There are approximately 41,000 unique Christian denominations.1 They differ in beliefs, practice, and style, but they generally recognize each other as “orthodox.” They all belong to the traditional and accepted Christian faith.
Since their arrival on the world religion scene in the 1800s, Jehovah’s Witnesses have stood out from other established Christian groups. Do their differences make them just another denomination of Christianity, or are they a new religion altogether?
What Is a “Christian”?
While there is some debate over what it means to be a Christian, most churches agree on a few specific doctrinal beliefs. One of the earliest documents to define Christian doctrine is the Apostles' Creed.2 This statement of faith is heavily informed by the Bible.
Although many denominations have articulated their own systems of beliefs, they often refer to this classic document to ensure that their own statements are orthodox. Five ideas, found in the Bible and organized in the Apostles’ Creed, are generally identified with orthodox Christianity.
Jesus is fully human and fully God. Conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary, he lived a sinless life and taught people how to live righteously. He was crucified and was resurrected three days later. He lives and reigns today.
God is one being made up of three persons. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are co-equals. Despite their separate roles, they are united as one being.
Humankind was created in the image of God but has chosen to rebel against him. This rebellion has a high cost, both for present-day life and eternity. Jesus—through his crucifixion, burial, resurrection, and ascension—paid the price. This has allowed man to return to relationship with God.
Nothing a human can do alone will fix their situation. Instead, they are justified through God’s gift of grace.
God is not finished. The story of the universe and mankind will end with God recreating “a new heaven and a new earth.”3 Those who have been justified will be resurrected to live for eternity in the new creation.4
Christians and Jehovah’s Witnesses
In the late eighteenth century, a movement called the Second Great Awakening caused a heightened interest in religion. Traditional Protestant denominations were revitalized, while others sought to restore more “primitive” expressions of Christianity and the church.5
For the most part, these new groups tried to strip away superfluous traditions in order to focus on orthodox beliefs and practices. However, a few of these groups were more innovative; they developed new religious scriptures, doctrines, and practices. As such, the Jehovah’s Witnesses were innovators. Jehovah’s Witnesses differ from orthodox Christians in several key issues.
Jehovah’s Witnesses reject the concept of God as Trinity. They are quick to point out that the term itself is not found in the Bible. Instead, they refer to God as “Jehovah,” a transliteration of YHWH, the name for God found in the Old Testament.6
Because of their disbelief in the Trinity, Jehovah’s Witnesses do not believe that Jesus is God, though they note that he is special because he is God’s “only begotten son,” according to John 3:16.7 They associate him with spiritual beings mentioned in the Bible like the Archangel Michael.
Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that Jesus was executed on a torture stake instead of a cross. They believe he was resurrected as a spirit, not as flesh and blood. While they respect him, they do not worship him.8
Jehovah’s Witnesses make definitive statements about how the world will end and the exact number of people who will be saved. Of those who are saved, 144,000 will join Jesus’ government; the majority will live on earth in “a global paradise.”9 They also teach the concept of annihilation, which means that the individuals who Jehovah does not resurrect are utterly destroyed.10
Jehovah’s Witnesses use their own version of the Bible. Noteworthy differences include inserting the name “Jehovah” into the New Testament and changing references about Jesus’ divinity, as well as the nature of his death.11
Christians believe that Jesus’ death brings the promise of salvation. They view this as a free gift—the gift of God’s grace—not something to be earned. Witnesses teach that “Christ’s death provides the opportunity for men and women to work for their salvation.”12
Cults, Sects, and New Religions
The Encyclopedia of Cults, Sects and New Religions struggles to find the correct language to describe younger religious groups. A “sect” is defined as a group that, unlike more peaceful mainstream denominations, “tends to take a stance of hostility toward certain elements of society.”13 “Cults” are “small, informal religious groups . . . that gather around charismatic religious leaders.”14 However, both words have amassed baggage in popular culture that makes it difficult to use them outside of academic settings. Instead, the term “New Religious Movement” has been adopted as a catch-all.15
Fritz Ridenour, in his book What’s the Difference, notes five distinctions between the innovative groups he calls “cults” and traditional Christian denominations:
- [Cults] disbelieve in Jesus Christ as God.
- They usually believe all Christian churches are wrong, and they are the only ones who are right.
- They distort the Bible’s teachings to support their peculiar views.
- They deny that people are saved by faith in Christ alone.
- They use the same terminology as Christians, but have very different meanings.16
Based on these definitions, Jehovah’s Witnesses cannot be described as “Christians.”
Bible scholar Bruce Metzger summarizes the issue at hand by saying, “If a sect’s basic orientation toward Jesus Christ be erroneous, it must be seriously doubted whether the name ‘Christian’ can rightly be applied.”17 The basic premise of Christianity is that “salvation is found in no one else [but Jesus], for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.”18
Ultimately, Jehovah’s Witnesses are rationalists, working to place God into a simple and sensible model, while orthodox Christians worship the one true God, whom they believe transcends human rationality. When religious groups attempt to reduce definitively the inherent mysteries of Christianity and its God, they cease to be Christian.19
- The Center for the Study of Global Christianity, “Appendix B: Methodology for Estimating Christian Movements,” last modified December 2011, http://www.pewforum.org/files/2011/12/ChristianityAppendixB.pdf.
- “Apostles’ Creed,” in The Encyclopedia of Christianity 3rd ed. vol. 1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1999), 109–110.
- The Holy Bible, New International Version © 2011, Revelation 21:21.
- Jaroslav Prelikan, “Christianity: An Overview” in Encyclopedia of Religion 2nd ed. vol. 3 (New York: MacMillan Reference USA, 2005), 1660–1672.
- Barton Price, “Great Awakening(s)” in Encyclopedia of Religion in America vol. 2 (Washington, DC: CQ Press 2010), 916–918.
- Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania, “Who Is ‘the Only True God’?” Watchtower ONLINE LIBRARY, http://wol.jw.org/en/wol/d/r1/lp-e/102005282.
- Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society, “Jesus Christ,” Watchtower ONLINE LIBRARY, http://wol.jw.org/en/wol/d/r1/lp-e/1200002451.
- Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania, “Do All Faithful Christians Go to Heaven?” Watchtower ONLINE LIBRARY, http://wol.jw.org/en/wol/d/r1/lp-e/2011405.
- Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania, “Myth 2: The Wicked Suffer in Hell,” Watchtower ONLINE LIBRARY, http://www.jw.org/en/publications/magazines/wp20091101/myth-the-wicked-suffer-in-hell/.
- Bruce Metzger, “The Jehovah’s Witnesses and Jesus Christ: A Biblical and Theological Appraisal,” Theology Today 10, no. 1 (1953): 65–85. Available at http://www.bible-researcher.com/metzger.jw.html.
- Fritz Ridenour, What’s the Difference: A Look at 20 Worldviews, Faiths and Religions and How They Compare to Christianity, (Ventura, CA: Regal, 2001), 128.
- James Lewis, ed., The Encyclopedia of Cults, Sects and New Religions (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1998), 21.
- Ibid., 22.
- Ibid., 21.
- Ibid., 114.
- Metzger, “The Jehovah’s Witnesses and Jesus Christ.”
- The Holy Bible, Acts 4:12.
- The Holy Bible, English Standard Version © 2001, 1 Corinthians 4:1–2.
- Photo Credit: Cara Slifka / Stocksy.com.