Why the Enneagram Still Doesn’t Belong in Church

Justin Brierley, Marcia Montenegro, and Todd Wilson on Unbelievable, May 8, 2021

By Tom Gilson Published on July 12, 2021

You could feel it all the way through their conversation. Still I was surprised near the end when he came right out and said it. Todd Wilson was on Justin Brierley’s Unbelievable program debating Marcia Montenegro about the controversial personality profile the Enneagram. Wilson proudly calls himself a “Wheaton college evangelical,” while Montenegro is more of a “fundamentalist.” That’s not “a slur or a critique,” he rushed to add, but it was too late. He’d made his point.

Wilson is the author of The Enneagram Goes to ChurchHe’s all in favor of using it, at home, in church, in businesses, everywhere. She’s the co-author of Richard Rohr and the Enneagram Secret, an excellent history and analysis of the purported personality assessment tool. (Full disclosure: I contributed some editing to the book.) She and Don and Joy Veinot explain in that book how and why the Enneagram doesn’t belong in church.

I prefer it when debaters stick to the facts. It was Wilson, though, who descended to, “I don’t mean this as an insult or anything, but really, you’re just a fundamentalist.” So he’s not “scared” of using “truth” gleaned from the world, he says, implying that’s her real problem. She is running on fear, she’s not rational, and she lacks the capacity he’s got for seeing the “wisdom” in the Enneagram.

So he’s the one who dropped it to that level. Fine. Let’s follow his lead, and see where it takes us: Who knows more, he or she? I think that if we can settle that question, we can also settle the question he raised with his book title. Does the Enneagram belong in church?

See How Much Smarter He Is?

Montenegro knows it lacks any scientific validity and it has deep roots in New Age and heretical Christian religion. Wilson knows the Enneagram was incredibly insightful for him in learning how to be a better father and leader.

And he also “knows” she just doesn’t understand how Christians can still use the Enneagram despite its cultic origins. He knows it because he’s of the school that can accept that all truth is God’s truth — again with the implication that she isn’t quite up to that.

He carried that same disdain throughout the debate. Was there reason for it? Is the Enneagram that well established as a valid instrument? Does it matter? Let’s take a closer look.

What Does Scientific Validity Mean?

The first answer is easy. Wilson himself acknowledged that the Enneagram hasn’t been scientifically validated — yet. It hasn’t shown up in the best scientific journals so far, he admits, while implying it’s probably just a matter of time.

Montenegro could have pressed him harder on that. She could have asked him to explain, if he knows, what scientific validity means in this context.

He’d already said it was a personality test. That’s careless at best: Its own advocates tend to avoid that term for it. She had already pointed out that its first purpose was spiritual guidance.

Still that terminology is close enough for now. The Enneagram purports to be able to say something descriptively true about persons, whether they’re best described as “perfectionist,” “helper,” “enthusiast,” and so on. So here’s where validity comes in.

It’s About Whether There’s Any Reason to Trust It

The technical literature on personality testing speaks of multiple types of validity: face, construct, discriminant, predictive, etc. That’s for the specialist. Here’s what you really need to know, the one thing that ties all those meanings together. “Validity” simply means that the instrument measures what it claims to measure, and measures it at least somewhat accurately.

You could also put it this way: A validated test has shown that it’s competent to measure what it claims to measure, and that you can trust its results. It has demonstrated sufficient believability. That’s what validity measures are for: to show whether you can count on a test’s claims for itself.

It starts with “reliability.” If bathroom scale gave you wildly different answers every time you stepped on it, that would be an unreliable scale. So, for example, there are tests for how consistent a person’s results remain over time (“test-retest reliability”).

Is it Valid?

Then there is validity. If we know it’s consistent, good, but we still need to know whether it really measures what it claims to measure. A bathroom scale may be perfectly consistent, but if the package told you to use it to check your blood pressure, that would be an invalid claim.

there are quantifiable, objective ways to determine how well the set of items defining Enneagram number x differ from those for number y.

