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Assessing Christian Use of the Enneagram

Truth in Love 308

The role of invisible discerner of the thoughts, intentions, motivations of the heart is reserved for God alone, specifically the person of the Holy Spirit.

Apr 26, 2021

Dale Johnson: Once again on the podcast, I am visited by Dr. Rhenn Cherry. Rhenn is the Director of Finances and Donor Relations here at ACBC, serving on our staff. He’s also an adjunct professor at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He received his doctoral degree, his PhD, from Southwestern Seminary not too long ago. He wrote, actually, on this subject of the Enneagram and he has a forthcoming book that will be out of that research, that doctoral research, and it’s called Enneagram Theology: Is It Christian? I’m excited that you guys actually get a full month of Rhenn. We get to enjoy Rhenn in the office every day and you guys are just getting a wonderful taste of what life is like with Rhenn. We love Rhenn in the office; he’s married to Terry and we get to enjoy fellowship with her as well. He has two children, Jack and Carly.

Rhenn, I’m so grateful that you’re here again for a fourth week. What I want us to do this week is let’s see if we can set the stage and turn the corner. We’ve talked a lot about background, the history of the Enneagram, where it came from, helping people to understand mystic roots. Let me just say if you’ve not listened to the three previous podcasts, we’ve done some of this background work, this history work. If you’ve listened to that, you’re coming to this podcast and you’re probably wondering, “Okay, I hear what you guys are saying. I understand what you’re saying, but I’m not sure. How are Christians using this in practice? How are they actually implementing this?”

I would expect that some listeners who currently use the Enneagram—and even maybe propagate the use of it with others—have listened maybe to the last three weeks of the podcast and you said things like, “You know, I really didn’t know who Richard Rohr was. I had no idea his influence.” Maybe you’ve said something like, “I’m not a panentheist like Rohr is, I don’t believe the same way that Rohr does about that. I don’t propagate the things that Rohr and some of the other authors do. I don’t believe God is in everything.” You might say, “Well, of course, I don’t think multiple incarnations have taken place. I don’t agree with his theological disposition relative to those things.” You might even find yourself right now saying, “Yeah, that’s ridiculous. We would never think like that.” And you find yourself distancing from Rohr, his thinking, some of the authors that he mentored in evangelicalism, maybe distancing yourself from that theology. I would just simply ask: Can we be honest and ask yourself why? Why are we distancing ourselves from him? What’s the need to do that? Especially if his thinking and his theology is so intertwined in the modern way that we understand the uses of the Enneagram.

You may say you want to distance theologically speaking, but I think that takes really the whole system of the Enneagram apart because it really can’t be disconnected, at least in my view, from the foundation of his theological disposition and how he sees insight, how he understands personality types, and how he understands how we improve as the self, or how we have certain vices and that sort of thing. Why is it that we would need to build a caveat when we use the Enneagram? Why would it be that we need to maybe add some sort of warning label? “Yeah, we use this but we only use it for this way. We don’t use it in certain ways.” 

What I want to do, Rhenn, if we can turn the corner, is really start talking about how do we assess even the uses of it, or the practices of it? And I’m not just talking about secularly. I think this system makes total sense for a secular mind to employ as a personality typology or way of understanding leadership and that sort of thing. I want us to assess the Christian uses of it. There are many. Somebody might respond and say, “Well, I use this sort of thing because I think it works. I think it’s effective.” What are some of the things we might respond to with that sort of pragmatic response?

Rhenn Cherry: Some listeners, like you said, may find themselves promoting the Enneagram’s effectiveness, but they need to distance themselves from Enneagram theology. They acknowledge it as a useful secular tool and they’re certainly free to do that. But at the point that you make that claim, it is certainly fair to discuss what does effectiveness look like? We know that we live in an era of so-called “evidence-based treatments and practices.” Real science is real. If you’re divorced from the Enneagram theology, it’s a valid question to ask: Is there some type of scientific support for this typology called the Enneagram? Are there peer-reviewed studies, articles, and some type of support for the effectiveness of this system? Up to this point, I could only find a study from 2015. We’re going to include that citation in the podcast notes. It’s in the Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology that responded to the overwhelming number of evidence-based practices in psychology, specifically for assessing and treating, in this case, children and adolescents. 

