I have spent many hours talking directly with Jehovah’s Witnesses (JWs) on their carts, around a table, and over social media, and I have noticed certain common traits amongst them, familiar discussion techniques. Of course, all JWs are individuals and you may find variations on those traits, but I believe it is very likely that at least some of what I have detailed below will come up in your discussions at some point.
All JWs are taught the same information from the same literature at the same time throughout the world and it appears that they are also all taught the same discussion techniques and responses as well. Their ‘Reasoning’ book(1) gives specific answers to points that might be raised by those they come in to contact with, but this article deals with perhaps the more covert techniques.
The Watchtower Society (WTS) is known as a High Control Organisation (HCO)(2), which is a more accurate and polite description than cult. This control extends to mind control techniques (actually to which we are all susceptible to a degree) and some of these are described below. This can be very useful to know if you intend to engage with them on the carts, the doorstep or elsewhere as you can be forewarned and prepared. I have suggested some comebacks to their responses which I have found useful.
I would point out that these observations noted below are not unique to JWs and you may well find them in discussions with other people on any topic – look out for them and improve your debating skills!
A ‘thought-stopper’ (3) is a technique taught overtly, or otherwise, by HCOs as a method to block out unpleasant truths, though it can also be used therapeutically for anxiety type disorders. In some cults this can amount to; chanting or singing, praying out loud or silently, or some other method to prevent facing unwanted information. It is the equivalent of sticking your fingers in your ears and shouting “la, la, la! “
This technique is also a way of reducing cognitive dissonance(4), a well documented psychological phenomena which describes how where mental distress is caused when facts are presented which conflict with one’s beliefs or actions. The ‘la-la’ method hides the facts so reduces this distress.
When you hear one or more of these it often means that any useful discussion is over as the JW has ceased to listen. It may be possible to recover the situation by changing the subject, but it is often best to simply quickly summarise what has been said and ask them to think on one particular point (maybe to come back to it if there is the possibility of further engagement).
“We’re not here to argue”
I Find this a strange one when those on the carts come up with this as it is them who have put themselves out there as arbiters of the truth and they can hardly really expect people simply to listen to what they say without some feedback.
One response could be “Arguing implies a certain amount of anger; are you angry, I’m not. We’re just having a Bible discussion, is that so wrong?”
“Go to JW.org”
For those JWs who are very unsure of their knowledge the option to simply point you to their website which contains “all the answers” is a useful get-out option. They might even give you a business card with the website details on it. It would be polite to take it from them and say that you’ll check it out.
You will need to try and re-engage their attention to the discussion so you can move on to perhaps a much easier biblical doctrine, one that you would hope the person would be more familiar with or one that might plant a powerful seed in their heart such as “can you know you have eternal life?” taking 1 John 5 v 13 as your Bible verse. Simply showing them the verse and giving a quick message about it may be enough to stick in their mind before you move away or it may reignite the conversation.
“You don’t understand the Bible”
The WTS teaches that it is not possible to understand the Bible without their interpretation; they are Jehovah’s sole channel of information dispersal(5) So, when faced with a statement from yourself, backed up from the Bible, which they are struggling to refute this stopper is a get-out clause that means they no longer need to consider what you’re saying as you don’t know what you’re taking about!
I had one JW say to me that while what I was saying made sense they knew I was wrong. Why did they know I was wrong; because I was contradicting what the WTS had taught them. This method also works in a self-effacing way by them assuming that what you are saying is wrong it’s just that they’re not ‘clever’ enough to know how it is wrong!
You can suggest they go away and ponder on what you have said in the hope that they will give it more time and come to the realisation that what you are saying is actually correct. You will need to highlight the Bible passage to which you are referring to or reiterate the logic you have used to reach your conclusion. Changing tack may recover the situation, but the JW coming to the conclusion you do not understand the Bible means that any further conversation is likely to be fruitless.
Pearls before Swine
This is a particularly harsh thought-stopper by them and comes from Matthew 7 v 6 where Jesus tells us not to throw our pearls to ‘pigs’! I have only been on the end of this on one occasion and it will tell you what the JW considers about you! It’s definitely time to move on!
“I’m happy in what I believe”/”You believe what you believe and we believe what we believe”
This is a particularly strange one if you are having a discussion with JWs who have come to your door. If this is a valid statement then why have they made a specific trip to your door to try and change what you believe? You can see this as a compliment in that you have put forward a good case for your beliefs even though they see it as wrong because it contradicts the WTS teachings.
Recovery, again, may be possible by changing the subject and getting them to tell you what they believe on a subject and allowing them to talk themselves back in to the discussion.
