Bible Students and Jehovah’s Witnesses – What’s the Difference?

The Bible Students association is the outgrowth of the events of the early nineteenth century. As you probably know, it was at that time that Bible Societies came into being. Their work of printing and distributing the Scriptures was unprecedented in both volume and geographical reach. Even those of meager means were enabled to have the Word of God. This resulted in much personal study of the Bible as well as a great deal of international Christian sharing through various publications.

One area of renewed interest was the Second Coming of our Lord. This gave birth to the Second Adventist movement (not to be confused with the Seventh Day Adventist movement). At that time the Christian world largely ignored this doctrine being almost exclusively Post Millenialist in its prophetic understanding. (The churches believed they would convert the world for Christ and then He would return). Renewed study of the scriptures regarding the second coming revived the historic Reformation doctrine of pre-millenialism. Thus premillenialism is a comparatively recent phenomenon. There is a direct line of heritage through the Second Adventist leaders to Pastor Charles Taze Russell.

Pastor Russell was not the founder of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. He was the founder of the Bible Students’ Associations in the 1860s. In 1879 the Watch Tower publishing house was established by Charles Taze Russell. Following his death in 1916 Joseph Rutherford forcibly seized control of the Watch Tower. He dismissed the majority of the Board of Directors, began to instill a revisionist theology and established dictatorial authority. Within the first year of his takeover one fourth of the Bible Students left Rutherford and remained true to the teachings of the late Pastor Russell.

Aggressive promotions by Rutherford resulted in a large increase in new members but generated opposition from the Bible Students remaining from Pastor Russell’s era. In response to this opposition Rutherford embarked on a campaign from the years 1925 to 1931 to purge Pastor Russell’s followers. Thus, by 1931, over three quarters of those associated with the Bible Student movement in Pastor Russell’s day separated from Rutherford to remain faithful to the teachings promulgated by Charles Russell. The lineage of today’s Bible Students congregations traces back through these separatists to Pastor Russell their founder.

In 1931, fifteen years after Pastor Russell’s death, Jehovah’s Witnesses was founded. Its founder, Joseph Rutherford, presented a startling resolution entitled A NEW NAME which was adopted at their international convention on July 26, 1931. The resolution first observed that neither “Russellites” nor “Bible Students” were any longer appropriate names (over 75% of Bible Students from Pastor Russell’s era had already separated. Thus there was little opposition to Rutherford’s resolution). Henceforth they would call themselves “Jehovah’s Witnesses.”

The separation between Bible Students and Jehovah’s Witnesses was, and still is, rigidly enforced by the Watchtower leadership. Today, Jehovah’s Witnesses can read the writings of Baptists, Methodists, Catholics & etc., however, some have been excommunicated and ostracized for reading, studying and agreeing with the writings of Charles Taze Russell.

Recent history has not been kind to Pastor Russell, as he is his name is synonymous with the Jehovah’s Witnesses. This, as can be seen from the above history (which is well documented), is not so – it is a well known misconception.

Bible Student congregations today are autonomous. There is no central authority or publishing house. There are no membership rosters. There is no solicitation for funds. We meet as an association and strive for the organizational simplicity of the early church. We find our head or central authority in our one Lord and Master, Christ Jesus.

We acknowledge that there are a few similarities of belief between Bible Students and Jehovah’s Witnesses. As well, one might speak with a Roman Catholic regarding their doctrine and then with a Presbyterian. There would be obvious similarities; but to say that the two are the same because of their obvious similarities is inaccurate.

The major doctrinal difference between the Bible Students and Jehovah’s Witnesses regards the breadth of salvation. Shortly after Rutherford founded the Jehovah’s Witnesses in 1931, they developed a “narrow salvation” theology similar to that taught by evangelical Christians. Both of these groups teach that one must accept Jesus now (through the “window” of their doctrinal systems) or else be eternally lost. That means that comparatively few of the groaning billions of earth’s humanity may expect to enjoy the salvation our God has provided in His son. This places evangelical Christians and Jehovah’s Witnesses poles apart from Pastor Russell’s and the Bible Students’ “Broad Salvation” theology which will extend to all.

Another major difference between Bible Students and Jehovah’s Witnesses is in regard to the Jewish People. Joseph Rutherford claimed that his Jehovah’s Witnesses replaced the Jewish people as such. All the promises of future blessing to Israel after the flesh were “confiscated” and applied to Rutherford’s organization. (Interestingly, the Jehovah’s Witnesses “Replacement Theology” follows the pattern of the Christian church’s historic anti-Semitic position regarding the Jewish People). Pastor Russell taught and the Bible Students still teach that the Jewish people have a separate and distinct destiny from the Christian Church that the Jews are still in covenant relationship with God. We are sharply criticized by both Jehovah’s Witnesses and evangelicals for our beliefs regarding the Jews which, of course, we trust are in fullest harmony with the word of God.

There are many more areas of difference between the Bible Students and Jehovah’s Witnesses regarding Justification, Sanctification, Salvation, Prophecy and Christian living. Some of the differences are vast, some are subtle but important.

We hope that this information is helpful to you. We realize the unfounded stigma associated with the name of Pastor Russell but choose not to delete his name from such works as THE DIVINE PLAN OF THE AGES. The message must stand on its own Scriptural merit and sometimes the Lord permits tests of association “can any good thing come out of Nazareth?” If you haven’t already done so, we hope that you will take time to read the book. It presents the Plan of God in beautiful clarity. May the Lord be with you and thank you for visiting.

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