The Society frequently uses the term “privileged” in connection with the congregation, positions of service, and so on. A search for the word “privilege” in the Watchtower alone shows over 6,000 references since 1950, and that does not include other books, magazines, assemblies, conventions and ad hoc references at congregation meetings. Here are a few assertions:
Note this quotation from WT 6/15/2013:
“Over the past 30 years, I had had many privileges. I had been a regular pioneer, had served at Bethel, had been appointed as a ministerial servant and then as an elder. I had also just given my first talk at a district convention. Suddenly, it was all gone. Besides feeling shame and embarrassment, I thought that there was no longer any place for me in the organization.”
Is it correct to say this word “privilege” so frequently? Does it apply? Should it be used at all?
The word “privilege” comes from the Latin privilegium, meaning “a law that is for or against a private person”. Thus, a primary meaning of privilege is a ‘private law’. Was the concept of ‘private law’ known in Bible times? Most assuredly.
Consider the account at Matt. 17:24-27:
After they arrived in Capernaum the men collecting the two drachmas tax approached Peter and said: “Does your teacher not pay the two drachmas tax?” He said: “Yes.” However, when he entered the house Jesus got ahead of him by saying: “What do you think, Simon? From whom do the kings of the earth receive duties or head tax? From their sons or from the strangers?” When he said: “From the strangers,” Jesus said to him: “Really, then, the sons are tax-free. But that we do not cause them to stumble, you go to the sea, cast a fishhook, and take the first fish coming up and, when you open its mouth, you will find a stater coin. Take that and give it to them for me and you.”
Yes, the sons of kings were exempt from paying taxes. Why? Wasn’t there a law that everyone had to pay taxes? There was. That was the ‘regular’ law. There was also a ‘private law’ just for the king’s son alone, so that for him, he didn’t have to pay. What did that ‘private law’ make the king’s son? Privileged. Jesus, as God’s son, technically should not have had to pay this tax, since his Father was the King of the universe and “owned” the temple for which taxes were being collected. But, the rest of the world did not know that, and arguing over it would “stumble” them, or lead to an argument at the very least. However, Peter did not enjoy that ‘privilege’, and so it said the tax needed to be paid “for me and you” because Peter did have to pay it; he was not above the law.
Notice what is said about John the Baptist in Luke 7:24-28:
When the messengers of John had gone away, he started to say to the crowds concerning John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to behold? A reed being tossed by the wind? What, then, did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft outer garments? Why, those in splendid dress and existing in luxury are in royal houses. Really, then, what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and far more than a prophet. This is he concerning whom it is written, ‘Look! I am sending forth my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way ahead of you.’ I tell you, Among those born of women there is none greater than John; but a person that is a lesser one in the kingdom of God is greater than he is.”
Was John a person living a life of privilege? No. On the contrary; his clothing and way of life would be called “primitive” by modern standards, and probably even in comparison to others of his time. It is true that Jesus gave high praise about John to others. But did he give that praise to John himself – or did John “talk himself up” boasting about what a great privilege John had? No, never.
Does any part of the Christian scriptures suggest people should go around saying how “privileged” they are? No, just the opposite: “For through the undeserved kindness given to me I tell everyone there among you not to think more of himself than it is necessary to think; but to think so as to have a sound mind, each one as God has distributed to him a measure of faith.” (Rom. 12:3)
And then we have Jesus’ words on this general subject: “But you, do not you be called Rabbi, for one is your teacher, whereas all you are brothers. Moreover, do not call anyone your father on earth, for one is your Father, the heavenly One. Neither be called ‘leaders,’ for your Leader is one, the Christ. But the greatest one among you must be your minister. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted” (Matt. 23:8-12) In what way is referring to ourselves as “privileged” not exalting ourselves?
Did Jesus believe he himself was “privileged”? He certainly knew he had a special role to play. But, notice how he acted when someone suggested this: “Now there was a man of the Pharisees, Nicodemus was his name, a ruler of the Jews. This one came to him in the night and said to him: “Rabbi, we know that you as a teacher have come from God; for no one can perform these signs that you perform unless God is with him.” (John 3:1-2) Can we imagine Jesus responding with the sort of ‘flip’ remark that might be heard on a late-night TV talk show, such as ‘Thanks, Nick. You know, it really is a great privilege to be here’? Not a chance. Rather than accepting some ego-boosting flattery or praise from men – despite the fact that Nicodemus’ words were in fact not wrong – how did Jesus actually reply? He didn’t. As the account in John continues, Jesus gave no response at all to this statement.
