Putting Words in St. Francis of Assisi’s Mouth

I’ve heard the following quote (attributed to Saint Francis of Assisi) used by many Christians,

Preach the Gospel at all times. Where necessary, use words.

It sounds very profound and seems to make a whole lot of sense. It seems to convey the message, “Don’t shove the Bible down people’s throats”. A message all too readily accepted by the modern and definitely the postmodern mind.

Evangelist Ray Comfort wrote the following article, “Saint Francis . . . A Sissy?”, in which he suggests that words are very important in evangelism and that St. Francis didn’t say what it attributed to him.

A sample,

The next time I heard of [St. Francis] was when I heard that he said “Preach the Gospel at all times. Where necessary, use words.” That statement upset me beyond words, because it was a philosophy that I knew sounded deeply spiritual . . . to those who were spiritually shallow. It made as much sense as “Feed starving children. Where necessary, use food.”

(H/T: Tony)

22 Responses to Putting Words in St. Francis of Assisi’s Mouth

  1. jonolan says:

    Ray Comfort is a comfort only to himself! LOL St. Francis meant preach by example! If you live the tenets of a faith you won’t need many words to instruct others in that faith.

  2. Laz says:

    Well that’s part of the point Comfort is arguing, that St.Francis never said that.

    Even if he had, the saying makes no sense and does not hold up when compared to the Biblical record (whether or not one accepts the Bible as the Word of God is another matter altogether).

  3. galatiansc4v16 says:

    To the one who claims St. Francis said it, the burden of proof lies on him. Regardless of who originally said it, it makes little sense in its saying and is unclear on “what it means.”

    “Brush your teeth every night, and use toothpaste when necessary” would be laughed at as dental advise, but when it is in the realm of feel-good “evangelism” everyone goes “ooo” and “ahh” like it is some super spiritual statement.

    A more Biblical saying would be, “Preach the Word, in season and out of season,” or “Woe unto me if I preach not the gospel of Christ.” Preaching by definition involves words.


  4. jonolan says:

    I believe the concept that “Preaching by definition involves words” is one the major reasons the churches are failing in their mission. Talk is cheap, try living Word. That will spread the gospel far farther and far faster than any number of words.

  5. Laz says:

    Jo, why can’t it be both? I think both talk and walk are to be found in the Great Commission,

    Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit,
    teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age. — Matthew 28:19-20

  6. theologyandsteak says:

    Hey Laz;

    Nice blog! I have heard that a lot, too. And there is some truth in it. What we truly believe and know, we will surely live out behaviorally. However, I would suggest that the gospel is propositional. In other words, words are required to believe in the gospel. The gospel requires that you believe in statements that are true about Jesus, God, man, and sin, among other things. Paul in Romans specifically states that how can someone believe if he hasn’t heard (Romans 10:13-17). Faith comes by hearing, and hearing through the Word of Christ.

    While the gospel is in some respects experiential (fruit of the Spirit, etc.) nowhere did any of the apostles simply live their faith. They spoke it, preached it, lived it, and proclaimed it. That may seem old fashioned in today’s experience-laden world, but preaching is the God-given means of proclaiming the gospel truth. You can’t believe the gospel if you don’t know what it says and what it means. All of that takes words.


  7. frangelo says:

    Here is an enlightening link.

    In Chapter XVII of his Rule of 1221, Francis told the friars not to preach unless they had received the proper permission to do so. Then he added, “Let all the brothers, however, preach by their deeds.”

    As a Franciscan of many years and a formator of the new vocations, I can assure you that while St. Francis did not say the exact words of the quote attributed to him, they are consistent with his life and spirituality. In my opinion the idea expressed is neither "spiritually shallow" or intended to convey a lazy attitude toward evangelization.

    The early friars were thoroughly imbued with the missionary spirit. In fact, when St. Francis heard about how Friar Berard and his companions had been martyred in Morocco in 1220 for having preached the Gospel to the Muslims there, he said: "Now I can say truly that I have five Friars Minor." (The official name of the order is The Order of Friars Minor.) And after years of longing for the opportunity, St. Francis himself traveled to Egypt in an attempt to convert the sultan. In both cases the friars used their voices to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

    At the same time, St. Francis wanted to emphasize that before anything else the Gospel is a way of life. Once, he told his brothers that they were going to walk through the town and preach. He led them through the streets in silence and then returned to the friary. He was then asked why they hadn’t preached. He said they had by their good example.