This particular study enlisted 139 PhD-level clinicians with an average of over 26 years of clinical experience. They used a delphi poll, a 1 to 5 scale to rate various assessment tools. This study set out, in the crowded world of so-called evidence-based assessment, to determine which ones should be, in their words, eradicated and eliminated from use to clear the table, to clear the landscape. Whether or not you agree with secular psychology and its practices, that’s a separate issue. You’d be hard-pressed to argue against the collective experience of these people who did the rating.

Dale Johnson: This is an interesting turn of events here, Rhenn. We’re saying, “Okay, let’s talk about the practices of it. Let’s talk about how ‘effective’ we think it is. If that’s where we want to shift the discussion, if that’s the category that we want to go into, let’s do that. Let’s assess that.” It’s interesting because you’re seeing this sort of family feud or what I would consider to be an intramural squabble. You have some in the secular world propagating this idea, thinking it’s this new wave of wonderful information. Then we want to look at the scientific uses of it. You have this meta-analysis that happened in assessing different typologies or different assessment tools for their validity. That’s an appropriate thing to do, scientifically. You’ve set this up for us. Now, what did the study actually show in this intramural squabble?

Rhenn Cherry: Again, the citation is attached in the podcast notes. Out of 36 assessments that this study surveyed, after the first round the Enneagram ranked as the second most discredited assessment tool. After the second round it tied for last. I want to be clear—a peer-reviewed study in a psychological journal ranked the Enneagram tied for dead last out of 36 assessments. These experienced clinicians would not collectively agree that the Enneagram is an effective assessment tool. Again, I point you to that study. 

Dale Johnson: Alright, so we have that understanding. We want to put it categorically. For those who say, “Well, I use it because I think it’s effective. I think it work,” you’re demonstrating that the studies that have been done on it so far have disagreed with that. It’s not something that’s repeatable, in part because it’s a self-assessment, in part because we view the things that we want to view sometimes through these types of lenses. It gives us a framework and we feel comfortable with frameworks and we like to adopt language that makes us sound like we can put things into proper categories. 

What I want to do is, if we can, switch gears. I want to discuss how this is used in counseling. This is a podcast specifically about counseling and how this might be employed in counseling. I want us to talk about how this is used in counseling and maybe talk about some other areas as well. But let’s talk about first, how is the Enneagram used in the counseling setting? 

Rhenn Cherry: Well, the Enneagram has become popular with counselors in couples and family counseling for sure. It’s often used really as a communication tool. The idea is that counselees can use this to become more aware of their own tendencies, habits, blind spots, as well as perhaps their spouse or other family members. It gives counselees a common, new language to help them understand themselves and others. What this knowledge of self and others leads to is a set of prescribed ways of responding to others based on their number and your number. 

Dale Johnson: Are we saying that these numbers are sort of determinative of who we are?

Rhenn Cherry: Yeah. I looked the word determinate up in the Webster’s Dictionary. It says it means literally having the power to define, qualify, or direct. Something that is determinative defines who you are. Again, I would note the brilliance and really the marketability of these personality assessments that the person himself feels out. You see, you take the test. Even in a mainstream publication, for instance Christianity Today in their January/February 2021 issue (just a couple months ago), they call into question the validity of the Enneagram. We’ll put that citation for that article in the podcast notes as well. The article uses two real life counseling examples to make a very interesting point.

First, a young couple recognizes that the Enneagram is a helpful tool for them. It’s helped them “give grace to ourselves and to each other.” You’ll hear this quite often in Christian circles that imbibe the Enneagram. A second real life couple who was married for over 20 years was in therapy and discovered that their Enneagram types (really from Don Riso’s book Wisdom of the Enneagram). They discovered their Enneagram types, but really after further study of their respective types and tendencies, they also discovered that they were not the right person for each other. They divorced shortly after their 24th anniversary. The point I’m making is not that the Enneagram leads to divorce. Surely, not everyone that uses this typology will have a marriage that ends in divorce. That’s not the point. The point made in the Christianity Today article, and I quote here, is that “there is no doubt that both couples viewed the Enneagram personality tool as determinative.” That is, both couples accepted the reliability and the validity of an Enneagram test as defining who they are. That is determinism by definition. It carries with it the idea that I have no choice in who I am. It crafts a lie that I have no real choice in how I act. In this sense, it propagates a false narrative about human personality. 

In fact, as it applies to my wife, kids, even you, Dale, I can convince myself that I already know how you will respond. I know your number and you know mine.

