There are a number of English words in older translations of the Bible (like the AV) that that do not exactly correspond with the meaning that we ascribe to them today—and conversation is one of these words. Nowadays when we think of conversation, what comes to mind is using our tongues and speaking with one another, but the NT idea is much broader. Some will have noticed a similarity in English between the terms conversion and conversation, and the similarity also exists in the original Greek. To convert (strefw or epistrefw), means to turn around, while to converse (anastrefw) means a turning up and down, or, more easily, to move about. The word conversation should therefore be understood to mean how we conduct ourselves in the sphere in which we live. It includes how we talk, but it is not restricted to how we talk.
Conversion leads to a different conversation. Thus Paul writes to the Galatians “For ye have heard [what was] my conversation formerly in Judaism, that I excessively persecuted the assembly of God, and ravaged it” (Gal. 1: 13). That was his conduct or behaviour before he was converted, but as a Christian, the apostle could write that “in simplicity and sincerity before God” he had his “conversation in the world, and more abundantly towards you” (2 Cor. 1: 12). The same Greek word is used in Heb. 13: 18, when he speaks of being “in all things desirous to walk rightly” (my emphasis; also compare 2 Pet. 2: 18: “those who walk in error). Our walk is clearly a wider thought than our talk.
Behaviour flows from what we are. Thus, as unbelievers, we once “walked according to the age of this world”, a sphere in which we formerly “had our conversation in the lusts of our flesh, doing what the flesh and the thoughts willed to do” (Eph. 2: 2, 3). We could not do otherwise than what came naturally to us, for our “former conversation” was governed by our “old man which corrupts itself according to the deceitful lusts” (Eph. 4: 22). It was the same “abandoned conversation” (2 Pet. 2: 7) that so distressed Lot in Sodom. Even the Judaistic way of life, with its high moral tone, only served as a veneer to the lusts of the flesh (see 1 Pet. 1: 14), and is dismissed by the apostle Peter as a “vain conversation handed down from [your] fathers” (v18)—that is, a manner of life having no value.
If we have sanctified the Lord in our hearts (see 1 Pet. 3: 15) then we will have a “good conversation in Christ” (v16). That is why Peter writes “but as he who has called you is holy, be ye also holy in all [your] conversation; because it is written, Be ye holy, for I am holy” (1 Pet. 1: 15, 16). We are now children of God, and, as before, behaviour flows from what we are. Thus Peter goes on to say, “And if ye invoke as Father him who, without regard of persons, judges according to the work of each, pass your time of sojourn in fear” (v17). Here the verb anastrefw is translated pass in English. Literally, therefore, he is telling those to whom he is writing to converse their time in fear—their manner of life is to be shaped by their reverence for the One whom they call God and Father. Indeed, we might exclaim “what ought ye to be in holy conversation and godliness” (2 Pet. 3: 11)!
Sadly though, there is an increasing discrepancy today between what many profess to believe and how they lead their lives. Some who apparently ‘active’ in their support of ‘the Gospel’ lead lives that are little or no different from the unbelieving. Surely a poor conversation must raise a question mark about the validity of the supposed conversion? The reason behind Paul’s first letter to Timothy was “in order that thou mayest know how one ought to conduct oneself” (anastrefw) “in God’s house, which is [the] assembly of [the] living God, [the] pillar and base of the truth” (1 Tim. 3: 15, my emphasis). God’s house is not a material building (as in Judaism) to which we go for ‘church services’, after which we can settle back comfortably into our materialistic lives in the world. We are in the house of God all the time, and if it is God’s house, then there is a conduct that necessarily befits it all of the time. Put very simply, I am not at liberty to behave as I like because the living God is in the same building as I am! It comes back to what Peter wrote “Be ye holy, for I am holy” (1 Pet. 1: 16). This is the manner of life that gives weight to evangelical work, while an inconsistent conversation will discredit anything that is said. The apostle demonstrates this by turning to the case of the woman, for whom preaching is not an option, and yet through her “pure conversation” she may be used for the conversion of others “without [the] word” (1 Pet. 3: 1, 2). Her conversion brings about a changed conversation in herself, which in turn can be used to convert others!