The Christian Use of NLP
By Mike Davis Th.D
Is it okay for a
Christian to use psychological change techniques?
Should we use “secular,
man-made” methods of change like NLP or Neuro-Semantics?
If we use such techniques are
we substituting faith in God and in the All-Suffiency of Christ for faith in
techniques and patterns?
Are we depending more upon
techniques than upon the Spirit of God?
Does the use of change
techniques deal with truly deep spiritual issues or do they only deal with
surface issues and changes?
And why do we need such patterns and techniques?
Jesus and Paul and the other writers of the New Testament didn’t use techniques and patterns. They just taught the word of God and depended upon the Holy Spirit to effect the change. That’s all they needed and used. Why do we need more?
Many Christians have questions and concerns about utilizing psychological change techniques believing that such use may reflect a lack of faith in what God has done in Christ; that it even signifies a rejection of the all sufficiency of God’s provision in Christ.
In this article I want to deal
with the above questions.
Is it true that Jesus, Paul and the writers of Scripture did not use methods, strategies and techniques to effect change in their disciples but relied upon the Word and the Spirit alone?
Does the use of techniques to effect change exclude the Holy Spirit and dependence upon His power?
Change Methods and Techniques Within Scripture
Several years after I began my study of NLP I came to the conclusion that the bible was written in such a way as to effect change and transformation in those who read it. I came to believe that there was a structure to the way scripture was written that facilitated a change in mind, emotions and behavior. At the time I had no idea what that structure was or even how to go about finding it. All I had was a hunch.
Little by little I began to see that there was something to my hunch. I began to recognize that the bible did reflect psychological principles for change. Principles that underlie many of the change techniques used in NLP and NS.
But it was during my research for my doctoral dissertation in first century Christianity that my hunch was confirmed. I began to see that the Bible not only contained the principles underlying the various change techniques used in NLP/NS but that it also contained and used specific change techniques within the very structure of the written text itself!
As I was researching my Th.D. dissertation I had to do research on letter writing in the first century in order to better understand some of the things Paul wrote. This led me to study the structure of Paul’s letters. In the process of studying how Paul’s letters were written I came across information concerning Paul’s use of rhetorical devices or strategies in his letters.
The Bible and the Art of Rhetoric
Over the past several decades there has been an amazing amount of research conducted concerning the ancient Greco- Roman art of Rhetoric and its impact upon and use in the Bible.
What is Rhetoric? Simply defined rhetoric is “the art of persuasion”, (1)
Rhetoric was “discovered” in the 5th century BCE and later codified into a system by the philosopher Aristotle (2). In the First Century (the time of the writing of the New Testament) Rhetoric was a highly developed art and considered an essential part of ancient education. As a matter of fact “higher education” in the Greco-Roman world “meant taking lessons from a rhetor and learning the art of eloquence from him” (3).
The ability to speak eloquently
and persuasively was highly admired in the Greco-roman world of the First
Century. Rhetors or rhetoricians (those skillful in the art of rhetoric) were
everywhere in the Roman Empire and as author Ben Witherington has written “There
was no need to travel to a major university town to find one”.
The ability to “speak well” (i.e. eloquently and persuasively) was a major key to success and popularity in the Greco-Roman society of the first century. Those who could “speak well” were popular and paid well by the wealthy members of Greco-Roman society. It was considered a mark of prestige to have a skillful Rhetor on your “payroll” as it were. This was part of the controversy in I Corinthians 3 were Paul rebukes the Corinthian Christians (many of whom were well to do) for arguing over who had the best teacher/speaker or who was the best teacher/speaker: Paul or Apollos. According to the book of Acts Apollos was “an eloquent man” (Acts 18:24). This is an ancient way of saying that he was trained and skilful in the art of rhetoric. It was apart of Greco-Roman culture to seek prestige and honor in the eyes of ones peers by associating with those considered to be skillful in the art of rhetoric. Paul opposed this worldly value and practice in the Church.
While there was a worldly or secular use of the art of rhetoric (to gain prestige, fame, or wealth) there were also practical, and one can say, spiritual uses of rhetoric also. These uses are reflected in the New Testament writings, especially the writings of Paul.
Paul, First Century Philosophers, and the Use of Rhetoric
Paul criticized the worldly use of rhetoric for the sake of prestige wealth or fame in his writings (see I Corinthians 2:1-5; 4:19-20). Yet he also used the strategies and tools of persuasive speaking in his letters. Whether or not Paul had formal training in rhetoric is a debate that still continues among scholars. But almost all agree that Paul did use rhetorical devices or strategies in his writings. Why did Paul use these strategies in his letters?
