WATCH TOWER INTERPRETATIONS
OF ROMANS 13 FACTS AND CONSEQUENCES
In the year 1981, the leadership of the Watch Tower Society has felt the
need to come up with a public explanation for some of its glaring changes
in doctrine. In the December 1, 1981 issue of the Watchtower magazine,
the view was advanced that certain mistakes that the Society has made in
the past were not really mistakes at all but should be considered "steps"
toward proper understanding. By putting forth faulty views in the past,
the Society was "tacking" toward truth.
One of the examples expressly mentioned in the Watchtower was changes
in the understanding of Romans 13:1-7. It stated that the "early Bible
Students rightly understood that the 'higher powers' or 'superior authorities'
were the governmental rulers of this world." 1 But
their view had a weak point, the Society now contended. On the basis of
that View "they concluded that if a Christian were drafted in time
of war, he would have to serve in the army, don a uniform and go off into
battle." 2 Rectifying this obvious misunderstanding,
the recent Watchtower article said, "For a time, God's people held
to this viewpoint" that Romans 13 dealt with Jehovah God and Christ
Jesus. 3 This change came in 1929 4
and was, the Watchtower now claims, beneficial for the Witnesses "during
the troublous years of World War II." 5 Yet
in 1962, there was a switch in thinking back to the view held before 1929.
Once again the "higher powers" were identified as the "secular
rulers" of this world. The Society emphatically stresses, however,
that a new element has been added to the original understanding, and this
new element makes the wrong position held between 1929 and 1962 part of
Present Watch Tower doctrine teaches that unlike the early Bible Students,
Jehovah's Witnesses realize that subjection to worldly rulers has a limit:
Happily, in the year 1962, Jehovah led his people to an understanding
of the principle of relative subjection. It was seen that dedicated Christians
must obey secular rulers as the "superior authorities," gladly
recognizing these as "god's ministers," or servant for their
good. ((Rom. 13:4) However, if these "authorities" ask them to
violate God's laws, what then? Up to that point Christians have obeyed
the command at Romans 13:1: "Let every soul be in subjection to the
superior authorities." But this is qualified by Jesus' words, as recorded
at Matthew 22:21: "Pay back, therefore, Caesar's things to Caesar,
but God's things to God." So whenever "Caesar" asks Christians
to do things contrary to God's will, they must place Jehovah's law ahead
of "Caesar's." 6
The claim of gradual enlightenment about Romans 13 was brought out even
more pointedly in 1972:
Then again, because Romans 13:1 had been construed to mean that
the governments of the world must be given unqualified obedience, the witnesses
interpreted the "higher powers" or "superior authorities"
there mentioned as applying to Jehovah God and Christ Jesus. However, a
closer examination of the context revealed that Romans 13:: does indeed
refer to political governments of this world But by comparing this scripture
with others, such as Acts 5:29, which states, "We must obey God as
ruler rather than men," it was seen that the "subjection"
mentioned at Romans 13:1 must be a relative subjection, not an unqualified
one. That is, Christians are to be in subjection to the governments of
this world so long as these do not ask Christians to go contrary to God's
All this sounds quite reasonable until the hard facts are considered. Unfortunately,
the Watchtower's presentation of the matter is not historically accurate.
While it is true that the early Bible Students "rightly understood"
that the "higher powers" of Romans 13:1 "were the governmental
rulers of this world," it is not true that they held that these rulers
must be given unqualified obedience and that their view therefore needed
correction. It is not true that modern Witnesses have arrived at some understanding
about the "higher powers" that the early Bible Students did not
know. In fact "relative subjection" to worldly rulers is not
a new teaching of the Witness community as the Watch Tower Society would
have us believe. Yet the implications of the fact that there was no justification
for the change in doctrine that the Society carried out in 1929 are so
great that it becomes easy to see why Watch Tower leaders suppress the
Let us examine the facts. Charles Taze Russell, the renouned founder and
first president of the Watch Tower Society, clearly and consistently taught
that subjection to the "higher powers" should be relative. In
Volume I of Studies in the Scriptures (1886), Russell explained how Jesus
and the apostles felt about the matter, thus providing the Christian position.
They taught the Church to obey the laws, and to respect those in
authority because of their office, even if they were not personally worthy
of esteem; to pay their appointed taxes, and, except where they conflicted
with God's laws (Acts 4:19; 5:29), to offer no resistance to any established
law. (Rom. 13:1-7; Matt. 22:21) 8
Since the Studies in the Scriptures were normative in the Bible
Student community, the view contained therein may be taken as representative
for the whole movement. That they understood the relativity of subjection
to the "higher powers" is made even plainer in the article "Obeying
God Rather Than Men" as published in The Watch Tower of January 15,
1916. Russell, the editor of The Watch Tower and the author of the
article in question, stated:
The Bible directs the followers of Jesus to be subject to the powers
that be. (Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-17) But while seeking to be thus
law-abiding in every respect, Christians are to recognize that there is
still a higher law and a still higher Ruler, and are to be subject to the
worldly powers only in the absence of a contrary admonition from the Higher
Power - from God. 9
Thus the early Bible Students understood "the principle of relative
subjection" just as much as do Jehovah's Witnesses since 1962. When
the Society reverted to the original position held prior to 1929, they
surely had not been "tacking" toward the correct viewpoint as
they now officially claim. The naked facts are that in 1929 their leaders
rejected the correct understanding of Romans 13 in favour of a totally
false and uncalled-for viewpoint.
