Again Magazine, Volume 15, Number 3 September 1992
THE BIBLE & THE CHURCH
By Raymond L Zell
A CONVERSATION WITH A JEHOVAH’S WITNESS
Excuse me, could we have a few moments of your time?”
Startled, I looked up from the bank-teller machine to see two neatly dressed young men standing at a respectful distance, with smiles on their faces and black-covered Bibles tucked firmly under their arms.
It was Sunday morning, so the suits and Bibles didn’t surprise me. But somehow I knew at a glance that these guys were looking for more than directions to the nearest Calvary Chapel.
“Actually, I’m afraid I don’t have much time,” I responded honestly. “I’m on my way to Church, and services start in just a few minutes— is there something I can do for you?”
“We are going around town talking with people such as yourself about God. We have found there is much confusion on the part of Christians today about who God is and how to interpret His Word, the Bible—especially concerning doctrines that aren’t really in the Bible—like, for instance, the Trinity doctrine. Maybe we could meet with you later.”
ARMED AND DANGEROUS
Actually, I didn’t expect these two young Jehovah’s Witnesses to take me up on my offer to drop in any time during the week to my office at our small Christian bookstore. So when they showed up a few days later, Bibles and briefcases intact, I was a little taken aback. But, an offer was an offer, so trying not to wince as I left behind a desk full of papers and projects, I said, “Help yourself to something to drink and pull up a chair. Let’s talk.”
Of the two, Joe* did most of the talking, and I found myself liking him from the start. His soft-spoken, unpretentious manner suggested to me that his reasons for being a Witness were sincere, albeit woefully misdirected. Here, I guessed, was a seeker who had not yet discovered the dead-end to the path he had chosen.
“Did you know that the word “Trinity” is not found anywhere in the Bible?” Joe began expectantly.
I had heard this line more times than I cared to let on, and could have responded with any number of other words and phrases which, though not found directly in the pages of the Bible, were perfectly acceptable to even the most die-hard J.W. (e.g. New Testament, the canon of Scripture, and Jehovah—sorry, but it’s not in the original Hebrew). I decided to go with a more hands-on approach.
“You’re right, Joe. The word “Trinity” is not found in the Bible. Of course, I don’t see the word “pamphlet” in the Bible, or read anything about people going around door-to-door handing out religious tracts with funny pictures on them either. I assume you don’t have any problems with that, do you?”
Joe looked a little disconcerted.
“If the word Trinity is troublesome for you, let’s not use it. Since neither of us have any problem believing in God, the Father— whom you would call Jehovah—let’s talk about Jesus Christ. For twenty centuries the Christian Church has held that He is of the same nature as Jehovah God, co-eternal with the Father, and sharing fully in His divinity. Do you agree with the Church’s historic teaching concerning this?”
Joe looked even more uncomfortable.
“Well, as a matter of fact, no, I don’t.”
“And on what basis?”
“Because I don’t think that is what the Bible teaches,” he responded tentatively.
I heard it in his voice. Joe was not a proud man, and he was uncomfortable being in a position of holding his interpretation of Scripture against a myriad of Christians gone before—a host which I believe he knew included the theologians, saints, holy men and women, humble laypersons, and martyrs who had lived and died to preserve those very Scriptures we were now discussing.
“Do you consider yourself to be a Bible scholar, Joe?”
“Not a scholar, just a student of the Bible.”
“Do you read Greek and Hebrew?”
“Well, not really. I do have an interlinear Greek New Testament, though, and I try and to figure out a few words here and there. I wish I knew more.”
Once again, I found myself liking Joe’s simplicity and openness. If ever I had talked to a Jehovah’s Witness who seemed to be “not far from the Kingdom of God,” Joe was that man.
“I don’t either, Joe, although I have taken several years of New Testament Greek. One thing I found out for sure is that for someone to really become an expert in biblical languages—to be able to make confident assertions about how things should be translated, and what words mean indifferent grammatical constructions—takes a high I.Q. and years and years of dedicated study. Most of the people I’ve met who consider themselves to be “experts” in handling Greek and Hebrew are really just novices who think that a few years in Bible-school puts them on a par with the natives. Very few people will ever fall into the category of “scholar” when it comes to biblical languages, Joe—and I guess that includes you and me.”