Dale Johnson: Man, that’s an interesting turn of events. A couple of things even from that little segment—it’s interesting that such a popular periodical like Christianity Today would raise concerns about this typology. I find that very interesting. The stories that you gave, certainly they’re anecdotal, but I think they are expressive. They do illustrate some of the points that we’re trying to make of what I would say are warnings or cautions about what this system breeds into us in the way that we think. 

Let’s move on and think about maybe another area that we see the evidence of the Enneagram’s popularity, particularly among evangelicals because that’s our circle with Christians, the ways in which it’s making influence in ministry decisions, associated with certain individual team members. It seems that the corporate model of doing church, at least here in North America in our context, has opened the door really to an emphasis on utilizing organizational structures and tools, particularly that claim to increase the effectiveness (and this is an important term) and efficiency of ministry. Church effectiveness and then ministry decisions sometimes are often built upon or even volunteer teams are decided based upon these Enneagram typologies or the influence of it, and maybe even hiring and firing decisions are built upon this whole system as well. 

Rhenn Cherry: We’ve seen that Ian Cron, his Enneagram works are very popular among church leadership—ministry leaders, like Andy Stanley, Carey Neuhoff—those men have mass appeal, very wide influence. They actively promote using the Enneagram as a way to establish and maintain effective high-functioning ministry teams—many times church planting teams or church startups. But what must we say to those claims? Where exactly does the Holy Spirit fit into the efficiency or the effectiveness discussion?

What we do see in Matthew 16, after Peter’s own confession of Jesus as the Christ, it is Jesus who confirms who builds the church. He does. In verse 18 of that same chapter, Jesus says, “On this rock, I will build my church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.” So we see ministry leaders sometimes get caught up in the latest, coolest thing that everybody else is doing to make themselves a better leader and communicate better with the people who work for them, but they can sometimes run the risk of stealing the role of the Holy Spirit, by replacing Him—He is a person, He’s fully God—with a tool that examines the personalities of the people potentially on their team. 

To apply the concept of determinism in the form of applying the Enneagram to a ministry decision, with the volunteer or a paid employee, your number and its associated characteristics—and they call them different things, different authors call these things passions, virtues, vices, etc. But once you accept a label and associated set of behaviors, let’s say in order to be accepted for a ministry position or a paid position, you accept that you will in fact behave in a prescribed manner to some degree. In other words, you buy into a system that says people can predict how you will respond, but also into a system that can set and expects that this is how you will continue to respond and act in the future. This is deterministic, Dale.

Dale Johnson: I mean, that’s really interesting because a lot of folks have imbibed this idea, this fad. We’re not decrying here the desire to have strong ministry teams. Of course, that’s a healthy desire. What we’re arguing and saying here is that we have to be careful not to chase after certain fads that we think manufacture that for us outside of the way that the Bible describes. The Bible makes very clear that as we pursue Christ, unity begins to happen—even on ministry teams. And what I what I fear is happening here as you mentioned, we’re circumventing the work of the Holy Spirit, we’re circumventing what He does in production as He conforms us to the image of Christ. We’re removing our trust in Christ to build His church as He works in and through us, as we propagate His words, as we live His character, and so on and so forth. It becomes a way to manufacture or move quickly through the process of assessing different things, dismissing the validity of the Spirit to do this work by the Word in our own hearts. 

This is a popular question. I’ve received this question in classes. I’ve received this question via email. What is it that you say to somebody who’s asked to take the Enneagram test in order to join a ministry team or to be a part of some sort of volunteer work? Or maybe they’re using it in church ministries now to assess you as coming on pastoral staff or something like that? How are we to help people think through this process when they’re asked to do something like this? 

Rhenn Cherry: Let me just first get out there that it’s quite common you might come across a saying of sorts that personality tests like the Enneagram are like x-ray machines or MRIs that expose hidden, non-physical things in a person and it implies that the Enneagram itself can reveal spiritual things that the Bible and the Holy Spirit cannot. When you hear such a statement, when you are asked to take such a test, be reminded that a man-made system is effectively being elevated above Scripture. The role of invisible discerner of the thoughts, intentions, motivations of the heart—that role is reserved for God alone, specifically the person of the Holy Spirit and the Word of God that He authored per Hebrews 4:12-13. I want to give some context for listeners that maybe they’ve been approached to take a test as part of a ministry decision, whether they’re going to be allowed to be on a team or not. Perhaps even a hiring decision.

