Program Description: Tom welcomes guest Matt Ferguson, youth pastor at Calvary Chapel Bend and former Jehovah’s Witness as they discuss Matt’s background and experience in the Watchtower Society.
Gary: Welcome to Search the Scriptures 24/7, a radio ministry of The Berean Call featuring T.A. McMahon. I’m Gary Carmichael. We’re glad you could join us. In today’s program, Tom welcomes Matt Ferguson, youth pastor at Calvary Chapel here in Bend, Oregon. Now, along with his guest, here’s TBC executive director, Tom McMahon.
Tom: Thanks, Gary. On our program today, I’ll be having a conversation with Matt Ferguson, and we’ll be discussing a religious cult that most people are aware of because they—well, they seem to show up at everyone’s door. And some weeks ago we addressed the followers of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, who take the same approach in trying to attract converts, but this week and next week we’ll be talking about Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Matt, welcome to Search the Scriptures 24/7.
Matt: Thank you, Tom. Appreciate you having me on here.
Tom: Yeah, Matt is the youth pastor at Calvary Chapel here in Bend, Oregon. Matt, you know, we’ve known each other for quite a while, but I really don’t know your testimony. How did you come by your knowledge of the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, better known as Jehovah’s Witnesses?
Matt: Well, Tom, I was actually born and raised a Jehovah’s Witness the first 18 years of my life. I grew up in that organization, or that cult. My father was an elder in the Kingdom Hall. Both my parents were heavily involved in all the activities: going door to door, and the public speaking. So I was involved in it from the get-go, really. So I spent many, many of my early years learning the Jehovah’s Witnesses doctrine and going door to door at a very young age. In fact, I was five when I first started going door to door, knocking on people’s doors, handing out the Watchtower and Awake magazines, and so I grew up very, very much involved in it.
Tom: So, Matt, in a nutshell, what would you say JWs—what they’re all about regarding theology? Could you give us kind of an overview?
Matt: Mm-hmm. Yeah, so the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ theology is really—it starts with the belief of who God is. They don’t believe in the Trinity, so their belief is that God is a single person, and not a triune and single Being united in three Persons like most Christians. They believe that Jesus is the Son of God but in the sense of being God’s first created being. So they believe that Jesus is really Michael the archangel. They get that from their translation somehow, but they believe that Jesus is Michael the archangel, who becomes Jesus when Jehovah, His Father, sends Him here to earth to ransom mankind from sin, from Adam. So their belief is that Jesus lived a perfect life; then He died. But rather than being crucified on a cross, their belief is that Jesus died on a torture stake. A couple other differences are [that] Jesus rose, but He rose spiritually in the Jehovah’s Witnesses doctrine, not physically. Their methods of salvation, or how man is to be saved, comes by, I’d say, both Jesus’ sacrifice and then also obeying God’s commands, which are given primarily and solely by the Watchtower Tract and Bible Society. So it’s a mixture of Jesus’ sacrifice and a good dose of works.
Tom: Mm-hmm. Now, Matt, you know, it’s stunning, as you said—you’re five years old, you’re out there, going from door to door. So this is all you knew! I mean, obviously, many who know about Jehovah’s Witnesses—they’re not allowed to read any other material. They’re not allowed to—sometimes they have to have a conversation with those they’re witnessing to, but still… Now, where did this begin to unravel for you?
Matt: Well, really, Tom, it was probably my eighteenth year, and when I was eighteen years old, I started questioning some of the things that were being taught. I started really looking at the history of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. I started looking at some of the prophecies that were made, some of the contradictions that were pointed out to me…
Tom: Yeah, that’s what I was going to say, Matt: you didn’t come to this on your own. Somebody was challenging you, or was this when you were out witnessing, or what?