“But that’s just one verse”/”You need to understand the whole Bible”
Quoting a specific verse which directly contradicts what the WTS teaches on a subject can illicit this response. The WTS is very good at agreeing that the Bible may say something but that it’s not what it means and can then go on to give an alternative idea, usually in a contorted fashion.
Of course, it is dangerous to base a doctrine on a single verse so we should always be ready to quote other verses or passages that support what we are saying. But, you can ask them whether what the verse is saying is true or is the Bible lying. Obviously, they would have to agree that the Bible doesn’t lie and that the verse must be true. Having established the truth of the verse/passage you can then go back in to the discussion by asking them their interpretation of it. If they are unwilling to do so it may be necessary to leave the discussion there and hope they think on the verse you have quoted.
If you are laying the foundations for a longer relationship with the JW you can get them to agree that a single verse is not a good foundation for a doctrine and, later, when they come up with Proverbs 4 v 18 (where ‘light’ gets ‘brighter’) as the reason the WTS can make so may errors but remain as Jehovah’s sole channel, you can remind them of this.
JWs are usually well versed on certain subjects and are keen to keep to those during discussions. Should you present them with a subject on which they are not so well versed then they will try and change it to one that they are. Often this is to a minor point made during a ‘major’ discussion. You can be discussing almost any subject and they will say something like “Do you believe the Bible when it says the love of many will grow cold in the last times? Do you see this happening today?” The end times, and how the world is in a bad situation at the moment, is a key point of their message leading in to the need to be part of ‘true worship’ before the end.
With any type of such redirection it is best to respond with something like “that’s an interesting idea and one I would like to come back to at a later point, but can we stay with the subject of… for the moment.” Keeping to one point can be difficult when there are so many ideas brought up in the discussion to which you’re dying to answer, but allowing the debate to meander about multiple subjects is unlikely to result in anything conclusive.
Motte-and-Bailey Fallacy (6)
This is a form of argument which is similar to the redirection method described above. It is named after the Motte-and-Bailey style of castle common in the middle-ages which had an outer wall which was difficult to defend (the ‘bailey’) and a more easily defendable structure within the bailey (the ‘motte’). You may come up with a point that is hard for them to defend and they will restructure your point to one they are more familiar with and are able to refute more easily.
An example would be that you are making the point that we have eternal life now (1 John 5 v 13 for example) rather than having to wait until the end of the 1000-year reign as taught by the WTS. This is well supported by many verses in the Bible and the JW may not wish to follow that line of reasoning. So, instead, they restructure your argument in to “so you’re saying once saved always saved” and then go on to point out that the Bible condemns those who continue to sin.
Admittedly, while connected, the above two points are not the same discussion and you should point this out and return them to your original point, well backed up by biblical verses and passages. You can also respond in the same way as suggested in the paragraph above about ‘Redirection’
To any verse that you may bring up to highlight an error in WTS teaching the JW is likely to have another verse that appears to contradict yours and support the WTS instead. You may then respond with a further verse that either supports your original verse or simply contradicts the JW’s. They may reply with another verse and so on. This is called Bible ‘Ping-pong’ and usually gets you nowhere quickly.
If the JW brings up a verse that appears to contradict yours then bring them back to your verse or passage you originally put forward. Ask whether the Bible is speaking the truth in that verse or is it wrong, is the Bible contradicting itself (see the above paragraph ‘But that’s Just one verse’).
Ask them how they interpret that verse before allowing them to put forward a ‘contradictory’ verse. You will then need to interpret the verse they propose and how it doesn’t contradict your verse (the Bible never contradicts itself). Often the JW’s ‘contradicting’ verse is talking about something different to yours so, again, try to keep to one point.
Straw Man (7)
A ‘straw man’ is another logical fallacy you may come across. It means to respond to an argument by setting up a slightly different argument (the ‘straw man’) then burning down that argument by proving it false. It is similar in form to the motte-and-bailey fallacy except in the straw man their argument is incorrect and perverts the true argument.
One common example is the Trinity (I always try and avoid discussing the Trinity until much later in a relationship due to its complexities and the straw man arguments often put forward by JWs). JWs are not well taught on the actual Trinity doctrine as the WTS sets up straw man arguments and burns them in front of the JWs.
The JW may set up a straw man such as “the Trinity doctrine says that there are three gods in one person” then proceed to burn it by proving that the Bible says that there is only one God and also that Jesus spoke with the Father so they cannot be the same person. This particular straw man is akin to modalism(8) and is not the Trinity doctrine.
It is important to understand the true doctrines being misrepresented as a straw man before being able to refute them. First you must point out the fallacy of the straw man and how it does not represent the truth; achieving this completely destroys the argument. You could also twist the knife as such by commenting on how deceptive the WTS is in presenting this untruth as what Christians believe.