I want to give context here with Romans 1. Paul leaves the Romans and us with a warning here. The warning’s found in verse 18. It’s against suppressing the truth about God, namely His eternal power and divine nature. Paul goes on and further warns the Romans and us against giving approval to those who suppress the truth. In verse 32, he writes specifically, “Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them, but give approval to those who practice them.” I ask you to consider, if it’s requested of you to take a test, you should question the motivations of that ministry leader—it could be a pastor, it could be a Christian institution wanting to hire you. What do they think that test gives the collective body of Christ that Scripture does not? What wisdom goes with that system that the Lord Himself has not provided in the work of Scripture?

Dale Johnson: Yeah. And I think this is really important because we get down to the nitty-gritty here. Lots of people are using it, and you feel pressure maybe to in order to get a job that you need to take these things. I think, Rhenn, what you’re saying is wise. Find out, inquire, ask, “What are the ways that we’re using this? I’m a little concerned about the Enneagram itself—some of its history, its background, even its ideological dispositions, how we would use it.” And I think that will be helpful discussion between you and a potential employer, or you and a potential church or whatever. I think it will be helpful discussion so that you see where where they are. They see maybe where you are in a little bit different light. I think that would be helpful to flesh out. You know what you’re getting into when you ask those questions.

I think those are valid questions, in part because of some of the issues, Rhenn, that you just raised with Hebrews 4:12-13. It does seem to be some sort of agnostic approach where we say, “The Holy Spirit is actually using this. It’s only a tool. It’s only a tool. That’s all it is.” But we’re actually, in evangelical circles, saying the Holy Spirit’s using this tool. I get really nervous about that because it seems as though the Word of God is the sword of the Spirit—not some human-made tool, especially when it comes from such a theological background that’s, I believe, anti the God of the Bible. I think we have to be cautious here. And it’s a replacement really of the work of the Holy Spirit and the work of the Word in the hearts of people. I think those are at least worthy questions to ask.

There’s no passage in the Bible that says don’t do this or don’t do that regarding the Enneagram. I’m not trying to be legalistic about it. But what I think is important is, it’s at least valid to raise the question because of some of the concerns that you’ve mentioned with the determinative of nature, the way the system is utilized, how people see each other even in that type of fellowship in vices and virtues and passions that we think people have, instead of assessing that by the Scriptures and allowing the Scripture to be the measure of the man as Ephesians 4 tells us. We’re using this assessment tool on the outside. It casts our gaze away from Christ and onto a system, onto a tool that doesn’t promote the glory of Christ, nor in my mind the work of the Holy Spirit.

It raises the question about revelation outside of the Bible. Something is being revealed about us by the Holy Spirit, the story goes, outside of the Scripture. It begins to raise the question of revelation. These are at least some things to talk about and assess and I want you guys to think through the practice of it. Our whole point is not to say you’re completely wicked and evil if you use these things. That’s not really the idea at all. What we’re trying to do is just say, don’t walk into something like this blindly. It’s okay to ask questions. It’s okay to find out what’s going on. I do think this tool promotes an unbiblical worldview. I think it promotes an unbiblical ideal. It promotes unbiblical thinking and patterns of life and wrong assessments and so on. I do think there’s reason to be cautious when we think about the uses, particularly in Christian circles, of this tool called the Enneagram. 

So Rhenn, I’ll give you maybe just a second to give a couple of final thoughts. I know we’ve gone long this time, but a couple of final thoughts here. 

Rhenn Cherry: Yeah, I would ask, whatever happened to spending time together as brothers and sisters using Scripture, the very words of the Holy Spirit, to show us what needs to be put off and put on in our own lives and also lovingly in the lives of our brothers and sisters? I would just encourage listeners, when the Lord wrote to us, “don’t forsake the gathering together with others,” that’s not only for corporate worship, but also spending time with others and understanding their heart condition face-to-face with Scripture. 

Let me just warn listeners that we are all sinfully drawn to understand complicated systems with complex explanations and vernacular that you yourself can learn and eventually explain to others. Beware when you come across any system that is understandable only by a select group. 

Dale Johnson: Yeah, I think that’s very helpful. Let’s not give lip service that we’re turning to Christ. Let’s turn to Him and His Word and trust the work of the Holy Spirit. I know that doesn’t always happen as fast as we wish it would, but I think we have to be patient to trust the work of the Spirit in our lives as we turn our hearts back to His Word and back to Christ.


Study in the Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology

“Can We Do Better than the Enneagram?” in Christianity Today