Are We Acting Wisely Toward Outsiders?

Prior to the Apostle Paul’s closing salutations and personal remarks in his letter to the Colossians, he commands the congregation: “Conduct yourselves with wisdom toward outsiders, making the most of the opportunity” (Colossians 4:5). As one who desires for God to use him mightily among unbelievers, this verse never ceases to get my attention. Knowing that these words are penned by a man whom Jesus Himself appointed to proclaim His name among the Gentiles (Acts 9:15) inspires me to seriously examine whether my “conduct” with non-Christians is wise or unwise. The grammar in this verse dictates that the answer to this question determines whether I am maximizing each God-given opportunity that I have with unbelievers.

Even though Paul clearly teaches the Colossians to speak (lógos) the “mystery of Christ” among those who do not know Jesus (Colossians 1:5, 25; 3:16, 17; 4:3, 6), his command for them to “conduct [themselves] with wisdom toward outsiders” seems to demand more. Whereas speaking (lógos) about Christ merely involves verbal discourse, Paul’s command for the Colossians to “conduct” (peripateó) themselves wisely with unbelievers actually incorporates all aspects of human behavior. Observing how Paul uses other roots of peripateó within Colossians helps produce a clearer definition of what Paul’s command, “conduct,” implies.

Paul uses the Greek root for “conduct” three other times in this epistle. He first prays for the Colossians to be “filled with the knowledge of His [God’s] will in all spiritual wisdom … so that [they] will walk (peripatēsai) in a manner worthy of the Lord, to please Him in all respects…” (Colossians 1:9-10). A chapter later, Paul writes that just as the Colossians “received Christ Jesus the Lord, so [they should] walk (peripateite) in Him” (2:6). Thirdly, after listing many carnal deeds of the flesh—“immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed” (3:5)—Paul reminds the Colossians that “in them you also once walked (periepatēsate), when you were living in them” (3:7). Consequently, when Paul exhorts the Colossians to “conduct [themselves] with wisdom toward outsiders,” his concern for their effective witness with unbelievers targets the totality of their verbal and non-verbal behavior.

Paul expects the Colossians’ words and deeds to set the precise standard for Christian witness (3:17, 23), so it is not surprising that he then further qualifies his command with the phrase “in wisdom.” In fact, the original text states, “In wisdom, conduct yourselves,” emphasizing the substantial role that wisdom plays in believers’ spoken and unspoken “conduct” with those outside the church.

In Colossians, Paul instructs that “God’s mystery” fully demonstrates itself in Christ’s wisdom (2:2-3); and with this wisdom, Paul teaches the congregation to “walk (peripateite) in Him” (2:6). Thus, if Christ comprises God’s perfect manifestation of wisdom and the Colossians are to “walk” like Jesus in order to “conduct” themselves wisely “toward outsiders,” then Christians must not overlook spending adequate time learning how to communicate God’s wisdom clearly in the verbal and non-verbal language of the unbeliever.

Due to the “theological necessity” of the incarnation, Nicholls writes: Is it not essential that believers speak and act in ways that persuasively enter into the non-Christian’s religious and cultural “framework”?[1] My affirmative answer comes quickly to mind. Nonetheless, as I reflect on my recent “conduct” with “outsiders,” what do I actually do when I am with them? Am I intentionally crafting my verbal and non-verbal communication within my unbelieving friends’ religious and cultural “framework”? Or do I “conduct” myself unwisely, contrary to Paul’s command, by living out Christ in ways that are understandable only to me?

Kraft defines the type of Gospel communication that Paul expects of the Colossians as “receptor-oriented.” He writes that a “receptor-oriented” communicator selects “topics that relate directly to the felt needs of the receptors, he will choose methods of presentation that are appealing to them, he will use language that is maximally intelligible to them.”[2]

Christ’s incarnation embodies Kraft’s “receptor-oriented” principle. In God’s wisdom, the eternal Son of God becomes fully man so that men may best receive and believe Christ’s salvific message. Paul undergirds Kraft’s quote similarly when he writes, “To the Jews I became as a Jew … to those who are without law, as without law” (1 Corinthians 9:20-21). Logically, Paul desires for the Colossians to likewise “conduct” themselves by incarnating their verbal and non-verbal behavior within their Jewish and Gentile recipients’ contrasting religious and ethnic “framework.”

In other words, Paul expects the Colossians to grow into successful intercultural communicators who illuminate God’s unchanging truth in Christ within unbelievers’ varying “linguistic, political, economic, social, psychological, religious, national, [and] racial … differences.”[3] Hesselgrave teaches that if Christians desire to “make the most” of each God-given opportunity with unbelievers, then they need to understand the “seven dimensions of cross-cultural communication.” Four of them are:

  1. “Worldviews” (the lens by which people perceive reality)
  2. “Cognitive processes” (the different modes of thinking humans use to make decisions)
  3. “Linguistic forms” (foreign languages which intrinsically embed cultural values)
  4. “Behavioral patterns” (this includes body language, cultural greetings and customs, male-female protocol, familial etiquette, etc.)[4]

In short, Paul’s command to the Colossian believers (4:5) implicates all Christians. To “make the most” of every God-given opportunity goes beyond mere verbal monologue enunciating biblical truths about Christ with unbelievers. According to Paul’s instruction, this would be unwise behavior.

Conducting oneself wisely, rather, means that believers make every effort to embody the truth of Christ verbally and non-verbally within unbelievers’ belief systems. Paul teaches that effective Christian witness demands that Christians love “outsiders” like Christ—by speaking and living out God’s truth with the recipients’ multicultural “framework” in mind. So, are we acting wisely or unwisely with non-Christians?

[1]Bruce J. Nicholls, Contextualization: A Theology of Gospel and Culture (Vancouver: Regent College Pub., 2003), 21.
[2]Charles H. Kraft, Communicating Jesus’ Way (Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 1999), 20.
[3]David J. Hesselgrave, Communicating Christ Cross-Culturally: An Introduction to Missionary Communication, 2nd ed., (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2nd ed., 1991), 99.
[4]Ibid., 163-67.