The Serious Problems with Being a Red-Letter Christian

Focussing on the ‘red letter’ words of Jesus is the wrong way to address the world's problems.

What is actually needed here is not to read less of the Bible, Jesus’ words alone, but to read more of it. If Campolo and others are concerned that abortion and homosexuality are taking up too much of evangelicals’ attention, then the answer to that is to locate these issues in the whole of the Scriptural witness, and give them due weight—no more, and no less. Campolo is wrong that the main issue for Christians in America is inequality, or poverty, or discrimination.


Red-letter Christians‘ is a movement or network started in the States, but now coming to the UK, (primarily) initiated by Tony Campolo with the support of Jim Wallis. Alongside Campolo, another main contributor is Shane Claiborne, a leader in the New Monasticism movement. The name of the movement comes from the practice in some Bibles of printing the words of Jesus in red, as Campolo explains:

During a radio interview with Jim Wallis, the DJ happened to say, “So, you’re one of those Red-Letter Christians–you know–who’s really into those verses in the New Testament that are in red letters!” Jim answered, “That’s right!” And with that answer, he spoke for all of us. … In adopting this name, we are saying that we are committed to living out the things that He said. Of course, the message in those red-lettered verses is radical, to say the least. If you don’t believe me, read Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7).

This commitment is a response to two issues: the social reality of life in contemporary America; and the way that evangelical Christians there are all too often aligned with the political right. Campolo hopes that this new movement will not simply take a position within these politico-religious culture wars, but offer a non-partisan approach that transcends the divide:

The purpose of this gathering was not to create a religious left movement to challenge the religious right, but to jump-start a religious movement that will transcend partisan politics. Believing that Jesus is neither a Republican nor a Democrat, we want to unite Christians who are concerned about what is happening in America.

He then lists the social issues that are of concern—inequality, the environment, educationoverseas development aid, and discrimination. I don’t think I would disagree with any of these issues, as you could see from wandering around this blog. It is worth noting, however, that Campolo’s proposal of transcending the right/left divide looks somewhat disingenuous here, as these are all ‘left’-type issues. Where is the mention of parenting and the scandal of a fatherless generation? Where the need for a sense of personal moral responsibility? These classically ‘right’ issues also have a good claim to be rooted in Christian values.

More importantly, I think focussing on the ‘red letter’ words of Jesus is the wrong way to address these problems. In fact, this approach offers considerable problems of its own.

The first danger is that it detaches Jesus from his Jewish context by failing to read his words in the context of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) that Jesus himself read. One of the refrains on the website is ‘If Jesus didn’t talk about it, why is it so important?’ But, as Wes Hill points out, this has never been the main way Christians engage with ethics, and it is potentially highly misleading.

Contrary to the “red-letter Christians” experiment, it is simply not a classic Christian practice—among Catholics, Orthodox, or Protestants—to pit the words (or silence) of Jesus over against other portions of Scripture.

And if we do, this very quickly leads to a neo-Marcionite position, where we contrast the (rather nasty and obsessive) god of the Old Testament with the radical and inspiring message of Jesus. Apart from anything else, this is incoherent and unnecessary. If you want to look for resources for a radical alternative to consumerism, you can do no better than turn to Lev 25 and read the teaching on the Jubilee—as many other Christians have in fact done. Here we find a radically communitarian vision of life under the reign of God where we do not own our possessions but are merely stewards of them. And in the gospels, Jesus is mostly presented as a fulfilment of such a vision, not a contradiction to it.

The second danger is that this approach dehistoricises Jesus. In removing him from his Jewish theological context, we also remove him from his historical context and treat what he says as though they were timeless statements of truth which need no interpretation. Ironically, this has a similar effect to the one imposed by the Jesus Seminar, a group of historically sceptical scholars who believe we need to recover the historically authentic words of Jesus from the layers of later theological additions. To do this, one criterion apply is the ‘criterion of dissimilarity‘; we can be confident that something is from Jesus if it is untypical of both his Jewish context and the later teaching of the church. But this is not a way to find the authentic Jesus; it is a way to find the eccentric Jesus. And by focussing on his radical sayings, the RLC movement does the same.

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