Does the Bible Command House-to-House Witnessing?

I’ve got to give them some credit. My Jehovah’s Witness friends have been faithfully knocking on my door for over a year in spite of my opposition to their view. I don’t think I’m special in this regard. In fact, I’ve watched my Jehovah’s Witness friends go from house to house along my street for years.

You’ve probably had a similar experience, as well. But have you ever wondered why they do it? I understand they are trying to witness to people. I get that. But why do they do it that way? Why door-to-door witnessing? Why do they spend their Saturdays going from house to house.*

The answer is found in Acts 20:20. Speaking to the elders of the church, Paul says, “I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in public and from house to house….”

Jehovah’s Witnesses take this as something akin to what they do—house-to-house witnessing. In fact, Jehovah’s Witnesses sincerely believe that this is evidence that they are God’s people. They argue that the Bible commands us to go from house to house preaching about God’s kingdom. And since Jehovah’s Witnesses are the only people going from house to house, they must be the only true people of God.

But is this really what Paul is talking about? I don’t think so. Here’s why.

During the inception of Christianity, there were no centralized church buildings where Christians could meet together. As a result, Christians would meet in small groups in designated houses. This isn’t mere conjecture; Paul makes this clear.

And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved. (Acts 2:46–47)

And they weren’t just breaking bread together in their homes. This is also where they had their prayer meetings. For example, when an angel freed Peter from prison, he went to where he knew his brothers and sisters in Christ would be gathered together.

When he realized this, he went to the house of Mary, the mother of John whose other name was Mark, where many were gathered together and were praying. (Acts 12:12)

In addition, Paul references numerous specific house-churches in his various letters.

Greet also the church in their house. Greet my beloved Epaenetus, who was the first convert to Christ in Asia. (Rom. 16:5)

The churches of Asia send you greetings. Aquila and Prisca, together with the church in their house, send you hearty greetings in the Lord. (1 Cor. 16:19)

Give my greetings to the brothers at Laodicea, and to Nympha and the church in her house. (Col. 4:15)

Paul, a prisoner for Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, to Philemon our beloved fellow worker and Apphia our sister and Archippus our fellow soldier, and the church in your house. (Philem. 2)

When Paul speaks of going house to house, he is talking about going from house-church to house-church. That is, he is teaching the small congregations in those houses. This is nothing like what Jehovah’s Witnesses do.

Furthermore, the specific context of the passage seems to indicate he’s talking about house churches. Look again at the passage under consideration.

Now from Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called the elders of the church to come to him. And when they came to him, he [Paul] said to them: “You yourselves know how I lived among you the whole time from the first day that I set foot in Asia, serving the Lord with all humility and with tears and with trials that happened to me through the plots of the Jews; how I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in public and from house to house, testifying both to Jews and to Greeks of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. (Acts 20:17–21)

Paul is specifically talking to the elders of the church in Ephesus, and he says he was teaching them in public and from house to house. From the context, it seems clear that Paul is talking about teaching the elders of these house churches. The text wouldn’t make sense if he were talking about going door-to-door as Jehovah’s Witnesses do. Did Paul teach these elders of the church by knocking on random doors as Jehovah’s Witnesses do? That wouldn’t make any sense. But if he’s talking about teaching these elders in their specific house churches, then it makes perfect sense.

Even if Jehovah’s Witnesses were right about their interpretation of Acts 20:20—and I’m not saying they are—they would still be wrong about their application of the passage.

Jehovah’s Witnesses take Paul’s comment about going from house to house, and turn it into a commandment about going from house to house. This is a mistake.

The Bible doesn’t prescribe everything that it describes. In this case, Paul is merely giving a description of what he did. He doesn’t say what we ought to do. He says, “I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in public and from house to house.” Notice there is no command for the church to do likewise.

Here is an important principle: Just because something happened in the first-century church, that does not mean we are obligated to do the same thing in the twenty-first-century church.

For example, we are told that the early Christians “were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all” and “had all things in common” (Acts 2:44–45). Is this something we are obligated to do today? No, it’s not. This was a description of what happened, not a prescription for what should happen in the future.

The actions of Jehovah’s Witnesses—door-to-door witnessing—do not give evidence that they are the only true followers of God, as they claim. On the contrary, their actions are evidence that they are followers of the Watchtower, even if it means misinterpreting and misapplying God’s Word.

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*My JW friend is retired and tells me he spends over 40 hours a week going door to door.

blog post |
Tim Barnett

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