    "Preach the Gospel at all times, where necessary, use words," while accurate enough as an expression of the Franciscan spirit, needs to be taken in context. I can understand why it might be understood as a cop out, as it seems Mr. Comfort understands it: “Feed starving children. Where necessary, use food.” However, good example is food. It is meat and potatoes. Our life needs to correspond to the Word of God. It is then that our witness to the gospel is fully realized. Indeed, is that not the full meaning of New Testament use of the word "witness"?

    When St. Francis began to live a evangelical way of life, he took for his rule the Gospel itself. This is one of the passages that was of particular inspiration to him: Take no gold, nor silver, nor copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, nor two tunics, nor sandals, nor a staff; for the laborer deserves his food (Mt. 10:9-10).

    For St. Francis preaching the Gospel was not just an activity, but a way of being. It is, as Bret says, “propositional,” but its propositions are best expressed with the mouth, when they are fully lived by the speaker. For St. Francis, preaching did not stop when the mouth was silent. In fact, his words burned into the hearts of his listeners because his life was such a witness.

    As one of his biographers relates:

    For blessed Francis would never remain silent when he preached on the sins of the people, but rebuked them all openly and boldly. But the Lord had endowed him with such grace that all who heard and saw him, whatever their rank and condition, felt a great fear and reverence for him because he possessed the grace of God in such abundance. So men were always edified by his words, however severely they were rebuked by him, and were either converted to God or pricked in conscience.

    As followers of Jesus, we are compelled to speak out, but we must also remember not to underestimate the power of the word lived.

  8. galatiansc4v16 says:


    You are right that the Biblical position is both words and deeds. People who think words without an accompanying lifestyle is sufficient are as incorrect as those who think that lifestyle alone, without words, is called “evangelism.”

  9. Rudy says:

    I’m Actually in bible college and study the bible and all that.. and Saint Francis of Assisi saying even if he did say it is not biblical

    we are to share the good news that Jesus Christ died for our sins and we are to explain what sin is and Let the holy spirit convict and call them all we are to do is pray for them and let God do the rest. The bible says that they can not come to Christ without words they need to hear the gospel first and yes we are to do good deeds, but remember its not by works alone and its not by words alone its by both

    as Faith without works is Dead So is Faith without Words is also dead

    a Silent preacher is a dead preacher

    Romans 10:13-15 (New Living Translation)

    13 For “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”

    14 But how can they call on him to save them unless they believe in him? And how can they believe in him if they have never heard about him? And how can they hear about him unless someone tells them? 15 And how will anyone go and tell them without being sent? That is why the Scriptures say, “How beautiful are the feet of messengers who bring good news!”

    In the book of Ezekiel there’s a lesson we can learn about not warning Sinners the bible says if you see someone sinning and you don’t warn them of the consequences that there blood will be on your hands and God will hold you guilty but if you do warn them then its there fault not yours… just something to think about
    Ezekiel 33:2-6
    ……….take a man from their territory and make him their watchman, 3 when he sees the sword coming upon the land, if he blows the trumpet and warns the people, 4 then whoever hears the sound of the trumpet and does not take warning, if the sword comes and takes him away, his blood shall be on his own head. 5 He heard the sound of the trumpet, but did not take warning; his blood shall be upon himself. But he who takes warning will save his life. 6 But if the watchman sees the sword coming and does not blow the trumpet, and the people are not warned, and the sword comes and takes any person from among them, he is taken away in his iniquity; but his blood I will require at the watchman’s hand.’

