A couple of days ago, Robin and Jack were sitting on the sofa across from me. We all had our Bibles open and were intent on using Scripture to defend our respective theological positions. However, this was no ordinary Bible study. These were Jehovah’s Witnesses, and I was doing my best to articulate and defend classical Christianity.
At the end of our spirited two-hour conversation, I couldn’t help but feel a little frustrated. I wasn’t frustrated because they disagreed with me. I’m fine with disagreement. I wasn’t frustrated because they hadn’t converted to Christianity. I knew that was very unlikely.
What frustrated me was an illicit tactic that my Witness friends were employing throughout our conversation. Whenever I would raise a Bible passage that they couldn’t respond to, they would immediately jump to a different passage or a different subject. In logic, this is called the red herring fallacy. Specifically, this is when someone diverts the attention from the original argument. It’s a habit many critics of Christianity have in conversation, not just Jehovah’s Witnesses. You’ve probably had a similarly frustrating conversation trying to answer a question, only to have them hop to another question.
For example, my Witness guests began our conversation on the person and work of Jesus by claiming that Jesus is never called God in the Bible. I immediately asked them what they thought of Thomas calling Jesus, “My Lord and my God” (John 20:28).
What happened next is really significant. Rather than taking the time to look directly at Thomas’s confession, they launched into a rehearsed list of passages they believe teaches that Jesus cannot be God. What’s worse, they would simply read their chosen passages in rapid secession and then assume that they answered my original question. This was deeply frustrating.
And not only were they jumping from verse to verse, but this led to jumping from topic to topic. In the course of our discussion, they brought up the Holy Spirit as an active force, the pagan origins of the Trinity, the spiritual resurrection of Jesus, the archangel Michael, and Jesus as a created being. This may not sound like a big deal, but I had specifically invited them over to talk about the person of Jesus. And they knew that.
In our discussions with Jehovah’s Witnesses, we need to be tactical. That is, we need to anticipate their typical maneuvers to better guide the conversation. This will give us the best opportunity to be effective in making a lasting impact.
Set the Terms
It is better to pick one issue to focus on. It is very easy to spend your time bouncing around from verse to verse and from topic to topic without looking at any of them thoroughly. This approach works to their advantage since you can make the Bible say almost anything by pulling verses (and partial verses) out of context.
It’s important to set the terms of the discussion from the outset in order to stay on point. I had invited my Witness guests over to talk specifically about the person and work of Jesus. The problem is, they were not honoring those terms. Instead, they wanted to jump around to many different topics.
Stay on Topic
When my Witness guests moved to a different subject, it was my responsibility to remind them of the agreed upon terms. I’ll be honest, this can be a little awkward, but it’s absolutely necessary. Here’s what I said to them,
I’d love to talk about some of these other topics with you, but we have much more to discuss on this issue before we move on. If you want to come back another time, we could talk about the Holy Spirit, or the nature of the resurrection, or anything else you would like. This will also give me time to research these other topics. However, since we already all agreed that we would be discussing the person and work of Jesus, I think we should stay on topic.
Unfortunately, I had to repeatedly ask them to stay on topic. They were determined to bring up these other issues, but be persistent. Don’t let them take the conversation to a new subject that you are not prepared to discuss.
Slow Them Down
Even if your guests stay on topic, they will likely still try to dodge passages that don’t fit the Watchtower doctrine. One way they do this is by piling on proof-texts that they think agree with their view.
Jehovah’s Witnesses are notorious for laying out an endless string of proof-texts without any concern for context. As long as the verse (or verse fragment) supports their theological position, they think they have proven their point. In fact, this happened numerous times during our discussion. Let me give you just one example.
They asked me to read 1 Corinthians 11:3. It says,
“But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God.” (Emphasis added.)
Next they asked me what the word “head” means in this verse. Once I agreed that “head” means authority, they responded, “See, Jesus can’t be God because the Bible says He is inferior to God.” Of course, I had a response, but they weren’t interested in hearing it. Moreover, before I could offer a rejoinder, they were quoting 1 Corinthians 15:28 (“the Son Himself will also be subjected to Him”) and John 14:28 (“for the Father is greater than I”) to make the same point.
I believe each of these passages can be answered. My Witness guests mistakenly assumed that passages where the Son submits to the Father mean the Son is inferior to the Father. But difference in roles does not indicate inferiority in nature. In fact, this was Paul’s point in 1 Corinthians 11:3. The head of Christ is God in the same way the head of the wife is the husband. Although there is an authority structure between husbands and wives, they are still equal in nature. In the same way, the Son submits to the Father while sharing the same divine nature.
When verses start flying like this, it is imperative that you slow your guests down. Turn to them and say, “Let’s make sure we have thoroughly discussed each passage before moving on to another passage.” This will allow for a responsible handling of Scripture.
This encounter is typical of what many of you have probably experienced. You have probably left a conversation with Jehovah’s Witnesses and critics with other convictions feeling the same frustration I did. I have to admit that some of the frustration I felt was my own fault. I didn’t do a great job following my own advice. But I’ll do better next time. And my hope is that you will tactfully employ these principles in your own encounters with Jehovah’s Witnesses.