Jesus was totally uninterested in taking credit even for performing miracles and other signs. But, why not? Because he wanted people to follow him owing to faith in his Father and in the teachings he gave, not merely to him personally. That is why he said, “Why, then, do you call me ‘Lord! Lord!’ but do not do the things I say?” (Luke 6:46) Performing miracles would be a great way to get a ‘following’ if all he wanted was to be at the center of a ‘cult of personality’. That is not what Jesus was seeking, because followers obtained that way would be ‘shallow’ ones who lacked sincerity – and wouldn’t stay.
What does the Bible actually say about privilege? Very little. In the New World Translation, there are only six instances where the word appears:
What is remarkable about this is that, in four of the six instances, there is no Greek word at all in the text. In some cases the New World Translation admits to inserting an interpolated word, and in some it simply inserts it without showing it in brackets. For the other two verses, a good case can be made that they are mistranslated. Thus, the notion of privilege is not even mentioned here.
What does that leave us with? Not a single verse in the Bible supports the notion of “privilege”. None. Yet, at meetings, in publications, at assemblies and conventions, this constant ‘drumbeat’ of “privilege” never lets up.
Now, some might feel uncomfortable with the notion that “privilege” might be improper. After all, aren’t those who are proclaiming all this “privilege” just trying to be grateful and appreciative? Isn’t it needless nitpicking to suggest there is something wrong with this, or impolite to say the least? Is doing so a ‘hostile’ action one might expect from an ‘opposer’? Not at all. It is simply a matter of correctly understanding what privilege is and what it means, and not using it in inappropriate ways.
As an illustration, when a person obtains a driver’s license, they have to follow certain steps, which include obtaining driving instruction, taking a test, having vehicle insurance, paying fees, and so on. Persons guilty of legal infractions can be denied a license, and a license can be revoked for bad driving or other reasons. Thus, the state will often say that “driving is a privilege and not a right”. Does that mean that a driver is, in any way, “above the law” by being privileged to drive? No. Rather, it is merely a recognition that being qualified to drive, and then being permitted to drive, is not a “right” that can be demanded. It is an opportunity that a person can choose to accept, provided there are no reasons for denying it, but granting a license does not make them any better than anyone else.
However, suppose a person were part of a diplomatic mission, such as an employee of a foreign embassy who is a citizen of another country. In such cases, they may receive a diplomatic driver’s license from the State Department. A person driving under such a license can, in some cases, violate some of the host nation’s laws, such as parking laws or certain traffic laws, but cannot be prosecuted because they have diplomatic immunity. Such persons really are privileged, because they are literally above the law. That immunity is not total, however, because if the violations are serious enough, the person could be expelled from the country, at which time their diplomatic immunity would be revoked.
In the congregation, is anyone so “privileged” that they have ‘diplomatic immunity’ in a spiritual sense? No – and it would be a grave error to imagine even for a moment that such was the case.
Now consider: If there is not a single, solitary verse in the Bible that upholds the idea of privilege, but rather only ones that encourage humility, and yet professed Christians are going around telling everyone how privileged they are, are they telling the truth, and living the truth, as set forth in the scriptures? An outsider that was merely trying to “find fault” with the Witnesses might do such a thing, or might be accused of doing such a thing. And, if that was all this amounted to, we could dismiss the matter out of hand and be done with it.
However, if this practice is in fact contrary to the scriptures, it cannot help but have a bad outcome. The bad outcome will not show itself because of someone’s outside criticism, but because the practice is wrong in and of itself. How could we know? By applying Matthew 7:17: “Every good tree produces fine fruit, but every rotten tree produces worthless fruit.”
