these scriptures?
Presiding or Leading?
In the first scripture cited of 1 Thessalonians 5:12, the NWT Reference Bible (Rbi8) says “Now we request YOU, brothers, to have regard for those who are working hard among YOU and presiding over YOU in the Lord and admonishing you;”.
A literal interlinear translation such as Biblehub reads subtly differently. Can you spot the change in emphasis?
Firstly, let us examine the meaning of some words from the NWT translation that are in bold above.
- A “request” is defined as “the act of asking politely or formally (officially) for something”.
- To have “regard” is defined as “to consider or think in a specified way”.
- “Presiding” is defined as “to be in the position of authority in a meeting or gathering”.
Therefore, the NWT is conveying the following thought:
“Now we formally and officially ask you to think of in a specified way those who are working hard among you and are in a position of authority over you in the Lord.”
Now let us examine the original Greek text. The Interlinear reads[ii] “We implore however you brothers to appreciate those toiling among you and taking the lead over you in the Lord and admonishing you”.
- “Implore” means “beg someone earnestly”.
- “Appreciate” means “to recognize the full worth of”.
- “taking the lead” means “to be the first to start doing something or be most active in doing something”.
Is not the NWT being authoritarian in tone?
By contrast, therefore, the original text conveys the following meaning:
“Now we beg you earnestly to recognize the full worth of those toiling among you and being the most active in doing things in the Lord.”
Instead of being authoritarian in tone, the original Bible text appeals to its readers.
It is good to ponder on the following example with which most readers will be familiar:
When birds are migrating for the winter, they often form a ‘v’ shaped formation. One bird will take the lead at the point of the ‘v’. At the head of the ‘v’ formation, it requires the most energy and the others flying behind it benefit from the effort it makes and those following are then able to expend less energy than the one in the lead. In fact, those birds flying behind then take turns to replace the one taking the lead, so it can recoup its energy a little by benefiting from being in the slipstream of a new leading bird.
But do any of the birds taking the lead preside and have authority over the rest of the flock? Not at all.
We now turn to the other scripture, Hebrews 13:17, cited by the Watchtower in support of their teaching.
Gifts in men or Gifts to mankind?
The second scripture cited is Hebrews 13:17 “Be obedient to those who are taking the lead among YOU and be submissive, for they are keeping watch over YOUR souls as those who will render an account; that they may do this with joy and not with sighing, for this would be damaging to YOU.”.
The Greek word translated “Be Obedient to” in the NWT (and to be fair in many other Bible Translations) actually means “be persuaded by”, or “have confidence in”.[iii] Obedience in today’s English conveys the idea of obligation to do as one is told, without questioning it. This is a far cry from having confidence in. For that to happen the ones taking the lead need to have acted in a way that one could have confidence in them. We also should remember that an overseer is not the same as a leader.
The same paragraph 5 in the Watchtower article then states,” It is true that through Christ, Jehovah has given “gifts in men” to His congregation. (Ephesians 4:8)”.
That very claim at the outset presupposes that God would bless the congregations of Jehovah’s Witnesses and that they are his people on earth today, chosen in 1919 in some undefinable and unprovable way.
However, more importantly, this is a classic example of a scripture taken out of context by the Organization. In Ephesians 4:7 (which is not cited to read nor quoted for reasons that will become obvious) the Apostle Paul says, “Now to each one of us undeserved kindness was given according to how the Christ measured out the free gift.” Here the Apostle Paul was talking to all Christians, he had just been saying “One body there is and one spirit, even as you were called in the one hope to which you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Ephesians 4:4-5), referring to all Christians, both male and female.
The Greek word translated “men” can also be translated mankind (i.e. male and female) based on the context. Additionally, here Paul is also quoting from Psalm 68:18, which is translated in many Bibles as “people” i.e. “men” in the sense of “mankind”. Psalm 68 says in more than one translation, “… you received gifts from people, even the rebellious …” (NIV)[iv], not from men as in, specifically males. The Apostle Paul had been talking to all Christians and so in context, based on the quote from Psalm it should read “gifts to mankind”. The point the Apostle Paul was trying to make that God was now giving gifts to people, instead of receiving gifts from people.
What gifts would the Apostle Paul have been talking about? In a parallel scripture Romans 12:4-8 mentions the gifts of prophecy, ministry, teaching, exhortation, distributing, etc. 1 Corinthians 12:1-31 is all about gifts of the spirit, verse 28 lists these gifts, apostles, prophets, teachers, powerful works, gifts of healings, helpful services, abilities to direct, different tongues. These were the gifts that all early Christians were being given, both male and female were receiving them. Phillip the evangelizer is recorded in Acts 21:8-9 as having “… four daughters, virgins, that prophesied.”.
