On April 26th, John Piper posted a short, five minute podcast on his web site about how to respond to Jehovah’s Witnesses when they come knocking on your door. It has been brought to my attention three times now by three different people. You can listen to it here.
Before I begin, I want people to understand that this is not a criticism of John Piper. He is a very respected Christian preacher, author, former Bible College professor and pastor. I have benefitted from his ministry. This is a criticism of the method of witnessing to Jehovah’s Witnesses he advocates in his podcast. Nothing more. Remember, method, not the man. I will be explaining our points of agreement, disagreement and suggestions for alternate ideas by quoting Piper and then responding with my thoughts. I encourage you to take the few short minutes that it takes to listen to the podcast before you read any further.
The podcast begins with Piper stating, “Well, I’ve developed an approach that might not be for everybody and it depends on whether you have time to talk deeply and extensively. If you feel like this is not the time to get into an argument here’s what I’ve done…”
I agree with Piper that we should have different techniques for different scenarios and even different kinds of people. I use different approaches dependent upon whether I believe I have a one-time opportunity with a Jehovah’s Witness, if they are at my door, or if I believe I can have an extended discussion at another time, which is what I prefer.
When Jehovah’s Witnesses have come by our home, I politely listen to their brief opening statements and ask a question or two about what they have said. I tell them that I am interested in hearing more and then offer to exchange phone numbers. If they come by at an inopportune time, skip the questions, explain your situation and then exchange phone numbers. This way, you know you can get them to come back at a time convenient for both of you.
What I would caution against is the attitude of “getting into an argument.” I realize that the word “argument” can be used in the sense of “logical progression of thought,” but the context of the rest of this podcast suggests something a little more adversarial. If you view your opportunity as an “argument” in the negative sense of the word, then you have already lost.
Nearly 20 years ago, I had a Christian lady explain to me that every time she had a Jehovah’s Witness come to her door, she viewed it as God telling her that He counted her worthy to reach out to this particular person. She believed that God would not allow the opportunity unless He was already involved. She took comfort in that thought.
Piper’s next statement is an interesting admission. “…we used to get a lot more at our front door here in this neighborhood then we have recently, maybe they put me on a blacklist or something…”
If you have been put on a black list, and Jehovah’s Witnesses do mark homes that are not to be visited, then perhaps you need to use a different approach. If you know anything about Jehovah’s Witnesses and have listened to the whole podcast, then you have a good idea as to why Piper has been put on the black list.
“I would say as gently and graciously as I could, ‘you know, I know Jehovah’s Witness theology enough to know that we have deep differences. I know that you believe Jesus is the highest created being, a created angel, Michael, and you do not believe that He is God that He is of one essence with Jehovah.
You think He’s an angel. I believe He is co-eternal, with Jehovah God and therefore I think your religion is a serious dishonoring of the Lord Jesus and leads people astray from a true relationship with God and so what I’d like to do with you right now,’ (I’m saying this right here on the porch), ‘is pray and I’m willing to let you pray and I’ll pray and we’ll both ask that God would show us what’s true in His word, the true way to understand the Bible, the true way to honor Jesus. Would you want to pray with me?’
They have never agreed to pray with me. They have just left at that point so I’m not sure what’s behind that, but that’s my approach is to set up the disagreement, explain it clearly, offer to pray and they’ve never accepted. I’d say one other thing. That doesn’t enter you into a dialog very well…”
There is a lot to discuss here. I appreciate that Piper is gentle and gracious when he says these things, but there is a reason why Jehovah’s Witnesses have never agreed to pray with him, immediately leave after hearing this and never come back. The first reason is that Jehovah’s Witnesses are instructed to never pray with someone who is not a Jehovah’s Witness. They may bow their head out of respect, but if you insist on praying with them and that they pray with you, this will make them uncomfortable and they will leave. Since they recognize that we believe in different Gods, this just isn’t an option for them.
Another reason is because Witnesses are taught that they alone have the truth. Since this is true in their minds, they are taught not to listen to anyone who attempts to teach them doctrine which is contrary to what the Watchtower teaches. Since Christians are believed to be ignorant of what the Bible really teaches and possibly even demon possessed, some Jehovah’s Witnesses will take this as an insult. They may reason, “Who in the world do you think you are that you can tell me what the Bible teaches?” If the Christian attempts to take the role of the teacher, the Witnesses will excuse themselves from the conversation. They are to be the teachers and you are supposed to be the student.
This mentality can be used to your advantage. Instead of trying to teach them directly, remain in the student role and ask questions. We wrote an article which is on our web site that explains this method which we call, “Student-Role teaching.” The basic gist of it is that whoever is asking the questions is controlling the conversation. If you remain in the role of the student and ask questions in such a way as to get them to think, you will make much more headway with them than if you just attempted to teach them directly. You can read the article here.
Another problem with this advice is that you should never tell people what they believe. You can tell them what the Watchtower teaches, what Jehovah’s Witnesses are taught, or even what you think they should believe, but to tell a person what they believe is rude. In the scenario Piper describes, he suggests that we tell the Witness that we know they believe that Jesus is Michael the archangel. This is not a good assumption to make for two reasons. 1) The Witness may not know the doctrine or 2) they may not believe it. I have talked with many new Witnesses who were unfamiliar with this particular Watchtower teaching. I have also talked with an elder who did not believe that Jesus was Michael the archangel. He wasn’t opposed to the doctrine, but did not completely buy it either. While it is rare that a Witness may not know the actual Watchtower teaching, and even rarer that they don’t believe, it still happens. It is best not to appear presumptuous in the eyes of the Jehovah’s Witness and just have them tell you what they believe instead. Doing otherwise could be setting yourself up for embarrassment and the need to make an apology.
