It’s Saturday afternoon, and you’re going about your household chores. You notice as you pass the front door that two people are coming down the street. Since you’re not expecting anyone, you peer out from behind the curtains. The two individuals turn down your walkway. They’re nicely dressed and wielding attachés that you will discover later are loaded with publications from the Watchtower Society, the parent organization of the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Even though your mind is occupied with mundane thoughts of dirty laundry, overdue bills, and vacuuming, you will soon be thrust into a dialogue on a far higher plane-a dialogue about world violence, the devil’s control of all government systems, or a future earthly paradise. If you are like most people, you feel ill-equipped to solve humanity’s woes on your doorstep. So you consider pretending you’re not home. Too late-they’ve seen you. So you take a deep breath and reluctantly open the front door.
This scenario is played out untold times in the homes of average Americans across the country. And while most people consider a visit by a pair of Jehovah’s Witnesses to be a nuisance at best-and a rude intrusion at worst-the experience need not prove distasteful.
Having dialogued with a number of Witnesses—at my door, via e-mail, in Internet discussion groups, and even in their own Kingdom Halls (their equivalent of a church)—I have learned some dos and don’ts of talking with them. Based on my experience, I would like to propose a list of five “no-no’s” for a typical encounter with Jehovah’s Witnesses.
You don’t have to be a skilled apologist to practice these guidelines. They are intended for the average Catholic who has no formal theological training.
1. Don’t slam the door in their faces.
This simple point could mean the difference between the loss of the souls of your Witnesses or their salvation. Please stop for a moment and take this thought to heart. I say this because the difference between slamming the door or choosing to be cordial and speaking to them could mean the difference between affording the Witnesses a moment for God’s grace to operate through you-or losing that moment forever.
I find that a typical response to Jehovah’s Witnesses who are canvassing a neighborhood is to be brusque with them and then slam the door in their faces. I have even had some of my high school students recount with pride such actions taken by their parents when Witnesses come knocking at their doors. Not only is this approach uncharitable, the Witnesses expect it.
You see, the Watchtower Society drills into the heads of all its followers that at some point in their door-to-door witnessing they will suffer persecution for proclaiming “Jehovah’s message.” The Watchtower points to Jesus’ own words as proof of their claim: “Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so men persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matt. 5:11-12).
The fact that the Watchtower belief system bears almost no resemblance to Jesus’ actual teachings does not come into play here. The point is, Witnesses are told by their organization to expect harassment and harsh treatment. When they get it, it only reinforces their loyalty to and belief in the Watchtower for having predicted such behavior. Instead kill them with kindness. Be as charitable and hospitable as you can, because long after they may forget what you said to them, they will still remember how you treated them.
2. Don’t argue or debate specific doctrines with the Witnesses.
The fact of the matter is that slinging Bible verses back and forth with a Jehovah’s Witness to prove a doctrine is unproductive. He has been conditioned to accept only the Watchtower’s interpretation of Scripture. From the Witness’s perspective, you are not debating the meaning of the biblical text so much as the religious authority behind any given interpretation. Since he is conditioned to accept the Watchtower as God’s “sole channel of communication” on earth, your ability to wield biblical Greek will likely count for naught. The Witness will merely resort to the party line for any passage being discussed.
He is more than perpared to confront you on major doctinres, with special emphasis placed on Jesus’ divinity and the Trinity. These two doctrines are also where Witnesses have spent the most time and effort preparing to verbally thrash you into doctrinal submission with a string of Bible passages they quote out of context and completely misinterpret. Believe me, the average Jehovah’s Witness has spewed forth these passages so often that he could quote them effortlessly while dangling in midair.
Unless you are quite familiar with these passages (John 1:1, John 8:58, John 10:30, Acts 20:28, and Romans 9:5, to name a few) and have a proper understanding of them, the Witnesses’ interpretation of them will sound convincing. Jehovah’s Witnesses salivate at the prospect of debating these two doctrines, so do not meet them on their own turf-this gives them the home court advantage. What should you do if they bring up one of these topics? Read on.
3. Don’t let the Witness get through his rehearsed presentation.
Remember that the well-scrubbed disciples at your door have had extensive training and experience conducting encounters like this. You need therefore to derail them, so to speak – pursue a topic where their stock answers, memorized Bible passages, and pre-packaged presentations will not work to their advantage. I am not suggesting being rude to your guests or cutting them off or monopolizing the conversation. I am saying that you should tactfully redirect the discussion to another subject.
