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Did Early Christians Preach Door-to-Door?



The Claim

The Problem: An Identity Crisis

How the Witnesses have justified door-to-door evangelism

Watchtower admissions in the 1970s

What about Acts 5:42?

Acts 2:46 -- Why is the Watchtower not consistent?

Does Acts 20 indicate Paul went door-to-door?

The Evidence of Paul's Epistles


How the Witnesses have justified door-to-door evangelism

From the 1920s the Watchtower has claimed that the apostles and even Jesus himself engaged in house to house ministry. So often is this repeated and so unquestioned is this 'fact' among Witnesses today that you may encounter sneering arrogance should you suggest to the 'publisher' at your door that early Christians did NOT so evangelize. Among the current generation of Witnesses there has been no debate on this point. The following quote may serve as typical of the boldness of the Watchtower claim (discussing requirements for baptism):

The dedicated one must be a house-to-house witness as was Christ Jesus and the apostles ... (Watchtower, July 1, 1959, p. 409, emphasis added)

Since the Rutherford days this form of ministry has taken on something like the sacred aura of the sacraments among Christians, and indeed is the 'sacred service' that all Witnesses are expected to engage in. Listen to A.H. Macmillan, a colleague of both Russell and Rutherford and a key member of the Watchtower headquarters staff in the early days:

With the birth of the New World Society in 1919 a new spirit had come into us and we were eager to carry our message of Jehovah's established kingdom to the ends of the earth ... Rutherford wanted to unify the preaching work and, instead of having each individual give his own opinion ... gradually Rutherford himself began to be the main spokesman for the organization. That was the way he thought the message could best be given without contradiction. At the same time we began to realize that each one of us had a responsibility to go from house to house and preach. We were shown it was a covenant-keeping arrangement. ...

In 1927 we were shown that the way each individual was to serve was to go from door to door. (A.H. Macmillan, Faith on the March, p. 152, emphasis added)

Macmillan's words indicate the seriousness and solemnity with which the Witness has come to understand his role. Since, according to Watchtower theology, only the 144,000 are in the New Covenant of Jeremiah 31 (and, by the way, are the only ones who according to Rutherford's understanding can truly be called 'Jehovah's Witnesses' – the 144,000 have replaced literal Israel as the witnesses referred to in Isaiah 43) – since the 144,000 are now covenanted to serve as priests to the rest of mankind, the service the 'great crowd' of 'other sheep' (virtually all of the 5-6 million Jehovah's Witnesses today) can contribute is their loyal publicity of this 'kingdom arrangement' in which they themselves have no part. Their door-to-door ministry, therefore, becomes the means by which they prove their fealty to the 144,000, the 'slave' which is in effect the mediator of the earthly kingdom. Jesus Christ, according to classic Watchtower theology, is actually mediator only to the 144,000, 'spiritual Israel'.

When I was baptized as a Witness in 1971, it was a given that the New Testament (or, as we insisted the 27 books be called, the "Christian Greek Scriptures") supported door-to-door witnessing. An early manual for Witness use, "Equipped for Every Good Work" (1946), the Watchtower equivalent of a Bible handbook, devotes only 7 pages to the book of Acts, but manages to put in a plug for the house to house technique in this comment on Acts 5:42:

To threats by the religious council they make the rejoinder, "We ought to obey God rather than men." Off they go witnessing from house to house! (p. 288)

This certainty respecting the method of the apostles continues right into the era of Witnesses explosive growth in the western world, the 1960s and 1970s:

The book of Acts shows just how the Christian activity of proclaiming God's kingdom should be carried out. Paul himself was an example, saying: "I did not hold back from telling you any of the things that were profitable nor from teaching you publicly and from house to house." Then he goes on to say: "I thoroughly bore witness." This theme of 'thorough witnessing' strikes our attention throughout the book ... (All Scripture is Inspired of God and Beneficial, 1963, 1983 ed. p. 203)

This comment occurs under the heading "Acts: Why Beneficial?" It sums up effectively for us exactly what the Witness has come to regard as 'thorough' witnessing – methodical, door-to-door canvassing. Whether this is Paul's meaning when he says that he 'thoroughly bore witness' we will leave to another tract.

Were the Apostles Really 'Jehovah's Witnesses'?

As outlandish as that question may seem, Jehovah's Witnesses take pride in the claim that they -- and they only – are imitators of the method of evangelism practised by the early church. But did 1st century believers -- even the apostles -- go door-to-door, or does the book of Acts present a different picture of preaching work of the early church?