“Preach the gospel at all times; when necessary, use words” is one of those sentimental woolly headed pieces of nicety that sounds fine until you realise that it doesn’t really mean a thing. Well, not a true thing anyway.
It’s right up there with such classics as “Give someone your phone number; when necessary use numerals” or “Give someone a meal; when necessary use food.”
The saying is much loved by those who think that Christianity is more about what Jesus would do than that which Jesus has done.
It is historically attributed to Francis of Assisi, not only as his wisdom, but also as the distillation of his life and ministry.
Problem is, there is no evidence that Francis ever uttered that phrase or anything similar. Another problem is that Francis apparently spread the gospel by… preaching. Surprise, surprise.
From an article by Christian historian Mark Galli come these words:

First, no biography written within the first 200 years of his death contains the saying. It’s not likely that a pithy quote like this would have been missed by his earliest disciples.
Second, in his day, Francis was known as much for his preaching as for his lifestyle.
He began preaching early in his ministry, first in the Assisi church of Saint George, in which he had gone to school as a child, and later in the cathedral of Saint Rufinus. He usually preached on Sundays, spending Saturday evenings devoted to prayer and meditation reflecting on what he would say to the people the next day.

Galli goes on to make the perfectly reasonable point that the Gospel is a word centered communication that should be backed up by action. If you haven’t used words, you haven’t shared the gospel, though you may have shared the definite effect that the gospel has on a Christian’s life.

I suspect we sentimentalize Francis—like we do many saints of ages past—because we live in a sentimental age. We want it to be true that we can be nice and sweet and all will be well. We hope against hope that we won’t have take the trouble to figure out how exactly to talk about the gospel—our unbelieving friends will “catch” the gospel once our lifestyle is infected with it.
“Preach the gospel; use words if necessary” goes hand in hand with a postmodern assumption that words are finally empty of meaning. It subtly denigrates the high value that the prophets and Jesus and Paul put on preaching. Of course we want our actions to match our words as much as possible. But the gospel is a message, news about an event and a person upon which the history of the planet turns. As blogger Justin Taylor recently put it, the Good News can no more be communicated by deeds than can the nightly news.

Another blog post responds to Galli’s article, showing the sentiments from Francis that probably gave rise to the saying attributed to him. I think the post asserts that Francis’ position as being that Gospel proclamation is inextricably intertwined with Gospel life, which is the same basic position as Galli’s. This is a sentiment which is also expressed in the section of the Heidelberg Catechism that I posted yesterday.

Christian ‘Myths’ of this type are propogated because people want them to be true. They line up with what they’d like to be true. Enough people give them credence and then, regardless of what historians show actually happened, it becomes part of Christian expression. I’ve heard pastors who have actually studied and been accredited at tertiary level repeat the phrase above.
Maybe we need a Christian version of Snopes.com where Christian Urban Myths can be stored in some form of repository and debunked.
When something as vital as the gospel can be clouded by this sort of fine sounding cant it can’t be opposed too strongly.

Speak The Gospel – Use Deeds When Nesessary from Christianity Today online.

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