Matt: Well, you know, I had some people that were challenging me. In fact, my wife now, who I was beginning to date, which…that was—that’s a story in itself as far as that being a no-no, but she really challenged me. She was a brand new Christian, born again Christian. Two weeks after getting saved, she starts dating a knucklehead Jehovah’s Witness, and we spent a lot of our dates debating Scripture. And, you know, what was beautiful is she didn’t know a lick of Scripture, but she had something that I did not have, and that was evident. That was apparent to me, and that ended up being a relationship with Jesus Christ. But we, you know, we would debate. We would talk about differences between Christians and Jehovah’s Witnesses. That got the ball rolling, and I started noticing some of the errors that were in their doctrine, or in their teachings.
Tom: You know, just a side note on that, one of my buddies is Greg Durel; he’s a pastor down in Louisiana, and he had a Catholic background. His wife was a Jehovah’s Witness, okay? They started dating, and then it definitely was the Lord that began convicting them both, so they accused each other of being wrong with their belief system, and they went out to prove that the other was—what they were believing in—was not true. And in that process, they both came to Christ, and they both admitted they were wrong! It was incredible!
Matt: That’s awesome. [laughs]
Tom: Yeah, it’s really a terrific, terrific story of the Lord’s grace. So then how did you come to the Lord?
Matt: Well, I came to the Lord after—as soon as I started dating my wife, Shari, and as soon as I started questioning some of my beliefs, and some of the things that the Jehovah’s Witnesses had erred on, or done wrongly, they gave me an ultimatum, you know—and this is something that some people know about the Jehovah’s Witnesses—but those who question, or those who basically don’t follow all that the Watchtower Tract and Bible Society say is what one must do, you’re faced with excommunication. So that was my choice, was excommunication, or go in line, basically. Follow in line. And so I came to the Lord by exiting the Jehovah’s Witness faith, and really, when I left, I had no desire to have anything to do with God. I was kind of just done with it. And it was really the Lord that drew me to Him. He used my wife; He used Calvary Chapel. I started attending a Calvary Chapel, which was word by word, Scripture by Scripture, and the Lord gradually drew me, and it was really the verses where Jesus invites people to Him that really spoke to my heart, you know? “Come to Me all you who are tired and heavy laden. Come taste and drink.” These different passages really spoke to my heart, having to do with a relationship with Christ rather than an empty relationship of works.
Tom: Mm-hmm. You know, Matt, many of the cults, they have a cult leader; they usually end up worshipping him. As I said, we did a program with the Higleys not too long ago dealing with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, but you find out it’s not really Jesus Christ, it’s Joseph Smith, so you have an individual. But what makes the Watchtower Society unique, at least compared to others, is that now it’s the organization that’s the prophet; it’s the organization. How did you feel about that?
Matt: Well, the founder of the Jehovah’s Witnesses was really—you know, that was a big thing for me. That was Charles Taze Russell. He started that in 1870 or 1871. But, you know, he was the one who claimed that God spoke to him, and that he was under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit in finding the truth, and he started the Watchtower Society and, really, the Jehovah’s Witnesses. But the Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t even adhere or follow most of Charles Taze Russell’s teachings. They don’t—they really shy away from it, in fact. But then you look at all the material that the Jehovah’s Witnesses have—even their Bible, the New World Translation, is a translated Bible from the Watchtower Society, so all your material, all your doctrine and theology, is being fed to you directly by these men in Brooklyn, New York. So that was an issue, because though they claim to be men and women of the Bible, much, if not all, comes from the Watchtower Society. So that presents a problem.
Tom: You mentioned earlier about prophecies, failed prophecies. So this organization has to keep readjusting things or…give us some of those examples.
Matt: Well, you know, the Jehovah’s Witnesses have had a long history of making prophecy, and obviously we have prophecy in Scripture, and whenever one is dealing with prophecy, you better get that prophecy right. Scriptures tell us if they don’t, then you’re not to believe that person. That person is a false prophet. You’re not to be afraid of them is what Deuteronomy says. So they’ve made a lot of false prophecies, but most Jehovah’s Witnesses are not aware of it. They kind of deal with it in ignorance, because you’re discouraged strongly from looking into the history of it. But, you know, you can look throughout even a lot of their older literature and publications, many of the teachings of Charles Taze Russell, and you find hundreds of false prophecies, mostly in regard to the coming of Jesus, His Second Coming. They taught a lot in 1914, early 1900s, 1925, 1975, a lot of those—you know, a lot during that time, they made a lot of very clear prophecies that did not come to pass. Yeah, there was a lot of correction, a lot of covering up of those false prophecies. Then you have a lot of doctrine that was revised. You have a lot of doctrine about who Jesus is, you have a lot of doctrine about hell, and heaven, and all these things that are in a constant change, and so there’s a lot of revising and editing and covering up, basically.
