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The Problem with Red Letter Christianity ^ | July 24, 2006 | Mitch Lewis

Posted on 08/22/2006 9:13:29 AM PDT by Between the Lines

The Problem with Red Letter Christianity

by Mitch Lewis

There is a move among some self-described “progressive evangelicals” to identify themselves as “red-letter Christians” - describing themselves as Christians particularly devoted to the words of Jesus (which are printed in red in many editions of the Bible). Here are a few samples and I’ll let them speak for themselves.

Red Letter Christians home page at
Red Letter Christians by Jim Wallis
What’s a ‘Red-Letter Christian’? by Tony Campolo
Birth of the Red-Letter Christian Movement at
Red Letter Christian Bloggers
On Being a Red Letter Christian at MainstreamBaptist
Count Me In as a Red Letter Christian at No More Apples
Why I’m a Red Letter Christian at rereason

Here's the Wikipedia entry for Red Letter Christian that sounds like it was written as a press release.

Based on the web-sites, the umbrella of "red-letter Christian" covers a wide variety of believers, from orthodox Christians with a particular theological emphasis to others in whom it is difficult to find a distinctively Christian point of view at all. What follows, then, is a word of caution and may not apply equally to all who claim the name "red-letter Christian."

First of all, let me admit that we all have a canon within the canon. We all have sections or themes within the Bible that we use to interpret the whole of scripture. If the red-letter Christians want to say that Jesus is the key to understanding all of scripture, there's no problem there. If they are saying that Christians must take the teachings of Jesus more seriously than they have, again there is no problem.

If, on the other hand, they want to prioritize Jesus' teaching over the saving power of his death and resurrection, there is a big problem. If they want to play off the teaching of Jesus against the Old Testament or the letters of Paul or the mid-century church of the evangelists or the so-called "early Catholicism" of the later New Testament, there is again a big problem.

The United Methodist Church affirms that all 66 books of the Bible are Holy Scripture. See the Methodist Articles of Religion or the EUB Confession of Faith, both of which are part of our constitution. Article V (Of the Sufficiency of the Holy Scriptures for Salvation) of the Articles of Religion affirms this, as does Article IV (The Holy Bible) of the Confession. Article VI (Of the Old Testament) of the Articles of Religion affirms authority of the Old Testament. To hear the word of God, we must listen to the entire Bible.

Modern Biblical scholarship reminds us that the words in red are part of literary works known as "gospels" which are the products of authors with unique theological perspectives writing to churches in unique historical circumstances. The canonical gospels in their present form were probably written a decade or two after the letters of Paul. The gospel writers - the evangelists Matthew, Mark, Luke and John - relied on earlier material, some of which was probably written, but it is our gospels and not the hypothetical source documents that are the word of God for us.

There are those who would choose the words of Jesus over the theology of Paul, Matthew or John. You cannot, however, arrive at the “pure” historical Jesus simply by separating Jesus' words from the rest of the gospel narrative. If you can't trust the gospel narrative, how can you trust the words in red?

The universal, historic Christian affirmation is that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John give us the authoritative description of Jesus' life and teaching. One of the most pressing questions facing the current church is, "Did the early church get it wrong?" Dan Brown-style conspiracy theorists posit that Biblical Christianity is the inauthentic relic of Constantine's hijacking of the church. Scholars and polemicists offer alternative Jesus figures based on their speculative reconstruction of history. Surprise! They find a Jesus that looks more like a 21st century social crusader than a 1st century rabbi. Have there been no real Christians until revisionist Biblical scholarship met modern liberal activism?

The word of God concerning Jesus' life and teaching is found in the gospels as written, and not in hypothetical reconstructions of the Q document or in Jesus-Seminar conjecture. In our gospels, both Jesus' teaching (by word and deed) and his sacrificial victory are essential. You cannot divorce one from the other any more than you can divorce word from sacrament.

In some ways, red-letter Christianity reminds me of a modern day Marcionism, in broad strokes if not in the details. In the 2d century, Marcion objected to the Old Testament’s God of wrath, whom Marcion believed should be discarded in favor of Jesus' God of love. Marcion offered the church a canon with edited versions of the Gospel of Luke and a selection of Paul's letters, but no Old Testament at all. Only those passages that supported Marcion’s theology were included. In the same way, red-letter Christianity has selected as authoritative only those aspects of God's revelation that suit its theological opinions. The ancient church rejected Marcion's views as heretical; this contemporary view should also give us pause.

In his Quest for the Historical Jesus, Albert Schweitzer said, "He comes to us as one unknown". Schweitzer came away from his quest with no confidence that he could know much of significance about the historical Jesus. What he found was that the Jesus of historical reconstruction mostly resembled the pre-existing beliefs of the reconstructors. We face that problem today. The stereotyped Jesus of the left is no more authentic than the stereotyped Jesus of the right. We are still learning what Jesus means for us and for our world. If we believe that the scriptures have a unique, divine authority for our lives, then the canon of Christian scripture is the only authoritative source in our quest to understand God's revelation in Jesus. The scriptures sit in judgment over all our interpretations.

