“Preach the gospel, and if necessary, use words.” Have you seen those words, or similar ones, before? You probably have. Interestingly enough, this ubiquitous term has no particular author, though it is commonly misattributed to Francis of Assisi. Nevertheless, the quote proves influential. The most memorable instance I have of seeing it is on a small picture placed on an office door in an arts college. When I reminisce on the other office door decorations of that building, goofy cartoons and “social justice” memorandums come to mind, so this resonated a lot more. There is no doubt that this is a powerful quote; it immediately pulls at one’s heartstrings. But is it true? Here my intention is to demonstrate its falsity.
What this quotation seems to infer, from my understanding, is that Christian service is paramount and “Christian talk” is secondary when living in accordance with the gospel. It goes without saying that speaking Christianly is one of the more frowned upon characteristics of the Christian life (the term “Christianese” does not exist for no reason!). Yet, one of the most popular passages from the Gospel of Luke contradicts this idea.
And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him [Jesus] to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” And he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.” (Luke 10:25-28)
When Jesus affirmed the words spoken by the lawyer, he was basically affirming that loving God with one’s entirety brings oneness with God. He did not make any distinction beyond that, saying that actions are more important than words, and especially that practical service is more important than preaching the gospel. Truly, there is a place for both.
“Preaching the gospel,” I think, has become a phrase that is more attached to cultural example than religious example. Of course, neither culture nor religion exists in a vacuum, for religion is practiced within the context of a given culture. In North American culture, for instance, “preaching the gospel” might evoke the image of angry protestors with picket signs, or a boisterous person yelling into a megaphone on a street corner, or the Billy Graham crusades that occurred between 1947 and 2005. Without condemning or praising any of these tactics, these are mere cultural examples, for they are things that Christians and non-Christians alike can observe.
The religious example goes a little deeper than this. All that I mean by “religious example” is that which motivates the cultural example, and in this case, I want to know the cause of sincere gospel preaching. What does the Bible indicate about preaching the gospel? One clue comes from Mark 16:15 which says, “And he [Jesus] said to them, “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation.” Some Christians use the terms “gospel” and “good news” interchangeably, and this is most appropriate because the gospel refers to Christ’s resurrection. It is Christ Himself, the Word that became flesh (John 1:14), who motivates the use of words in sincere gospel preaching.
The question, then, is, can Christ’s resurrection be communicated apart from words? Without words, the unknown man inside the tomb would not have told the women that Christ had been raised from the dead (Mark 16:1-6). Furthermore, these women were told to tell the disciples what had happened, though their experience was so profound that their words completely dissipated (16:7-8). In chapter 28 of Matthew, Jesus says to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (verse 19, emphasis added). Names are communicated through words, and more importantly, these names refer to a specific Person. And of course, the way in which people like you or I would have access to Christian teaching is simply unimaginable without the written document that is the Bible.
So, words as necessary to preaching the gospel, as briefly demonstrated above, is a historical matter, but it still has relevance for us today. None of the verses above specifically address Christian service, and though that is a part of a Christ-centered life, there is more to the gospel than that. It was words that were used on a micro-basis when Jesus’ resurrection was a recent and geographically-specific event, and it is words that are used on a macro-basis when Christians continue to study, discuss, and preach the gospel all around the globe. Words are important right down to the level of interpersonal relations, and in order to love God with one’s entirety, the use of words is a part within that whole.
 Glenn Stanton, “FactChecker: Misquoting Francis of Assisi,” The Gospel Coalition, 2012 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/factchecker-misquoting-francis-of-assisi/