To understand Paul’s use of rhetoric we first need to understand something about first century philosophy and philosophers. First Century philosophy was very different from the more abstract western philosophy that we are familiar with today.
First century philosophy was more practical and aimed at helping those interested in achieving “eudaimonia” or “the human flourishing life”. “Eudaimonia” is composed of two words eu, or good, and daimon the word for divinity. According to Scholar Timothy W. Seid eudaimonia is a “good divine state”; it described the conditions of the gods and was considered a “blessed” state (5). The focus of this blessed life was how to live life well, how to be the best human one could be. According to Greco-Roman Philosophers to achieve eudaimonia was to live a life of virtue; a life free of the passions and desires that drove one to pursue the life of luxury, fame and wealth that society (wrongly) held in high esteem.
Greco-roman philosophers (or sages) of the first century prescribed to their students and followers a variety of methods, strategies and practices that were aimed at helping their disciples to practice and progress in the life of eudaimonia. The teachings, practices and disciplines of these ancient philosophers have come to be known by contemporary scholars as the practice of Psychagogy
Psychagogy means the “guidance of the soul”. The Philosophers were “psychagoues” or “soul guides” who worked with their students in the development and moral formation of their souls or being.(6) How did moral formation and transformation occur?
According to scholar Rollin Ramsaran for the psychagogues (or Moralist as he calls them),
“Moral transformation and progress will occur where correct knowledge and thinking patterns are maintained and erroneous perceptions are corrected…”(7)
When this happens then the soul will be purged of its “illness”(8) – i.e., of
the illicit passions and desires that lead one astray and away from the life of
Some of the tools used by the psychagogue/philosophers included: thoughtful meditation, memorization of precepts or maxims, speaking to oneself, and the tools of rhetoric to persuade oneself and others to pursue and live the life of eudaimonia.(9)
To quote Rollins Ramsaran again,
“What use of words, what patterns of reasoning, and what type of arrangement of [the] moralist materials brought persuasion to their positions or contributed to the motivation of their students?” (10)
And to quote another scholar,
“[Rhetoric fused together with] psychagogics, that is, with personal and spiritual development. [This was not surprising] given rhetoric’s traditional interest in the emotions, [the] imagination, and the will, motivation, or disposition to action-something which philosophers as well as teachers of religion were equally interested in.” (11)
First Century philosophers or
Psychagogues used the tools and strategies of the “art of persuasion” in order
to help their students transform mind, emotion and behavior in order to live the
life of eudaimonia.
Now the Apostle Paul was not a first century Greco-Roman philosopher (at least he would not have seen himself as such). But he was a first century sage or teacher (from a Jewish background) who would have known and utilized (as we shall see) the tools of rhetoric (as well as other tools) to persuade his students and the recipients of his letters to live the godly, biblical lifestyle taught within the Christian faith of the First Century.
Paul and other New Testament writers used well known rhetorical, persuasive strategies like other Greco-Roman sages of the day, within the context of their Christian faith, to influence mind, emotions, and behavior unto obedience to God.
With this introduction and background let’s begin looking at the strategies used and that are embedded in the text itself.
Ancient Rhetorical Strategies of Rapport Building in the Biblical Text
Those of us who study NLP and NS understand the importance of rapport when working with a client. Rapport has been defined as “The process of establishing and maintaining a relationship of mutual trust and understanding between two or more people, the ability to generate responses from another person.”(12)
As Seymour and O’Conner have written “Successful rapport creates trust” (ibid.
page 19). This trust is necessary in order to have influence with someone and
help them to achieve the changes they want. When we do not have rapport we
encounter resistance to our ideas and suggestions and the desired change can be
prevented from happening.
In NLP we use specific strategies of mirroring/matching and pacing of posture, breathing, physical movement, tonality, emotions, and verbal predicates in order to establish rapport and create trust.
First Century rhetoricians also understood the important of gaining rapport with their audiences in order for 1) their ideas to be accepted and acted upon, or 2) for decisions to be made in their favor in a court of law (rhetoric used in the law courts is known as judicial or forensic rhetoric).