This is a mixture of the motte-and-bailey and the redirection where the JW picks out a point from something you say that they are happy with and will home in on that. One example might be that you tell them the gospel like this; “Jesus came to save us from our sins through faith in Him, by dying for our sins once and for all upon the cross and coming back from the dead three days later.”
And their response would be “Did you know that Jesus didn’t die on a cross but on a stake? The cross is a pagan symbol adopted by the church centuries after Jesus’ death.” You can then fall in to the trap of discussing whether Jesus died with His arms outstretched or above His head!
This ‘picking’ may not be a problem as long as the point in question is important enough to warrant a discussion – often you only have a limited time (such as meeting someone on a cart) so you need to choose the discussion point carefully. If it happens in the middle of a discussion about something else bring them back to the main point as suggested above.
Loss of Interest
A loss of interest by the JW(s) may often occur, particularly on the carts, and is indicated by them avoiding eye contact or other body language signs. The other JW (there are almost always at least two), the one not engaged with the discussion, may well start looking at their phone or simply stare into the distance or at others passing by.
There is little that can be done at this point so it’s best to either summarise what you have been saying, asking them to consider the points and wish them well, or to try and arrange a further meeting. To persist in trying to continue the discussion is likely to prove fruitless and simply result in thought-stoppers and maybe them becoming antagonistic.
JWs are taught that ‘opposers’ (those who ‘oppose’ Jehovah though in reality it is those who ‘oppose’ the WTS) are not pleasant people (9) and are simply there to attack Jehovah, cause division amongst his people, attempt to weaken their resolve to follow Jehovah (or, more accurately, the WTS), and to ‘twist things’. Continuing to badger a JW after they have lost interest will only reinforce this teaching so is best avoided.
Agree and Disagree
When you present an idea from the Bible the JW may well appear to agree with what you say which can be a little unsettling as where do you go from there? It may be that they then go on to contradict what you say while still agreeing with you! For example; they may agree that eternal life is a gift (hard to deny when Romans 6 v 23 specifically says so), but when pushed say that it still has to be earned though. They may quote something like James 2(10) in support where faith without works is dead. They agree yet disagree at the same time.
It will be necessary to get them to reaffirm their agreement on the original point and verse/passage then, in this case, get them to agree what is a ‘gift’ – something given willingly to someone without payment, for example. Once that is agreed then how can this gift still need to be worked for?
It can be hard to determine where the contradiction is between what they are agreeing to and their actual beliefs because much of what the WTS teaches is couched in vague terms or is contradictory to other teachings; do we need to ‘exercise faith in Jesus’ ransom sacrifice to be saved’ or do we simply get a free pass to paradise earth even if we don’t?(11).
It may be necessary to point out that what they are agreeing to is not taught by the WTS, but you will need to be able to identify exactly what the WTS does teach and maybe even where they have said this in their literature. Despite the ongoing teaching programme of the WTS there can still be some confusion amongst JWs, particularly the newer members, often due to ‘new light’ not being made clear to them.
Due to the control measures put in place by the WTS on its members, discussions with JWs do not always follow the norms of societal debate and can easily trip up the unwary. Being aware of the possible stumbling points can help avoid a fruitless discussion and will assist with the imparting of biblical truth to the JW.
There are no doubt other techniques used by JWs, either knowingly or otherwise, and should you come across any I would greatly appreciate hearing from you. You can email me at email@example.com or in a comment on this article.
I hope and pray that you will find this information useful and it will give you greater confidence to talk with JWs and try to show them the truth of God’s word; a word that may lead them to true eternal life.
- WTS book 1989 “Reasoning from the Scriptures”
- Steve Hassan book “Releasing the Bonds” page 44, Freedom of Minds Press, ISBN 0-9670688-0-0. See also https://freedomofmind.com/cult-mind-control/bite-model/
- Watchtower (WT) 15 Feb 1983 p 12, WT 1 Jun 2001 p 16 et al
- Motte-and-bailey fallacy – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Motte-and-bailey_fallacy
- Straw man – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Straw_man
- Modalism – the idea that God changes His form to fit the situation, changing His ‘mode’; one day He’s the Father, next He’s the Son, and then He’s the Holy Spirit. This is illustrated by the much used water analogy where water appears in three different formats; sometimes it’s ice, sometimes liquid water and sometimes steam. This is not the accepted doctrine of the Trinity. For a humorous yet informative video on this see Donall and Conall at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KQLfgaUoQCw
- WT 1 March 1983 page 24
- Book of James Ch 2 v 17 “So, too, faith by itself, without works, is dead” NWT
- WTS book 1995 “Knowledge that leads to everlasting life” Ch7 p 62-69, WT Study Edition Sep 2022 Study Article 39