Personality and discipleship

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A perennial struggle in Christianity is the struggle between preserving the old and adapting to the new. On the one hand we have a faith that we must preserve and hand on to future generations, but on the other new discoveries and advances are constantly being made, especially in the areas of science and technology. How much of the old do we change or reformulate in light of the new?

One of the fields that has been part of this debate is psychology. While there is a lot in this field that has been rejected by Christians (and rightfully so), not everything has. One area that seems to have gained at least some acceptance is personality theory. Things like the Big Five, Enneagram, the MBTI, and others have recently gained popularity and acceptance amongst some Christians. They have also drawn criticism, skepticism, and condemnation from other other Christians. So who is right? Well, I think the truth in this case is somewhere in the middle of these two positions. I think these frameworks do have value and are useful, but they are not Gospel truth and should not be treated as such.

The personality “tool” that I am most familiar with is the MBTI, so for the purposes of this post I will use that tool as an example of how we can preserve the old while making use of the new. Now, one of the first things you need to know about a tool is what it is supposed to measure.

Essentially the MBTI builds on some of Carl Jung’s work to arrive at 16 different types of human cognition (thinking patterns). Jung basically noticed that people tended to prioritize or care about certain types of information more than others. For example, some people care more about the personal part of an incident; how it effects others and makes them feel or how it makes themselves feel. Others care more about the impersonal part of an incident; how it effects their plans or goals, or how it aligns with what they already “know” to be true. Jung basically noticed these patterns and organized them into 8 “types.” Myers and Briggs came along and built on Jung’s work and came up with 16 types. Now, it is important to note that these are indeed just different types and that one is not inherently better than the others; each type has its own gifts and blind spots.

I think the MBTI is a good description of what we see in reality and in our everyday interactions with others since it is quite obvious that not everyone thinks the same or cares about the same things. To me it seems rather obvious that the person who spends their freetime painting and the person who spends it tinkering with electronics have processed all the “data” that they have encountered in their life in different ways. The one who paints has probably spent a lot of time processing what feelings their experiences evoked and what that says about the human condition, which they then use to inform their painting. The nerd who tinkers with electronics has probably spent a lot of time wondering how they could improve or modify “things” to make those things better or improve the quality of life for people. Neither of these things are better than the other, they are just different and are motivated by processing the various events of life differently.

Where I think people go wrong with the MBTI is not putting enough thought into it. Many times it seems that people just take a test (usually online) get their result and accept that as the truth. Here’s the problem with this: human personality is very complex, much more complex than any test can account for. A test is a good starting point, but being accurate about which MBTI type you are requires much more thought and analysis. It is not measuring behaviors. It is measuring how you process information. It takes a long time to recognize how you are processing all the events and happenings of life.

So, if you are going to use a tool as part of a discipleship program or just for your own personal growth make sure that you thoroughly understand that tool and what it is supposed to be measuring.

Where I think the MBTI can make the best impact is as a supplement to discipleship. Note the emphasis on supplement. Whatever your cognitive wiring happens to be it isn’t going to change when you become a Christian, but your heart will. An example of this is the Apostle Paul. Prior to his conversion we read of someone with a zealous personality:

“But Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison.”
— Acts 8.3

“But Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.”
— Acts 9.1-2

After his conversion Paul didn’t lose his zeal as he went on several missionary journeys establishing and strengthening the churches (mostly Gentile) throughout the Roman Empire. He was beaten numerous times, imprisoned, and eventually executed for his work in spreading the Gospel. God didn’t change his wiring, He changed his heart.

When we become Christians, whenever that might be, our cognitive wiring does not change, our hearts do. Like Paul’s our hearts change from being hostile towards God to loving Him; we desire to serve Him rather than persecute Him. If someone was an artist before their conversion, they will still be an artist afterwards; their personality won’t change. What will change is their heart, a change that will likely be reflected in their art.

Discipleship essentially continues the heart change that happened at conversion. The regular spiritual disciplines of prayer, Scripture study, meditation, fasting, etc are of far more value in this process than the MBTI, and also offer better opportunities for growth. If you are in a discipleship or mentoring relationship with someone the main focus of your discussions should be on spiritual matters and spiritual growth, not personality theory. Living the Christian life and following Christ, learning to deny yourself, putting to death your own selfish ambitions, and being submissive to where the Spirit is leading you and the work He is doing in you will result in far more growth than anything any psychologist will ever come up with, including the MBTI.