So my first objection to so-called red-letter Christianity is that it takes "Our Theological Task" too lightly. Biblical interpretation calls for serious, informed exegesis and a mature hermeneutic. The seminary-trained pastors of the red-letter movement know this, so I am surprised that they would foist this incomplete and misleading construct on the church.

In The Princess Bride, the character Vizzini repeatedly interjects the word "inconceivable" to describe every situation. Eventually, Inigo Montoya says to him, "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means." My second objection to red-letter Christianity is that I do not think Jesus' words always mean what red-letter Christians think they mean.

Let me start by citing some good red-letter verses.

Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you shall be satisfied. (Luke 6:20-21 ESV)

When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, (Luke 14:12-13 ESV)

But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also, and from one who takes away your cloak do not withhold your tunic either. Give to everyone who begs from you, and from one who takes away your goods do not demand them back. (Luke 6:27-30 ESV)

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God. (Matthew 5:9 ESV)

For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me. (Matthew 25:35-36 ESV)

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, (Matthew 5:43-44 ESV)

For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God. (Luke 18:25 ESV)

Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword. (Matthew 26:52 ESV)

Judge not, that you be not judged. (Matthew 7:1 ESV)

I would guess that most red-letter Christians would like my selection. Indeed, every Christian must take these words of Jesus with utmost seriousness and apply them to their lives. Let me repeat: I am in no way arguing to undermine the authority of Jesus' words or lessen their impact. Every one of these words, however, requires more study, reflection and analysis than the simple "red letter" approach implies. And it's a HUGE jump from Jesus' words to claiming Jesus’ moral authority for particular tax rates, government spending plans, criminal law enforcement policies or national defense strategies.

In fact, the red-letter Jesus said some things that many red-letter Christians might not like.

The red-letter Jesus gave his stamp of approval to the authority of the Old Testament law.

Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. (Matthew 5:17-18 ESV)

The red-letter Jesus saw himself a miracle-working exorcist.

But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you. (Matthew 12:28 ESV)

In fact, if you counted Jesus' sayings related to exorcism and miracle-working, they far outnumber his sayings on the treatment of the poor.

The red-letter Jesus was an eschatological prophet.

For the Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done. (Matthew 16:27 ESV)

Then will appear in heaven the sign of the Son of Man, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. (Matthew 24:30 ESV)

In fact, the red-letter Jesus could be judgmental.

I tell you, many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (Matthew 8:11-12 ESV)

Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. (Matthew 25:41 ESV)

The red-letter Jesus demanded that his followers make converts.

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, (Matthew 28:19 ESV)

The red-letter Jesus claimed pre-existence and described himself with the ancient name of God.

Before Abraham was, I am. (John 8:58 ESV)

The red-letter Jesus was at least slightly interested in male-female marriage and sexual ethics.

Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh’? (Matthew 19:4-5 ESV)

Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her (Mark 10:11 ESV)

Everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. (Matthew 5:28 ESV)

And the red-letter Jesus said this?

Let the one who has no sword sell his cloak and buy one. (Luke 22:36 ESV)

While I’m sure that many red-letter Christians accept these latter sayings as well, I doubt they make it into the canon of others. I fear that many red-letter Christians simply see Jesus as a convenient political ally. Some, I fear, see Jesus as a servant of their cause rather than themselves as servants of Jesus’ cause. Even among those who do accept the authority of ALL of the red letter verses, there is a tendency to selective intepretation. “No divorce” might mean, well, God would normally prefer that we love our spouses, but there are extenuating circumstances in this violent, sexist, homophobic world - while “Blessed are the peacemakers” simply requires absolute pacifism regardless of any other considerations. No more “theologizing” is required.

All of these sayings require more study and reflection than a quick reading of the text provides. Let me give one example of where I believe red-letter Christianity routinely misreads the text. In Matthew's parable of the judgment of the nations, Jesus says:

And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’ (Matthew 25:40 ESV)

Who are these brothers of Jesus whom the people of the nations feed, clothe and visit in this parable? The typical red-letter answer is "everyone, especially the poor, powerless and oppressed." Matthew, however, gives the key to understanding this parable in chapter 10.

And whoever gives one of these little ones even a cup of cold water because he is a disciple, truly, I say to you, he will by no means lose his reward. (Matthew 10:42 ESV)

In the parable of the judgment of the nations, Jesus is not saying, "People of the world, your religion doesn't matter. What matters is how you treat the needy." Rather, Matthew intends this parable to be an encouragement to the church in a sometimes hostile world. Jesus tells his disciples that the people of the world will be answerable for how they treat his "brothers" - the little ones, the lowly ones - in his church. The parable makes the same point that the Mark's gospel makes in the story of the first apostolic mission (Mark 6:7-11). How people respond to the apostolic ministry of the disciples is indicative of how they respond to Jesus’ offer of the kingdom, and that response has eternal consequences. Only those who welcome the lowly disciples and their message with gracious hospitality are those who will be recipients of God's grace.