If something is contrary to the Bible, we will know it by the consequences and effects it has on people. If it were a good thing, we can ask, How has it worked out in practice? Just what are the consequences of individuals in the organization “tooting their own horn” or otherwise accepting the praise of men through terms like being “privileged”? The bad fruitage is only too well known. It shows itself through abuse of authority, acts of favoritism, elders found guilty of misconduct, the covering up of wrongdoing, harm to individuals and to the organization, scandals and reproach from outsiders, lawsuits, etc. These things have become public knowledge, bringing disgrace and embarrassment to the organization.
As soon as men believe they are “privileged” they begin to think there is a ‘private law’ for them and a different one for everyone else, so that they imagine they are not and cannot be held accountable. But, is that not what the Bible says: “Each of us will render an account for himself to God.” (Rom. 14:12)
Why does this imagined opinion of being privileged lead to so many problems? Because it is not the truth. How often has God ever counseled men to be proud? And how often to be humble? How much scriptural proof is needed before so-called Christians understand that the illusion of privilege is destructive and contrary to God’s will?
This is not the first time that Christians have had to re-learn acceptable patterns of speech. On learning the truth of the Bible, many people have had to put away words that were out of harmony with that truth, whether it was vulgarity, words originating from false religion, or expressions from the selfish world alienated from God.
For comparison, in the days of Ezekiel, the nation of Israel had an improper figure of speech, which amounted to blaming others for their own wrongdoing, so people could “get themselves off the hook” and save face:
And the word of Jehovah continued to occur to me, saying: “What does it mean to you people that you are expressing this proverbial saying on the soil of Israel, saying, ‘Fathers are the ones that eat unripe grapes, but it is the teeth of the sons that get set on edge’? ‘As I am alive,’ is the utterance of the Sovereign Lord Jehovah, ‘it will no more continue to be yours to express this proverbial saying in Israel.’ ” (Ezek. 18:1-3)
Those people were saying things that were contrary to God’s wishes, and they needed to be corrected. To put it bluntly, they were told to shut up already. Jehovah didn’t want to hear it any more. That may have seemed like harsh discipline to some, but it was necessary.
In like manner, those today who are using the word privilege in connection with the congregation – to put it bluntly – need to shut up already. This is not a matter of being harsh or unkind. It is necessary, and it is the truth.
Well, if we cannot say “privilege”, what can we say? How should people in the organization be viewed? How should they view themselves?
We need only look to the example of Jehovah and his Son. Words cannot contain or express all of Jehovah’s extraordinary qualities and abilities. But, we will not find a single verse where He says of himself, “I am privileged”. Nor will we find Jesus uttering such words. What do we find Jesus saying?
My Father has kept working until now, and I keep working. (John 5:17)
Yes, they view themselves not for what they are (“privileged”) but for what they do: work. Our view of ourselves and others ought to be in harmony with that. If even Jehovah and his Son do not go around boasting of their privileges, who are we as mere imperfect people to do so?
The correct view of ourselves and others is that we all have work to do.
And, just how should we view that work? Does this sound like Jesus is telling us to adopt a presumptuous, self-assuming attitude about our work? Or rather, that doing work – even honorable work – does not make us “better”?
“Who of you is there that has a slave plowing or minding the flock who will say to him when he gets in from the field, ‘Come here at once and recline at the table’? Rather, will he not say to him, ‘Get something ready for me to have my evening meal, and put on an apron and minister to me until I am through eating and drinking, and afterward you can eat and drink’? He will not feel gratitude to the slave because he did the things assigned, will he? So you , also, when you have done all the things assigned to you , say, ‘We are good-for-nothing slaves. What we have done is what we ought to have done.’” (Luke 17:7-10)
Some individuals have, over time, shown themselves qualified to do more work. A position of responsibility in the congregation is not a privilege, but is the permission, and the opportunity, to do more work. That’s all. That does not make a person better – it makes them busier.
How is that different than privilege? Privilege might boost our ego and self-esteem, and it might result in our undeservedly being treated with favoritism. Those are selfish consequences. Being privileged may momentarily seem to help ourselves, but work benefits others, and is in harmony with godly love, which “does not brag, does not get puffed up, does not behave indecently, does not look for its own interests.” (1 Cor. 13:4-5)
So what should we be saying?
To others: “Thanks for your help.”
About ourselves: “I am happy to be of assistance.”
Then get back to work.
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