My wife and I recently had an opportunity to sit down and converse with two Jehovah’s Witnesses (JWs) that came to my door.
Truth be told, we are not well-versed in JW theology. However, I think our conversation could be helpful for a couple of reasons. First, sharing our strategy might provide a useful aid in current or future conversations you might have with a JW. Second, I think sharing the strategy the JWs used can be useful in getting a window into their thought process with regard to their (and our) worldview.
The first thing my wife and I purposed to do was make our guests feel comfortable in our home. I offered them something to eat and drink. I told them I was glad that they found the time to stop by and have a conversation with us. I introduced them to my son and my dogs and then we all sat down on my couch where we engaged in some further small talk: Where are you from? Do you have a family? How long have you been a missionary? Have you traveled, seen the world? We joked around and had a few laughs. All of this probably took 20 minutes before entering into our theological discussion.
I think starting with small talk is vitally important and here’s why. 1 Peter 3:8 says that we should strive to be “harmonious, sympathetic, brotherly, kindhearted, and humble in spirit.” Sure, this verse comes out of a context pertaining to marital relationships, but I’m sure Peter would not have suggested that those traits apply only to marriages and not your neighbors. Peter’s comment is actually commensurate with what Jesus said in Luke 6:31: “Treat others the same way you want them to treat you.”
There is a highly contentious atmosphere that currently exists in this culture (particularly online) where disagreeing with someone often becomes a series of sarcastic one-liners and ad hominem attacks in order to win a debate, rather than the person. Gone are the days where collegial and respectful disagreement is the norm. That is why it is of the utmost importance to treat those with whom we disagree with respect and grace. What good reason would we have to demand others’ respect if we are not willing to give it first? Also, why should we demand that anyone truly consider our view if we are not willing to do the same? This all begins with good rapport built on a genuine place of respect and care for our JW neighbors… or any neighbor, for that matter. Conversely, if we take no care to respect our interlocutors, we will make our words all the more difficult to be genuinely received.
Where Do We Differ?
As you all know by now, I am a huge advocate for Greg Koukl’s Tactics approach; that is, asking questions in order to make someone confront the consequences of their worldview. We’re not asking any old questions, though; we are asking specific questions to take the conversation where we want it to go. I began our theological conversation (as I did before with some Mormons that came to my door) with this comment and question: You could characterize my wife and I as Protestant and I understand you don’t share all of our views. Why don’t you tell us where we differ?
I think this is an important question to ask since Mormons and JWs (and other missionaries) tend to spend a lot of time highlighting the similarities between our faiths before finally getting to their particular disagreements. I believe their intention in doing so is to give the appearance of theological harmony in so many areas that the differences end up seeming secondary to the areas of apparent agreement. However, I find vast differences between classical Christianity and Mormons or JWs even in areas where there appear to be agreement. For example, when a Mormon talks about God the Heavenly Father and His Son, Jesus Christ, he or she has used terminology that we understand, classically, but is entirely heterodoxical. According to Mormons, God the Father was once a man who eternally progressed and became steward of his own universe. He had intercourse with Heavenly Mother and Jesus was their first offspring. Since the differences are crucial in understanding another’s faith relative to our own, I think everyone’s time is better spent on the clear and distinct differences. So that’s where we started.
No One Knows God’s Name
While we talked for a couple of hours, there were only two substantive issues the JWs raised in conversation. The first one was: God’s name has been suppressed by Satan. That is, according to them, all Bible translations have removed God’s name – Jehovah – and replaced it with Lord, thus causing great confusion over what God’s name really is. They introduced this idea to us by simply asking me and my wife if we knew God’s name? We did. In Scripture God is sometimes referred to as “Elohim” or “Adonai” but the name that He specifically gave when Moses asked in Exodus 3:14 was “Yahweh”. God identifies Himself again in Isaiah 42:8 saying, “I am Yahweh, that is My name…” The JWs were glad to hear that we knew His name and explained that no Christian besides Bible scholars know God’s name anymore.