  10. m-p says:

    I recently heard this quoted from a friend “…use words if necessary,” yet in a different context, the context of music. Yet anyhow, I just wanted to add that I’ve percieved recently more and more that people would rather remember catchy phrases about Christianity than bible verses, or better yet, bible chapters and books. Here are a few more:

    – Garbage in, Garbage out
    – God will not close a door without opening a window
    – God will not put you through anything you can’t handle
    – If I live a good life and are filled with joy, then people will see something in you and ask about it, and then you can share the gospel.
    – Think positive/name it, claim it
    – etc…

    While these phrases sound wise, they are really designed to deceive so that people can appear to be wise, but instead they are leading people astray. People who rely on these sayings to get them through life are often confused and frustrated, never realising their error because they normally get this information from Christian sources (notice I didn’t say biblical sources).

    – Garbage in, garbage out – While sounding practical and simple, it really reflects a skewed look at reality. The meaning of this phrase is such that if you percieve something sinful, as in a dirty movie, then that makes you think dirty thoughts and sin. Additionally, it infers that if you live a clean life without perceiving anything sinful, then that is the best life to live. Unfortunately, we are all sinners to the core, we don’t need anything to defile us, we are already defiled. In today’s society, psychiatrists and psychologists tell us that the reason people do bad things is because of their upbringing, their environment, and their past. If that is true, then what was Cain’s excuse for killing his brother Abel? He didn’t have MTV or YouTube, rated R, NC-17, or XXX movies? There were no gangs or drugs or even rock-n-roll. He was a sinner, that’s all, and committed one of the most heinous crimes you can…murder, and not just that, but murdering your own brother.
    On top of that, if you shelter yourself from the world, how will the world know about your faith? How will people know about the Gospel if you don’t take the time to tell them by fellowshipping with them? No, we need to be “in” the world but not “of” the world. Even so, there is nothing that we can do to make us more clean. Our righteousness is as filthy rags.

    – God will not close a door without opening a window – This phrase is also misleading. It indicates that God always has something for you, or something for you to do, or rather, something that you needs to go through. If something doesn’t work, if you are blocked in any way, there is always another direction to take. Wrong! Sometimes, God just wants us to wait. In the desert, the Israelites followed the pillar of smoke/fire; when God moved, that was when they moved, and when God stopped, then they did. This is a more accurate picture of how God wants us to proceed. We are not to be constantly trying all the “open doors” in our lives. That is mearly the path of least resistance and often leads to ruin. Judges 20 specifically talks about how God told the Israelites to go to battle, but did NOT give them victory. He TOLD them, and they still failed. No, we needn’t be walking through doors, rather walking in obedience to the Lord’s will.

    – God wil not put you through anything you can’t handle – Another lie meant to give you a false sense of security. If God never put us through something we couldn’t handle, then why would we need God? We wouldn’t. For those who are able to do it on their own, it only indicates that they aren’t following God’s will because if they were then they would constantly need God. Not needing help is what Satan wants you to live and believe, and he will not disturb you, but rather allow you to fall into a coma and become ineffective in your ministry.

    – If I live a good life… – Another misdirection. All this phrase really produces is “white-washed” Christians. People go around making pretend that they have things all under control and that they are happy and so try to “attract” people to themselves….NO! It isn’t about us, it is about God? True, we need to live vicotirous lives (we are more than conquerors after all), but we should note that it isn’t US they need to see, but Jesus IN us. We need to be real people, warts and all, to show that we have a need for a saviour and so do they. Its not about you or me striving for lives lived hassle free and always full of pleasantries. If you believe the Christian life is one where it is all roses and rainbows, then you’ve fallen victim to Satan’s lie. The mark of a true believer is suffering and sacrifice.

    There are many others, but my point in all this is:

    The further you get from the bible, the more wrong you will be. Instead of gleaning sayings from scripture, we need to be using scripture itself. Instead of basing our lives on catch-phrases, we need to base them on the cold hard facts of the bible.

    My 2c


  11. Laz says:

    Couldn’t agree more, thanks for the comment.

  12. victoria says:

    Jesus lived by the Word of God and he preached it. This is what the Bible record shows us and this is also required of all who claim to follow Christ.

    We must live the faith by example and preach and make public declaration of our faith and the Gospel with our lips. So those who insist that you only have to live by the Word have only got it half way right.

