If you’ve ever talked with a Christian about evangelism, you’ve probably heard the now famous words attributed to St. Francis of Assisi that go something like this— “preach the Gospel at all times, use words if necessary.”
That’s tweetable, but did St. Francis really say that? And more importantly, is it wise advice?
This slogan is actually an apparent misquote of what Francis said in chapter 17 of his Rules of the Friar (1221). Here’s the quote in full:
Ch. 17 — Of Preachers.
“Let none of the brothers preach contrary to the form and institution of the holy Roman Church, and unless this has been conceded to him by his minister. But let the minister take care that he does not grant this leave indiscreetly to anyone. Nevertheless, let all the brothers preach by their works. And let no minister or preacher appropriate to himself the ministry of brothers or the office of preaching, but let him give up his office without any contradiction at whatever hour it may be enjoined him. Wherefore I beseech in the charity which God is all.”
What St. Francis told his friars was not to preach unless they had received proper permission to do so. And that even if they didn’t get to preach, he wanted to make sure that “all the brothers preach by their works.”
I don’t post this to defend St. Francis and his theology. To be honest, I’ve never read anything else he’s ever said (except some of his bird sermons). I do know however that somewhere along the line, someone stretched what he said into something Jesus and the Scriptures never say.
We must preach the Gospel at all times, and to do that we must use words. We can’t preach by our deeds. That’s like saying feed hungry people, use food if necessary.
The Gospel is a message that must be proclaimed with words. We can and must affirm the message of the Gospel by our deeds, but we can’t live the message clearly enough to help people know that we aren’t just moral atheists or Hindus or Muslims or Mormons. Jesus was the Word made flesh, but still used words to warn, instruct, and encourage those he ministered to.
The way people know who Christ is, what He requires of them, and why we live the way we do is to proclaim, with words, the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
So, preach the Gospel at all times, and since its necessary, use words.