Rules of Communication

Four Rules of Communication


Human beings have been given the ability to communicate for a variety of reasons. Common ones might be:

  • To make conversation.
  • To convey information.
  • To publish facts.
  • To render judgements or viewpoints.
  • To come to a conclusion.
  • To express feelings.
  • To share yourself.
  • To solve conflicts.
  • We will spend our time focusing on this last purpose of communication - solving conflicts. I believe it to be crucial to success in any interpersonal relationship yet it is widely ignored.

    I do recognize that concepts of communication come from various disciplines. However, today I am drawing only from the pool of Biblical data. And further, I am narrowing the Biblical pool to Ephesians 4:25-32.

    Ephesians 4-6 is the practical section of Paul’s letter. It is the “so what” following the great doctrinal section, chapters 1-3. The overall theme of Ephesians 4:25-32 might be “Building Positive Relationships with People”.  Consequently, the teachings of this section are applicable wherever people congregate together: the neighborhood, the classroom, the family, the church, the institutions of society, the team, the community, the congress, the playground, and the workplace, just to name a few.

    Before looking at the text, it is helpful to acknowledge that  solving or preventing conflicts between people is difficult. I am not presenting a magic formula that promises harmony if you precisely follow directions! The reason for this is two-fold.

    First, all interpersonal relationships are composed of self-centered, sinful human beings. No exceptions - regardless of position, education, spirituality, age, gender, or ethnicity. Put more than one sinner in a room and sooner or later disagreements and misunderstandings will show up.

    Second, the tools we have at our disposal for preventing and solving conflicts are flawed. Verbal communication is dependent on imprecise language (especially English). And non-verbal communication, though helpful, is easily misunderstood. And, the visual doesn't always match the audio.

    A Concept

    (from “Communication: Key to your Marriage”,  Norman Wright,, p 54)

    “When two people talk six possible messages can actually get through:

  • What you mean to say
  • What you actually say
  • What the other person hears
  • What the other person thinks he hears
  • What the other person says about what you said
  • What you think the other person said about what you said”
  • The Four Rules of Communication

    (Note: I have been unable to pinpoint the origin of the “Four Rules of Communication”  concept or of the wording of the Four Rules. I encountered them in the mid 1970s when I first encountered Biblical Counseling. Thus, I am unable to give proper citation. The reader is advised that the rules per se are not original with me.)

    So, here are the four rules of communication from Ephesians 4:25-32. I will state the rules and offer some brief comments and explanations. This will not be an in-depth exegesis of the passage.

    Ephesians 4:22-24 give general directives  - put off the old life; renew the mind; punt on the new life. Then 4:25-5:2 gives specific actions to accomplish this. Therefore, these verses contain particular behaviors that are measurements as to whether the directives have been followed. Interestingly, the litmus test focuses on speech!

    I. Be Honest v 25

  • First, cease lying.  Ability to speak the truth is predicated on a prior cessation of lying. The term is “falsehood” (ψεῦδος). It is the object of the aorist participle “put off”, therefore, “after having put off lying”. We start here.
  • However, “falsehood” is more than lying. It can refer to any untruth. Dishonesty can also be deceit.

    • Deceiving someone is typically done by lying. 
    • But, often we deceive others by using truths or half-truths. In other words, we tell someone a truth with the intent that they draw a conclusion that is not true. (Example: You say to your boss, “I was here until 8:00 last night” in hopes that he will think that you are making progress on the project when actually you are way behind.) 
    • Or we can say, “yes” when we really mean “no”. (Example: When you concur with the boss’s idea that you think is doomed to fail).
    • Or we disguise our conversation in order to mask the real message. (Example: You say to your wife/parent/friend, “I see the Indians are in town tonight” when you really mean, What do you think about me going to the Indians game with my buddies.”) 
    • Or halo data (faccial expresssion, body language, posture, intonation) doesn’t match our words!

    So maybe a good way to describe this is that we must not lie but also we should be transparent or open.

  • Second, speak truth. This is the imperative in the verse. It is straightforward.
    • I point out the obvious - people can’t read your mind. Open your mouth. There is nothing heroic about being silent when you could speak truth! In fact, it will not likely be helpful.
    • Here is a helpful question, “When is a liar not a liar?”  The answer is not, “when he doesn’t lie” but rather “when he is a truth teller.”
    • Of course, speaking the truth is not a license to throw away compassion and concern for others. Diplomacy still is a valued trait in building positive relationships with others. Not only does Paul advise us to “speak the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15), he also urges us to, NAU  Colossians 4:6 “Let your speech always be with grace, as though seasoned with salt, so that you will know how you should respond to each person.”