In 1962 they returned to the original, completely correct understanding
of the matter. But , in order not to upset intelligent rank and file members,
the Society cleverly invented the view that they had arrived
at a much fuller understanding than had the earlier Bible Students. That
way the faulty view published in 1929 could be justified as a "step"
in the right direction. As we have seen, though, this explanation simply
does not hold true!
But is it not true that the early Bible Students, when drafted in time
of war, actually used Romans 13 to excuse their service in the army? Even
if it were so, it would not excuse the rejection of the correct understanding
of Romans 13 that was officially held by the Bible Student community. If
some went to war, that could not be blamed on the official Watch Tower
interpretation of Romans 13, which clearly stated that God's law were superior
to man's and that subjection to earthly rulers, therefore, had limits.
The early Bible Students' view of Romans 13 was no more respnsible for
the fact that some Bible Students participated in war than is the post-1962
view of Jehova's Witnesses for the fact that an occasional Witness joins
In 1904, Charles T. Russell had advised Christians that if they were compelled
to "serve in the ranks" and to fire their guns, they "need
not feel compelled to shoot a fellow-creature." 10
Yet he later took a firmer stand against military service. In The
Watch Tower of September 1. 1915, he published a two-page article entitled
"Christian Duty and the War" from which the following quotation
In SCRIPTURE STUDIES, Vol VI., we have set forth a suggestion that
the followers of Christ seek every proper means to avoid participation
in war. We there suggested the possibility, but that in the event of conscription
the Lord's followers should use all their influence toward obtaining positions
in the Hospital Corps or in the Provision Department of the army, rather
than in actual warfare. We suggested further that if it were impossible
to avoid going into the trenches, it would still not be necessary to violate
the divine requirement, "Thou shalt do no murder."
Referring to the toughened stand he now recommended, Russell stated
the following in conclusion:
We have been wondering since, if the course we have suggested is the
best one. We wonder if such a course would not mean compromise. We reflect
that to become a member of the army and to put on a military uniform implies
the duties and obligations of a soldier as recognized and accepted. A protest
made to an officer would be insignificant - the public in general would
not know of it. Would not the Christian be really out of his place under
"But," someone replies, "If one were to refuse the uniform
and the military service he would be shot."
We reply that if the presentation were properly made there might be
some sort of exoneration; but if not, would it be any worse to be shot
because of loyalty to the Prince of Peace and refusal to disobey his order
than to be shot while under the banner of these earthly kings and apparently
giving them support and, in appearance at least, compromising the teachings
of our heavenly King? Of the two deaths we would prefer the former - prefer
to die because of faithfulness to our heavenly King. 11
We are not urging this course. We are merely suggesting it. The
responsibility fully belongs with each individual. We are discharging our
responsibility toward many Bible Students who are inquiring of us respecting
the mind of the Lord on this subject. We gave them our best thoughts previously,
but now fear that we were too conservative. 12
This was Russell's mature view which he never left. He clearly came to
see that participation in war was incompatible with Christianity. Recognizing
that subjection to "the powers that be" was relative, he saw
no problem in the Bible texts that speak of obedience to earthly rulers.
His last exposition on the subject beautifully demonstrates this. In The
Watch Tower, July 15, 1916, he wrote the following in the article,
"Militarism and Conscience":
While Christians are enjoined to be subject to the "Powers that
be"—the kings, governors, magistrates, etc. - nevertheless this is
not to be understood as meaning the renouncement of our fidelity to the
King of kings and Lord of lords. He is our Over-Lord. Our allegiance to
earthly lords and powers and their commands is merely to the extent that
they do not conflict with the commands of our Over-Lord. The Jews in renouncing
Jesus cried, "We have no king but Caesar"! The Christian's position
is, "Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's but unto God
the things that are God's." Whenever Caesar and his laws conflict
with the divine requirements, all true soldiers of the cross are left no
Thus there is no way that one can use the attitude of the early Bible Students
as an excuse for the later erroneous views of the Watch Tower leaders about
Romans 13. The understanding of these Bible Students was quite adequate
and needed no change. The real reasons for the un-called-for change in
1929 have never been explained by the Society. Suffice it to say here that
the Society in 1929 was "tacking" away from the truth, not towards
it. The disorientation that this change caused did not pass quietly but
was accompanied by heavy condemnation from all those confessing Christians
who refused to be led astray on the subject. All of this cannot but have
grave consequences for the Watch Tower Society.
- Steve Anderson
1The Watchtower, December 1,1981, p. 29.
4 "The Higher Powers," The Watch Tower,
June 1, 1929, pp. 163-69 end "The Higher Powers" (Part 2), The
Watch Tower, June 15, 1929, pp. 179-85.
5 The Watchtower, December 1,1981, p. 29.
6 ibid p 29
7 The Watchtower, November 1,1972. p. 644.
8 Studies in the Scriptures, Vol. l, 1914 edition,
9 The Watch Tower, 1916, reprints p.5840
10 Studies in the Scriptures, Vol. Vl, 1919 edition,
11 The Watch Tower 1915, reprints p. 5755.
13 The Watch Tower, 1916, reprints p. 5929.