Thursday, 24 March 2016

On Speaking to a Jehovah’s Witness (on a Bus)

The Jehovah’s Witnesses have a very visible presence on the streets of south-east London these days. It seems they’re no longer content with mere door-knocking; they wheel their purpose-built literature racks to a location with a high proportion of passers-by and stand there, often doing no more than chatting to each other while the Great British Public hurry and scurry to work, to schools, and to shopping centres. But every so often, the Witnesses do manage to persuade someone to stop and accept a copy of The Watchtower or Awake! And every so often, a brave Witness can ambush the unsuspecting, rendering escape for the latter impossible.

Such was my experience a few weeks ago, when I was approached by a Witness and asked a question (I forget what the question was) while riding to Streatham Tesco on the top deck of a 249 bus. I noticed the brightly coloured brochure in the Witness’s hand, so I showed him the book I was reading (Philip Davies’s The History of Ancient Israel) and grunted that I didn’t really need to have a conversation with him – not least because I was a Christian who worshipped regularly at a local Church of England church. But I suspect the information I imparted was interpreted not as a strategy to prevent further interaction, but as an invitation to deeper conversation – and a proof-text war began:

‘I believe Jesus is God, the Second Person of the Trinity.’
‘But how can this be? Doesn’t Jesus say the Father is greater than he?’
‘That doesn’t take into account his earthly mission. After all, does Jesus not also say that he and the Father are one?’
‘One in purpose, but not one in identity. It wouldn’t make sense of Jesus when he prays to God, would it?’
‘But that’s the Son praying to his Father, not God praying to himself.’

And so on. The discourse eventually ended when my Witness friend had to alight at his stop.

As is often the case for me, I replayed the conversation in my head and realised that I had been far from the Shining Light for JesusTM of my evangelistic fantasies. Evangelism-by-proof-texting is not the best way to convince another person of the deity of Jesus Christ, not least because s/he likely wants to persuade me of the non-deity of Jesus. I’m sure even the distribution of a suitable Chick tract would have been a better witness (in a non-JW sense)! And so I stumbled into Streatham Tesco, hoping that buying a loaf of bread and other sundries would distract me from my utter failure at being a True Disciple of Jesus.TM

Having written all this, I have to say that the discourse could have taken a more interesting direction had our joint journey been longer, because I began to ask questions about worshipping Jesus – something Jehovah’s Witnesses cannot accept. Compare these passages:

New World Translation
Matthew 28:17
When they saw [Jesus], they worshipped him; but some doubted.
When they saw him, they did obeisance [fnor bowed down], but some doubted.
Luke 24:52
And they worshipped [Jesus], and returned to Jerusalem with great joy.
And they did obeisance [fnor bowed down] to him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy.
John 9:37-38
Jesus said to him, ‘You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.’
He said, ‘Lord, I believe.’ And he worshipped him.
Jesus said to him: ‘You have seen him, and in fact, he is the one speaking with you.’
He said: ‘I do put faith in him, Lord.’ And he did obeisance [fnor bowed down] to him.
Hebrews 1:6
And again, when he brings the firstborn into the world, he says, ‘Let all God’s angels worship him.’
But when he again brings his Firstborn into the inhabited earth, he says: ‘And let all of God’s angels do obeisance to him [fnor bow down to him].’

The New World Translation arguably softens the proskuneo (‘worship’) of these verses so that Jesus is reverenced but not worshipped. (I find the NWT rendition of John 9:38 interesting, too – Jesus is addressed as ‘Lord’, but ostensibly the man’s faith is placed in God. Or am I reading this unfairly?)

Now all this can be pointed out to the Jehovah’s Witness, but I’m not sure that it would do much good in and of itself. I dare say that Witnesses are as convinced about the accuracy of the New World Translation as I am about the NRSV, and so once more the conversation would likely degenerate once more into a urination contest. Would it have been better for me simply to have drawn attention to these and similar verses, to have pointed out the differences in translation, and to have explained why a translation of proskuneo as ‘worship’ matters to me – and then to have invited the Witness to explain why he feels able only to esteem Jesus? The deeper point here is that my Witness friend is potentially that – a friend – and that there must be proper conversations and purposeful listening between Christians affirming Nicene orthodoxy and those of New Religious Movements, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, who do not and cannot hold the same. So maybe next time I have an encounter with a Jehovah’s Witness on a bus (or anywhere, really), I will aim to listen and engage rather than dismiss or confront.


  1. Don't beat yourself up about being a 'bad witness' (non-capital W). It's very hard to know what to say or do when suddenly drawn into that kind of conversation, and there aren't many who are able to respond particularly well. Sounds like you did what you could under awkward circumstances!

    One of my friends who used to attend our church is now going to a JW 'church', primarily because it's nearer to her and has been more supportive and welcoming than her local Anglican church. My friend values relationship over theology, and I suspect she's less fussed that JW's have a different view of Jesus's divinity than she is about the way they've treated her as a person.

    So perhaps the best response we can make is to treat JWs as people rather than just tract-wavers or theological/spiritual opponents... but far easier said than done. I tend to avoid them as much as possible, simply because I don't want to get drawn into a fruitless debate over Bible texts...

    1. So perhaps the best response we can make is to treat JWs as people rather than just tract-wavers or theological/spiritual opponents...

      Yes . . .

      I find your anecdote about your friend interesting. It says a lot in a few words!

    2. Yes, it's certainly made me think... her husband (who I've been friends with for a very long time) no longer attends church at all, and as I say she's moved to the JWs - but I'm not sure she would actually identify herself as a JW. It's just that this is where she finds that she experiences fellowship, and I think to her it's just another church, as though she'd moved to (say) a Baptist congregation.

      When I first heard about it, I'll confess it bothered me quite a lot - and in some ways it still does, a little. But it has at least challenged me to rethink my rather prejudiced view of JWs. I do think they're quite seriously wrong in some fairly fundamental aspects of their beliefs - but maybe that doesn't matter quite as much as I thought it did...