Of course, the Organization, having twisted and taken two scriptures out of context, then proceeds to build on that foundation made of sand. Indeed, in the Watchtower Study Article 34 of 2020 (August 2020 WT p20) in paragraph 5 they claimed the following: “These ‘gifts in men’ include Governing Body members, appointed helpers to the Governing Body, Branch Committee members, circuit overseers, field instructors, congregation elders, and ministerial servants” (paragraph 5). Yes, note the hierarchy too, the GB first, then the helpers, down to the lowly MS’s. Indeed, is it any wonder that in the Organization “When you think of those who have a place in the congregation, your mind may immediately turn to those who take the lead.”? The Organization reinforced their wrong teaching, right there in the same paragraph.
Yet was the first century congregation structured like this? Search as much as you like, you will not find any reference to Governing Body members and helpers, Branch Committee members, circuit overseers, and field instructors. In fact, you will not even find “congregation elders”, (you will find “elders” in Revelation, but even here the term “elders” is not used in relation to the congregation). The only term used is “older men”, which was a description, not a title, for they were truly older men, men with experience in life. (See Acts 4:5, 8, 23 Acts 5:21, Acts 6:12, Acts 22:5 – Jewish Non-Christian older men; Acts 11:30, Acts 14:23, Acts 15:4, 22 – Christian older men).
How should we view Sisters?
Paragraph 5 reminds us that Jesus gave women honor and respect. “He did not follow the custom of the Pharisees, who looked down on women and who would not even speak to them in public, let alone discuss the Scriptures with them. Instead, he included women in the deep spiritual discussions that he had with his other disciples. (Read Luke 10:38, 39, 42.) He also allowed women to accompany him on his preaching tours. (Luke 8:1-3)”. All of the preceding is true and should be read slowly and digested carefully.
The final sentence of the paragraph gives me mixed feelings. At face value it is also accurate, but the wording comes over to the author as condescending. It says “And Jesus gave them the privilege of announcing to the apostles that he had been raised from the dead. -John 20:16-18.”. Yes, it was a privilege, but the question is why did Jesus do that? Was Jesus just dishing out a privilege or was it more than that?
It is interesting to note the following quote: “The change in the Mishnah indicates the following evolution: at one point, women were accepted as witnesses, indicated in Sanhedrin, then only in some situations, indicated in Rosh Hashanah, then not at all, as seen in Shevuot. Gradually, rabbinic decrees stripped women of the right to testify. This implies that this law was not originally from the Bible: if women were prohibited from testifying in the bible, they would not be permitted to testify in particular situations in other legal texts. The weak proof using gezera shava (verbal analogy) and the non-direct examples from the Bible further support the idea that women were originally able to testify.”[v]
To what level women’s testimony was accepted during the first century CE is a matter of debate. But nonetheless one would have expected the first witnesses to be the male disciples so as to carry more weight among the first century Jews and Pharisees. Yet Jesus gave the women his vote of confidence and showed that he trusted them, a powerful message to his male disciples.
Roles of Family Heads and Elders, and Respect Christ as head of the Congregation
The remaining sections in the article, “The roles of family heads and elders” and “Respect Christ as head of the congregation” are both very light on facts to support their conjecture and assist the readers.
Just for clarity the author views Jesus Christ as the head of the Christian congregation, not specifically just the congregations of Jehovah’s Witnesses. However, he does takes issue with the claim made in paragraph 14 that “As our head, Jesus has the authority to make and to enforce rules that govern the conduct of individuals, of families, and of the entire congregation. (Galatians 6:2)”. How many rules do you know that Jesus made? True, He gave plenty of principles for us to do our best to follow, but what rules did he give us? There is one commandment he specifically gave which Paul referred to as the law of Christ. That was as recorded in John 13:34 “I am giving you a new commandment, that you love one another; just as I have loved you, you also love one another.”.
If you think that surely Christ gave more rules than that, search the scriptures under “rule”, “law”, “command”, “commandment”. Yes, Jesus has the authority to make and enforce rules, as the scriptures such as Matthew 28:18 tell us that Jesus said that “All authority has been given me in heaven and on the earth.”. But, he so far has not. If he has not seen fit to make and enforce any other rules than to love one another, then that removes any authority for anyone to claim that they have headship over a man, a woman, a wife or a husband, or a congregation.
True, he did ask his disciples to go and make disciples of people of all the nations, baptizing them in his name. He also asked his disciples to keep remembering his death by partaking of the wine and unleavened bread. But, Jesus did not command them to do either of these things.
In conclusion, the Watchtower Study Article definitely fails to prove its case for headship within the congregation.
If there is no headship, what is there then?
That brings us a full circle and helps us to see that as Ephesians 5:21 reads, we should: “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” [NIV, NLT, BSB, BLB, NKJV, NASB]. Yes, Jehovah has only given authority to Jesus, no-one else. The scriptures do not record Jesus passing on that authority. Everyone, yes, everyone should willingly be submissive to one another to show reverence for the Christ. This includes men to women and women to men, husbands to wives and vice-versa. If all show this submissiveness then they truly will be showing they are fulfilling the one command Jesus gave us. To love one another as he loved us.