That struck me as odd. I’m certainly not a Bible scholar, and, even if I were, I’ve heard God’s name preached from the pulpit almost all my life. So I challenged their assertion with a question: My wife and I are not Bible scholars so, if what you say is true, then how did we know God’s name? They said, “Well, all the other Christians we have spoken to don’t know God’s name.” I’m sure it’s true that there were some people they had proselytized that couldn’t answer their question. But I still found it hard to believe that no other Christian besides me and my wife and Bible scholars know God’s true name. Phil Wickham, one of the most well-known contemporary Christian artists, has a popular song with a chorus that goes: “Yahweh! Yahweh! We love to shout Your name, oh Lord!”
I asked: Is not knowing God’s name a salvific issue for you? The JW’s said it was not a salvific issue but if you did not know God’s name, then you did not really know God. Perhaps one of the JW leaders asserts this but Scripture never does. I asked: So, since my four year old son refers to my wife as “Mommy” and not her real name, are you saying he cannot really know who his mother is? The JWs said, “Of course not, terms of endearment are used in the Bible to refer to Jehovah all the time.” In other words, it is possible for someone to know a person, her attributes, desires, etc., and refer to her with a name that she identifies with while not knowing her real name. I asked: Isn’t it possible that “Lord” is used in the same way that a term of endearment is? To show respect and not to obscure God’s real name? Of course, the answer is yes. The reason Bible translations replace Yahweh or Jehovah with “Lord” is because we don’t really know what vowels the tetragrammaton (YHWH) originally contained. Therefore, out of reverence for the real name of God, and the desire not to mispronounce His holy name, “Lord” was put in place of YHWH. The Jews began this practice hundreds of years before Christ and the Christians followed suit, all out of reverence for God’s holy name.
But, according to JWs, Satan is trying to obscure the name of Jehovah and, thus, no one (besides JWs) really knows what His name is. Ironically, JWs stress this point while not seeming to understand that they don’t know it either. No one does. I tried to drive home this point a few times but it seemed like they did not grasp it.
Jesus Is Not God
The JWs began by stating, “We only believe in one God.” They took us to Colossians 1:13-18 and asked me to read it aloud. After I did, they pointed to v. 15: “[Jesus] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.” Then they said, “See, the word ‘firstborn’ shows that Jesus was the first creation by God and cannot be God Himself.” I said: Depends on what ‘firstborn’ (prototokos) means in this passage. If prototokos means literal firstborn then you’re right. But if we find prototokos used in a different sense then we need to determine which definition is being used here. I took them to Exodus 4:22 where God refers to Israel as His “firstborn son” and Psalm 89:27 where God refers to David as His “firstborn over all other kings”. In the LXX (Greek Old Testament) we find the word prototokos used in both cases but, clearly, not to mean literal firstborn in either usage, rather preeminent or first among others. Therefore, there is precedent for prototokos in Colossians 1:15 to mean preeminent if the rest of the passage flows as such.
I, then, took the JWs to v. 16 — “For by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth…” and pointed out that the phrase “all things” appears to exclude Jesus as a created thing (since He alone created all things). Surprisingly, the JWs did not mention that their New World Translation inserts the extra word “other” before “things”; thus their translation says, “because by means of him all other things were created…” If they would have mentioned that, I was prepared to ask them why the NWT inserts a word that is not in the Greek manuscripts in the first place. Neither heteros nor allos (translated “other”) are found in this passage in any of the original manuscripts. But, as I said, they didn’t mention it. Instead they tried to say that prototokos meant both literal firstborn and preeminent at the same time. When I asked them how they could use both meanings at the same time, considering the other places in Scripture where Jesus appears to be God (i.e. John 1:1-3 and 8:58) they simply reasserted that it could and then shifted gears to try to deal with John 8:58.