1) To gain rapport and a receptive hearing from his audience a first century Rhetor would first seek to establish his ethos with the audience. The ethos of the speaker had to do with his character as perceived by the audience. In his speech the speaker had to give evidence that he was both reasonable and noble or honorable if he wanted to be effectively persuasive with his audience. As New Testament scholar David deSilva has written,
“For persuasion to be effected the audience had to regard the speaker as reasonable and honorable.”(13)
And as one ancient teacher of rhetoric, Quintillian, taught concerning ethos,
“But what really carries greatest weight in… speeches is the authority of the speaker. For he who would have all men trust his judgment…should possess and be regarded as possessing genuine wisdom and excellence of character.”(14)
And a hundred years before Quintillian Aristotle on the same subject taught,
“The orator persuades by moral character when his speeches are delivered in such a manner as to render him worthy of confidence….But this confidence must be due to the speech itself , not to any preconceived idea of the speaker’s character….Moral character, so to say, constitutes the most effective means of proof.”(15)
Ethos was an “essential
component of the art of persuasion” in the first century.(16)
So how did a first century Rhetor establish his ethos or character as trustworthy and noble in the perception of the audience? What strategy (or strategies) was used?
The speaker would begin gaining rapport with the audience at the very beginning of his speech which was called the exordium. The purpose of the exordium was to lay out the topic of the speech and also to establish that the speaker was a person of importance and a reliable authority that one should listen to. By establishing the importance, reliability and authority of the speaker trust, good will and rapport would be established with the hearers.
Paul uses this strategy in his epistles. We see it at work, for example in his letter to the Galatians where he writes against a heretical doctrine being preached by a rival group.
In Galatians 1:1 Paul writes at the very beginning of the letter,
“Paul an apostle (not of men, neither by men but by Jesus Christ and God the Father who raised Him from the dead”)..."
In this verse Paul establishes his ethos, his credibility and authority in two ways:
1. He states that he is an apostle
2. He states that his apostleship comes from God and not from man.
First let’s define what
“apostle” means. The word apostle means a “sent one”. In the first century it
referred to one given authority to go and transact business on the behalf of
another. An apostle, or sent one represents the one who sent him. In the Jewish
literature known as the Talmud it is written that “a man’s agent is as the man
himself” (M. Berahkot 5.5). This concept is reflected in the words of Jesus “He
that receives you receives Me, and he that receives Me receives Him who sent me”
(Matthew 10:40). This was an understood and accepted concept in the first
century Greco-Roman world.
In writing that he is an apostle Paul is stating that he is one sent with authority, one who possesses authority delegated to him by another.
And who has delegated to Paul that authority? Paul writes that his authority/apostleship is not of men or by men. Thus Paul clearly states that the authority with which and from which he speaks is not human in origin. It is more than that.
Paul states that his apostleship and thus authority is from the Lord Jesus Christ and God the Father. In others word Paul is stating in no uncertain terms “I represent and speak from the highest authority that exists in heaven or in earth – God Himself!”
In declaring that he represents the Highest authority there is Paul effectively establishes his importance and authority in the perception of the Galatians, and the reason why the Galatians should continue to listen to him and not the false teachers (to ignore Paul is to ignore the One who sent Paul; it is to ignore God Himself).
2) Another strategy that was used to gain the trust of the audience and to establish rapport with them was to show that while you are trustworthy, and thus should be heard, your opponent is untrustworthy, and, therefore, should not be heard. In other words you seek to turn the audience against your opponent by demonstrating that they are unworthy of trust, that they do not have the hearer’s best interest at heart and are even seeking their hurt and harm. According to ancient teachers of rhetoric this could be done at the beginning of the speech (in the exordium) as well as throughout the speech.
Aristotle taught that throughout his speech a speaker should address 'all that helps to destroy or create prejudice”.
And in the conclusion of the speech the speaker should “…dispose the hearer
favorable toward oneself and unfavorably towards the adversary.”(17)
Again we see this ancient strategy for rapport building in the exordium of Galatians 1:6-10.
In vs. 6 Paul writes,
“I marvel that you are so soon removed from Him that called you into the grace of Christ unto another gospel.”
Paul expresses to the
Galatians his surprise and amazement that they have begun moving away from the
truth of God unto another (false) gospel.
The ancient Rhetor Cicero stated it was proper to express amazement or perplexity in a rhetorical speech “as a means of regaining favor with one’s audience if one finds they have been won over by the opposition”; and of course this was the danger Paul was facing in Galatia (Circero’s De Invent. 1.17.25 in Ben Witherington’s Grace in Galatia p.81). So while Paul was genuinely upset and surprised by the turn of events at Galatia his expression of amazement fits in with the rhetorical strategies of the time.
As a side note Paul’s use of his internal state of amazement and distress over the Galatians is known in NLP as utilization.
In the Encyclopedia of NLP it is stated,
“Utilization refers to the process of applying a particular internal state, cognitive strategy, linguistic pattern, set of behavioral cues or some other set of distinctions for the purpose of achieving a desired outcome” (Encyclopedia of Systemic NLP and NLP New Coding by Robert Dilts and Judith Delozier p.1516)
Paul utilizes his own internal
state of amazement in a rhetorical/linguistic persuasion strategy to achieve the
desired outcome of regaining favor and rapport with the Galatian audience.
