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Superior Authorities

The understanding of the “Superior Authorities” of Romans 13:1 is a teaching where Watchtower doctrine has see-sawed back and forth in clear violation of the principle of the light getting brighter.

Up to 1929 1929 to 1962 1962 onwards
“Evil as these Gentile governments have been, they were permitted or “ordained of God” for a wise purpose. (Rom. 13:1)” Studies In the Scriptures Series I - The Divine Plan of the Ages p.250 “The Superior Authorities are the Most High God Jehovah and his exalted Son Jesus Christ.” This Means Everlasting Life (1950) p.197 “The Expression “superior authorities” means the political governments or authorities.” Life everlasting in Freedom of the Sons of God (1966) p.189

Romans 13:1-2 is simple to understand, describing the Christian obligation to follow the laws of the country. This is how it is interpreted by most Christian religions and how Russell explained the Scripture.

Romans 13:1-2 “Let every soul be in subjection to the superior authorities, for there is no authority except by God; the existing authorities stand placed in their relative positions by God. Therefore he who opposes the authority has taken a stand against the arrangement of God; those who have taken a stand against it will receive judgment to themselves.”

Until 1929, the “superior authorities” or “higher powers” were correctly said by Watchtower to be the earthly rulers to whom Christians paid taxes and whose laws they were obligated to follow.

“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)” Studies In the Scriptures Series I - The Divine Plan of the Ages p.266
“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.” Watch Tower 1916 Jan 15

With one of Rutherford’s revelations, this changed in 1929.

“The instruction of the thirteenth chapter of Romans has long been misapplied. The improper application has really been the basis for the false doctrine of the “divine right of kings” or rulers to rule and oppress the people. The apostle is, in substance, telling the members of the church that they should always be obedient to God, and that the motive for such obedience must be love for God and a delight in doing’ his will.” Watchtower 1929 Jun 1 p.163
“Both of these scriptures have reference to the government, order and discipline in the organization of the Lord. Applying these words to earthly governments has been misleading and wrongful so far as Christians are concerned.” Watchtower 1929 Jun 15 p.183

From 1929 to 1962, the Superior Authorities became “the Most High God Jehovah and his exalted Son Jesus Christ.” (This Means Everlasting Life (1950) p.197)

Did Jehovah direct Rutherford to introduce false interpretation of Scripture?

Rutherford used the 1929 position on higher authorities to justify:

  • Consuming alcohol during the United States prohibition (“God never authorized a prohibition or any other sumptuary law to control the consciences or actions of others.” w29 p.121)
  • Prevention of Bible Students doing civilian military service (“For this reason the Bible Students devoted to the Lord refuse to take military service, because they are true followers of Christ and must obey God’s law.” w29 p.117)
  • Banning flag salutes.

By saying that the higher authorities referred to Jehovah rather than earthly rulers, it made breaking the law easy to introduce.

In 1962, the Society returned to the original position of Russell. A statement in Babylon the Great Has Fallen! God’s Kingdom Rules! page 548 indicated there was a change in understanding;

“In spite of the end of the Gentile Times in 1914, God permitted the political authorities of this world to continue as the ‘higher powers’ or the ‘powers that be,’ which are ‘ordained of God’.”

This was explained in detail through the November 1, November 15 and December 1 editions of the Watchtower in 1962.

How does Watchtower justify the change back to the original position? It does not have to, as it rewrites its history to avoid such embarrassment. In an article titled ‘The Christian’s View of the Superior Authorities’ it avoids mentioning that in 1962 the doctrine reverted back to an earlier version.

“For some years, until 1962, Jehovah’s Witnesses held that the superior authorities were Jehovah God and Christ Jesus. However, in line with Proverbs 4:18, light increased, and this view was adjusted.” Watchtower 1990 Nov 1 p.11

Notice the term “until 1962” is used. This indicates that up until 1962 Watchtower had taught that the superior authorities were Jehovah and Jesus, with the one “progressive” change occurring in 1962. It does not admit that originally Russell had the correct teaching, and that Rutherford departed from it.

Proclaimers presents a stunning portrayal of this part of history, included ironically under the heading ‘The Light Shines More and More.’ It explains that the doctrinal change on Romans 13 is an example of “the light getting brighter”, completely avoiding any mention that this new light was a return to an original belief.

“As reflected in their modern-day history, the experience of Jehovah’s Witnesses has been like that described at Proverbs 4:18: “The path of the righteous ones is like the bright light that is getting lighter and lighter until the day is firmly established.” The shining of the light has been progressive, just as the light of early dawn gives way to sunrise and the full light of a new day. Viewing matters in the light that was available, they have at times had incomplete, even inaccurate, concepts.

For example, in 1962 there was an adjustment of understanding regarding “the superior authorities” of Romans 13:1-7.

