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Godly Tact and Diplomacy

by David F. Maas
Forerunner, August 1998

Recently, we have received messages on the importance of unity and reconciliation. One major ingredient in unity consists of tact and diplomacy. We could easily consider the apostle Paul as one of the most skillful diplomats (second only to Jesus Christ) the world has ever seen.

At one point he explains his task when he encounters diverse peoples and cultures:

Give no offense, either to the Jews or to the Greeks or to the church of God [perhaps the most formidable task of all!]. Just as I also please all men in all things, not seeking my own profit, but the profit of many, that they may be saved. (I Corinthians 10:32-33)

Paul's mentor, Jesus Christ, states in Matthew 18:7:

Woe to the world because of offenses! For offences must come, but woe to that man by whom the offense comes!

Some of us are past masters at creating offenses: wise as doves and harmless as serpents!

Too often even responsible Bible commentaries concentrate on Paul's feistiness and rabid zeal, but totally ignore his sterling example of tact and diplomacy. We should aspire to follow the example of this master diplomat, who was schooled under both Jesus Christ and Gamaliel—the same Gamaliel who advised in Acts 5:38-39:

And now I say to you, keep away from these men and let them alone; for if this plan or this work is of men, it will come to nothing, but if it is of God you cannot overthrow it—lest you be found to fight against God.

Like Gamaliel, the apostle sought to maintain peace and stability. In his letter to the church at Rome, Paul writes, "If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men" (Romans 12:18).

We might find it interesting that one of the most popular "modern formulas" for negotiating and conflict reduction, while credited to psychologist Carl Rogers, was lifted almost verbatim from the technique, method and practice of the apostle Paul. Unlike traditional methods of persuasion—based upon debate and argumentation—this method of diplomatic persuasion does not attempt to cow someone into submission or make one's will prevail over the other person.

Protecting Self-Image

The apostle Paul (many centuries before negotiating specialists Carl Rogers and Gerald Nierenberger were born) realized that people will do anything to preserve their self-concepts or self-images. Within each individual resides a kind of thermostatic control striving to maintain consistency or stability. People usually refuse to consider alternatives that they feel threaten their self-image. No one on the face of the earth—even Saddam Hussein, Yassir Arafat, Sam Berkowitz, Jeffrey Dahmer, Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin or William Jefferson Clinton—believes in his heart of hearts that he is wrong.

Herbert W. Armstrong often said, "People want to be right, but don't want to do right." He also quoted a proverb from Benjamin Franklin's Poor Richard's Almanac: "A person convinced against his will is of the same opinion still." The apostle Paul certainly understood this need for people to maintain a sense of consistency and stability. He says in I Corinthians 9:19-22:

For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win the more; and to the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might winthose who are under the law . . . to those that are without law, as without law (not being without law toward God, but under the law toward Christ) that I might win those who are without law; to the weak, I became as weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.

Does this mean that Paul would compromise with God's law under special circumstances? Absolutely not!

Does he endorse "situation ethics"? Absolutely not!

Does Paul embrace syncretism? Absolutely not!

Core and Marginal Beliefs or Values

Paul understands that we need to guard and protect jealously certain core beliefs such as God's laws and statutes, which we hold as non-negotiable. But we find a rather wide variety of marginal beliefs (such as choice of music, automobile, food, clothing, etc.) upon which we can compromise without sin.

The apostle Paul had a keen sense of what part of his belief structure was negotiable and what was not. He had the knack to make things that he and other people agreed upon to seem like mountains and those he and others disagreed upon seem like molehills.

In I Corinthians 6:12, He expresses the realization that just because something was lawful does not mean it is the thing to do—especially if it will offend someone. In Romans 14, Paul sets some guidelines on dealing with marginal issues. If becoming a vegetarian or a teetotaler for a day proves the price of peace and not offending, he considers it a small price to pay.

Conflict Reduction Strategy

When we think about it, Jesus Christ and the apostle Paul did not have the luxury to interact exclusively with people in God's church, but they practiced tact and diplomacy anyway. This allowed them, especially Jesus, to increase "in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men" (Luke 2:52)

Like professional diplomats today, they had to incorporate a set of steps to avoid needless conflict. As Christians who are serious about avoiding bitter conflict and hostility, we must do the following three things outlined in the Rogerian (actually the apostle Paul's) strategy of conflict reduction:

1. Convey to the other person that he is understood.
2. Identify a possible area in which the other person may have a valid point or even a superior position.
3. Find shared moral qualities (honesty, integrity, and good will) and aspirations to help in discovering a mutually acceptable solution.

According to specialists in negotiation, the first point consists of seeing the expressed idea and attitude from the other person's point of view—to sense how it feels to him and to achieve his frame of reference regarding the idea he discusses. "Developing empathy" is another way to state this idea, which is getting the feel of walking in someone else's shoes. A popular Lakota proverb reads, "Never criticize someone else unless you walk a mile in his moccasins."

