K Neill Foster

Nonverbal Communication and Spiritual Discernment

By K. Neill Foster
Alliance Academic Review, 2000

Preach the gospel at all times; use words if necessary. -- Francis of Assisi

Baseball is the American pastime. The game is known for its deliberately created tensions, and its dramatic home runs. It is also known for its incessant use of nonverbal communication by the managers and coaches. Often a runner on second base can steal the other side's nonverbals. The careful communication of nonverbal instructions to the players can make the difference between victory and defeat.

Our little white bichon dog uses nonverbals. When he wants to go for an evening walk he stands and begs. His black eyes are bright and the curled tail is waving hopefully. It is clear what he wants--without words.

I have read somewhere that in the time of the British Empire when a colony by the sea became disorderly, and the citizens a bit out of hand, the Royal Navy would send a big ship into the bay. It would anchor in plain view and disorder would subside. That was nonverbal communication.

When I once served as pastor, we developed a "kerfuffle" in the congregation at one point, a little unrest. Accordingly, I invited the district superintendent to come and visit. He sailed into our town, dropped anchor in the regular Wednesday night prayer meeting and gave a brief message to the assembled saints. The subject was, "Trouble in the Church." Then he sailed out again. The "kerfuffle" subsided nicely without a word to anyone directly, but with strong nonverbals along with some verbals. I never forgot.

A Definition

There are various definitions of nonverbal communication; one of the most brief is as follows: "Nonverbal communication means all the messages other than words that people exchange."1 Apparently the term was first coined by Ruesch and Kees in 1956.2 Two other writers further observe that

Nonverbal communication differs from verbal in that it concerns itself with the entire range and scope of communication over and above the use of words. In our view, whatever the message, whatever the channel, whatever the nature of the intensity, of intentionality--where words are not involved, the communication is nonverbal. The vast majority of the message content in virtually all messages we send and receive is encoded and decoded in nonverbal channels.3

Paul Kruger helpfully insists that

a distinction has to be made between "information" and "communication." Many forms of behavior are informative, but only some of them can qualify as communicative.4

The definition which I prefer is the following which allows for behavioral, cultural and spiritual realities in the communicational realm and is my own.

Nonverbal communication, then, is the conveyance of information from one entity to another without the use of verbal expression. It results in understanding being exchanged by those entities without the exactitude of human speech in any form.

A Warning

Nonverbal communication, because it is exactly that, has at least one significant peril attached to it. There is always the danger of misunderstanding nonverbal communication. For example, in Anglo culture, to stretch one’s hand forward and flat to indicate the height of a child is correct nonverbal communication. That same gesture is insulting in Spanish culture where the hand flatly extended indicates an animal. In Colombia and elsewhere, the hand must be extended and held vertically, thumb on top, to indicate the height of child. And will a gesture suggesting little Colombianos are animals get you in trouble? You know the answer to that.

In high school, my wife served as an accompanist for an orchestra. When she muffed the introduction on the piano, she grimaced and made a sour face at her own error. The conductor however took the nonverbal as an assault against his direction and the integrity of the orchestra! Imagine the complication from that single misinterpreted nonverbal.

In a 1999 case in New York City, four white officers fired 41 bullets at an unarmed Nigerian immigrant. According to news reports, miscommunicated nonverbals seemed to exacerbate the killing of the Nigerian. He apparently made movements which were thought to be the drawing of a gun--though he was unarmed. As a Nigerian he may have had no conception of what such movements might have meant in the television culture of the big city where "freeze" indeed means "freeze." One policeman apparently fell in the midst of the fusillade, possibly giving the further impression that the Nigerian might have been firing back. Misunderstanding the nonverbals was apparently part of this tragic and sad event.

But the possibility of misunderstanding nonverbals is large and perilous.

Up to Sixty Percent?

It is commonly stated that sixty percent of all communication is nonverbal. In a seminar context I have heard as much as ninety percent being used to describe the nonverbal part of all communication. "Simultaneous verbal, vocal and facial attitude communications" account for seven percent, thirty-eight percent and fifty-five percent, respectively, of the total communication.5

Among the social sciences, studies on the nonverbal are exceptionally interesting. The homosexual community, for example, has sometimes been called the silent community because it penetrates a culture almost wholly by nonverbal means.6 Contradiction between verbal and nonverbal forms of communication is commonly discussed7 and is a vital part of law enforcement.