It is also best that we don’t unnecessarily offend the person at our door. While telling them that their, “religion is a serious dishonoring of the Lord Jesus” is true, it is not the best way to engage someone in a dialogue at your doorstep, especially if you have never met this person before. Imagine if the Jehovah’s Witness came to our door and stated that our religion is a serious dishonoring of the one True God, Jehovah and that they are not so stupid as to believe in the doctrine of the Trinity. I actually had something similar to this happen less than two weeks ago in a conversation with a Jehovah’s Witness. The discussion did not go well after that. (You can read more about that conversation here.)
This type of dialogue is completely inappropriate for this type of setting. While I have said some things to Witnesses which was hard for them to hear, I do not say those types of things until I have met with them a number of times and they know where I am coming from. It is important that they understand my heart and my concern for them. The best way I know of to do that is to meet with them on a consistent basis and attempt to begin a genuine friendship during our religious discussions. Starting off the discussion by, as Piper puts it, “setting up a disagreement,” isn’t going to go very far for very long.
In the past, my wife and I have met the same set of Mormon missionaries for nine months straight using the student role approach. My wife and a friend of ours are currently meeting with the same two Jehovah’s Witness ladies for two years now. In both scenarios, the goal is to remain in the student role and control the conversation by asking questions that our cultist friends are not prepared to answer. I keep reminding the Witness elder with whom I am currently meeting that we cannot agree or even disagree with each other unless we first understand each other. By following this strategy, we have moved our conversation from trying to prove each other wrong, to understanding what the other person is saying. That is where real communication takes place. I am confident that God can illuminate His Word in the minds of the unbelieving. Once a Jehovah’s Witness understands what the Bible really says, it is God’s responsibility to convict that person of their sin. My job is to communicate as effectively as I can and I can’t do that if I set up unnecessary barriers. There is one more thing I want to address about this section, but I will save it for last.
Piper then moves to another scenario. He suggests for a longer, more in-depth discussion with Jehovah’s Witnesses that Christians talk about the deity of Christ and the Trinity. He suggests John 1:1-3, 20:28 and Colossians 1:19, 2:9. While this may appear to be sound advice, it can actually be the worst thing an average Christian can do. There are two reasons for this. First, most Christians do not have a good enough grasp of the doctrine of the Trinity to be able explain it, let alone defend it. They don’t even have a firm grasp on the deity of Christ. While some Christians may be able to quote John 1:1, they would have no idea how to handle any objection that a Jehovah’s Witness will bring up. The reason I say that a Jehovah’s Witness will bring up objections is because they are taught to. This gets into our second reason why following Piper’s advice may not be beneficial.
Jehovah’s Witnesses have a weekly meeting called the “Theocratic Ministry School.” This is a class which is designed to teach Witnesses how to share their faith. Participants are given mock scenarios and will role play with each other on different topics on stage in front of the congregation. Their role play is then immediately graded by an elder who verbally gives them pointers on how to improve their presentation. Every Jehovah’s Witness is encouraged to attend this school at some point. The two topics which the Watchtower loves to attack more than any other doctrines are, you guessed it, the Trinity and the deity of Christ. For the average Jehovah’s Witness, they are more capable of discussing these doctrines more than any other doctrine.
This leads to a seriously flawed strategy. Why should we encourage Christians to use the doctrine they understand the least to witness to a group of people who know how to defend themselves against that very doctrine more-so than any other doctrine? Obviously, I believe that the answers which Jehovah’s Witnesses give in favor of their position are flawed, but the average Christians simply does not have the experience to deal with someone who has been trained to counter the verses Christians will bring up. Unless a Christian knows what they are doing, I advise that they address these doctrines later. If, however a Christian decides to talk with Jehovah’s Witnesses about the deity of Christ and the Trinity, then the verses Piper suggests are good verses, particularly John 1:3 and John 20:28.
Lastly, the one thing that concerns me the most about the advice Piper gives is that he seems confused about why a Jehovah’s Witness has never taken him up on his invitation to pray and yet encourages his audience to follow an example that has never worked for him. If a Witness always leaves after the prayer invitation, why continue to use this “method?” He plainly stated, “That doesn’t enter you into a dialog very well.” If that is the case, and I believe him, then again, why would he teach Christians to follow his example and end up chasing off a potential opportunity with a Jehovah’s Witness? While he does admit that his approach is not for everybody, unfortunately I would include most Jehovah’s Witnesses in that category.
Again, I respect John Piper as a Bible teacher and appreciate his ministry, but when it comes to witnessing to Jehovah’s Witnesses, I believe the method he spelled out in his recent podcast is fundamentally flawed.
A note to the reader: This blog post was submitted to a number of respected apologetics ministries for review of tone and content before it was published. I was advised to contact John Piper’s ministry as a courtesy to inform them that I would be critiquing Piper’s method of Witnessing to Jehovah’s Witnesses. I did so and talked to someone in the office who promised to forward this critique to the appropriate person. In this day and age, it isn’t wise to address old news, but I did give John Piper’s ministry one week to review my post and respond if they chose to do so. They have declined. We respect their ministry and pray that God continues to use John Piper and his staff for the glory of God.
A note to commenters: I need some help from former and current Jehovah’s Witnesses. I’d like to ask you to imagine yourself going door to door when you come across someone who uses the method proposed by John Piper. I would like for you to tell me what you would think, say and do if you found yourself in the scenario he describes. I am not interested if you think Piper’s doctrinal points are correct or not. I am only interested in what you think of his method. If you do so, please identify yourself as a former or current Witness and if you are now a Christian, atheist or some other form of spirituality. Just please keep your comments clean. Thank you.