Even our Elder Brother Jesus Christ could not have had the depth of empathy for human beings He came to have until He had become one Himself. That He had the love to divest Himself of His position at the Father's right hand and become a man shows how important this empathy factor is. Notice Hebrews 2:17-18; 4:15:

Therefore, in all things He had to be made like His brethren, that He might be a merciful and faithful High Priest in things pertaining to God to make a propitiation for the sins of the people. For in that He Himself has suffered, being tempted, He is able to aid those who are tempted. . . . For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin.

It is doubtful that any one can empathize so much that he sees all points of view with equal clarity—like the late Senator Hubert Humphrey who proclaimed:

Half of my people are for the measure, half of my people are against the measure, but I'm for my people.

We cannot say with certainty that two human beings, regardless of how close they are, ever see, hear, or experience things identically. God sometimes allows people to go through fiery trials, so they can learn to empathize with others who have gone through similar trials. Proverbs 14:10 reads, "The heart knows its own bitterness, and a stranger does not share its joy." If we have gone through a similar experience as the person who grieves, we are no stranger to that experience and can give aid more readily.

Thus, if we aspire to get a person to change his mind about anything, we have a responsibility to understand at least where he has come from or what has made him what he is.

Tact at the Areopagus

The apostle Paul empathized not only with the ideas, but also with the feelings of the people he spoke to. In Acts 17:22, he conveyed to the Athenians on Mars Hill that he understood them. This situation could have proved potentially dangerous, but Paul handled it with tact and diplomacy.

For starters, he paid the Athenians a compliment:

Then Paul stood in the midst of the Areopagus and said, "Men of Athens, I perceive in all things that you are very religious." (Acts 17:22)

If we read between the lines, Paul may be saying, "You people are better than I am in your devotion to spiritual things."

Instead of "religious," the King James Version uses the word "superstitious," which has undergone what linguists call "semantic drift." In Shakespeare's day and King James' time, this word did not have the negative association as it has now. When my great-grandfather was a teenager, the word "notorious" did not have the negative association it does today. We could have properly referred to Herbert Armstrong as a notorious person.

From the context of the account in Acts 17, it becomes quite clear that the apostle Paul was not, as some Protestant theologians like to characterize him, a feisty, wrangling, argumentative hothead. If that were the case, the philosophers of Athens, who vastly outnumbered him, could have made short work out of this smart aleck. Obviously, from their attention to his speech, they did not think of him this way.

Paul lavished compliments upon his audiences. In Romans 2-3, he acknowledges a cultural debt to both the Greeks and the Jews. Some people, after coming into God's church, want to sever ties with their cultural roots, something God does not require. This attitude is just as much a mistake as becoming enslaved by their cultural roots.

Paul, besides complimenting strangers, pointed out similarities between him and another person or group. At one point, he suggests to the Pharisees that he and they shared the same view of the resurrection (Acts 23:6). To the right people, he let it become known that he was a Roman citizen (Acts 22:25).

On Mars Hill, Paul systematically and deliberately built a bridge of common understanding and similarity, referring to something they already understood:

For as I was passing through and considering the objects of your worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: To the Unknown God. Therefore, the One whom you worship without knowing [a more proper rendering than ignorantly] Him I proclaim to you. (Acts 17:23)

Paul started at their current level of understanding, continually finding ways in which he and his audience shared similarities.

The late Congressman Ancher Nelsen, one of southern Minnesota's most popular politicians, once explained to a small group in St. Peter the reason for his unwavering popularity:

I don't argue directly with my opponent. I find someone on the opposite side who agrees with me and this collapses the Democrat/Republican barrier.

Former news commentator Harry Reasoner in the same vein once said:

I dislike labels—they sometimes put me in a category with someone with whom I share one thing in common.

"In Lowliness of Mind . . ."

Along with pointing out similarities, a diplomat often looks for something in the opponent's idea that is valid or perhaps superior to his own frame of reference. This, of course, refers to marginal rather than core beliefs. When we do this, we admit that in some respects our position is inferior.

In Romans 1:14 Paul acknowledges a debt of cultural savoir faire to the Greeks. In another context, however, he acknowledges the superiority of the Jews in having been entrusted with the oracles of God.

This illustrates that all of us are inferior to each other in some respects and superior in others. As peace-makers, diplomats, and ambassadors for Christ, we need to be quick to concede our lack of expertise in certain areas. It promotes Paul's admonition in Philippians 2:3 that we "esteem others better than [ourselves]."

A former mentor, Bob Hoops, once stated that

humility resembles a suit that feels like grubby rags to the person who wears it, but fine expensive fabric to someone viewing it.

Genuine humility may not be easy to develop, but its result is pleasing and peacemaking to others.

If we follow the example of the apostle Paul in these three steps to negotiating, we will have a far better chance of successfully and inoffensively causing a change:

1. Convey to the other person that he is understood.
2. Identify a possible area in which the other person may have a valid point or even a superior position.
3. Find shared moral qualities (honesty, integrity, and good will) and aspirations to help in discovering a mutually acceptable solution.

Of course, we predicate all of these steps on the assumption that we dare not compromise with core values and beliefs, but trade liberally in the marginal issues. This formula may provide a partial solution to our quest for unity within the Church of the Great God and the greater church of God.

© 1998 Church of the Great God
PO Box 471846
Charlotte, NC  28247-1846
(803) 802-7075


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