Preach the Gospel always, when necessary use words?
This quote, or some variation of it, is attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, is one of the many threats to evangelism today. Now to be fair to St. Francis, there’s no evidence that he himself ever said this quote. It’s not in any of his writings and is a little pithy for someone of the Franciscan order. Although it does bear some resemblance to a line in his 1221 Rule:
“Let all the brothers, however, preach by their deeds” – Chapter XVII.
Even if St. Francis didn’t exactly speak the above saying, it certainly is Franciscan in style and a wonderful sentiment. Actions often do speak louder than words. Quite often, the only Gospel any non-Christian is going to “read” is the life of a Christian they encounter on their way through life. A life lived in stark contrast to the standards of the world speaks much more loudly than any moralizing sermon.
On the other hand it plays to our fear of speaking about Jesus, and to our sense of weakness and insufficiency to the task. I can’t help but wonder how often we use this pithy saying as an excuse for our lack of efforts in evangelism. It’s all very well saying that we prefer to preach the Gospel with our actions, but what exactly are these actions of ours which are preaching the Gospel? Do we regularly make a conscious effort in our actions to preach the Gospel? How exactly does preaching the Gospel with our actions make us different than the Mormon, Jew, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, etc? Are they not more consistently “better people”?
As you can see I believe this line of thinking and action is fundamentally flawed at so many levels. Let me deal with few ways I see this. Let me say whether St. Francis said it, or whether it contains useful teaching isn’t my point. My concern is the way it is applied.
First, why do you need to tell me not to use words?
It is endemic of assumed evangelicalism that we forget that each of us how know about Jesus did once hear about him. People insist on preaching that we need no preaching, this is very like the postmodern wordsmiths who proclaim the meaningless of words – and yet expect their own words to be clearly understood! People complain about indoctrination, but indoctrinating just means teaching – and everyone gets taught, and everyone has doctrines.
Second, the Bible makes it clear that Words are always necessary.
The very existence of the Bible indicates God’s express intent to communicate with words. But more than that that it is by the speaking of the good news about Jesus that people will come to believe. In a society that still carries a little Christian-Culture we might forget our need to hear – but the fact remains that what we know is only known because we have been told. It is by God’s spoken word that we know anything definitive about people. The first thing God did was speak, and his people are told to speak too. Paul’s final word to Timothy (2 Tim 4:2) wasn’t do the washing up, it was ‘preach the word’.
Third, using Words is not an alternative to living the life
Those who prohibit use of words do so in favour of living distinctively. This is a false distinction. It is not an option as to either preach or live, both are required! A related issue is, what does a life look like that is changed by Jesus. My suspicion is that its more than just moral respectability – we are probably more compromised with our western culture than we dare to admit. Without words people will not guess that we are Christian- since they will not know what Christian is. With only words our faith will not carry half the impact – Christians should be at the forefront of making the most of life, living it the way it should be, in the arts, creativity, justice and joy… for the glory of the gospel of Christ. How that works in practice is something we need to wrestle with! If we follow the ‘great comission’ in Matthew 28 the result will be both preachers and teachers but also those who live in accordance with Jesus’ teaching. Live and speak.
Fourth, Jesus told us to preach, disciple and teach.
All of these things require speaking and using words. The word revealed message of Jesus has to be verbally explained. The apostles in Acts prove, persuade and convince people about Jesus, and while it takes God to open eyes we are still to present the case. We should use words with care and seriousness that reflects what we’re speaking about. Preaching is not an excuse for excessive confrontation or any rudeness in our explaining about Jesus. We should be clear and respectful, though we will inevitably cause some offense. (c.f. 2 Timothy 4:2, or Matthew 28:19-20)
Fifth, yes, the message is offensive and foolish.
Often we appeal to St. Francis’ words because we look at the messages of the world and think they are superior to ours… ultimately God gives us wisdom to confound the world’s wisdom, and wisdom which Jesus himself says will not be understood by lots of people. People are blind to Jesus message, blinded by sin and by satan. But when the gospel is spoken God re-creates and heals this blindness. 1 Corinthians 1:18 shows the folly of the gospel that generations have rejected because it didn’t suit their itching ears (c.f. 2 Timothy 4:4).
Sixth, even if preaching is illegal we must do it.
The first apostles were banned from speaking about Jesus, they could not comply with this kind of request. Preaching the gospel might mean we end up in prison – that is just part of the deal. (c.f. Acts 4:19-20).
The purpose of good deeds is not to enhance a verbal proclamation, the purpose of good deeds is to glorify God and love others. That’s it. However, a potential benefit of good deeds is that people will ask questions and become receptive to a verbal explanation of the gospel. Words are still necessary and this is an often missed, yet powerful point to the St. Francis of Assisi quote. “When necessary, use words” means that words are often necessary.
Imagine someone asking you a question, then you stare at them in silence. Who knows what they would interpret from your silence. For better or worse, words are required to explain concepts and provide answers.
Therefore, an appropriate distinction is between verbal proclamation (word) and social service (deed). Yet there is no inherent superiority or inferiority to either. They seamlessly integrate together to equal effective ministry. Good deeds prompt questions. This is why Peter instructed his readers to do good and then followed by saying, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have (1 Peter 3:15).” If we do good deeds then we need to be ready to say why we do them. The questions will come and if not, we have to ask ourselves what is wrong when no one asks questions to which the gospel is the answer.