Taking St. Francis too literally

St. Francis’ saying that Christians should “Preach the Gospel at all times; when necessary, use words” is terrific, except for three things:

  1. He didn’t really say it.
  2. He didn’t really live it (he used words, a lot).
  3. Even if he said it and lived it, it is only accurate if used as hyperbole.

I didn’t realize until recently that he probably didn’t even say those words, so I wanted to note that while re-publishing this piece from 2006.  I hear that quote far too often, and typically used as a reason not to use words to share the Gospel.  Bad idea.


Original post

I always appreciated St. Francis of Assisi’s famous quote: “Preach the Gospel at all times; when necessary, use words.”  To me, that means that our lives should reflect our faith in Christ.   It reminds me of the exercise where you ask, “If I were on trial for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict me?”  We all still sin, but ideally when someone learns I am a Christian he doesn’t say, “Really?!  I had no idea.”

But either I misunderstood St. Francis’ meaning or others are taking him too literally, because I often hear this phrase used as an excuse not to use words to evangelize.  The implication is that we can bear witness to the Gospel with actions alone.  I see a few flaws with that reasoning.

  • No one is so good that they don’t have to use words.
  • St. Francis still used words to share the Gospel.
  • The early church spread using words (check out the book of Acts).
  • Most importantly, Jesus used words to share the Gospel.
  • The Bible is God’s Word and we are told to use it.  Romans 10:17 Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ.
  • Even if you are Marcel Marceau, you probably aren’t good enough at miming to present the Roman Road Gospel verses without words (i.e., Romans 3:23, 6:23, 10:9, etc.).

Our actions can speak volumes and should be in concert with our words, but we need to be prepared with words as well.

1 Peter 3:15-16 But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.

I heard of one guy who used the “I don’t need words to evangelize” philosophy for many years without converting anyone.  Finally, one person recognized that there was something dramatically different and better about the man’s life and said, “You’re a vegetarian, too, aren’t you?”  The man realized he needed to be a little more specific about the source of joy in his life.

As the saying goes, words without deeds are as ineffective as deeds without words.

0 thoughts on “Taking St. Francis too literally”

  1. Those who claim they only have to “live it” are just making excuses for not witnessing to others. They ignore the command “…Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature.”


  2. Hi Neil,
    This has been one of my pet peeves too! I think I may have posted on it as well, but I’m too lazy this morning to look for it. Thanks for an update. We need to keep driving home the truth.


  3. Neil, I think you overstate the case and miss the point. I don’t think anyone who offers that (apocryphal) quote is claiming that words can be dispensed with entirely. What they are claiming is that actions need to take the lead, with the words as a followup.

    We’re in an age where cynicism has become an almost involuntary reflex. If someone disagrees with what you say, they won’t try to argue with the point itself; they’ll just cast aspersions on your motives, and consider the argument won. Any speaker who’s putting any kind of expectation or challenge on the listener, is ‘guilty’ until proven innocent. It takes a long time of building up a relationship, building up trust and confidence, to get past that barrier. Words will generate only eye-rolls and snorts until they’re backed up by a history of matching actions. Like it or not, that’s the reality we face in today’s culture.

    I don’t question that there are Christians who timidly shy away from preaching. Unfortunately, there are also Christians who do preach, but lack the patience to go beyond “hit and run evangelism.” Jesus invested 3 years in His disciples; Paul invested most of his adult life with Timothy and others. We need to be willing to make that same investment, and not just consider the job done after a 10-minute presentation of the Roman Road.


    1. Hi Jim — I don’t think we’re that far off from each other. I’m just basing it on experience. I hear that phrase often and it is rare that the speaker is equipped and intentional in sharing the Gospel with words.

      Having said that, I agree completely that we shouldn’t just dive into the “Roman Road” then move on. Relationships are important, as are our actions.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s