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, and more specifically the MBTI.
Essentially the MBTI builds on some of Carl Jung’s work to arrive at 16 different types of human cognition [thinking patterns]. 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. It 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. Its widespread acceptance then is not surprising.
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.
There’s always a little truth in sarcasm…
I’ll use myself as an example. My MBTI type 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.
So if you are discipling me recognizing that this is my thought process would be a great supplement to our relationship. It isn’t going to change what we talk about, but it will change your understanding of my actions and responses. So for instance, if you happen to be a firm believer in eternal security and one week I say something that attacks that 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 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.
It can also help you realize what my blind spot is, so that you can improve me in this area. For me my biggest blind spot is that I don’t realize the impact that my words and ideas have on others. 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; 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 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.