Wednesday, July 6, 2011

If Necessary?

~ St. Francis of Assisi
St. Francis of Assisi is credited with the famous saying at right. You can see it repeated everywhere and it sounds pretty cool. It is used by plenty of well-meaning Christians to emphasize that our actions speak louder than our words. It even seems to imply that talking the talk may be detrimental to the cause. "Keep your mouth shut," the quip seems to tell us, "unless you are forced to speak."

There is no arguing with that simple fact and, on one level, I completely agree. I have written elsewhere about the idea that "who we are speaks so loudly that no one hears what we say." This is meant as a warning against the false pronouncements of a believer whose life denies everything that believer claims to represent. We can, in fact, diminish the message to insignificance by our own hypocrisy.

But does that mean the reverse is true? Can we proclaim the message simply through our actions?

Here's the problem: the Good News (a.k.a. the gospel) is a propositional declaration about our status as rebels and the way in which our rebelliousness against a perfect Creator can be forgiven by the sacrifice of a perfect Redeemer. It is about redemption. And it is "good news" because without it, we are all doomed to eternal separation from our God. So here is my question:

How can we "preach" that message and explain its implications without using words?

I submit that we can't.

There is no denying that our actions support the Gospel message. But that doesn't change the fact that it is a message that needs pronouncement.

I cannot find the context of St. Francis's quip but I find it hard to believe that a thinker like him meant it in the way contemporary Christians use it. A little research confirms this. For starters, we have the quote wrong. What Francis actually said was:
 "Preach the Gospel always and when necessary use words."
You notice the St. Francis himself did not render preaching of the gospel as a contingent option, nor did he separate it from the act of living it out. He did not say, "if," he said, "when." He linked the preaching and the actions directly together. We are the ones who have attributed an improper context to his words.

It is interesting that Francis of Assissi (birth name: Giovanni Francesco di Bernardone) devoted himself to the kind of life for which he is now known ... after being convicted by a sermon he heard in 1209. His vow to a life of poverty; his connection to nature and the beauty of the creation; and his empathy for others were all rooted in a sense of community and shared redemption that he learned from study and experience. In fact, St. Francis himself was known for the powerful sermons he delivered in his pursuit of that noble goal.

It is fashionable these days to see those who defend the gospel with logic, philosophy and confidence as displaying some level of arrogance in their attempt to do so. But let's not over-spiritualize or look down our collective noses at the relevancy of proclaiming the truth. Preaching the gospel and living the gospel are not mutually exclusive projects. Our choice is not an "either/or" dilemma -- it is a "both/and" duty.


  1. 1 Timothy 4:11 NIV "Command and teach these things. 12 Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity. 13 Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and to teaching. 14 Do not neglect your gift, which was given you through prophecy when the body of elders laid their hands on you."

    In this Pastoral Epistle Paul was intentional in his discipleship of Timothy as a young Pastor/leader. Timothy had tremendous responsibility to develop disciples and train and teach the church body in Ephesus and the surrounding areas. Paul made it clear: use your gift. Read Scripture in public (out loud is the context); preach and teach. None of these things can be done silently. In fact Paul told him to set an example, and the first thing mentioned was speech.

    He also told him to be an example in conduct, faith, love and purity (his nonverbal witness), but I believe those are tools to lead people to desire what Timothy possessed (the Holy Spirit) which would then lead to a spoken presentation of the Gospel truth. Is it possible for one of us to be a witness by our actions? Absolutely! But, it is necessary to use words to explain what has given us the power to live that way. Jesus set the example of continual teaching and preaching. I imagine it would be difficult to share what we are called to share if all Jesus did was heal people, throw a tantrum in a temple, and be kind without speaking a word. God came in the form of a man, the messiah Jesus to disciple and train us in his word and in his way: life on life, spoken in love and truth and righteousness. John 1:14 NIV “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.”


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