Communicating as Christians

Below is a comprehensive essay I wrote for a rhetorical theory class, and it details some of the ways Christian speech should be unique from secular speech. I hope it is helpful to you.

Aristotle referred to three means of persuasion in his Rhetoric. The first means consisted of the logical content or the words of a speech, which he referred to as logos. The second consisted of appeals to the heart of the audience. Aristotle called this element pathos. The third persuasive method consisted of the rhetor’s character as portrayed in the speech, and Aristotle referred to it as ethos. These three elements work in tandem to persuade the audience. Although rhetors that construct messages around logos, pathos, and ethos may sway audiences according to their will, Christians must employ rhetoric that follows a different standard. As bearers of God’s truth, we must derive words, passion, and credibility from God himself.
Aristotle considered the message itself to be the most powerful means of persuasion. James also considered the spoken word powerful. “All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles, and creatures of the sea are being tamed and have been tamed by man, but no man can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison” (James 3:7-8) . While humanly words only have power to corrupt and destroy, the Word of God creates and sustains. As the gospel of John says, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of men” (John 1:1-4). This word was Jesus Christ, the son of God. Christian rhetoric should spring from the person and life of Christ.
The rhetoric of the world tends to rely on human reasoning, which tends to mislead. Paul warns in Colossians 2:8, “See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ.” Paul makes a distinction between the word of God and the word of man. The word of man depends on “human tradition and the basic principles of this world.” The result is “hollow and deceptive philosophy.” As Psalm 5:9 says, “Not a word from their mouth can be trusted; their heart is filled with malice. Their throat is an open grave; with their tongues they tell lies.” God, however, cannot lie. “For the word of the Lord is right and true; he is faithful in all he does” (Psalm 33:4). Christians must look to Scripture for the content of their messages, remembering that “all Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in godliness” (2 Timothy 3:16).
Pathos, like logos, has both a godly equivalent and a human equivalent. Ungodly rhetors may try to take advantage of the passions and desires of the audience. The apostle Peter speaks of this when says “For they mouth empty, boastful words and, by appealing to the lustful desires of sinful human nature, they entice people who are just escaping from those who live in error” (2 Peter 2:18). These desires spring from man’s sinful nature. Paul contrasts the heart of the sinner with the heart renewed by God’s grace in his letter to the Ephesians. He describes the life the Ephesians lived before they became believers. “All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts” (Ephesians 2:3, emphasis added).
Then Paul speaks of the grace of God, which came to them and transformed them into children of God. Now, as new creations, the Ephesians like all Christians had an obligation to renounce the passions that formerly directed their lives. “You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of our minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:22-24). Paul also says, “the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men. It teaches us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in this present age” (Titus 2:11-2).
The desire of the new heart is for unity with all believers as brothers and sisters; therefore, Christian rhetoric should aim to “spur one another on toward love and good deeds” (Hebrews 10:24). Love should be the defining characteristic of the church. “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another” (1 John 4:10-11). By loving, therefore, Christians portray the loving nature of God as displayed in Christ. As 1 Corinthians 3:13 says, “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.”
The third and final form of Aristotle’s rhetoric is ethos. A rhetor must demonstrate his trustworthiness in the way he speaks for his message to be effective. The non-Christian may use ethos by pointing to family background, a record of achievements, or extreme hardships he has overcome. 1 John 2:16 says, “For everything in the world—the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes and the boasting of what he has and does—comes not from the Father but from the world.” The Christian rhetor’s credibility, however, does not come from himself at all.
In the writings of the apostle Paul, Paul repeatedly denies his personal authority. Instead he relies on the Spirit to authenticate his claims. In 1 Corinthians 2:4-5 he says, “My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power.” Then, in Philippians 3, he attempts to nullify human signs of credibility. He states that “if anyone else thinks he has reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more” (Philippians 3:4). Paul proceeds to list the reasons people might have for trusting his testimony, citing his background as a Pharisee and his persecution of Christians. “But whatever was to my profit,” he says, “I now consider loss for the sake of Christ” (Philippians 3:7). Beyond even this, Paul prays in Galatians 6:14, “May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me and I to the world.” Even Paul, arguably the greatest teacher in the history of the church, spoke not from his own authority but from the authority of Jesus Christ and the Spirit of God.
Logos, pathos, and ethos are just as relevant to the Christian rhetor as they were to Aristotle; however, the Bible offers its own interpretation of these three factors. Christian words, passion, and authority must originate from God, not man. Scripture represents a holy discourse between God and his people. “‘Come now, let us reason together,’ says the Lord. ‘Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool’” (Isaiah 1:18). The means of conveying this message must take a different form from the rhetoric of the world.

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