Tom: Yeah, but you say that somehow doesn’t really filter back, or—you know, I’m not saying there aren’t some that recognize these things, because they’re going to hear it. I mean, if you’re going door to door, and all of a sudden you come into a situation where the people are really Bible believers, evangelicals, and so on, they’re going to question them. They’re going to ask these things. I remember in my own case, and it probably isn’t always this way, but usually you have a veteran and a neophyte, right? [chuckles] And I always like to look at the neophyte and say—well, whatever the Lord puts on my heart and mind.
But one of the things…you know, not too long ago, Matt, I did an article called “Warning to the Witnesses,” and I wanted believers to have some Scriptures there that they could—you know, whether they kept it right near their door, or something like that—that they could challenge the Witnesses on. And, Matt, a verse I like to use is John:8:24 where Jesus said, “I said therefore unto you that ye shall die in your sins, for if ye believe not that I am [he], ye shall die in your sins.” Now, in the King James, it’s italic in “he,” but He’s claiming to be Jehovah God right there.
Tom: So if they get that wrong—well, there’s no hope for them. And, again, because it’s the Scriptures, hopefully…well, the Word of God says that His Word will not return void. So it’s going to be there for them to think about, for the Holy Spirit to bring conviction of that verse and so on.
Matt: Mm-hmm. That’s a great Scripture. It is. In fact, I was—we’re in John right now it seems in a lot of our studies, but in our high school study, we covered that two weeks ago, and that was really the theme verse, you know, in Jesus claiming to be the great I Am, and really, you know, making a very radical statement there, and a very narrow statement. And I do take them to verses like that; that’s a great verse to take them to. You know, I look at Romans:10:9-13 where you have Paul saying, “Those that call upon the name of the Lord are the ones that are going to be saved.” There’s many Scriptures where you could take them to even in the gospels, and in their own Bible, in fact—the New World Translation—where you could show them where Jesus accepts worship of men. We have, obviously, like Isaiah 44 that talks about Jehovah God is the only One that is to be worshipped, and when you see these verses in the gospels where Jesus is being worshipped, and then you take all these verses and you start to understand that Jesus and Jehovah are one and the same, as far as both being God and both accepting worship. It’s irrefutable.
Tom: Now, Matt, I came out of a Roman Catholic background, and that’s works salvation. But it’s not the works that you guys—before as a Jehovah’s Witness—that you did. How did people handle—I mean seriously—all of this [going] out witnessing? And isn’t there some kind of quotient, or quota, that they need?
Matt: [chuckles] Yeah, I believe it’s four to five hours a month, I think, is the bare minimum. But, you know, most Jehovah’s Witnesses handle going door to door—they do so very zealously…
Matt: …and it’s admirable to look and see how zealous they are in going door to door, and in their study of the Bible, but you kind of nailed it: for me, going door to door was part of earning my way to salvation. That’s part of earning my way into God’s good graces and His favor. You know, it also—going door to door—fed into my belief that the Jehovah’s Witnesses were different than all the rest, that they were carriers of the truth, and they alone had the truth. But there is a very organized way that they handle this. There is, in fact, a time sheet. I crack up at it now at the thought of it, but you turn in a time sheet, and you mark down how many hours you go door to door. You have different classes of those that go door to door, and they’re called publishers. You have regular publishers who they, on an average, are under 10 hours a month. You have different classes of pioneers who spend a minimum of 50 hours a month going door to door, all the way up to 90. And yeah, there’s a very, very strict way, a quota, as you said, in how many hours you spend, how many magazines you place, how much donations you get for the Watchtower Tract and Bible Society—all of these things you turn in, and all these things are recorded and they’re put on your record.