“Yeah, that counts me out for sure,” Joe said with an honest grin.
“So I guess we really can’t have the discussion about whether John 1:1 should be translated “and the Word was a God,” as your New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures says it, or “and the Word was God,” as does every other respectable version since Christians first began translating the Scriptures from Greek, can we? We’re not really prepared to discuss the implications of the definite use of the article versus anarthrous constructions or anything like that, are we?”
It was time for the second of the two young men in my office to speak up, although I don’t really think he had been tuned into what had been said so far. He was a little older, and had more of a time-worn expression on his face. He’d been through lots of these discussions before.
“I have talked to many Christians over the years, and I can tell you there is plenty of confusion out there. Usually the problem is that people let someone else do their thinking for them when it comes to interpreting Scripture rather than looking to the Bible itself, to see what it really says.”
“So I presume that you, yourself, don’t let anyone do your thinking for you when it comes to the Bible. You’re an independent thinker, and do your own work.”
I had heard this one lots of times, too. Most Jehovah’s Witnesses, like most mainline Christians I’ve met, don’t really stop to consider that their interpretations of the Bible are not based so much on “letting the Bible speak for itself,” but on the various preconceptions with which each group inevitably approaches the text. This is true for all of us; there is simply no such thing as a “blank slate” when coming to the Bible. Thank God, if you follow the right examples, there doesn’t need to be!
“If that is so,” I said, “why, since we have never met prior to last Sunday, can I tell you almost everything you believe concerning God, the Church, the last times, and any number of other Bible-related subjects?”
“I don’t know that that is the case,” he responded.
“Well, let’s see. I’ll bet you don’t believe in a literal hell, you do believe that Jesus Christ is a created being, and you believe that the Holy Spirit is not a Person, but an impersonal active force. Am I right so far?”
I could have gone on. Instead we talked about Charles Taze Russell and Judge Joseph Rutherford, men who had founded the J.W. movement in the 1800’s and who held to or denied all the above doctrines. It didn’t take long to see that we weren’t really talking “independent Bible research” here. What we were really talking about was “pitching the company line.”
“How would it go over at the Kingdom Hall this Sunday if you stood up to say, ‘I’ve been doing some independent Bible study like you taught us, and I’ve concluded that Jesus Christ is eternal God, just like the Christian Church has believed for twenty centuries?’”
“Not very well!” Joe offered, again with his toothy smile.
The other young man had already faded out of the conversation, and was obviously thinking about his next point.
“All right then, how do you go about interpreting the Bible?” Joe asked.
“Like you, Joe, I don’t really trust my own limited abilities to interpret Scripture accurately. Instead, I rest on the fact that if God was able to raise up men like Saint Paul and Saint John to write the worth of Scripture in the first place, surely He was able to raise up men and women to accurately convey the message of Scripture and interpret it correctly throughout the two-thousand year history of the Church. You and I aren’t the first two people to ever pick up a Bible, or to consider the teachings of Christ, you know.
“The difference between us is that you place your confidence in a tradition of interpretation which only goes back a hundred years or so, one which in fact never existed prior to that time. Never! The Orthodox Church, of which I am a member, looks to the Spirit-filled, historic interpretation of Scripture which has been passed along tangibly since the day of Pentecost. Our Fathers are not Russell and Rutherford, but Peter and Paul, John Chrysostom, Athanasius, Cyril of Alexandria, and even the Deacon, Saint Lawrence, for whom our local valley is named.”
I told him the story of the martyr, Saint Lawrence, a story of which even many Christians living in our “San Lorenzo Valley” are unaware. Joe listened with interest to the story of Lawrence’s courage and strength in the face of terrible torture.
“I’ll be honest with you, Ray. I love hearing stories like that. We run into so many Christians today whose religion doesn’t go any farther than their mouth. Their lives don’t reflect what they are saying. I love to hear about people who were willing to put everything on the line for what they believed. That is where it’s all at for me.”
We talked more about the early Church. I gave Joe a copy of the Apostolic Fathers and Saint Irenaios’ Preaching of the Apostles. He genuinely appreciated the books and promised to read them. I believe he did.