For many years the Bible Students had taught that “the higher powers” (KJ) were Jehovah God and Jesus Christ. Why? In The Watch Towers of June 1 and June 15, 1929, a variety of secular laws were cited, and it was shown that what was permitted in one land was forbidden in another. Attention was also drawn to secular laws that required people to do what God prohibited or that forbade what God commanded his servants to do. Because of their earnest desire to show respect for the supreme authority of God, it seemed to the Bible Students that “the higher powers” must be Jehovah God and Jesus Christ. They still obeyed secular laws, but the emphasis was on obedience to God first. That was an important lesson, one that fortified them during the years of world turmoil that followed. But they did not clearly understand what Romans 13:1-7 was saying.

Years later, a careful reanalysis of the scripture was made, along with its context and its meaning in the light of all the rest of the Bible. As a result, in 1962 it was acknowledged that “the superior authorities” are the secular rulers, but with the help of the New World Translation, the principle of relative subjection was clearly discerned. This did not call for any major change in the attitude of Jehovah’s Witnesses toward the governments of the world, but it did correct their understanding of an important portion of the Scriptures. In the process, there was opportunity for the Witnesses individually to consider carefully whether they were truly living up to their responsibilities toward both God and the secular authorities. This clear understanding of “the superior authorities” has served as a protection to Jehovah’s Witnesses, especially in those lands where surges of nationalism and clamoring for greater freedom have resulted in outbreaks of violence and the formation of new governments.” Jehovah’s Witnesses-Proclaimers of God’s Kingdom pp.146-147

Notice the Proclaimers book makes no mention that originally Russell had presented the correct view of this scripture, and that the 1929 article was a departure from already revealed truth. Note also that the apparent correct understanding came about because of the release of Watchtower's more accurate New World Translation of the Bible, hiding the fact that Russell and most Christian religions have always had the correct understanding based on the King James Version of the Bible.

Finally, it is stated that the incorrect understanding helped fortify them to remain faithful during World War Two. It is as if truthfulness would not have been as effective in guiding God’s people in paths of righteousness. How can the Society say that teaching falsehood is of more benefit then teaching what the Bible really says?

Can it be said that this was the light getting brighter? In 1962, they were returning to Russell’s (and Christendom’s) teaching. The Proclaimers book is able to call it new light by failing to mention that the original teaching was the same as the current one. The light had actually become duller for some time. If the Watchtower Society makes the claim that Proverbs 4:18 applies to the light getting brighter for the righteous, than the period between 1929 and 1962 would have to mean Jehovah’s Witnesses were back on the pathway of darkness belonging to wicked persons.

In 1996 a similar comment is made that presenting false doctrine had "helped God’s people to maintain an uncompromisingly neutral stand".

"In 1929, at a time when laws of various governments were beginning to forbid things that God commands or demand things that God’s laws forbid, it was felt that the higher powers must be Jehovah God and Jesus Christ. This was the understanding Jehovah’s servants had during the crucial period before and during World War II and on into the Cold War, with its balance of terror and its military preparedness. Looking back, it must be said that this view of things, exalting as it did the supremacy of Jehovah and his Christ, helped God’s people to maintain an uncompromisingly neutral stand throughout this difficult period." Watchtower 1996 May 1 p.13

One group of people that could not agree that God would direct Rutherford to new light, and then revoke this new light over thirty years later are a group of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Romania. For several decades Romanian Witnesses practiced in secret under Communist rulership. Most of the Watchtower material they had access to was the writings of Rutherford. After the overthrow of Communism in 1989 the Romanian Witnesses finally had access to current Watchtower teaching. With what effect? They were stunned to see the number of changes, and were particularly stumbled by the change in teaching of higher authorities. This led them to claim that Jehovah’s Witnesses had apostatized and in 1992 they formed ‘True Faith Jehovah’s Witnesses.’ Until 2013, their website was the-true-jw.oltenia.ro. (See web.archive.org for an archive of the site.)

Knowing the true history of this teaching, it is interesting to see the Society’s current spin on the situation, as it is a misleading portrayal of the facts in a number of ways. The change in understanding on the meaning of Superior Authorities is a significant change in doctrine by the Watchtower Society for several reasons. It proves the Watchtower concept that their light is getting brighter to be wrong. They originally had the doctrine correct, followed by a period of doctrinal darkness, then eventually reverted back to the original teaching. The way the topic is dealt with now shows how the publications attempt to hide the truth by implying the change in teaching in 1962 was new light. They do not admit that Rutherford had removed a true teaching and introduced false teaching, and that in 1962 the Society was returning to Russell’s original light. Finally, lives have been adversely affected as individual Jehovah’s Witnesses have suffered by disobeying the law unnecessarily.


Written Jun 2005. Latest update Apr 2015.


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