Today, when we say that a person is a good conversationalist, we generally mean that they are good with words, and able to talk with other people. Some might be surprised to learn that this is not always what the word, “conversation,” meant.
The English word “conversation,” comes to us, via the French, from the Latin word, “conversari.” This word, derived from two roots, “con,” meaning, “with,” and “vertere,” meaning “to turn,” (thus to literally “to turn with”) spoke to the act of keeping company with another, or living amongst other people and this is originally what the word also meant in English. One’s conversation, in older English, was the behavior one exhibited in one’s family and community.
The word, “conversation,” is found twenty times in the King James version of the Bible, but the usage therein is archaic and thus has very little to do with a particular manner of speech. We read for instance, “but by the grace of God, we have had our conversation in the world (2 Corinthians 1:12b; KJV),” or, “For ye have heard of my conversation in time past in the Jews’ religion (Galatians 1:13a; KJV),” or again, “That ye put off concerning the former conversation the old man, which is corrupt according to the deceitful lusts (Ephesians 4:22; KJV).”
The word was beginning to change its meaning in the English about the time the King James was being translated, but the translators, wanting to be formal in their presentation of the text, used the word in its older, more traditional sense. Our modern versions render the words in question as either, “behavior,” or, “conduct.”
This is an important thing to know if one is going to read the Bible using the King James, as we want to understand the text according to its original intent, and not according to how we might use this or that word in our current vernacular. It is also an important thing to understand because God truly cares about the manner in which we behave in our communities and in our families.
In the Bible, Paul instructed Timothy, “Let no man despise thy youth; but be thou an example of the believers, in word, in conversation, in charity, in spirit, in faith, in purity (1 Timothy 4:12; KJV).” Likewise, James, the brother of Christ, wrote to his readers, “Who is a wise man and endued with knowledge among you? let him shew out of a good conversation his works with meekness of wisdom (James 3:13; KJV).” And the apostle Peter also wrote, “But as he which hath called you is holy, so be ye holy in all manner of conversation (1 Peter 1:15; KJV).”
In each case, the word, “conversation,” in these verses is properly understood as our conduct with other people.
It has been said that the true test of a man’s character is how he behaves when no one is watching, and there is certainly truth to that thought. But this does not mean that how we behave when we are being observed is unimportant. It was Jesus who instructed us to let our light so shine that others might see our good works, and thus glorify God (cf. Matthew 5:16).
Consider the three verses above and what they are telling us. From Peter we learn that there is a requirement to be holy in how we behave around others. In 1 Timothy, God commands us to strive to be an example to others regarding our behavior in the church and in the community. And then, finally, in James, God tells us that the wise man will show his wisdom by how he behaves when with others.
None of this should be that surprising. The royal law, after all, is to love our neighbor as ourself (cf. James 2:8). Loving a neighbor is certainly going to affect not only how we behave in private, but how we behave when we are with our neighbor.
All of which is to say: God has placed us in this world with an expectation that we are going to be interacting with other people, and that in these interactions, His people are going to behave properly and rightly in all their conduct. If we are not so behaving, we might reconsider whether we have truly fulfilled the words we read in Ephesians, “put off concerning the former conversation the old man, which is corrupt according to the deceitful lusts.”
The church of Christ invites you to study and worship with us at 234 Chapel Drive, Gallipolis, Ohio. If you have any questions or comments, please share them with us at 740-446-1494.
Jonathan McAnulty is minister of Chapel Hill Church of Christ. Viewpoints expressed in the article are the work of the author.