That’s called “discriminant validity,” and it contributes to so-called “construct validity.” Every test of this type claims there to uncover real, definable differences in personality types, styles, approaches, etc., lumped together in the literature  by the general term “constructs.” The question of construct validity is whether those types, styles, etc. describe real differences in human experience, and whether they differ enough to be treated as separate.

Is There Any Reason to Trust It?

These are just examples. The point is that when a test claims to measure something, it’s possible to measure objectively to what degree that claim can be counted on as true.

So whether he realized it or not, when Wilson acknowledged the Enneagram hadn’t been validated, he was admitting that there is no objective reason to trust it. There’s no reason to think it measures what it claims to measure. No reason to credit it with any competency. No reason to think its results are believable.

Wisdom, Rationality, or Bluster?

Wilson put evolution on a pedestal during the debate, for reasons of “science,” but he brushes this science aside as irrelevant. The Enneagram is really a part of the world’s “wisdom tradition,” he says. Science doesn’t matter so much in light of that. Of course, as Montenegro pointed out so well, Christians hardly need look to occult sources from the mid-20th century for our wisdom, or even to label it “wisdom tradition.” It’s foolish. It’s spiritually dangerous.

Amazingly, Wilson brushes that aside, too. He thinks Montenegro knows nothing about the “genetic fallacy,” the logical error that falsely calls a belief wrong just because it came from some bad source. He kept blustering on with it even after she explained quite clearly his own error in calling it that (thus demonstrating who knew more about it).

Yet he’s a self-proclaimed “Wheaton college evangelical,” so he must know more. That’s the tone he took. I’m not impressed, especially on this topic. Montenegro attended Southern Evangelical Seminary, where careful, rational thinking on biblical and apologetic topics is emphasized far more than any other school I know. If they teach logical reasoning at Wheaton as well as they do at Montenegro’s school, I’ll eat my copy of Montenegro’s book, one page at a time.

Still, See How Much He Knows

He says it’s part of some ancient wisdom tradition. She knows in detail (it’s reported in her book) how massively it’s been hyped that way, but that its real history traces back to occult automatic writing practiced in the 50s and 60s. That puts it right around the time of my own birth. I may feel ancient at times — I spent two days in the hospital this week with some really nasty sciatic pain — but not on the scale by which wisdom’s age is measured!

Still he knows. He knows the Enneagram has helped him as a dad and a pastor. Montenegro knows, from her own pre-Christian experience, how often people say that kind of thing about astrology. Statements like his therefore mean little without objective facts supporting them. She knows it’s never passed objective validity tests, so there’s no reason to think it measures what it claims to measure.

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He knows that it helped him as a dad and a pastor. She knows its occultic roots.

He knows that it helped him as a dad and a pastor. (Repetitive? Yes. I’m just echoing Wilson’s argument for the Enneagram.) She knows that virtually everyone who’s advocated the Enneagram credits a known heretical Catholic, Richard Rohr, as a teacher and a strong inspiration to them.

Bluster vs. Better Decision-Making

See how much he knows? He’s quite sure it helped him as a dad and a pastor. And he’s a Wheaton evangelical. Do you see how much she knows? She knows its history, its lack of validation, the ease with which people often take untrue things as being true.

Still, in the end, he contrived to position her as the backward, know-nothing fundamentalist.

I think she could have fended off his bluster more successfully than she did. On the level of facts, though? From what he revealed in this conversation,  he knows very little.

He knows he had a good experience with it. Bully for him. The rest of us can look at a broader base of facts. The rest of us can make a better decision. Wilson speaks of the Enneagram going to church. It doesn’t belong there.


Tom Gilson (@TomGilsonAuthor) is a senior editor with The Stream and the author or editor of six books, including the recently released Too Good To Be False: How Jesus’ Incomparable Character Reveals His Reality.

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