Tom: Mm-hmm. You know, Matt, having said all of that, what would you say would be the type of people that are most vulnerable to being convicted, to being converted, basically?
Matt: I’d say that the most vulnerable would probably be those who spent a lot of time in religions that placed an emphasis on works, so I could go down the list, but you mentioned Catholics—a lot of current Jehovah’s Witnesses were former Catholics; those that a great deal of emphasis was placed on working your salvation out; a lot of emphasis placed on tradition and different practices. Jehovah’s Witnesses are very much about that: works and tradition. Also those that are family members that are involved one way or the other in that threat of dealing with excommunication, that threat of losing your ties with your family—that’s a big draw or a big kind of area in making their decision.
But I’d say many people are attracted to the Jehovah’s Witnesses because they claim to have the answer to life’s problems, and so they’re looking at the world around us, and any person is going to be attracted to somebody who claims to have all the answers, claims to provide a solution and who stresses—you know, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, they stress very strict morals; very much centered on family values, much like the Mormons. And so it’s appealing to people who are looking at that and who are somewhat coming out of an area where it’s very works-based. So that’s appealing to them.
Tom: Mm-hmm. You know, Matt, it’s not unlike what we would call a self-help program, right?
Matt: [laughing] Right!
Tom: Because it is works salvation. But here’s what I do, and later, maybe even next week, I really want you to lay out your encouragement and how—give us some ideas about witnessing. But one of the things that I do is when they come to the door—and we don’t all do it the same, and there’s no one absolute way to witness. I mean, obviously you need to be prayed up and looking to the Lord—but one of the things that I say to them is, “Well, what’s your deal?”
And that kind of pulls them back a little bit. “What do you mean?”
“Yeah, what’s your deal? You see, I have a deal, and what I want to know is—is my deal…or is your deal better than my deal?” And of course my deal is the free gift of salvation that Christ paid for, so I want to know—again, I ask them, “So what’s your deal?”
And I find that interesting, based on all that you just said, Matt, because talking about the works, the hours, all of these things: if it’s works salvation, it doesn’t—I mean, nothing compares with God’s free gift of grace, Jesus having paid the full penalty for our sins—I mean, there is nothing like that, and it sounds a little bit crass to say it that way, but it shakes them up a bit, and it gets—hopefully, it gets them thinking, because they…there’s nothing out there—I don’t care, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, whatever—whoever is coming to you outside of biblical Christianity has got a bad deal, right?
Matt: Your mentioning that, that’s…you know, that was a big draw for me: in doing all these works that I was doing when I was a Jehovah’s Witness, all the hours I spent going door to door, all the hours I put in—they go to their Kingdom Halls three to five times a week, so you have all these things that you’re doing, all these works that you’re performing. You know, I could say when doing all those things, I could look at it and say, “Man, I’m doing all these things for the Lord.” But there was one thing that, like you were talking about, the free gift—the big thing for me was I was doing all these works for the Lord, but I didn’t feel any closer to the Lord, and I didn’t have a relationship with Christ.
Matt: And so there was a dryness, there was an emptiness, that all these works I was doing was not helping with. It wasn’t bringing me any closer to God; I felt so far from God. So, yeah, when you bring them to, “What’s your deal?” and you show them that free gift—you know, Ephesians:2:8,9 talks about “it’s by grace that you have been saved [through] faith and not of works, lest anyone should boast,” that’s a big point to go ahead and bring out to them. Our deal is, yeah, salvation—it fully is God’s giving His grace to us, His unmerited favor, and our salvation is dependent upon receiving it rather than this works-based relationship that doesn’t bring you any closer to the Lord.
Tom: Right. My guest is Matt Ferguson. He’s the youth pastor at Calvary Chapel here in Bend, Oregon, and Matt, as you’ve heard, if you’ve been listening, Matt grew up in the Watchtower Society, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and his insights have been terrific.
Matt, we’re about out of time for this session, but the Lord willing, we’ll come back to this next week. So, again, Matt, thanks for being with us.
Matt: Absolutely, Tom. Thank you for having me.