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Jul7TueRe-examining a well-worn phrase. July 7, 2020 Major Howard Webber
“Preach the gospel at all times and, if necessary, use words.” This saying, attributed to St. Francis of Assisi (1181-1226), is a favourite with many people. Yet there is no evidence that he ever said or wrote such a thing. None of his disciples or early biographers record these words coming from his lips. In fact, the saying doesn’t seem to have appeared anywhere until the 1980s and has since spread worldwide.
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The implication in this saying is that using words is a last resort and rarely necessary, when the truth is, however impressive our deeds might be, for people to receive and respond to the good news of Jesus, words are always necessary.
St. Francis was an itinerant evangelist, known as much for his preaching as his lifestyle. In the earliest biography of St. Francis, written three years after his death, Thomas of Celano states, “During the space of 18 years, his body had little or no rest while he travelled through very large regions, so that that spirit that dwelt within him might scatter everywhere the seeds of the Word of God.”
One recent biographer, Mark Galli, speaks of St. Francis preaching in up to five villages a day, frequently outdoors. In the country, he often spoke from a bale of straw or a granary doorway. In towns, he’d climb on a box or up steps in front of a public building. He preached to any who gathered to hear the “strange but fiery little preacher from Assisi.”
Those who joined St. Francis were sent out on preaching missions, too, with the clear understanding that their works needed to match their words, a principle in his written expression of how his friars should live: “Let all the brothers preach by their works” (Order of the Friars Minor 1221 Rule XVII). Bartholomew of Pisa (1385), tells us of the dominating place of preaching in the life of Friars Minor and how St. Francis sent the friars to spread the gospel throughout Italy and beyond by word and deed.
St. Francis lived at a time when many clergy lived opulent lives while the ordinary people they were meant to serve struggled in poverty. It was something he saw as inconsistent with the One who, though rich, became poor, that through his poverty we might become rich (see 2 Corinthians 8:9). St. Francis, a young man of considerable wealth, took quite literally the Lord’s command to the rich young ruler in Luke 18:22. He parted with all that he had, and took a vow of poverty that provided a clear witness to the gospel he preached.
But this saying isn’t only inconsistent with what we know of St. Francis. More importantly, it isn’t consistent with what we find in the Bible or what Jesus said and did. Preaching was central to the ministry of Jesus. Mark 1:14-15 describes how he began his ministry in “Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God,” calling on his listeners to “repent and believe the good news!” Also, when everyone was looking for him one morning following an evening of him performing miracles, Jesus decided, “Let us go somewhere else—to nearby villages—so I can preach there also. That is why I have come” (Mark 1:38).
Preaching was clearly central in the early church, too. The Apostle Paul, having stated the promise “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Romans 10:13), goes on to ask in Romans 10:14, “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?” and concludes that “faith comes from hearing the message” (Romans 10:17). The early followers could not help but tell others of Jesus and what they had seen and heard, even when ordered by a court not to do so (see Acts 4:18-20).
Without words, our good works and fine example will point toward ourselves rather than our Saviour. While our good works should confirm the validity of our words, of themselves they do not communicate the good news of what Jesus has done and how a person may be saved. As Mark Mittelberg states in Becoming a Contagious Christian, “We must do more than hope that our friends notice the difference in our lives and figure out the reason on their own. For them to really get the message, we need to explain it verbally.”
Major Howard Webber is a retired Salvation Army officer who lives in Bournemouth, England.
Reprinted with permission from Salvationist (UK).