I'm convinced that this is the best way to read this section of Matthew 25. Perhaps there is a better exegetical reading, but the interpretation I've offered cannot be dismissed simply because it does not fit with one's understanding of who Jesus must be and what he must intend. (And there are, of course, other passages that direct Christians to be extraordinarily kind to others, as Christ has been extraordinarily kind to us).

"Red-letter Christian" is an advertising slogan that will not bear close theological scrutiny. It combines a misleading and incomplete Biblical hermeneutic with a naive social ethic. It goes against 2000 years of church history. And it’s evidence that proof-texting is not confined to one political extreme. The whole of Christian scripture deserves more than the phrase "red-letter Christian " implies.

I guess that makes me a " sixty-six book Christian."

TOPICS: Apologetics; General Discusssion; Religion & Culture
KEYWORDS: campolo; jimwallis; redletter; redletterchristian; religiousleft

1 posted on 08/22/2006 9:13:31 AM PDT by Between the Lines
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To: Between the Lines
"The whole of Christian scripture deserves more than the phrase "red-letter Christian " implies."

Isn't that obvious?

The story of Ruth has no red letters but it is very important. People in the Bible then are the same as the people of today. Human nature has NOT changed. You need the ENTIRE Bible to understand what Christ DID about issues and how to live your life.
2 posted on 08/22/2006 9:19:32 AM PDT by nmh (Intelligent people recognize Intelligent Design (God) .)
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To: Between the Lines

"Red Letter Christianity." Another name for apostacy.

3 posted on 08/22/2006 10:04:02 AM PDT by My2Cents (A pirate's life for me.)
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To: Between the Lines

The Lord will not be mocked.

4 posted on 08/22/2006 10:18:25 AM PDT by SampleMan
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To: Between the Lines
First of all, let me admit that we all have a canon within the canon.

This is a very poor assumption upon which you seem to rest the remainder of your thesis....

This isn't even a biblical idea -- as between the law and the prophets we are given the Lord's heart on many matters -- even the body of Messianic prophecy gives us interpretative insight to the life, ministry, and propitiation of Jesus.

Paul spoke these words to the elders....

Wherefore I testify unto you this day, that I am pure from the blood of all men. For I shrank not from declaring unto you the whole counsel of God.

We would do well to see the value of the whole counsel of God.... in the matters of discpleship, spiritual stewardship and the ministries of the Kingdom.

5 posted on 08/22/2006 10:25:24 AM PDT by Wings-n-Wind (All of the answers remain available; Wisdom is gained by asking the right questions!)
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To: Wings-n-Wind
First of all, let me admit that we all have a canon within the canon. We all have sections or themes within the Bible that we use to interpret the whole of scripture.

Actually I think that the author was being brutally honest, with himself, with us, and with those whom he disagrees with.

He is simply stating that as fallible men we put more importance into some scriptures. We then interpret other scripture through the scripture we have chosen as more important. We use the scripture that fits our world-view to color the scripture which does not.

He never says that this is what we ought to do or that it is right, just that we do it. Just like those whom he has taken to task.

You could say that he is acknowledging the splinter in his own eye.

We would do well to see the value of the whole counsel of God.... in the matters of discipleship, spiritual stewardship and the ministries of the Kingdom.

I could not agree with you more, and I am sure that the author would agree with you also.

6 posted on 08/22/2006 10:52:31 AM PDT by Between the Lines (Be careful how you live your life, it may be the only gospel anyone reads.)
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To: Between the Lines
We are evangelicals who are troubled by what is happening to poor people in America; who are disturbed over environmental policies that are contributing to global warming; who are dismayed over the increasing arrogance of power shown in our country’s militarism; who are outraged because government funding is being reduced for schools where students, often from impoverished and dysfunctional homes, are testing poorly; who are upset with the fact that of the 22 industrialized nations America is next to last in the proportion of its national budget (less than two-tenths of 1 percent) that is designated to help the poor of third-world countries; and who are broken-hearted over discrimination against women, people of color, and those who suffer because of their sexual orientation. -From one of the articles

Where's the outrage over abortion? In other words


7 posted on 08/22/2006 12:59:05 PM PDT by HarleyD ("Then He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures" Luk 24:45)
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To: Between the Lines

Simply dumping the "new testament" altogether would save a lot of trouble.

8 posted on 08/22/2006 1:23:12 PM PDT by Zionist Conspirator (Shofetim veshoterim titen-lekha bekhol she`areykha . . .)
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To: Between the Lines
Here's the thing. Jesus commanded us to help the poor. But not to support them for years. And not to force somebody else to do it for us. Not to support government prgrams that are far more successful in providing comfortable livings for beaureacrats than in helping the poor out of poverty. And he especially didn't command us to preen about our compassion when we do happen to vote for socialists.
9 posted on 08/23/2006 10:49:45 AM PDT by chesley (Republicans don't deserve to win, but America does not deserve the Dhimmicrats.)
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