But he may be best remembered for something he never said.
We’ve all heard it before – the pithy little quote that goes like this: “Preach the Gospel at all times; when necessary, use words.” In fact, we’ve probably seen this saying printed on T-shirts or heard it used in sermons. It’s the “go-to” quote when Christians want to motivate their fellow believers to “talk less” and “do more.”
Somewhere down the line of church history, St. Francis got credit for first uttering this now-famous saying. There’s just two problems….
One, St. Francis never said it. Two, it’s very, very bad theology.
Let’s start with the fact that he never said it. For more than 200 years after his death (in October of 1226), not a single biographer included the (supposed) quote in their records of his life. Think about that: it’s not likely that a saying like this would be omitted by his closest disciples. Additionally, in his day, Francis was best-known for his preaching. He became an itinerant preacher and preached in as many as five villages each day. He preached to the rich and the ragged, to the shop owner as well as the serf, to the minister alongside the miscreant. Finally, history tells us that Francis spent lots of time helping other pastors refine their preaching abilities.
Bottom line: if there was one thing St. Francis was committed to, it was “talking” about the Gospel.
But let’s move on to the second problem: the quote is just terribly unbiblical.
First, it undermines the ministry of the prophets. Remember, these guys were famous for sharing “the word of the LORD” with others…out loud. Second, it contradicts the clear teaching of the Apostle Paul. In Romans 10:14, Paul writes, “How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?”
Finally, and most importantly, the quote doesn’t conform with the example of Jesus.
Jesus did a lot of preaching…with words. His miracles were almost always followed by some kind of proclamation. He even launched His public ministry with a sermon! In fact, some of the very last words we have of Jesus before His ascension are, “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.”
Ummm…have you ever tried to “teach” without using words?
In the end, this saying might look great on a Christian’s T-shirt or a minivan’s bumper, but it looks ridiculous in light of God’s Word.
If you absolutely must have something to put on a T-shirt or bumper, go with what Mark Galli says: “Preach the gospel—use actions when necessary; use words always.”
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