(I must add parenthetically that evangelicals, properly enamored as they are with words such as "inerrant" and "infallible," generally are so word-oriented that they commonly fail to read the obvious nonverbals, particularly the contradictions and dissonance between the verbals and nonverbals. But more of this later.)

In academic books, for example, one volume containing a chapter written by DePaulo and Rosenthal is entitled, "Ambivalence, Discrepancy, and Deception in Nonverbal Communication."8 Druckman et al., in another, devote an entire chapter of their work to "Decoding Nonverbal Clues to Deception."9 These chapters describe the dissonance that takes place between the various physical features and the human voice when people are lying.

"Dr. Fox"

A celebrated case once involved the presentation of a fabricated "Dr. Fox" to a group of educators. The perpetrators of the hoax hired a professional actor who looked "distinguished and sounded authoritative." He was coached to present his lecture with "excessive use of double-talk, neologisms, non sequiturs, and contradictory statements."

Then the unsuspecting teachers listened to their guest speaker. Not surprisingly, "the professional educators rated ‘Dr. Fox’ favorably on eight general items, including organization of material, use of examples, arousal of interest, and stimulation of thinking."10 Nonverbal communication and the phony speaker had carried the day.


A key theorist in this whole area of the nonverbal has been Marshall McLuhan. Among this Canadian thinker’s premises is the catchphrase "the medium is the message."11 "The ‘content’ of a medium is like the juicy piece of meat carried by a burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind."12 Applying his principle to music, McLuhan adds this:

Since the advent of pictures, the job of the . . . copy is as incidental and latent, as the "meaning" of a poem is to a poem, or the words of a song to a song. Highly literate people [or highly verbalized people] cannot cope with the nonverbal . . . so they dance impatiently up and down to express a pointless disapproval.13

McLuhan was an ardent Roman Catholic and his views were not without theological color.

[He] applied his pronouncement of "the medium is the message" to Christ. It is not only the sayings of Christ that are important but His very person . . . "the incarnation was the ultimate extension of man, the ultimate technology." For him all human technologies were negligible compared to the coming of the Christ. In fact, McLuhan . . . was fond of pointing out, especially in his later years when the television generation seemed intent on abandoning traditional morality, that "Satan is a great electrical engineer."14

My main point in this chapter, not divorced from McLuhan, does not necessarily have to do with the findings of science, so called. If nonverbals really are a very big part of all kinds of communication, then the presence and power of nonverbals in the Scriptures must be explored and examined. On the way there, some commentary about secular matters and some brief references from the Talmud and church history will be helpful.

American Politics

Current American history is dominated by presidential politics--and also by nonverbals. Bill Clinton, the current occupant of the White House at the time of this writing, was at one point under fire for alleged improprieties with women other than his wife. Both he and his spouse Hillary were masters of nonverbal communication. When accusations were made in the media, the president and his wife were seen holding hands. When the fires of accusation were most intense, Mrs. Clinton was seen publicly leaning tightly against her husband’s chest. The message was obvious: "Forget all these allegations; there is nothing wrong here."

When President Clinton was preparing to testify before a grand jury, his chief lawyer made a trip to Arkansas to view a deposition video the president had made earlier. The lawyer already had the written transcripts. But he felt compelled to check the nonverbals of the video deposition.

After Clinton was impeached by the House of Representatives, his trial moved to the Senate. His persistence in nonverbal behaviors was duly observed by a columnist of the New York Times who noted in Clinton’s defense against conviction in the Senate an "ever increasing power . . . to set the agenda of even his fiercest adversaries."