    II. Keep Current v 26-27

    These two verses are composed of four parallel imperative verbs - be angry, do not sin, do not let go down (the sun), do not give (place to the devil). Three key thoughts jump out at us:

  • It is possible to be angry and not sin. Anger itself is not sinful (example of Christ driving money changers out of the temple John 2:15-17). I think the key is control. Anger can’t be out of control. There are other factors as well but this is the key in my view. (Example: Wife/mother has a hard day. You come home and see the mac and cheese on the table and say, “Again”. She throws the plate, the milk, the applesauce at you.)
  • Today’s irritations must be dealt with today. The “sun going down is a nice way of saying “before the day ends.” Judy and I took this pretty literally. So, we’d get the 2:00 AM tap on the shoulder, “Can we talk?” Apparently we didn’t get the memo that the Jewish day ended at sundown!  Now, it is alright to say, I have a problem but I need to count to ten before I express it. It is true that most people’s shoulders are only big enough to handle one day at a time.  So deal with all irritations promptly, not just the big ones. An interesting side note: “be angry” is (ὀργίζω); “anger” is (παροργισμός) which is literally “alongside of anger”. What is the difference? Maybe just stylistic variation with no real difference. Or maybe the first is major anger, while the second is minor anger (along side of).
  • Failure to keep current with irritations opens the door to spiritual calamity (v 27). Giving place to the devil vividly infers allowing him occupation or opportunity.  He must not have free run in our lives. So, if we don’t deal with irritations as they occur soon they can grow into to resentment and bitterness and unrepentant sin and then guilt. It is a nasty downward spiral. (Example: the wife who pulled out a notebook in which she recorded all her grievances against her husband for the last 20 years).  
  • III. Attack the Problem Not the Person 29

    If we are going to be  cultivate a positive relationship with others, we must learn to replace corrupt speech with constructive speech. We encounter another imperative, “proceed not”. This is the main verb. It literally means, “to come or go out”. So, the admonition is direct - don’t you dare allow any corrupt words to tumble out of your mouth.  Again, here are some key thoughts:

  • We have a choice in this matter. We can either allow “unwholesome” words to pass our lips or not. We can help it!
  • We must block corrupt words. The image is standing guard in front of our mouth. Grab them before they escape. Once they are out they can not be recalled. (Example: Presidential candidate Hilary Clinton's emails containing derogatory statements about Indianapolis). The term “unwholesome”  (σαπρός) means rotten, putrid, decaying. Used of bad fruit or fish in NT. (Example: Sorting potatoes at United Grocery Store.)  Such words are useless (broader idea of the term). Words can be painful contrary to the little ditty, “sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me.”
  • We must release constructive words. Open the gate and let them out.  “Good” words are apparently the opposite of unwholesome words. These words build people up (“edification”). Further these words are specifically targeted to the other person’s needs and impart “grace” to the other person. We need to identify the other person’s needs and then speak encouraging words.  
  • Corrupt words are not limited to abusive language. Because of the contrast between good words that build up, words that don’t “build up” should be categorized as unwholesome. They are useless. Neutral words are not prized (similar to the “lukewarm” concept of Rev 3). 
  • Perhaps we could think of it this way… when two people attack the problem rather than the other person they are both combating a common object rather than each other. (Example: the problem is the messy desk at work, not the co-worker. “You’re a slob” doesn’t solve the problem and in fact makes it worse.)

    IV.  Act! Don’t React 31-32

    Verse 31 is a list of behaviors that a wise person will avoid. In fact, a command is issued; these damaging behaviors must be removed (imperative of αἴρω meaning to lift or take up). The NIV “get rid of” captures the meaning.  The idea is to have nothing more to do with these behaviors. By and large they are gut reactions or responses to situations that we don’t like. And they are not helpful; arguments only grow when two people react wrongly to each other. (Classic example: my dad is bigger than your dad; he is not, my dad could whip yours is a minute, and so forth).  But even worse, these reactions are sinful.

    In contrast are the behaviors listed in v 32. A wise person will default to these behaviors. They do tend to solve conflicts. (NAU  Proverbs 15:1 A gentle answer turns away wrath, But a harsh word stirs up anger.) These behaviors are actions rather than reactions. In fact, these actions are described as something you must be - your identity (the imperative of γίνομαι “become”).  A literal rendering might be, “ But become into one another…” In other words, the key to positive interpersonal relations is that each person becomes something that he is naturally not; things like kind, compassionate, and forgiving. These actions can be learned with God’s help. And, we must become these things in order to get rid of the reactions of v 31.


    Is the implementation of these rules asking too much? I don’t think so. In fact, the next few verses make it clear.

    Ephesians 5:2 and walk in love, just as Christ also loved you and gave Himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God as a fragrant aroma.

    And besides, these rules are the right thing to do regardless of a biblical orientation or lack thereof. And they also work no matter what the environment.

    © Copyright. Joseph Flatt. 2015. All rights reserved. May be used for educational purposes without written permission but with a citation to this source