In vs. 7 Paul refers to his opponents as those “that trouble you and pervert the gospel of Christ.” Here Paul casts his opponents in an unfavorable light. They are “agitators”; the word in Greek means to create mental and/or spiritual agitation, to cause confusion or unrest. And these agitators are perverting the gospel the Galatians have received. Paul portrays his opponents not as helping but as disrupting and harming the spiritual and mental/emotional well-being of the Galatians (and why listen to someone who does that?).
In vs. 8 and 9 Paul calls for a curse to come upon them. That is, that they would be cursed by God –set apart for destruction in Greek. With these words Paul is showing that the opponents are out of favor with God Himself because of the heretical teachings they are preaching; therefore they are someone the Galatians do not want to associate with or listen to (or else they might come into disfavor with God and under a curse also).
In verse 10 Paul writes,
“For do I now seek to persuade men or God? Or do I seek to please men? For if I yet pleased men, I should not be the servant of Christ”
Here Paul is again establishing
himself as someone who is trustworthy and reliable of character. He is not
seeking to please men but God. In the first century to “please men” was an idiom
or figure of speech that meant speaking in such a way as to entertain the
hearers’, to “tickle their ears” as it were. It was to speak a message that was
fun and entertaining –but that lacked any depth or substance. It was to tell
people what they wanted to hear but not what they needed to hear.(18)
Paul is stating that he does not do this. He has been faithful to speak the message he was commissioned by God to speak. And he states that if he were to do differently he would not be a “servant of Christ”, literally a “slave” of Christ. In the first century a slave entrusted by his master to conduct business on the master’s behalf was considered a slave who possessed honorable status. In stating that he is a slave of Jesus, His representative who is faithfully proclaiming the message he was given, Paul is establishing himself in the perception of the Galatians as a faithful, honorable and trustworthy person.(19)
In Galatians 6:12 (near the end of the speech) Paul writes that his opponents are acting out of selfish and cowardly motives; they do not have the Galatians best interests at heart. They are seeking to avoid persecution (from those who believe the Galatians need to be circumcised) hence their motives are self-seeking.
In vs. 13 Paul accuses the opponents of not keeping the Law that they are urging the Galatians to keep. They are promoting circumcision and Torah observance because they are trying to get the honor that comes from man rather than from God. Hence they are insincere and are disobedient to God (acts that would be considered shameful and destroy credibility).
In vss.14 Paul declares that he is free through the Cross of Christ from such worldly desire for worldly honor. Thus he is acting sincerely and with the Galatians’ best interest at heart-not like his self-seeking opponents.
In vs.17 Paul points to the scars in his own body – scars received as a result of being true and faithful to the message of the gospel and thus beaten for it. Paul’s scars show that he is a proven and reliable witness of Christ – not like his opponents who changed the message in order to avoid persecution and beatings. In first century thinking to hold to one’s values in the face of persecution is to be a man of courage – and thus a man of honor (courage was a highly esteemed virtue in the First Century).
So we see that throughout his letter Paul was using the ancient rhetorical strategy of putting himself in a favorable light while putting his opponents in an unfavorable light. In this way Paul seeks to establish and maintain rapport with his audience. He is using accepted and well known ancient Greco-Roman rapport strategies and techniques.
3) Another ancient strategy for establishing rapport with your audience was to demonstrate that one was a “friend” of the audience or to the audience.
“He is a friend who shares our joy in good fortune and sorrow in affliction, for our own sake and not for any other reason”.(20)
In 2 Corinthians 1:3-7 (the
exordium or beginning of his speech/letter) Paul writes of his afflictions and
how God has comforted him and how his comfort is for their sake .
In vs. 7 Paul writes,
"And our hope of you is steadfast, knowing that as ye are partakers of the sufferings so shall you be also of the consolation.”
In speaking of their suffering and consolation as something that they were partakers or partners in together Paul shows that he shares in their joy and sorrow and is thus a “friend” as Aristotle wrote above. The effect of this as James Thompson writes is,
“….to place the hearers in an amicable frame of mind”(21)
That is, a frame of mind where
they will be open, trusting and accepting of what he has to say.
4) Another rapport technique of the first century was to use praise and thanksgiving in the exordium.