The President who promised a cabinet that looked like America had, in typically shameless fashion, done the same with his defense team: one disabled lawyer, one black woman lawyer, one white woman lawyer, one Brooks Brothers lawyer and, to wrap it up, one Good Ol’ Boy. The 13 managers [prosecutors from the House of Representatives] clearly, if belatedly, took this stage-managed diversity to heart. Given the choice between calling a black woman [Betty Currie] who might actually help their case . . . they blinked. The politics of P.C. [political correctness] trumped the legal imperatives and inviolate principles that supposedly governed their prosecution.15

While Clinton may have been a winner at nonverbal politics, anotherccupant of the White House, Richard Nixon, was clearly a loser. Throughout his long political career, Nixon was dogged by bad nonverbals. When he was required in 1974 to surrender tapes of conversations in the White House, he offered transcripts which Congress refused. They wanted and ultimately got to hear the nonverbals, "the voice inflection, stress, and other such nuances."16

Earlier in Nixon’s 1960 debate with John F. Kennedy, those who heard the debate on radio or read the text felt that Nixon had won, but on television, where most of the audience was, Kennedy had won. The Kennedy handlers, observing that Kennedy was getting slightly more exposure, griped, "Keep the camera on Nixon. Every time his face appears, he loses votes."17 Are not the children of this world wiser than the children of light?

The Talmud

An incident from the Talmud well illustrates how attentive the ancient Jews were to nonverbal details.

Two Jewish slaves were one day walking along, when their master, who was following, overheard the one saying to the other, "There is a camel ahead of us, as I judge--for I have not seen--that is blind of one eye and laden with two skin bottles, one of which contains wine and the other oil, while two drivers attend it, one of them an Israelite and the other a Gentile." "You perverse men," said their master, "how can you fabricate such a story as that?" The slave answered and gave this as his reason, "The grass is cropped only on one side of the track, the wine, that must have dripped, has soaked into the earth on the right, and the oil has trickled down, and may be seen at the left; while one of the drivers turned aside from the track to ease himself, but the other has not even left the road for the purpose." Upon this the master stepped on before them in order to verify the correctness of their inferences, and found the conclusion true in every particular.18

The Early Church

Church history has some interesting things to tell us--not least, the dealings of the Christian church with heresy.

The Apostle John habitually visited a public bath, as was the custom in that time. However, on a certain day, Cerinthus, a widely known heretic happened to visit the same bath.

Cerinthus was known for severing Christ, or "loosening Jesus."19 According to the story (though its authenticity is questioned by some20), the apostle’s response was immediate and dramatic--he fled from the bath house lest the judgment of God be immediately unleashed upon the heretic.21 He did not want to be caught in the calamity.

Under assault from the Gnostics, and Cerinthus [first we note], John then demands that every spirit be tried and that every spirit confess the Lordship and incarnation of a very specific Jesus.22

Such was the godly fear of John that he trembled even to be near a heretic.

I think the bath house story is authentic and that it gives us a glimpse into the heart of the apostle when faced with an antichrist in the flesh.

One of the fascinating documents coming down to us from the early Church was written by Apollonius of Ephesus. In writing about false prophets and against the charismatic/Pentecostal_like Montanists particularly, he complained about the nonverbals, that "the receiving of gifts and the multiplication of wealth is . . . a sign of false prophecy."23

Curiously, or perhaps obviously, Apollonius goes on to cite several more nonverbal complaints against the false prophets.

Tell me, does a prophet dye his hair? [nonverbal] Does a prophet use stibium [eye shadow] on his eyes? [nonverbal] Is a prophet fond of dress? [nonverbal] Does a prophet play at gaming tables and dice? [nonverbal]24

(Pardon this naughty thought, please, but after reading Apollonius, one cannot help but think of some evangelical television!)

The Didache, an earlier and more reliable document, contains similar warnings.25 Here, in fact, is a list of statements from the Didache. All but two of these behavioral warnings deal with the nonverbal.

