Column Entry, “Ethos: Harmonizing Life and Teaching,” by Brandon Knight

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Column Title: In Search of Right Words: Saint Augustine, Rhetoric, and Preaching

By Brandon Knight, Ph.D.
William Carey University

September: “Ethos: Harmonizing Life and Teaching”

Column Description: Saint Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, in his work On Christian Doctrine, illustrates the important relationship between preaching and rhetoric. Even in his day, many questioned what use the church could possibly gain from the study of oratory. Nevertheless, Augustine saw something much deeper in communication that many Christians still miss centuries later. This column will be a personal journey through Augustine’s On Christian Doctrine, through which he shows how God can, in fact, use rhetoric to help us see more clearly the beauty of scripture as well as find the right words when articulating gospel truths to others.

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Ethos: Harmonizing Life and Teaching

When I teach public speaking, we discuss Aristotle’s artistic proofs: ethos, logos, and pathos. I tend to spend most of the discussion focusing on ethos emphasizing the plethora of areas we seek to employ image management, especially on social media. But, of course, ethos goes much deeper than physical appearance. Aristotle argues that ethos pertains specifically to one’s credibility, character, and goodwill for others.

As Dale Sullivan contends, Aristotle’s notion of ethos is multidimensional in that it is manifested in both the content of one’s teachings, but, more significantly, the personal character of the speaker.[1]

When considering ethos, I often ask students to name one contemporary figure who is loved by most of the public. Someone who most Americans trust? Is there one figure that everyone in the class can get behind?

Of course, the first few responses are often said jokingly, like Donald Trump or Joe Biden—two polarizing characters. However, once those initial quips stop, it becomes quite clear that such a person is hard to pinpoint, especially in our day and age.

In fact, there are numerous characters who we love from television that in one fell swoop lost all of their credibility.

This occurred for many as Will Smith slapped Chris Rock at the 2022 Academy Awards. The slap itself was not the hardest blow. Rather it was our realization that Smith’s image of virtue throughout his career seemed to be a lie.

But, what does ethos have to do with preaching? In one word: everything.

The Pastor’s Ethos: Wisdom and Eloquence

In the final chapters of On Christian Doctrine, Augustine contends that one’s teaching and life must be in harmony to be most effective. In other words, one’s ethos must be consistent in both word and deed.

The 4th century Bishop of Hippo contrasts the harmonious life with that of the pharisees who often profited others by teaching the truths of the mosaic law; yet, the force of its truthfulness was blunted by their not abiding by that which they taught.

According to Augustine, the ethos of the pharisees did not live up to the seat they occupied because their lives did not match their teachings. “Now these men do good to many by preaching what they themselves do not perform; but they would do good to very many more if they lived as they preach.”[2]

There are more consequences, however, than being less influential. Such pastors and/or teachers alienate others by pretending to live a life in their teaching that is not backed up in actions. In fact, the worst consequence falls on the shoulders of the laity who have for years trusted their teacher and/or pastor. Jesus cursed the pharisees for such hypocrisy because it caused alienation and potentially led people further from the truth (Matt. 23:4).

Like myself, many felt betrayed by Will Smith’s public actions at the Academy Awards. Somehow, it was personal. But, even more personal is the realization that one’s pastor is found to not be living faithfully by the standard they exhort others to perform.

Augustine even shows that such teachers, when exposed, lead to the falling away of laity. “And thus they cease to listen with submission to a man who does not listen to himself, and in despising the preacher they learn to despise the word that is preached.” That is, to say the instructor whose life violates his teaching leads not only to himself being despised, but, even worse, his teachings (ie, scripture).

As of last year, trust of pastors/priests (ie, clergy) is at an all-time low. Sadly, the decline in trust is a pattern that spans more than two decades. According to Gallup, several scandals alongside cultural shifts regarding religion have led to this point: “In earlier decades, clergy were among the best-rated professions for their honesty and ethics, with their highest rating of 67% recorded in 1985. But a series of sexual abuse scandals over the years, including as recently as 2018, along with a steep decline in Americans’ religiosity, has undermined public trust in the profession.”[3]

In other words, if your congregation were polled about their pastor’s teaching and credibility, it is probable that nearly 60% would say they struggle to trust him. This, my friends, is a lack of ethos. In this case, eloquence doesn’t even matter because, as Augustine argues, we lack wisdom.

We must relearn Paul’s exhortation to young Timothy: “Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Tim. 4:16; NIV). As Aristotle argued, ethos was the cornerstone of persuasion in that the speaker must be trustworthy, credible, and of goodwill. In other words, there is no way to detach one’s teachings from the ethos of the pastor.

Augustine argues that if one need choose between wisdom without eloquence or eloquence without wisdom, a life of wisdom is vastly more important than eloquence: “But the man who cannot speak both eloquently and wisely should speak wisely without eloquence, rather than eloquently without wisdom.

* The views of any CCSN columnists are their own, and do not necessarily represent the views of the CCSN. We invite and embrace a wide range of views and critiques on important communication and cultural issues from a Christian perspective. The CCSN is a community of Jesus followers who study communication. We do not support or promote a particular social, political, or denominational agenda. 


[1] Dale L. Sullivan, “The Ethos of Epideictic Encounter,” Philosophy & Rhetoric 26, no. 2 (1993): 113–33.

[2] “St. Augustine: On Christian Doctrine, in Four Books – Christian Classics Ethereal Library,” accessed November 21, 2022,

[3] Gallup Inc, “Military Brass, Judges Among Professions at New Image Lows,”, January 12, 2022, para. 17,

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