Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Preach the gospel at all times; when necessary, use actions

"Preach the gospel at all times; when necessary, use words."

I was delighted to learn today that Francis of Assisi never actually said these words.  Nor did he practice them.

On May 21, Mark Galli posted a blog on this on drawing upon his biography of Francis of Assisi. In fact, Galli argues, Francis was very much a preacher of words.  He spoke a lot and often in ways that would offend many today.  He certainly never said what has been attributed to him that Christians should witness primarily though their lives. And he was a far cry from the meek and mild nature lover that modern Christians tend to like to think of him as.

Like Galli, I have probably heard the saying "Preach the gospel at all times; when necessary, use words" one too many times over the years.  And I hated to be thought of us as disagreeing with such a notable historical figure. So, it comes as a relief to learn that Francis of Assisi never actually said these words.  We have no idea why they came to be ascribed to him but there is no historical record that can link them to him.  The fact that this saying gets bandied about so much, however, is not so difficult to understand, reflecting more of our own times than they were of his.  As Galli notes:

"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.

Many have noted how Francis modeled his life on Jesus. But it wasn't just about the life of poverty, but also the life of preaching. We have no instance of Jesus performing a miracle and not speaking a word of comfort or challenge afterwards.

Paul articulated succinctly what Francis and Jesus felt in their souls: "How are they to call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?" (Rom. 10:14).

To be sure, words used cheaply, thoughtlessly are worse than no words at all. As Westmont College professor Marilyn McEntyre says in an essay in the upcoming August issue of Christianity Today, "In an environment permeated with large-scale, well-funded deceptions, the business of telling the truth, and caring for the words we need for that purpose, is more challenging than ever before."

That being said, a better saying (which you can attribute to anyone you like) is this: Preach the gospel—use actions when necessary; use words always. [read the whole article]

One of the things I have noticed about those Christians who glory in postmodern presuppositions is that they rarely have a concern for persecuted believers.  The assumption often seems to be, on their part, that the persecuted must have acted or spoken something inappropriate or offensive to have elicited such a violent response.  Or perhaps their suffering is because of the perception by their persecutors that they are linked with the West and hence suffer because of our actions or words.  Regardless, the persecutors are not really to blame for their actions.  The solution: all Christians should just shut up and really live the Christian life. 

Hogwash!  To say this is to set aside the fact that persecution permeates the entire biblical record and is seen in Scripture as both normal and expected for anyone who lives righteously. It is interesting to note that all references to witness or witnessing in the book of Acts are public (1:8; 1:22; 2:32; 3:15; 4:33; 5:32; 10:39,41,43; 13:31; 14:3; 15:8; 16:2; 20:26; 22:15,18,20; 23:11; 26:16,22).  There is never the concept in Scripture that witness can be private or simply lived out. From a biblical perspective, God’s messengers cannot be silent. They can only be silenced.

By the way, Francis didn’t author the “Peace Prayer” either. Now, if we can only get people to realize that no historical figure ever really said the pithy phrase, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”  But that is the topic for another day.


Jo G said...

I think it has to be a balance of the two. If one uses words only, but is not living a life of integrity, or is self-righteous, or does not have a life characterized the by fruits of the spirit, then words become nothing more than a noise. I think it's a given that followers of Christ live that kind of life if they are 'preaching;' but there have been numerous times that we have not seen that to be so.
So again, it needs to be our action and our words.

Jo G

Mary Beth said...

I think another reason that so many of us agree with the statement about "preach the gospel, use words if necessary" is because today words are often cheap. Our actions/behavior tell the truth about what is important to us -- whereas we can deceive others with our words. I really don't believe that those who adhere to this saying are putting down preaching. Preaching is absolutely necessary, as is talking about our beliefs. Yet I think we sometimes spend too much time talking about our beliefs and neglect putting into practice our beliefs. Often our actions do not reflect our words. Why do we lose trust in leaders or people? Because their actions are not consistent with what they are saying. If i had to choose one or the other -- either believing someone's words or believing their actions - I would have to choose their actions. Yet I agree with Jo G that it has to be a balance of both words and action.

Mary Beth

Harry said...

I agree by all means that Christians should be intentional in sharing the Gospel verbally.

I recently became aware of this quote (May 09) and interpreted it as... Walk the talk. James said that faith without works is dead (James 2:20).

Modern christianity is filled with people that profess one thing out of their mouth's but their lifestyle depicts the exact opposite. This quote challenges believers to not only vocalize their faith, but actually have lifestyles that bear fruits of the Spirit.