'Preach the gospel at all times. And if necessary, use words.'
This is probably the most quoted monastic saying in the modern Anglican church. I’ve heard it in countless homilies. It’s been offered as sage advice by well-meaning Christians eager to give advice on how to live out our faith.
Basically, it’s a trusty arrow in our quiver of Christian conventional wisdom on sharing our faith, encapsulated in that dreaded word: evangelism (spooky.jpg).
At its heart this little saying is meant to remind parts of the Christian family that there is a risk of over-emphasizing proselytizing at the expense of living out the heart of Jesus in deeds of love.
This almost biblical quote is attributed to St Francis of Assisi, often depicted as a humble friar surrounded by little animals.
But did St Francis say this?
Surprisingly, the short answer is no. None of his biographers or disciples attribute this saying to St Francis.
However, we do have records of the Rule of St Francis 1221, the guiding principles of the monastic order he established:
'All the Friars... should preach by their deeds,'
Among St Francis scholars it is widely agreed that this was a rebuke to hypocrisy – against word and deed not matching up to each other – rather than a suggestion that preaching can somehow occur through deeds alone.
Serving the marginalized in deed is absolutely biblical. Refusing hypocrisy and living a life of integrity is definitely biblical. And so is hearing and speaking the gospel, the good news of Jesus in words.
In fact, we see St Paul telling the Romans that sharing the good news always involves using words.
And in case we’re tempted to do the ‘Anglican shuffle’ and pit the words of Paul against Jesus, Jesus himself is all about proclamation using words as seen in Mark 1:14-15, 16-17, Matthew 4.17, Luke 3.3, 8.1 and many other passages.
Like all catchy quotes, this quote attributed to St Francis there is a solid truth found therein. There is clearly a danger in talking the talk and not walking the walk. We miss the point if we talk about Jesus and then refuse to live out the implications of our faith by caring for the stranger, the widow, the orphan in tangible efforts to alleviate their struggles.
But this catchy phrase has a dangerous fault line we have to be honest about.
Although it’s attractive to think that we never have to risk the embarrassment of talking out loud about our faith, Jesus makes clear that using our words is vital in having others know about him and experiencing his love in life-transforming ways.
So preach the gospel in as many good deeds as you can muster, I say amen to that. But an honest faith in Jesus, a spirituality of integrity is going to involve using words.
P.S. - Want to learn how you can share your faith? Join me in the “Sharing Your Faith” five day reading plan as we learn how to share the gospel - the good news of Jesus!