However, I think the MBTI can be a useful supplement to this process by providing a framework that shows us that not everybody processes information the same, nor do they need to, nor should they. It can help show us how to craft a discipleship process that helps a person become the best version of who God made them to be, rather than who the pastor, mentor, or whoever thinks they should be. Or as a resource I recently saw put it: we can become like Jesus while being ourselves.

It can also help us avoid some of the conflicts and miscommunication that can arise in such relationships as a result of our different wiring.

I’ll use myself as an example. My MBTI type (as best I have been able to determine so far) is INTP. A basic description of this style of thinking is that it is a never ending quest for truth, subjective truth in this case. In the end it doesn’t matter what the experts say, or what social convention or niceties dictate, if something is true it is true and it should be accepted. There is really no emotional attachment to any particular idea or theory and everything is subject to modification or rejection as new information becomes available; there are no sacred cows. As such there is a certain type of inherent rebellion with us. We generally do not readily “drink the kool-aid” we are served by society or a particular organization; we will not defend something (at least not readily or easily) that we believe is wrong just because we have a societal obligation to, or because a superior tells us to. We’re not trying to be rebellious on principle or cause disruption; we are not anarchists. We are just loyal to the truth and believe everyone else should be as well. At best we are something similar to Albert Einstein, whose ideas helped move physics forward. At worst we are along the lines of Sheldon Cooper, who is not open to modifying his ideas in light of new information, is constantly defending himself and his ideas, and does not realize the impact and effect that he has on others.

How can this information help the discipleship process? In several ways. First it will let you know that my intellectual need is pretty great. This means that if you were going to consider pairing me with someone or putting me in a group it would be best for me if this need could be fulfilled. This could mean the person has a similar outlook to me in wanting to run down and investigate all the details of a particular subject. Or, it could mean that they at least know which direction to point me in to answer my questions.

Second, it can help you recognize the motivation(s) behind certain statements. For example, if you happen to be a firm believer in eternal security and one week I say something that attacks that doctrine, or ask a critical or skeptical question about the doctrine knowing that what I am actually after is the truth concerning the question: “Can a Christian lose their salvation?” and not attacking eternal security, will (hopefully) keep you from condemning me. It can help you realize that my priority is on truth and it matters to me that I am able to be loyal to this, whatever it might happen to be. It would be better in this case to point me in the direction of resources that discuss this issue clearly, thoroughly, and without misrepresenting the views of either side so that I can weigh the best arguments from each side and come to an answer on this question. The truth is after all what I care about. And for all you know I just may end up supporting eternal security, though perhaps not on the same basis you do.

Finally, it can help you realize what my blind spot is, so that you can help me improve in this area. INTPs generally tend not to be super great when it comes to interpersonal things. The feelings of others and how things might impact them don’t factor into our thought process a whole lot. After all, how are we are going to determine what is “true” if we keep letting our emotions or the emotions of others get in the way? That’s not to say we are incapable in this area and can’t learn to improve. It’s just to say that we consider other things to be more important and prefer to devote our energy to those things. To illustrate this let’s stick with the eternal security example. You might say to me regarding this issue: “You know, there are a lot of people who come from a background which created in them a lot of doubt concerning their salvation; they never knew for sure if they were saved or not. So for them the doctrine of eternal security is a great comfort because it assuaged their doubts. Repudiating this doctrine would likely have a negative effect on such people and bring back all their old doubts.” It won’t have any effect on my answer to the question, but it will help me realize that if I do find the doctrine of eternal security false I will need to plan for and expect this reaction. I basically need help packaging the truth in a way that others can accept it, especially those who are going to react negatively to it.

With this strategy I get to use the natural gifts and abilities God gave me, and the Church gets to benefit from these gifts and abilities. In other words, I become a better version of who God made me to be. But if you try to force me to be something I’m not the only thing you’re really going to succeed in is driving me away from the Church.

God made us all different, and I think the MBTI (and other personality “tools”) can help us recognize those differences and craft better discipleship and mentoring strategies in light of them. I think failing to recognize these differences will only impoverish the Church and deprive her of the necessary gifts that everyone brings.

Tom Ferguson ThM 2018, Dallas Theological Seminary