This week on the podcast, we are responding to questions that we have been receiving for months and months about how Christians ought to think about personality tests. Personality tests are a huge industry in the United States of America, and particularly in the West in general. It’s a billion dollar industry. Christians get caught up in using and in taking these personality tests as well. We’re going to take some time to talk about that topic on the podcast this week.
As we enter into this discussion on the podcast, we want to first begin by talking about what personality tests are. We can say that personality tests are instruments that are created in order to get a better understanding or a better read on people—what they’re like, what makes them tick, how they fit in, that kind of thing. When we talk about personality tests, we’re talking about all sorts of instruments that are out there, including, as an early example, the Rorschach inkblot test, the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, the Myers-Briggs, the Enneagram. There’s any number of tests that are used to get a gauge on people’s personality.
But what we’re trying to do is understand people. That’s the function of a personality test. These personality tests really started in the 19th century—in the 1800s—and most people, when they look back at the beginnings of personality tests, they go all the way back to phrenology from Gall. Gall had as his theory that the shape and the indentations and the various formations on a person’s skull gave you an indication of what they were like, what personality strengths they would have, what personality weaknesses they would have. Phrenology was very quickly debunked and is now ridiculed as junk science, but that’s where we first see in the Western world a first attempt to sort of gauge people’s personalities by these sorts of exams.
Personality tests really began to take off in the World Wars of the 20th century. The first personality exam in World War I was called the Woodworth Personal Data Sheet, and the point of it was to try to help the United States military as they were trying to deploy massive amounts of people into the war force. The Woodworth Personal Data Sheet was an attempt to discover who was going to be most likely to deal with the problem of shell-shock, the problem that would later be called combat fatigue or what we currently call Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Who is going to wither under the violence of the battlefield?
Since then, there have been all manner of personality tests that have been developed. I mentioned some of those just a few minutes ago, but that’s something of the history. Since about 1920, we’ve been in what you might call a hundred-year boom of personality tests where these are used in the corporate world. They were used in the industrial world, and now even in the religious world, to try to get a handle on people and place people where we think they might need to go.
One of the questions that Christians have about these personality tests is whether or not they are wrong. Is it wrong for Christians to use a personality test? And here’s what I think we can say: it is not wrong for a Christian to use a personality test. It’s not wrong for a Christian to try to think up even a personality test. There are some personality tests that have very troubling backgrounds like the Enneagram and it’s connection with occultism, but in general terms, asking people questions about themselves and trying to get an answer is not wrong. There’s nothing wrong with having access to that kind of information or engaging in that kind of practice.
At ACBC, we believe in the sufficiency of Scripture, and one of the things that the sufficiency of Scripture emphasizes is that we call sin what the Bible calls sin. We don’t call anything a sin or wrong that the Bible does not call wrong. Since the Bible does not weigh in on personality tests per se, we wouldn’t want to bind someone’s conscience by saying it’s wrong for them to engage in these kinds of practices. And yet, I think we need to say that because of other biblical evidence and because of information that grows out of the personality-test world itself, there are some concerns about personality tests. Let me mention, in the time that we have left on the podcast this week, two concerns that I think reasonable Christians would want to have about using a personality test.
First of all is the concern about the standard. What is the standard for personality and for personality tests? That creates a concern, because as you look at these tests, all of them are different. All of the standards operate from a different basis and actually secular people write volumes about their concerns, about the very questionable scientific basis for personality tests. A professor at the University of Pennsylvania named Adam Grant will talk about the four standards for social science: that social science be reliable, that it be valid, that it be independent, and that it be comprehensive. Grant and plenty of others are going to say that personality tests fail at each one of those four standards for social science. Even secular people who are producing these personality tests have great reservations and lots of questions about the reality of creating a standardized personality test in the way that these personality test seek to do.
Here’s another more significant problem for Christians. As Christians, the Bible is our authority for personality, and we could even make it more personal by saying that as Christians, Jesus Christ is our standard for personality. Jesus Christ is our standard for how we ought to think, how we ought to live, and what our personality ought to be like. To put the matter very clearly, we would say in any area where Christians are not like Jesus, we need to change.
Secular descriptions of personality don’t help us because first of all, they take our eyes off Christ. It’s far more effective for a Christian to want to read the Gospels; to want to read the Epistles; to get an unfolding of the character and personality type of Jesus to then measure ourselves against His character and His personality, and anywhere we’re not like Him, we need to change. Standards such as introversion and extraversion that are placed on people create questions about whether those things are objectively good. When the Bible doesn’t weigh in on those things, Christians don’t need to weigh in on those things. One concern about personality tests is they take our eyes off Jesus Christ when we are trying to standardize human behavior and human personality. Even though it might not be wrong to take a test, it is never good to take our eyes off of Jesus Christ.
