‘Ethos’ And Why It’s Still Essential to Communication

In ancient times, Aristotle taught pathos, ethos, and logos as essential components in persuasive communication.  Pathos describes a person’s ability to move the emotions of their listener.  It usually requires authentic emotion on the part of the communicator.  Ethos describes the communicator’s credibility.  Does their life match their message?  Logos refers to the content, or the words used.  All three are important, but we need to look closely at ethos.

In an age of drop down screens and on-line videos, ethos has become the less emphasized of Aristotle’s three.  When we watch a video, we don’t have physical access to the communicator.  When a screen drops in to our satellite location, the speaker does not know if we smile, frown, laugh or jeer.  The speaker will certainly not be shaking our hand, asking us how our week was, or inviting us back for tea and cake.  We often naively accept the on-line, or on-stage, persona to be in harmony with the complete person.  In contrast, the increasingly popular alternative to accepting the on-stage persona is to become cynical and dismiss media as plastic, prefabricated, and false.

Image result for big brother on a screen

Big Brother communicating from a big screen in ‘1984.’  Why did movie-makers use Big Brother on a screen? 

The importance of personal access in personal communication needs reexamining in the public sphere.  The great stories of great teachers involve them doing life with those whom they teach.  Not only did they invite unsuspecting individuals on an adventure, they traveled with them on a great portion of it.  In this way any future communication had the background of a life lived in accordance with the teaching.  The teacher was credible.  Teachers on screens and teachers on the internet who want us to live life like them are not as credible as teachers who have us in their homes.

This is one way college, church, or work-training can be such a varied experience for people hearing the same information.  Some colleges have professors who focus on research, publishing, and media rather than on the students.  They do not eat with students, and they certainly would not have them around to their house.  Some pastors increase their influence by broadcasting to multiple campuses, publishing books, and preaching on radio and T.V.  However, the current scandals negating the credibility of these influential pastors undercuts the ethos of all Christian teaching.  The work-training by the ‘expert’ who has not been on the shop-floor, got their hands dirty, or conversed with entry-level workers is easily forgotten.  In personal, religious, and professional circles a new credibility needs to be established.  We see it happening through social media with the rise in popularity of unpolished, unedited videos and posts.  The public is looking for authenticity.  Of course, this is a two-edged sword.  Some people show increased virtue when they are unpolished and unedited – others look ugly and twisted.

Who are we trying to influence and what access do they have to us?  How does our life enhance or negate our message?  How can we communicate our strengths and weaknesses so people appreciate our humanity?  How can we bring ethos back on line with our pathos and logos?


I wrote this entry after reading 1 Thessalonians.  Paul went to great lengths to establish the character of himself, Silas and Timothy when writing the letter.  If you scan the list below you will see the following character traits Paul claims for his co-workers and himself.   The Thessalonians had personal access to him when he was in town, so they could verify whether the claims of Paul were true.

  1. Paul, Silas and Timothy endured suffering.
  2. They communicated the gospel in the face of opposition.
  3. They did not use flattery.
  4. They did not cover greed with a mask (not hypocritical).
  5. They were not looking for praise.
  6. They were gentle among the Thessalonians.
  7. They shared their lives with the Thessalonians.
  8. They worked hard, so as not to be a financial burden.
  9. They encouraged, comforted and urged the Thessalonians onward.

Having access to real-life evidence of these claims, the credibility of Paul’s message is enhanced.  The Thessalonians are more pliable because of their shared life with Paul.  This is a problem Willow Creek and other megachurches face as I write this.  Behind the scenes the leadership has been in shambles.  Bill Hybels reputation as senior pastor has crumbled.  The credibility of one of the biggest churches in the world is undermined.  In micro-churches a pastor can not hide – ministers more often do life together.  Of course, it is harder to develop a superstar charisma when people have access to us, but the opportunity is there for ethos to enhance the message.  The mega-church tries to deal with the problem in many ways – pastors make visits to campuses when they are not preaching, small groups compensate for the impersonal way Sunday services proceed.  However, as Bonhoeffer stated very clearly, the Christian life is ‘Life Together.’ Jesus came incarnate (in the flesh).  He took twelve people and let them walk with him for three years 24/7.  His disciples adopted similar models.  Why don’t we?

1 Thessalonians 2:1-12

You know, brothers and sisters, that our visit to you was not without results. We had previously suffered and been treated outrageously in Philippi, as you know, but with the help of our God we dared to tell you his gospel in the face of strong opposition. For the appeal we make does not spring from error or impure motives, nor are we trying to trick you. On the contrary, we speak as those approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel. We are not trying to please people but God, who tests our hearts. You know we never used flattery, nor did we put on a mask to cover up greed—God is our witness.  We were not looking for praise from people, not from you or anyone else, even though as apostles of Christ we could have asserted our authority. Instead, we were like young children among you.

Just as a nursing mother cares for her children, so we cared for you. Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well. Surely you remember, brothers and sisters, our toil and hardship; we worked night and day in order not to be a burden to anyone while we preached the gospel of God to you. You are witnesses, and so is God,of how holy, righteous and blameless we were among you who believed. For you know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children, encouraging, comforting and urging you to live lives worthy of God, who calls you into his kingdom and glory.

About Plymothian

I teach at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. My interests include education, biblical studies, and spiritual formation. I have been married to Kelli since 1998 and we have two children, Daryl and Amelia. For recreation I like to run, play soccer, play board games, read and travel.
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