Christians use lots of quotes. Pastors use them in their sermons constantly. Writers illustrate their points with them. Nothing wrong with that. They are quite helpful and encouraging in making a point.
But what if the famous quote has no basis in fact?
Evangelicals who claim we are committed to truth sure can be good at spreading falsehood, even if unintentionally. We can do better, and we should.
One very clever and popular quote we often knock around among ourselves is . . .
“Preach the Gospel at all times. Use words if necessary.”
It is always attributed to Francis of Assisi – founder of the Franciscan Order – and is intended to say that proclaiming the Gospel by example is more virtuous than actually proclaiming with voice. It is a problematic quote for two reasons.
First, it seems to create a useless dichotomy between speech and action. Besides, the spirit behind it can be a little arrogant, intimating that those who “practice the Gospel” are more faithful to the faith than those who preach it. After all, scripture tells us clearly about the necessity of speaking the gospel so all can hear it.
And how are they to believe in Him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? … As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” … So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.
But the second is just as important: Our good Francis never said such a thing.
None of his disciples, or early or later biographers have these words coming from his mouth. It doesn’t show up in any of his writings. Not even close really. It is an apocryphal creation.
The closest comes from his Rule of 1221, Chapter 11 about brothers in the Order not being quarrelsome with each other:
On the contrary, the brothers should do their best to hold silence whenever God gives them the grace. … And they should show the love they have for one another by their deeds, as the apostle says: “Let us love not with word and mouth, but in deed and in truth”
That is as close as the record gets and it is not about the preaching of the gospel, but interpersonal relationships between believers. Francis was quite big on preaching and doing so with great passion.
His first biographer, Thomas of Celeno, writing just three years after Francis’ death, quotes him instructing his co-workers in the Gospel thusly,
The preacher must first draw from secret prayers what he will later pour out in holy sermons; he must first grow hot within before he speaks words that are in themselves cold.
Mark Galli wrote a wonderful little book on Francis as well as a clarifying brief article on the myth of this quote. He explains that Francis was quite a preacher, actually more along the lines of Jonathan Edwards or Billy Sunday than most of those who misquote him would like to think. Galli quotes Thomas’ biography,
His words were neither hollow nor ridiculous, but filled with the power of the Holy Spirit, penetrating the marrow of the heart, so that listeners were turned to great amazement.
Francis clearly spent a great deal of time using his words when he preached, “sometimes preaching in up to five villages a day, often outdoors.” This historical record continues, “In the country, Francis often spoke from a bale of straw or a granary doorway. In town, he would climb on a box or up steps in a public building. He preached to . . . any who gathered to hear the strange but fiery little preacher from Assisi.” Francis was sometimes so animated and passionate in his delivery that “his feet moved as if he were dancing.”
Duane Liftin, president emeritus of Wheaton College, addressed the trouble with this preach/practice dichotomy in an important article. Of preaching the Gospel in deed, he explains,
It’s simply impossible to preach the Gospel without words. The Gospel is inherently verbal, and preaching the Gospel is inherently verbal behavior.
When we hear a clever quote and we think it might be helpful, we should do two things:
First, we should ask if it really is wise, sound advice. Does it actually align with scripture?
Second, seek out the original source and go read the quote in the context which the alleged speaker said or wrote it. That is actually easier than you might imagine. You will often find that quote was never uttered by that speaker. And reading it in context assures you that you have it correct.
People who desire to speak or write truthfully and authoritatively owe themselves and their audience that diligence.