THANKS BUT NO THANKS!
Suddenly the door opened, and an evangelical friend popped in to pick up a book he had ordered. In a flash, I could see that he knew where these guys were coming from, and that we were having one of “those” discussions. He started chomping at the bit.
I knew my friend had a good heart, and I believed that he, too, was very sincere in his Christian beliefs—and an outspoken witness for Christ. But desperately I found myself hoping that he would not move over to the table to enter into our discussion. Not right now!
With growing relief, I saw him start to walk in our direction, hesitate, and step away with an obvious “I’ll be praying for you” expression as he walked out the door and headed for his car. My good-hearted friend, with the best of intentions, would have undoubtedly managed to confuse the course of our entire discussion.
I knew what he would have said, because as a former evangelical, I would have said it myself, only a few years ago. “We shouldn’t let anyone or anything else do our thinking for us. We don’t need the Church, we just need the Bible. ‘Give me not the Fathers, but the Grandfathers!’” A pointless battle of Bible verses and proof texts would have ensued, each round beginning with the phrase, “But the Bible says. . .“ Finally, frustrated and angry, all parties would have walked away, declaring themselves victor.
In many ways, my friend’s position was not that far away from Joe’s. By God’s grace, he had landed outside the orb of blatant heretical cults like the J.W.s. I’m sure he would have gladly taken his place beside Saint Lawrence in defending the deity of Christ, the personhood of the Holy Spirit, or the doctrine of the Trinity. But he had been raised to believe that the Bible was a matter of independent, private interpretation, and that the Church played no part in guiding how that Bible should be understood.
That belief system is what got Joe, and many like Joe, in trouble in the first place.
“AND HE WENT AWAY SORROWING”
About two months had transpired since our first meeting at the bookstore. Joe and I had talked on at least a half-dozen other occasions, and I have never spoken more directly to anyone about their need for the True Christ and His Church. At times, I felt progress was being made. At other times, especially toward the end, I knew that Joe was relying increasingly on the input of other Witnesses, who obviously had begun to take an interest in our discussions.
It had been at least three weeks since our last meeting. For my part, I had enjoyed the unspeakable privilege of passing through the end of Lent, Holy Week, and Pascha with my brothers and sisters at Saint Peter and Saint Paul Church in Ben Lomond, California. We followed our Lord on His journey to the Cross, death, and the tomb, and we emerged exultant with Him in the brilliance of Easter morning. It wasn’t just our group standing there that early Sunday morning. The entire Church triumphant throughout her history was there with us as well. Surely the heavens were joining in the beauty, and the entire host of forefathers and fathers and mothers was there as well. It was one of the most glorious days of my life.
Joe, for his part, had taken our conversations from the bookstore back to his friends at the Kingdom Hall. Purged of all but the foggiest recollections of what we had actually talked about, Joe had returned to share with me his findings and continue our discussions. He produced a folded paper from his briefcase with some Bible verses typed on it. He now wanted to share with me his view that the Church represented Satan’s counterfeit kingdom, growing up after the New Testament period to pervert and “leaven” the whole lump of Christianity.
I felt like throwing up.
The time for our dialogue had obviously come to an end. Although I felt great compassion for Joe, there was really nothing more to say. We had a different Church, a different faith, and we were worshipping a different God. I told Joe my door would always be open to him if he found himself looking for a way out. It still is.
Speaking of the Bible and the Church, Alexei Khomiakov, a Russian theologian, once stated, “The Spirit of God, who lives in the Church, ruling her and making her wise, manifests Himself within her in divers manners; in Scripture, in Tradition, and in Works; for the Church, which does the works of God, is the same Church which preserves tradition and which has written the Scriptures. . . To a man living outside the Church neither her Scripture nor her tradition nor her works are comprehensible. But to the man who lives within the Church and is united to the spirit of the Church, their unity is manifest by the grace which lives within her.”
I earnestly pray for Joe, and for all who unwittingly tear asunder the unity of the Faith by separating the Scriptures from the Church which, through the Holy Spirit, gave them birth, preserved, and explained them. May the grace which lives within God’s holy Church one day shine forth in his heart.
Deacon Ray Zell is the managing editor of AGAIN Magazine.
* Not his real name