“Jesus never claimed to be God,” said the JW. That’s interesting, I said, then what do you make of His self-identification as the “ego eimi” or the “I AM” in John 8:58? There Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was born, I am (ego eimi, cf. Exodus 3:14).” The JWs said, “The Jews didn’t understand what Jesus was saying.” I asked: So when they tried to stone him twice, not only here but when He said He and the Father are one in 10:30 and the Jews said they were stoning Jesus because He was blaspheming and making Himself out to “be God” (v. 33), you’re saying they were confused? How so? The JWs said, “Yes,” and then pointed to Jesus’ response in v. 34, “I said you are gods,” (cf. Psalm 82) as evidence that they did not understand what He was really saying.
It is entirely unclear how Jesus’ response shows that the Jews misunderstood what He was saying. However, I sidestepped that issue and responded: I can understand your interpretation if Jesus had not self-identified as the I AM in John 8:58. These appear to be the same men He spoke to who, twice, picked up stones to kill Him. So, I’ll ask again, what do you make of Jesus’ self-identification in John 8:58? The JWs went back to the Jews’ misunderstanding and Jesus’ response in 10:34 but never answered my question, even when I pressed them to do so on multiple occasions.
Only God Saves
The JWs gave a parting comment at the close of the conversation: “Only God saves.” Upon hearing that I was simultaneously struck by two thoughts: 1) Amen! That’s true; and 2) Then why do we worship Jesus? If JW theology is true and Jesus is not God (but is, instead, the angel Michael), and God is the One who saves us through what Christ did on the cross then why do we worship and pray to Jesus? The JW response was to go to John 3:35: “The Father loves the Son and has given all things into His hand.” Then they said, “This is the way God wanted it.” But this is a poor answer in my opinion. Scripture tells us that God acts for His glorification. As a matter of fact, the reason God does anything is for His glorification. Take a look at these verses for examples.
Exodus 14:4, 18; 2 Kings 19:34; 1 Samuel 12:20, 22; 2 Samuel 7:23; Psalm 106:7-8; Isaiah 43:6-7, 25; 48:9-11; 49:3; Jeremiah 13:11; Ezekiel 20:14; 36:22-23; Matthew 5:16; John 14:13; John 16:14; Romans 3:25-26; 9:17, 22-23; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Thessalonians 1:9-10; 1 Peter 2:12; 4:11
These barely scratch the surface with regard to the idea that God does what He does for His glory and we do everything we do for His glory as well. It’s all for Him! So if Jesus is not God, then why would God set up a system where we end up worshiping a created angel? That seems misdirected. According to the classical Christian view Jesus is God, so our worship and reverence to Him is not misdirected. The JWs do not seem to challenge those verses above but have no issue with Jesus being worshiped or prayed to. I think that is bizarre.
I explained that rationale to the JWs and asked, “Why would God do such a thing?” But they were not prepared for an answer, other than to say, “This is the way God wants it.” Since Scripture establishes the notion that God desires for us to worship Him and Him alone (Exodus 34:14; Deutoronomy 6:13-14; 2 Kings 17:35-36) it makes no sense to say that God has allowed for worship of a created thing unless some new rationale is given. Except it is not given anywhere. Rather, Jesus claimed to be God and received worship as if He was. So the classical Christian view makes much better sense of the holistic picture of Scripture than the JW view.
Notice, my wife and I asked several questions that went unanswered by the JWs. Not only did we ask them but I pressed them by repeating the questions, and they still did not answer them. Instead they changed the subject by reverting to talking points or shifting gears and moving into a new area. At times I perceived the JWs to be slightly rattled by the types of questions and rejoinders we offered, and I pray that my wife and I were able to challenge them in a way that sticks with them over time. Through it all we struck a good balance between theological urgency and levity, which I think is vital to reaching the person. Again, the point is not to win the argument but the living, breathing human beings sitting across from you. We trust the Holy Spirit was doing something alongside our efforts to be obedient to the Lord in this regard. I also got one of the JWs emails for further conversation.
As I mentioned at the outset, I sincerely hope that my and my wife’s interactions with the JWs could be useful for the day you get a knock at the door. I pray the Lord give you wisdom and strength to answer the call.