Walk in wisdom toward them that are without, redeeming the time. Let your speech be always with grace, seasoned with salt, that ye may know how ye ought to answer each one (Colossians 4:5-6) .
Perhaps some of the most important people who rarely receive much recognition from society are diplomats. These individuals learn all about the culture and ideas of the people with whom they speak and they try to advance their nation’s causes and purposes and to defuse any crises that might arise. Many wars have been avoided because of the skilled work of diplomats; sadly, bad diplomacy is probably one of the reasons that many wars have taken place.
Diplomacy requires a lot of sensitivity and skill. It requires a good knowledge of people and how to most effectively communicate with different people. And while diplomacy has great value among nation-states, those who believe in and follow Christ should also be working diligently on diplomacy amongst themselves and toward those who are without.
Much of the Gospel involves interpersonal relations. The message of the Gospel is to be taught to others (Romans 10:14-17). The proclamation of the Gospel, by necessity, is an attempt to persuade others to accept the message and obey it (cf. 2 Corinthians 5:11). When believers make their defense for the hope that is in them, they are to do so in a respectful and gentle way (1 Peter 3:15). Believers are to soberly consider how they conduct themselves among those who are outside, having speech seasoned as with salt (Colossians 4:8-9).
Paul’s image there of speech seasoned as with salt is very important, for it shows the balance that we all must maintain. Food with too little salt is bland, tasteless, and not very valuable; food with too much salt cannot be stomached and is expelled. So it is with our speech. If our words have too little salt- are entirely bland, provide no challenge and no distinctiveness from the world and its attitudes- they have no value. They cannot persuade anyone to change their ways. But if our words have too much salt- intentionally rough, demeaning, overwhelming, vindictive, harsh, or even just overly blunt- they get rejected without due consideration. People are left with a bad taste in their mouths, and we have become a hindrance toward them coming to a knowledge of Jesus the Christ!
While we must make sure that we do not compromise the message and that we focus on the message and not fancy rhetoric (cf. 1 Corinthians 2:4-5), we must speak and act diplomatically among those who are without. Our defense must be robust but done with respect and gentleness (1 Peter 3:15). We must understand that sinners sin and that God wants them to come to the knowledge of the truth so that they can change their ways (1 Timothy 2:4, 2 Peter 3:9). What good does it do us to lecture sinners about their sin if they do not yet understand how Jesus is the Lord and Christ? How can we show them the love of Christ if the first thing they experience is cold judgment? And if our speech is disrespectful, harsh, and unloving, how will they perceive Jesus’ mercy and compassion?
We must act diplomatically because of the Lord whom we serve and of whom we are representatives, and in a sense, ambassadors (Romans 8:29, 2 Corinthians 5:20). If we speak in the name of Christ, we represent Christ, and how well are we really reflecting and properly representing Christ as we speak toward others?
Diplomacy is not merely a concern when we are around outsiders. There are going to be times when we are going to be called upon to confront one another about weaknesses and sins (cf. Galatians 6:1-3). There will be times of immature actions, misunderstandings, and hurt feelings among fellow brothers and sisters in Christ just as in any other family (cf. 1 Corinthians 12:12-28, 1 Timothy 3:15). In these circumstances, diplomacy among believers is critical.
We must always remember that everything we do should be done for edification- for building up (1 Corinthians 14:26). Our words must work toward that end. We must be careful to make sure, however, that how we speak with one another matches our motivations. It is entirely possible to have the intent to encourage but speak in such a blunt, sharp, harsh, or arrogant way so as to really discourage and tear down. The more we get to know one another, the easier it is to speak more casually and with less thought, and then things tend to go wrong quickly.
How can we speak diplomatically? We must remember what our Lord said- do unto others as we would like them to do to us (Luke 6:31). How would we want to be approached? We must also remember that we must remain humble servants of Jesus, knowing how we have often been tempted and have proven to be weak, and knowing how unworthy we are of the grace and mercy shown to us (Galatians 6:1-6). We are no better than they- just different. We must make sure, above all, that we are not just motivated by love but are acting and speaking in love (Ephesians 4:15-16).
Diplomacy does not mean that we just do not address problems and let them fester or cause division or apostasy. Diplomacy does not mean that we lose any spine or backbone and just let people do or say whatever they want to do or say. Diplomacy does not mean that we must become weak about matters of sin. Instead, diplomacy demands that we are as concerned about how we communicate to others as much as we are concerned about what it is we are communicating. We must understand that how we say things- our choice of words, our tone of voice, our mannerisms- communicate just as much as what we say, if not more so! The best of intentions are quickly undermined by poor communication and a lack of concern about speaking diplomatically.
Diplomacy, in the end, is the recognition that we must communicate in ways that win people over even when hard truths must be expressed. We must be aware of the power that exists in words and speaking, as James makes clear in James 3:1-12, and that we can repel people from Jesus as quickly as we can win them over for Him by how we speak. We have never been given license to speak harshly and sharply merely because we are commissioned to preach messages that ought to convict people of sin and encourage them toward righteousness and truth. Instead, we are to speak with others in the same manner as we would like to be addressed. Let us therefore give thought to how we speak with one another, in humility considering how our speech can be properly seasoned so as to persuade our fellow man to serve Christ the Lord!
Ethan R. Longhenry