There is an old maxim, often attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, that says, “Preach the gospel at all times and if necessary, use words.” In a similar vein, there’s another adage that says, “I’d rather see a sermon than hear one.” Both phrases teach a similar idea: that our actions are more important than words, and that the best way to evangelize is by how we live, rather than what we say. But is this a Biblical principle? Are believers called to silently live godly lives without sharing the saving message of eternal life verbally? In short, can we evangelize without using words?
Paul provides an answer to this question in Rom10:14b saying:
And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher?
He goes on to say in verse 17 that faith comes by hearing. While our actions are certainly important and can either aid or hinder our opportunities to share the saving message, when it comes to evangelism, it is not enough to live a godly life. The unbeliever needs to hear the message of life, not just see a believer living righteously. The ultimate example of this can be found in the Lord’s own ministry. If a godly life alone could bring people to faith, the Lord, who lived a sinless life, would never have needed to preach a sermon, share with Nicodemus the message found in John 3:16, or speak to the woman at the well about the gift of eternal life.
These examples seem to pretty clearly demonstrate the importance of verbalizing the true gospel message. However, there is a verse in the NT that is often used to teach silent evangelism. In 1 Pet 3:1, the apostle is dealing with the topic of submission within marriage. Speaking to wives, he writes:
Wives, likewise, be submissive to your own husbands, that even if some do not obey the word, they, without a word, may be won by the conduct of their wives (emphasis added).
This verse raises two issues worthy of some attention. The first is the meaning of the phrase obey the word. Many take this as referring to believing the saving message. According to this interpretation, Peter is addressing wives with unbelieving husbands who have not obeyed the word in the sense that they have not believed in Jesus for eternal life. If that is Peter’s meaning, then wives, without saying a word, are called to evangelize their spouses through their conduct alone.
There are a few problems with this view. First, this application contradicts other passages that speak about sharing the message of life verbally. It seems unlikely that wives would be exempt from that principle when it comes to their spouses. Second, to obey the word implies action, or works. Peter doesn’t say believe the word; rather, he speaks of obedience. Arguably, the phrase obey the word has a much broader meaning than a purely salvific one. Furthermore, in the following verses, Peter gives an example of a godly wife, citing Sarah, Abraham’s wife. Both Sarah and Abraham were believers, so this is an odd example if Peter is speaking of an unbelieving husband in verse one. In addition, when the role of husbands is addressed in the next section, commentators agree that the husband and the wife are both believers.
The second issue that is noteworthy in this verse is the reference to husbands being won by their wives. This is a popular term in modern-day evangelism, which perhaps colors the understanding of the verse. Some use the phrase “winning people to Christ” to describe the act of leading people to salvation. However, the Greek word translated won rarely, if ever, refers to a person’s salvation. For example, the word is translated as gain in Matt 18:15. There, the Lord is speaking about a sinning brother who repents and is won back into a restored relationship. Paul also uses it to refer to gaining a deeper, abiding knowledge of the Lord through suffering (Phil 3:8). Therefore, winning a person has wider application than simply bringing them to faith in Jesus.
This fits the context of 1 Peter. The goal of a believing wife is not simply to have her husband come to faith. Rather, her ultimate goal should be that he would live in obedience to the Lord and experience the full scope of salvation by submitting to His teachings (1:9). This is not a verse describing how to evangelize; rather, it is a verse about how to draw a wayward husband into a sanctified walk. The submissive wife exemplifies this way of life for her husband by her conduct, not by her words.