St. Francis Didn't Say It

By Kenneth Berding Feb. 16, 2012 12:03 p.m. Church Life, Culture, Evangelism, Missions, Historical Theology

“Preach the gospel at all times; when necessary, use words.”  How many (hundreds of!) times have you heard that line rolled out?  The good part about the alleged saying is that we do need to communicate that we truly believe the gospel through what we do.  People need to see the gospel as well as hear it.  If you have any doubts about this, please refer to my post from a few days ago on “justice and mercy” ministries.  But there are two problems with the way this quote is normally used.  First, it is often used by people who are oriented toward social concern but who are less comfortable with verbally proclaiming the good news about the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and faith in him alone.  Such hesitancy to share the gospel verbally simply will not do if you even remotely consider yourself to be a biblical Christian.  Second, Francis of Assisi apparently never said it.

Mark Galli, the senior managing editor of Christianity Today and who wrote a biography of Francis, made the following comment: 

"This saying is carted out whenever someone wants to suggest that Christians talk about the gospel too much, and live the gospel too little.  Fair enough—that can be a problem.  Much of the rhetorical power of the quotation comes from the assumption that Francis not only said it but lived it.

The problem is that he did not say it.  Nor did he live it.  And those two contra-facts tell us something about the spirit of our age."

You can read his entire post if you wish:

http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2009/mayweb-only/120-42.0.html

Comments

  • PoetAndPriest Apr. 13, 2012 at 11:31 AM

    Actually, according to the post, he DID live it. He used words "when necessary" — such as when preaching. But at other times he did not, as in the penance he counseled, noted in the last line of Galli's post.

    And if it's true, then whether Francis said it is irrelevant, right?

  • Ken Berding May. 7, 2012 at 10:11 AM

    I don't know who said it. Duane Litfin, in a really good article in Christianity Today (May 2012) entitled "You Can't Preach the Gospel with Deeds: And why it's important to say so" comments: "According to those who know the relevant history well--the Fransiscans--Francis never uttered these words." (p. 40) He suggests, and I would heartily agree, that one of the reasons for the popularity of this so-called saying is that it gives us a way to "preach the gospel" without having to endure the derision of people who don't like absolute truth-claims (such as "Jesus is the only way to go to heaven"). In Litfin's own words: "In such an environment, the idea that we can preach the gospel with our actions enables us to gravitate toward those parts of our calling that receive cultural approval while shying away from the part that generates cultural censure--all without abandoning 'evangelism.' We still care about 'preaching the gospel,' we assure ourselves, but we're just doing it with our deeds rather than our words. In this way, our confusion of terms enables us to deceive ourselves into a benign neglect of our verbal witness." (p. 43)

    This is an excellent article, and I highly recommend it. Here's an electronic link to the same article with a different title: http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2012/may/litfin-gospel-deeds.html

  • Alana Kelley Sep. 30, 2012 at 1:30 PM

    Sheesh, I LOVE this saying, and I can't believe it is even being discussed here as though there is something wrong with it. Whether St. Francis said it or not (of course, he would have said it in Italian ;) the fact is that there are Christians who preach the Gospel but really are not very nice people. It simply means live the Word, don't just speak it. Sounds good to me!
    God bless ya'll!
    Alana

  • Mike Z Oct. 11, 2012 at 10:38 PM

    Alana has it exactly. We are called to bear witness to God with both our tongues AND our actions, and it is our actions that REALLY resonate with people. I can personally testify that talking about our faith is a LOT easier than putting it into practice, and that those words are often viewed as hypocritical and/or bigoted and dismissed... unless we have the actions, particularly in love, to back it all up.
    What defines our faith is not what we SAY we believe, but how we LIVE what we believe. Jesus' words in Matthew 7:15-27 and Luke 6:43-49 are crystal clear in this respect. So are James 2:12-27, John 5:29, Matthew 19:16-21 and much of 1 John.
    Whether or not St. Francis actually said it, he certainly would have agreed with it. Looking at the story of his life, he did exactly what it entails and gave his all to Christ, and filled it with new life and energy. If that's not an action to preach and spread the Gospel, then nothing is.

  • Ken Berding Oct. 12, 2012 at 5:53 PM

    Alana and Mike... Thanks to each of you for reading and posting. I think you may have missed the two main points of the post. I am certainly not saying that we should preach the gospel and not back it up by the way that we live. This past year I worked alongside of a committee of elders at Whittier Hills Baptist Church to draw up a document of what we believe about "justice and mercy ministries." The first four pages lay out Scriptures of why we must be involved in ministries of compassion and justice, in other words, why we should live out what we believe. (If you want to read the paper, go here: http://whittierhills.org/~whittier/papers.php).

    But the main points of this post were these: 1) It is not right to avoid verbal proclamation of the Gospel by appealing to "preaching the gospel without words," and 2) It is inappropriate to cite someone as saying something that that person never actually said.

    Each of you seems to think that it's important to genuinely live out your faith AND verbally proclaim the good news about Jesus. If that is your concern, I couldn't agree with you more. May God give each of you grace to live out your faith in a way that people can see the truth of the gospel AND to have the courage to open your mouths and tell people how they can come into a right relationship with God through Jesus Christ.

  • Adrian Rodriguez Nov. 26, 2013 at 8:28 PM

    We should hear about Martin Luther, grandaddy of the Protestant Reformation and the foul mouth he had, yet his documents (doctrines remain a driving force for Protestants in the world today) Its seems an Oxy moron to write an article like this on St Francis. I just dont get it how people can be Biassed when it comes to Christianity.

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