The idea for this week’s blog literally knocked on my door in the form of two Jehovah’s Witnesses. I didn’t pause to chat with them, partly because I was busy, but mostly because I panicked. I had no idea what to say to them or how to say it. Troubled by my lack of confidence, I went to RTB philosopher/theologian Kenneth Samples for tips on interacting with Jehovah’s Witnesses.
The Watchtower Society (the organization of Jehovah’s Witnesses) got its start in late nineteenth century New York as a Bible study group founded by Charles Taze Russell. Despite the Society’s reliance on Scripture for their teachings, most orthodox Christians consider Jehovah’s Witnesses a heretical sect. Their views diverge from Christianity on several major doctrines.
For example, Jehovah’s Witnesses deny Jesus Christ’s deity. Rather they teach that Jesus, though like God, is actually a created being and not really divine. Ken lists the incarnation as “Christianity’s most distinctive dangerous idea” in his book 7 Truths That Changed the World. He writes,
Working in this apologetics context [at the Christian Research Institute] helped me discover that getting Jesus Christ’s true identity (the God-man) correct is absolutely critical if one is to embrace authentic Christianity. Every non-Christian sect denies the true deity of Jesus Christ, and a defective Christology infects all other areas of doctrine.
For the Watchtower Society, “a defective Christology” brings with it a denial of salvation by grace and other key Christian doctrines such as the Trinity.
So what is a believer to do when a pair of Witnesses knocks on the front door?
Christian theologians Robert M. Bowman and Alan W. Gomes provide helpful tips for interacting with Society members in their book Jehovah’s Witnesses. Among them is the caution to avoid getting in over your head. Jehovah’s Witnesses are usually well-trained in proselytizing and well-versed in using the Bible to support their views (they even have their own version, the New World Translation). Bowman and Gomes advise steering away from discussions of Greek terms and/or unfamiliar passages of Scripture. A better tactic, they suggest, is asking questions to probe the Witnesses’ own beliefs and possibly expose any inconsistencies or problems (respectfully, of course).
Ken, who recalls his own difficult first encounter with a Jehovah’s Witness in 7 Truths That Changed the World, suggests setting rules for the discussion. His tactic is to offer to meet with the Witnesses at a later time when each group will get 30 minutes to present their views. However, Ken warns that Jehovah’s Witnesses are not easily persuaded to leave their sect, due in part to the Society’s habit of shunning defectors.
In the end, however, there’s no substitution for familiarity with Scripture to help a believer hold ground in a theological debate. Such interaction has as its goal the communication of grace-imparting truths in a gracious manner.
Resources: To help you get started learning about Jehovah’s Witnesses and how to talk to them, Ken recommends the works of Robert M. Bowman Jr. for accessible reading. For those wanting to go deeper, check out The Kingdom of the Cults by Walter Martin.
Ken’s own 7 Truths That Changed the World provides excellent discussion of vital Christian doctrines, such as the incarnation (chapters 3 and 4) and salvation by grace (chapters 9 and 10), and includes lists of supporting Scriptures. Here’s a sample of the passages listed in support of Christ’s deity: John 1:14; Romans 1:3–4, 9:5; Philippians 2:5–7; Colossians 2:9; 1 John 4:2.