For example, you might ask them how they came to be associated with the Watchtower or if they were members of another denomination before becoming Witnesses and, if so, why they changed over. Ask them to tell you in a concrete way how being a Jehovah’s Witness has improved their lives. Get them to tell their stories so that for once they are relating on a person-to-person level rather than regurgitating Watchtower beliefs. Regardless of how much indoctrination the Watchtower has done, it cannot remove the Witnesses’ humanity, so make a connection on that level.
Once they have shared something about themselves, you do likewise. Tell your own story about how you have encountered Christ through his Church. Tell them about your own faith journey. Talk about how Christ is real to you. Your words don’t have to be fancy or highly theological – sincerity goes a long way. If nothing else, such a witness on your part will demonstrate to the Jehovah’s Witnesses that even though you practice (from their point of view) a belief system tainted with paganism, you are still in touch with Christ in a real, tangible way. That will give them food for thought.
4. Don’t allow the Witnesses to bring up multiple issues and get you sidetracked.
One of the cardinal rules of dialoguing with Jehovah’s Witnesses is to deal with one theological topic at a time. It is said that there are only two unavoidable things in life-death and taxes. Actually, there is a third: If the Witness at your door is losing any ground in the conversation, you can bet your bottom dollar that a subtle shift in topic will occur.
I would even venture to say that the Witnesses themselves might not consciously be aware of it. It’s just that their training is so effective that it becomes second nature for them to make this switch when the prospective convert is gaining the upper hand. It is imperative at this point for your brain to send up a red flare and alert you to the switch. (Think of the robot from the old TV series Lost in Space that would always flail its arms and shout “Danger! Warning!” when something bad was about to occur.)
In my encounters with Witnesses, this switching of subject matter has occurred in virtually every instance. Watch for it. It is an indication that you are being effective at presenting some kind of difficulty, so stay on target. When it happens, let the Witness finish his or her train of thought, then politely point out that, while you are intrigued at the prospect of discussing another issue, you will agree to do so at another time.
This approach has the added benefit of ensuring a return visit from the Witnesses, enabling you to further dialogue with them (if you are so bold) and continue to gain ground. It will also buy you time to do some research on the particular topic which has been raised (or the one you had been discussing).
5. Don’t go by the Witnesses’ version of the Bible, the New World Translation.
By producing its own Bible translation, the Watchtower Society is able to keep its doctrinal thumbscrews tightened on its members. The text has been altered-one might even say mutilated-so that it supports many key Watchtower doctrines. What the average Jehovah’s Witness probably doesn’t know is that the New World Translation was produced by a committee of five high-up Witnesses, four of whom had no training in biblical languages. The fifth studied Greek for only two years in college. Any reasonable person would conclude that such “translators” are woefully lacking the education and skills needed for such an important task as translating Scripture.
Witnesses will swear up and down that the New World Translation is free from a doctrinal bias (and in good faith they really believe this), but you need to know that this could not be farther from the truth. Without ever having to be versed in biblical Greek, you can still at least raise some doubts in the minds of Witnesses about their Bible version.
For example, when the Jehovah’s Witness reads a passage from the New World Translation, you could say something like, “That sounds different from my Bible. May I ask what version you are using?” When the he identifies it as the New World Translation, you could then pursue a series of questions about the reliability and scholarship of this work.
Armed with the knowledge about the translating committee, ask questions like: “How do you know that this particular rendering is correct?” “How important is it for a Bible translator to know the biblical languages?” “Would you trust a translator who had little or no training in Hebrew or Greek?” (For this question you could use the analogy of whether or not to trust a surgeon who was about to operate on you but who had little or no experience doing the particular procedure he was about to perform. How much more important, then, it is for people entrusted with our spiritual well being to be highly trained and experienced in their field?)
Your goal here is to raise doubts in minds of the Jehovah’s Witnesses about the reliability of the New World Translation. However, don’t attack their translation. A few carefully and strategically placed questions will produce far more fruit than a full frontal attack on something the Witnesses cherish.
I would like to offer one final insight for these five no-no’s. Keep in mind that they are not a foolproof method wielding magical powers to sway your Jehovah’s Witnesses on the very first encounter. You will not likely undo in 15 minutes on your doorstep what the Watchtower Society has been doing for years in the minds of your guests.
But these guidelines can serve as a starting point. They can arm you with something useful and practical when that unexpected doorbell ring comes. Keep in mind also that converting the hearts of Jehovah’s Witnesses is ultimately the work of the Holy Spirit-and that you and I are greatly blessed to be used as his instruments in that process.