If the teacher himself turns away and teaches another doctrine, so that he destroys [the correct teaching], do not listen to him [verbal]. (Didache 11:2)

If he stays three days he is a false prophet [nonverbal]. (Didache 11:5)

If he asks for money he is a false prophet [verbal]. (Didache 11:6)

So the false prophet and the prophet will be recognized by their behavior [nonverbal]. (Didache 11:8)

The prophet who orders a meal in the Spirit eats of it himself; if he does so he is a false prophet [nonverbal]. (Didache 11:9)

If any prophet does not do what he teaches he is a false prophet [nonverbal]. (Didache 11:10)26

Small wonder then that by the time the Church reached the fourth century Augustine was already quite observant in this area. In the view of one writer, he

. . . saw more clearly than anyone before him (or for a long time after him) that issues of supreme importance are raised by the problem of the relation of words to the reality they attempt to describe. He was a pioneer in the critical study of non-verbal communication.27

It is fair to say that historically the Church has been at least somewhat, and sometimes powerfully observant of nonverbal communication.

A Scriptural Survey

Without probing the entire Bible for every single instance of the nonverbal, the rainbow of Genesis comes to mind. God chose to make a nonverbal promise very early in the history of mankind. The pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night likewise dramatically and supernaturally directed Israel’s focus toward God in a miraculous nonverbal way.

How significant is the second commandment? "You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below" (Exodus 20:4). Art is nonverbal communication. Sculptures have messages. The making of some kind of form which can attract worship is clearly prohibited. It is not altogether a quantum leap to suggest that the making of pictures and videos and television images is at least a preliminary step on the way to idolatry.

A more lengthy survey might include the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and the tree of life in Genesis 2-3; Revelation 22; the dove and the olive branch in Genesis 8:11; circumcision as initiated in Genesis 17; the tabernacle in Exodus 25-40; and the bronze snake in Numbers 21:8-9.28

The Levitical sacrifices were rich in nonverbals. The smells, the blood, the slaughter, the incense, the sounds, the music--all combined to make the scenes forever memorable.

The twin admonitions against false prophets in Deuteronomy chapters 13 and 18 are curious in that the first false prophet named is false not in his initial statements which all come true, but in his later influence and directional advice:

If a prophet, or one who foretells by dreams, appears among you and announces to you a miraculous sign or wonder, and if the sign or wonder of which he has spoken takes place, and he says, "Let us follow other gods" (gods you have not known) "and let us worship them," you must not listen to the words of that prophet or dreamer. The Lord your God is testing you to find out whether you love him with all your heart and with all your soul. (Deuteronomy 13:1-3)

This first warning to Israel against false prophets initially directs the nation away from the verbals.

The second warning against false prophets specifically focuses upon the content, the verbalizations of the seer:

You may say to yourselves, "How can we know when a message has not been spoken by the Lord?" If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the Lord does not take place or come true, that is a message the Lord has not spoken. That prophet has spoken presumptuously. Do not be afraid of him. (Deuteronomy 18:21-22)

It is five chapters later that Moses explains to the nation that words which do not come true also mark false prophets. If the actual words were the main thing, one would expect the order of the Deuteronomy 13 and Deuteronomy 18 warnings to be reversed.

The Hebrews

I have not found a great deal of writing on the subject of nonverbal communication and the Bible, but what there is seems to focus on the Old Testament. Paul Kruger from South Africa makes some fascinating observations about "leaving the garment in one’s hand" as with Joseph, who was saying a great deal in his precipitous flight from temptation.29 And in the case of Boaz and Ruth, Kruger sees the romantic nonverbals flowing from public distance when they first see each other, to social distance when they begin talking, to personal distance when they eat together and finally to intimate distance when Boaz covers Ruth with his cloak on the threshing floor.30

What God Hates

Farther on in Scripture the writer of Proverbs sees "A scoundrel and villain, who goes about with a corrupt mouth [one channel of verbal communication], who winks with his eye, signals with his feet and motions with his fingers [three channels of nonverbal communication]" (6:12-13). In the list of the seven things that God hates, the catalog alternates between the nonverbal and the verbal. Indeed to think both verbally and nonverbally and then to read this passage provides remarkable insight.

There are six things the Lord hates, seven that are detestable to him; haughty eyes [nonverbal], a lying tongue [verbal], hands that shed innocent blood [nonverbal], a heart that devises wicked schemes [nonverbal], feet that are quick to rush into evil [nonverbal], a false witness who pours out lies [verbal] and a man who stirs up dissension among brothers [verbal]. (Proverbs 6:16-19)

Four of the seven things mentioned are nonverbal.