Let me talk about a second concern that all Christians ought to have about the use of personality tests. It is the mechanism that is being used to establish what kind of personality type that we have. The mechanism that’s being used is a test. We’re taking some sort of exam, some battery of questions to establish personality. The question is whether that’s a good thing. What we all need to understand is that there are plenty of secular people who write in the area of personality tests and who are experts in the area of social sciences that have loads of concerns about these tests. They have questions about the ability of the tests to produce confirmed results.
One person can take a test and get one set of results, and then take the very same test and get a different set of results. That same person can take an altogether different test and get pointed in a very different direction. The reliability of the tests are called into question. It’s also possible for people to calculate as they take the test to get the results they want. It’s very common for somebody to look at the question that’s being asked, to know what they would like the result of the test to be, and so provide an answer that is calculated perhaps not to be honest, but to get to the desired result. All of those create questions in the social sciences about the ability of the mechanism of taking a test to establish a personality type.
And yet, Christians ought to have even more serious concerns than that. If we go back and look at the Bible as our standard on personality and Jesus Christ as our very personal standard on personality, then we also need to look at the authority of Scripture on ascertaining personality. As we read the Bible—which is very concerned about who we are and how we act and how we live and what our personalities are like—it never ever, not even one time, stipulates that a test be taken in order to figure out what we’re like or how we ought to function as a part of a team. Far from it.
This gets to the very important focus in our churches and evangelical Christianity on community. Personality tests strip personality out of the context of community and place it into an artificial mechanism like a test. The Bible, though, is emphasizing the richness of community as we engage in conversation, as we live life together, as I talk to you and bear my burdens to you, and as you talk to me and bear your burdens to me, and as we grow in knowledge of one another and have love for one another. Using the Bible’s standards for how personalities ought to function, we then ought to pursue one another and encourage one another towards love and good deeds. There is not ever the hint in the New Testament that we need a test to establish that. The Bible assumes something much more wonderful, much more beautiful. It assumes a relationship that is required for these kinds of things.
Because people in evangelical Christianity are increasingly relying on personality tests to build their ministry teams, I think it’s really helpful to see a practical example of this from Scripture. If you think about 1 Timothy 3 starting in verse 1, this is what the Word of God says, “It is a trustworthy statement. If any man aspires to the office of overseer, it is a fine work he desires to do. An overseer then must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, prudent, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not addicted to wine or pugnacious but gentle, peaceable, free from the love of money. He must be one who manages his own household well, keeping his children under control with all dignity. But if a man does not know how to manage his own household, how will he take care of the Church of God? He must not be a new convert, so that he will not become conceited and fall into the condemnation incurred by the devil. He must have a good reputation with those outside the church, so that he will not fall into reproach and the snare of the devil.”
What we see as we look at 1 Timothy 3:1-7 is qualifications for a pastor, qualifications for people who would serve on the ministry teams in our churches. What you need to know is that every single one of them has to do with personality. Every single one of them has to do with character. What we have here is a list from God about the personalities of the people who would lead in our churches, and it’s an authoritative list. We don’t have to wade through whether it’s good or bad to be introverted or extroverted. We just have statements of character and personality: he’s supposed to be above reproach; he’s supposed to be faithful to his wife; he’s supposed to be temperate and prudent and respectable. We have here a biblical standard, not a secular standard. It’s not one that we have to guess at and wonder if it’s good, but a list from God that describes the character of the men who would lead in God’s church.
The other thing that we recognize as we move beyond the standard and into the mechanism of evaluation is how these men are recognized. There’s not a word in here about a test. The Apostle Paul writes to an individual who’s a leader in a church. He therefore writes to a faith community who are supposed to look at these people and make evaluations about those people who would lead, who would be on their ministry teams. They do that in a very relational environment of love.
So, are personality tests wrong? No, they’re not wrong. We’re not afraid of the kind of information that they produce. But when we’re Christians who pay attention to the light of God’s Word, we have a much better way to get a standard that we don’t have to guess at. It comes right from heaven and paints a picture, ultimately, of the perfect personality, Jesus Christ. We’re given the mechanism of evaluating those personalities not in tests, but in a context of loving and caring community.