You might know the quote attributed to Francis of Assisi: Preach the gospel at all times. Use words if necessary.
You might also have heard that he didn’t exactly said that.
The quote comes up for discussion because sometimes we’re concerned that words, and gospel preaching, might be downplayed. But while this may be a legitimate concern, the way we express it can lead to further confusion.
For example, here’s how the logic runs in one article, Preach the gospel, and since it’s necessary, use words:
- The Christian community has one ‘central’ task, one job that is ‘most critical’.
- That task is the proclamation of the gospel.
- Actions cannot do this. ‘Verbal communication of the gospel is the only means by which people are brought into a right relationship with God.’
Proclamation is central. Actions are not. It sounds like everything apart from preaching is peripheral.
The writer, Ed Stetzer, is not saying that actions don’t matter, and he’s not saying that actions are optional. And let’s take his point that the gospel is a message about Jesus rather than a lifestyle — ‘not habit, but history’. We can certainly distinguish between the gospel and its results or implications. But is one more important than the other?
It’s fine to emphasise proclamation, but not at the expense of actions. Actions, as we’ll see in a moment, are just as ‘central’. If we need some sort of rhetorical prompt to care more about preaching, this isn’t the way to go about it.
But there’s a deeper problem here: we’ve started to rank the work of the Christian community. The thing is, that’s not the sort of stuff that can be neatly separated, itemised and prioritised. If we say that one is essential or ultimate or indispensable, we imply that the other is less significant. Downplaying actions is the same mistake as downplaying words: it’s dualistic thinking, which atomises instead of unifies, and separates instead of integrates. Just as each part of the community is accorded equal status, we can’t elevate one task above the rest.
See, maybe the problem with that quote isn’t the second part but the first — preach the gospel — because, if we’re going to sum up the work of the Christian community, this simply doesn’t say enough.
If we want to talk about what’s central or critical, if we’re looking for umbrella terms, we need something broader than ‘proclamation’. We could talk about promoting the gospel, for example.
But I reckon it’s pretty hard to beat the language of light, one of the most prominent biblical symbols. Just as God is ‘light’, God’s people will be a light to the nations, a testament to God’s presence, goodness, truth, holiness and transcendence. Jesus, who calls himself the light of the world, teaches, ‘You are the light of the world’, explaining, ‘Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.’ Is Jesus saying actions are more important than words? Not at all — he’s speaking more holistically than that, referring to everything that’s visible: your entire life, your whole person, words and actions together. God’s light shines through people.
Paul develops this in the text known as Ephesians. Through Jesus, people discover that they’re created to do good. As communities are united under Jesus, they become a living beacon to the Universe, empowered by the Spirit, a light that turns back darkness. It’s all bookended by the gospel, which sparked off the whole thing, and must continue to be proclaimed. But what’s ‘central’ here? Paul’s letter, with its profusion of imagery and allusions and encouragements and instructions, has no ranking system for ‘verbal’ and ‘nonverbal’ communication! There’s something more dynamic than that: now you are light, so live like it.
Arthur Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.