The phrase “Avoid Independent Thinking” appears as a subheading in the 1/15/1983 issue of “The Watchtower.” For many years, the Watchtower has warned Jehovah’s Witnesses of the dangers of “independent thinking.” This article will explore the Watchtower’s present view of independent thinking and how that view has changed over the years.
The Watchtower has not always used the phrase “independent thinking” in such a negative context. In the 8/1/1957 Watchtower, they were promoting independent thinking and criticizing those who were afraid to be alone with their own thoughts.
7 Though not sought by crowds as Jesus was, his followers today are hard-pressed by modern living to find solitude for meditation. In many places in the world simplicity of living has been replaced by a life of complexity, with waking hours crammed with both important and trivial matters. Moreover, people today are developing an aversion to thinking. They fear being alone with their own thoughts. If other people are not around, they fill the void with television, movies, light reading matter, or if they go to the beach or park the portable radio goes too so they will not have to be with their own thoughts. Their thinking must be channeled for them, ready-made by propagandists. This suits Satan’s purpose. He deluges the mass mind with anything and everything but God’s truth. To keep minds from doing godly thinking Satan keeps them busy with thoughts that are either trivial or ungodly. It is tailor-made thinking, and the tailor of it is the Devil. Minds work, but in the way that a horse is led. Independent thinking is difficult, unpopular and even suspect. Thought conformity is the order of our day. To seek solitude for meditation is frowned upon as antisocial and neurotic.-Rev. 16:13, 14. – The Watchtower, 8/1/1957, page 469, para 7, “Will You Get to Live on Earth Forever?”
In the 1958 Watchtower, they talk about how the Irish do little independent thinking because of the influence of the Church.
Fear has a great hold on the people. People are afraid of what their neighbors, their friends, relatives and clergy might think if they were even so much as to read the Bible on their own. For centuries the clergy have dominated their lives, told them what they can read, what they should believe and do. To ask a sound religious question is a demonstration of lack of faith in God and the church, according to the clergy. As a result, the Irish people do very little independent thinking. They are victims of the clergy and fear; but freedom is in sight. – The Watchtower, 8/1/1958, page 460
While the 1957 Watchtower talked about how the world filled people’s minds with Satan’s tailor made thinking in order to keep them from independent thinking, just three years later the Watchtower says the following:
Today the trend of this world is to seek independent thinking as the ideal goal, but even as the unrealistic thinking of a scientist who tries to ignore the law of gravity is doomed to failure, so also is the unrealistic thinking of those who try to ignore the fact of man’s dependence on God. .“It does not belong to man who is walking even to direct his steps.” (Jer 10:23; Prov. 16:1-3) When men try to think independently of God, they set aside the perfect standard of goodness, righteousness, virtue and faithfulness and become victims of their own selfish, sinful inclinations and degrade their own thinking ability.-Rom. 1:21-32; Eph. 4:17-19. – The Watchtower, 2/15/1960, page 106-7, para 5, “Safeguard Your Thinking Ability”
My, how the world changed in 3 short years.
It seems that some in association with the early Corinthian congregation were disregarding Paul’s authority, looking at him according to what he appeared to be in the flesh, and neglecting to take into account his special commission from Christ. Today, too, there are those who, by their independent thinking, question Christ’s ability to have and use on the earth a specially appointed governing body of imperfect humans, to whom he has entrusted all the Kingdom interests or “belongings” on earth. (Matt. 24:45-47) When such independent thinkers receive counsel and direction based on the Bible, they incline to the thought, ‘This is only from fleshly men, so it is up to me to decide whether to accept it or not.’ – The Watchtower, 6/1/1966, page 324, “Intellectual Freedom or Captivity to the Christ?”
So they are saying that independent thinkers question, not the organization itself, but “Christ’s ability to have and use on the earth a specially appointed governing body of imperfect humans,”. I certainly do not question Christ’s abilities in this area, only that the Watchtower Society is an expression of those abilities.
How is such independent thinking manifested? A common way is by questioning the counsel that is provided by God’s visible organization. For example, God’s organization has from time to time given warnings about listening to certain types of immoral and suggestive music, and about frequenting discos and other types of worldly dance halls where such music is played and people are known to engage in immoral conduct. (1 Corinthians 15:33) Yet certain ones have professed to know better. They have rebelled against such counsel and have done what is right in their own eyes. With what result? Very often they have become involved in sexual immorality and have suffered severe spiritual harm. But even if they have not been so affected, are they not reprehensible if others follow their example and suffer bad consequences?-Matthew 18:6. – The Watchtower, 1/15/1983, page 22, para 21, “Exposing the Devil’s Subtle Designs”
So rather than questioning God’s Word, the Watchtower says that independent thinkers question “the counsel that is provided by God’s visibile organization.”
19 As we study the Bible we learn that Jehovah has always guided his servants in an organized way. And just as in the first century there was only one true Christian organization, so today Jehovah is using only one organization. (Ephesians 4:4, 5; Matthew 24:45-47) Yet there are some who point out that the organization has had to make adjustments before, and so they argue: “This shows that we have to make up our own mind on what to believe.” This is independent thinking. Why is it so dangerous? 20 Such thinking is an evidence of pride. And the Bible says: “Pride is before a crash, and a haughty spirit before stumbling.” (Proverbs 16:18) If we get to thinking that we know better than the organization, we should ask ourselves: “Where did we learn Bible truth in the first place? Would we know the way of the truth if it had not been for guidance from the organization? Really, can we get along without the direction of God’s organization?” No, we cannot! -Compare Acts 15:2, 28, 29; 16:4, 5. – The Watchtower, 1/15/1983, page 27, “Armed for the Fight Against Wicked Spirits”
Again, independent thinkers are cast, not as questioning God Himself, but thinking they know better than the organization.
In the world, there is a tendency to reject leadership. As one lecturer said: “The rising education level has improved the talent pool such that followers have become so critical that they are almost impossible to lead.” But a spirit of independent thinking does not prevail in God’s organization, and we have sound reasons for confidence in the men taking the lead among us. For instance, only those meeting Scriptural requirements are appointed as elders. (1 Timothy 3:1-7) They are trained to be kind, loving, and helpful, yet firm in upholding Jehovah’s righteous standards. The elders adhere to Scriptural truth, ‘holding firmly to the faithful word, that they may be able to exhort by healthful teaching.’ (Titus 1:5-9) Of course, we should not magnify their human imperfections, for all of us are imperfect. (1 Kings 8:46; Romans 5:12) Instead of feeling frustrated by their limitations and treating their counsel lightly, let us appreciate and accept the Bible-based direction of the elders as coming from God. – The Watchtower, 9/15/1989, Page 23, para 13, “Be Obedient to Those Taking the Lead”
So the WT characterization has changed drastically since 1957. And most recently, it has not been geared toward thinking independent of God, but independent of the WT organization.