  13. JohnnycatholicSFO says:

    The saying is sound. It is not unbiblical, and history shows that living by example is a good way to evangelize. Many pagans were converted by the example of Christian behavior in anceint Rome. If evangelizing by example were not part of Gods repertoire of conversion methods then it wouldn’t work. Furthuremore St. Francis never said don’t use words, he said use them when necessary, which by Francis’ example was often because he went around preaching with words often!
    I think that Francis was referring to the specific cicumstance of trying to convert moslems when and if he said that.

    Don’t hate on St. Francis because he was Catholic.

  14. Laz says:

    Johnny, thou doth assume too much.

  15. Nathan says:

    In my opinion this discussion is missing the point. This is why I believe so:

    The source of the argument and disagreement is each person’s chosen interpretation of the words “when necessary.”

    I’ve not read anyone’s post that would make me believe that anyone here believes it is Biblical to never speak the words necessary to share the gospel. I’ve also not read anything to make me believe that anyone here believes that we can share the gospel with words, contradict it with lifestyle, and still expect to be effective or biblical.

    Shallow and immature Christians can take this comment out of the context of the life St. Francis lived and use it to validate their own actions (or inaction) the same way other immature Christians can use Romans 10:9 to validate a decadent lifestyle because they’ve made a public profession of faith.

    The fact is that we absolutely are to share the gospel with the way we live AND use words. We are to do both at the direction of the Holy Spirit and in keeping with the Word of God. I don’t think anyone here (nor good ol’ Franky) believe(d) any different.

    So… Why are we even arguing about this? (That is not rhetorical but an honest question.) What is the root of the problem? Why do we have such a hard time with the directive to “share the gospel at all times [and] use words when necessary”? What can we DO about it?

  16. Laz says:

    Nathan, thanks for your comment. I’m not addressing the content of the alleged quote (I agree with you totally by the way) but that perhaps Francis did not say what is attributed to him.

  17. Stephen says:

    I think we are missing the point of what is being said.This is a comment on living a life reflecting our belief in such a way that others will see in
    us the effect that our Creator and Savior has upon us;by the leading of the Holy spirit others are drawn to ask us what or who has impacted
    our lives in such a way; that then offers us an avenue to share The
    Good News via the spoken word.

  18. Caitlin says:

    The meaning of the quote is simple, preach the gospel through your actions rather then shoving it down peoples throats. We all need to practice what we preach and actions speak louder then words. It is more significant to act as a child of God rather then to just spit out verses. It’s not saying never say those verses, it is just saying show people God’s message through your actions.

  19. Laz says:

    Caitlin thanks for the comment. The point of the post was not to ascertain the meaning of the quote, it’s not cryptic at all.

    Rather it was to introduce that possibility that perhaps St. Francis did not actually say it.

    For the record, I wouldn’t say it’s more significant to act, as I wouldn’t say it’s more significant to speak. Both are needed equally.

  20. ali says:

    ahh beautiful quote by st. francis and all these comments confirm its meaning, both words and actions are needed to preach the gospel. yes i agree with you completely both are needed equally.. but people often stop at words and dont even know it. most people dont even know how to preach Gods word without words. forming the foundation with the bible, mass, and sacrements is also nescesary to preach he gospel, verbally or non-verbally.

    st. francis knew how easy it was to preach the gospel with words, that why he said WHEN NECESARY use words.. to challenge us to go beyond whats expected and live it.

    for those that don’t know, st. francis gave up all of his possessions and even switched clothing with a dirty homeless man. personally, i would not describe that kind of dedication and trust in God as “sissy.” anybody who gives up everything like that has preached God’s will through their actions. in addition he used words as well. Ray Comfort was ignorant. but hopefully he isnt now. either way it isnt our place to judge him nor anybody else.

  21. The quote ends “use words WHEN NECESSARY” not EQUALLY and not NEVER. The quote infers to use what is most effective given the circumstances. If I am teaching people who don’t speak my language or are deaf or intellectually unpersuaded then the saying invites me to try other methods. Not other methods EQUALLY or NEVER. This isn’t math class, black and white, egalitarian or a dictation. If St Francis did not say this it was likely someone saying it on his behalf while he silently served. The last shall be first.

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