“More often than not in an exordium the establishment of contact and rapport with the audience was made by way of praise, flattery, and thanksgiving”(22)
We can see examples of this in Paul’s letters to the Corinthians. Though he writes the letters as a corrective to wrong doing and sin going on in the church Paul in I Corinthian 1:4-5, 7 writes,
“I thank my God always on your behalf, for the grace of God which is given you by Christ Jesus; That in everything you are enriched by him in all utterance, and in all knowledge…so that you come behind in no gift…”
Paul let the Corinthians know that they are a cause of thanksgiving for him before God, he speaks of the rich blessings bestowed upon them by God’s grace (thus telling them that they are highly favored of God) and declares that they are not lacking in any gift – they are second to none.
Again Paul is employing the strategy of praise to gain rapport.
In the examples above we see
Paul using language in a specific and strategic manner that fulfils the ancient
Greco-Roman criteria for establishing trust, rapport and goodwill with His
audience. The strategies of rapport that Paul used were known and practiced in
his day; and Paul was using them as “weapons of warfare” to tear down the
strongholds and arguments that were exalting themselves against the knowledge of
God and preventing obedience to God.
What I find interesting that Paul’s first step in all his letters is to get rapport with his audience before he seeks to effect a change in them; just as we are taught in NLP and NS. While the methods are different the results are the same: the establishment of trust and receptivity by the audience in order to have a place of influence with them.
In part II of this article we will begin looking at Paul and other biblical author’s elicitation and use of emotional sates to effect a renewing of the mind and change of behavior.
Mike Davis Th.D is a NLP trainer as well as a corporate trainer and Emotional Success Coach. Mike’s doctorate is in first century Christianity in its Jewish and Greco-Roman context. He is the Professor of the Study of the Hebraic Roots of the Christian Faith for Upon This Rock International School of ministry in West Covina, CA. He also conducts classes on Renewing the Mind and The Essentials of Leadership across the United States. He lives in Southern CA. with his wife and three daughters.
(1) Ben Witherington III. “The Paul Quest: The Renewed Search for the Jew of Tarsus” InterVarsity Press: 1998. p.115.
(2) Comfort One Another: Reconstructing the Rhetoric and Audience of I Thessalonians. By Abraham Smith; Westminster John Knox Press publisher 1995, p.28.
(3) I. Henri Marrou A History of Education in Antiquity pg. 194 as quoted in The Paul Quest by Ben Witherington III pg.115 n.53.
(4) ibid. p.115.
(5) “Psychagogy in Paul” by Dr. Timothy W. Seid: internet article, http://esr.earlham.edu/~seidti/psychagogy.pdf.
(6) In the Steps of the Moralist: Paul’s Rhetorical Argumentation in Philippians 4 by Rollin A Ramsaran in Rhetoric, Ethic and Moral Persuasion in Biblical Discourse 2005, T&T Clark publishers p.284-300.
(8) In the philosophical literature medical metaphors were often used to describe the problems preventing achievement of eudaimonia and the solutions for it :see Martha Nussbaum’s Therapy of Desire: Theory and Practice in Hellenistic Ethics, Princeton University Press,1994 p.13-47.
(9) Psychagogy in Paul: What it is, How Does it help us understand Paul, and Why does it matter? By Dr. Timothy Seid. Internet Article, http://esr.earlham.edu/~seidti/psychagogy.pdf.
(10) In the Steps of the Moralist: Rollin Ramsaran.
(11) Wilhelm Wuellner in Handbook of Classical Rhetoric in the Hellenistic Period:330 B.C.-A.D. 400 as quoted by Rollin Ramsaran in In the Steps of the Moralist.
(!2) From the glossary section of Introducing NLP by Joseph O’Conner and John Seymour. Aquarian publishers 1990 edition p.245.
(13) The Hope of Glory: Honor Discourse and New Testament Interpretation. Published by Liturgical Press 1999 p. 20.
(14) Qunitillian in “Institutio Oratoria” 3.8.13 as quoted in Desilva’s. The Hope of Glory p. 32 n.35.
(15) Aristotle “Rhetorica” 1.2.4 as quoted in David A. DeSilva’s An Introduction to the New Testament p.508; IVP Publishers. 2004.
(16) Ibid. page 100.
(17) Aristotle’s Rhetorica 3.14.6-7 and Rhetorica 3.19.1 as quoted in David DeSilva’s “An Introduction to the New Testament”, p.509.
(18) see Ben Witherington’s Grace in Galatia p. 84.
(19) ibid. p.85 and n.17.
(20) Aristotle’s Rhetorica 2.4.3 as quoted in James W. Thompson’s article “Paul’s Argument from Pathos in 2 Corinthians” from the book Paul and Pathos published by the Society of Biblical Literature 2001 p. 132.
(22) Witherington, Grace in Galatia. p.80.
©2006 Mike Davis, All rights reserved.