The Cult of the Personality Test

The Cult of the Personality Test

Readers who are professionally employed will likely have been subjected to a mandatory personality test. Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), True Colours, Insights, Belbin Team Roles and most lately, the Enneagram of Personality are all examples of such tests.

Recently a friend asked me what I knew about the latter. I had to confess, very little, although I had a faint recollection from some years before. As I researched, I quickly came across articles written from a Christian perspective and was unsurprised to learn that it had become the latest fad within evangelical circles. As I read, I recalled conversations over the years with believers who place great importance on these type of tests. In particular, I will never forget one person proudly announcing himself as an ENTJ within the first few sentences of conversation (only an ENTJ would do that by the way–MBTI devotees will attest to that!).

It got me thinking about the usefulness of these types of tests within a Christian setting. For example, is there any merit to understanding your weaknesses and strengths through the lens of an MBTI assessment? Or is there any benefit from understanding how to engage with others through Belbin team roles? And does the fact that the Enneagram of Personality is vaguely spiritual make it more relevant?

To begin, let me set some parameters. I am not critiquing whether there is a place for personality tests within the narrow confines of the workplace. There is. I have seen them used profitably, and there is plenty of peer-reviewed evidence to suggest that it is the case. As a word of caution, I would add that the Enneagram of Personality appears to be an exception. But what I am addressing is whether it is a good idea to apply your personality type as defined by a secular test, to your spiritual life; whether done analytically to understand your weaknesses and strengths or corporately to understand how to engage with others.

I will give you my conclusion in advance, and then my reasoning. In summary, I do not think it is helpful to analyse our spirituality, positive or negative, with secular personality tools. Here are seven reasons.

First, a personality test is, by definition, a reductionism that fails to account for the complexity of the totality of the human personality. MBTI is the most comprehensive with sixteen personality types; most have much fewer. Advocates might claim that sixteen types more than caters for the variety of personalities on planet earth, but I can't help but feel that is unlikely. Scripture views us as individuals, each imbued with a distinct personality, each made in the image of God (Gen 1:27). We cannot be reduced to an analytical grid or a wheel and retain any depth of meaning.

But at the same time, personality tests are far too complex to analyse our spiritual being. When discerning and owning our sinnership before God, there are not sixteen types, eight roles, or four colours. There is one category: 'all have sinned and come short of the glory of God' (Rom 3:23, KJV) and 'there is none righteous no, not one' (3:10). To introduce shades of distinction to what is a universal truth is at best to muddy the waters, and at worst to accommodate error. Given that a stated aim of The Enneagram 'to help a person understand their disposition and tendency toward certain sin struggles,' [1] this is particularly troublesome. It might claim to be vaguely spiritual, but it isn't scriptural.

Next, it could create an excuse not to address our worst characteristics. When challenged on our most sinful behaviour traits, it is not appropriate to claim, 'but that's just who I am! I'm a Yellow!' In reality, it is more likely that others would excuse your sinful behaviour based on what they know of your personality profile; 'Well, we should expect it, he is an INTP after all!' You might think this absurd, but I have heard that countless times in a professional environment. I find it unlikely that it wouldn't translate into a spiritual one as well were these tests actively promoted.

Third, personality testing is inherently biased. We cannot assess ourselves without answering from the perspective of the 'projected self' rather than the 'real self.' Each of us has this problem, whether saved or otherwise. We think we know who we are, but we fail to account for what others think of us, and worse, we fail to peel back the veneer of our self-projection and see the real sinful self. We each see a glossed version; a person that is better than it is. Answering a test as that projection will only confirm that projection. Thus we merely propagate a fantasy and engage in self-delusion. On the other hand, some think far too lowly of themselves. They are too introspective and fail to see themselves as God sees them, 'accepted in the beloved' (Eph 1:6, KJV). Of course, this acceptance is not due to our merit, but because the Father accepts Christ. The fall has affected our minds as much as our bodies and the result is that our thinking is depraved and our reason is faulty. We should not trust what we think of ourselves. This is why it is so important to trust what God says about us.

Next, it allows us to glory in, rather than place no confidence in, the flesh. Personally, I consider this to be one of the most severe errors. I have seen countless social media profiles, where the personality type is advertised. The natural tendency is to define oneself by the result of a personality test and take pride in it. Combined with a propensity to project an image, this can come close to self-idolatry. An excessive emphasis on personality types is close to the Narcissus complex and should have no place in our Christian life. Paul was a man who repudiated the flesh (Php. 3:3), and we should do likewise.

Furthermore, it creates an inclination to label people and write them off as irredeemable rather than view them as objects of the grace of God. As local assemblies, this strikes me as a potential pitfall. I'm sure that if my fellow Christians knew the results of my personality tests, there would be a few knowing looks! But the point is, they don't because I don't publish them, for all of these reasons. The potential to look at a fellow believer and write them off due to a label designated by a twentieth-century psychologist is all too tempting. It gives us an excuse not to engage with others that we find different or difficult. It provides ammunition when they display a sinful tendency that we are commanded to forgive. Paul tells us that the Christian attitude should be; 'in honour preferring one another' (Rom 12:10, KJV). Worse, it enables me to excuse myself based on a label I might proudly wear. All-round it is a destructive and deceitful tendency.

Lastly, and most importantly, there is a far superior tool available for the analysis of our personality than any personality test; the Bible. Scripture is replete with metaphors that describe how the Bible performs its function of helping us understand who we are and how we should act. In particular, James refers to it as a mirror (Jas 1:25). His imagery is such that he pronounces that Scripture is so authoritative that a man cannot look into it and remain unchanged. It will tell us who we are and outline for us the instruction required to change. It will also tell us of the indwelling power, the Holy Spirit, needed to effect the change. It will gently and boldly exhort us to avail ourselves of that power to make the change. Scripture is the analyser, corrector and effector of the transformation required in the believer's personality.

Let's give the last word to the Apostle Paul: 'be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God' (Rom 12:2). Transformation is possible, but it doesn't come by conforming ourselves to a worldly type, no matter how useful. Spiritual transformation comes by the renewing of the mind. This can only come from feeding on the Word of God.


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