Jeremiah was just one of the many Old Testament prophets who used the nonverbals. He not only secured a potter’s jar and exhibited it publicly, but after he had pronounced impending judgment on Israel, he publicly shattered the jar to illustrate the point (Jeremiah 19:1-15). It was a nonverbal statement with an exceptionally powerful impact.

In the New Testament, the ordinance of baptism is introduced early. Jesus was baptized to fulfill all righteousness. John the Baptist's dress and manner were nonverbal and austere reinforcements of his message of repentance. The first Baptist was a nonverbalist! Similarly the bread and the cup of the Lord’s Supper are nonverbal statements about the body and blood of the Lord Jesus Christ.

We must not miss Jesus’ denunciation of humanity’s foolish tendency to depend on the verbals. Many of those who profess to have prophesied in His name are going to be rejected. Notice that Jesus does not warn against false prophecies but against false prophets. Against the prophets, yes, but against the prophecies, no. The reason may be that the Jesus was especially concerned to instruct the Church to pay attention to the nonverbals rather than the verbals, to the spirit involved, rather than to the vocabulary expressed. "For false Christs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and miracles to deceive even the elect--if that were possible" (Matthew 24:24).

Luke 24

Luke 24 is a chapter brimming with nonverbals--there are many other like chapters of course, but this one is striking and admirably illustrates the importance and significance of nonverbal communication in the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus Christ.

1. The stone rolled away in verse two hints at drama inside the sepulcher of Jesus. Had Roman authority been breached? The nonverbal said yes.

2. The downcast faces of the disciples in verse seventeen make clear nonverbally that the Emmaus road was a heavy-hearted route away from their hopes.

3. Peter ran to the tomb. That physical and nonverbal expression in verse 12 suggests profound interest and perhaps hope in Peter’s heart. A trudging trip to the tomb would have said something far different.

4. The strips of linen lying by themselves said yet more. They hinted nonverbally at a resurrection. Perhaps, the linen strips said, a miraculous removal of Jesus’ body had taken place.

5. In verse 28, Jesus acted as if He were going farther. He really wasn’t--but His nonverbals for a moment said that He was going to continue on.

6. When Jesus is about to eat in verse 30, he took the bread and broke it. The nonverbal act of breaking the bread, particularly how he did it, suddenly revealed who He was. What had been hidden from the disciples for a time was nonverbally revealed.

There are as many as twenty incidents of nonverbal communication in Luke 24, most not included above. The point I am making is that the nonverbals are profoundly abundant and important in Scripture.

In the Apocalypse of John, there are angels and beasts, trumpets and seals and sounds--all part of the final thunder of nonverbal end-time statements.

My object here is not to carry on this prose endlessly, but to make the point clearly and quickly that nonverbal communication is part of divine revelation and divine communication to mankind. It is at the very heart of Christian discernment and it is an essential, indeed key, part of the mosaic of the understanding we are seeking to achieve here.

The presence of the nonverbal all through Scripture demands our attention. If the early Church tended toward the observance of the nonverbals in its identification of error, dare we be less observant?

I am not for a moment wanting to detract from the authority and power of the written Word. At the same time the Bible, like life, contains far more than the written text alone. Paying attention to the nonverbals will enhance and multiply the discernment of the Christian.

For example, the sensual nonverbals accompanying a dramatic healing could tell us a great deal about the source of that healing. The ostentatious evangelist who arrogantly struts his gospel has already identified its subterranean origin. His nonverbals have given him away.

If one accepts the validity of nonverbal communication it changes our view of music, particularly Christian music. There is a whole segment of evangelicalism that believes that music is amoral. What this paper suggests is that even the words of Christian music are less influential than the nonverbals of the music itself. I have exposed these ideas enough to have found that this concept is explosive among Christian workers who wish to embrace all music without reference to its latent nonverbalism.

To conclude, though I am pleading for attention to be directed toward the nonverbals, I am not saying that statements of faith and the creeds of the Church are not important. They are tremendously important. But, and this "but" can only be ignored with immense peril, nonverbal communication is nearly (dare I say fully?) as significant as the verbal givens, which are the realities of heresy and orthodoxy.