The problem with being a Red-letter Christian

Screen Shot 2014-05-13 at 08.48.06Red-letter Christians‘ is a movement or network in the States (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, education, overseas 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.

One consequence of this is a common but bizarre assertion that Jesus was not particularly religious—or that the main people he had a problem with were the religious people. Andrew Wilson deals with this deftly:

“The only time Jesus drew a line, it was religious people who were on the other side.” Well, since pretty much everyone in the Mediterranean world in the first century was religious, including a certain circumcised, Torah-observant, festival-keeping Jewish Messiah, that’s not a particularly striking claim. Everyone in that scene (John 8:1-11) was religious. So what?

This has immediate implications for our approach to discipleship. I am the last person to defend the idea that truth is to be found in a religious institution rather than relationship with Jesus. But in fact we all need ‘religion’, if by this we mean a tradition and pattern of devotion into which we are inducted with others. That is why the disciples saw no need to end their regular visits to the temple (Acts 2.46, Acts 3.1) even after Jesus was raised and the Spirit poured out. If we are not shaped by these habits, it all becomes a matter of individual effort, and we end up with what Richard Foster in Celebration of Discipline called ‘will worship.’

PeterPaul12-360x311The third danger is that the RLC approach emasculates our theology. It is very clear from even a cursory reading of the NT that the first disciples, whilst they attended very carefully to the teaching of Jesus, proclaimed a good deal more than that. Jesus was not just someone who told us things we did not know; in his resurrection God had done something we could not do. That is the centre of Peter’s teaching in Acts 2; that is clearly the message of Paul in Acts 17. Even in the gospels themselves, Jesus’ teaching can never be separated from his miracles. In fact, the later apostolic teaching about Jesus is presented very strongly in continuity with the teaching of Jesus. Wes Hill again:

The unfolding of the New Testament canon presents itself as the continuation of Jesus’ speech, so much so that Paul’s words in Romans 1 and 1 Corinthians 6 and elsewhere about sexual behavior are to be read as having the authority of the same Jesus who allegedly said nothing about homosexuality during his earthly life. Notice how Paul describes his identity: “Paul, an apostle—not from men nor through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead…” (Galatians 1:1).

If we focus only on the teaching of Jesus, we are aligning ourselves with the Gnostics; the so-called ‘gospel’ of Thomas, which contains 114 sayings of Jesus, is no gospel at all, since a ‘gospel’ announces good news about what God has done.

The irony of all this is that focussing on the ‘red letters’ is not what is need, nor does it deliver what is necessary. One of the ‘trending’ articles on the website explores the idea that ‘Being born again is not about Going to Heaven‘. The articles draws on the writings of Tom Wright—hardly a ‘red letter Christian’ but in fact a renowned Pauline scholar. Another related articles loudly proclaims ‘The Bible Isn’t Perfect And It Says So Itself.’ It is arguing against the notion of biblical ‘inerrancy’, but is probably one of the worst examples of engaging with this issue I can think of. It suggests that, because 2 Tim 3.16 says that Scripture is ‘God-breathed’ then it is not God. And only God is perfect. So Scripture is not perfect.

My mom isn’t perfect. She would be the first one to tell you so. She has several degrees and a lifetime of experience, but she would also tell you she’s not inerrant.

And the Bible is like that. We go to it for wise advice, but it is not perfect. This is the most appalling logic—and quite the opposite of what Paul intended in 2 Tim 3.16! The reason for the problem is that the writer of this is locked into the same assumptions as the people he is criticising—that the opposite of ‘inerrant’ is ‘errant’ and so the Bible must be one of these two. But in fact the real problem that needs to be tackled is the background of nineteenth-century rationalism which is framing this whole discussion.

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. The main problem there, as here, and in every place, is that all have sinned; that the kingdom of God is at hand but we need to repent. If some Christians twist this into a right-wing, moralistic, individualised message, then the solution is not to try and ‘transcend’ these issues, but to engage with them in a better reading of the whole Bible that we all share.

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64 thoughts on “The problem with being a Red-letter Christian”

  1. Added to which, it presupposes a crazy notion of translation. We’ve only got a handful of ipsissima verba – talitha koum, etc. The rest are already in translation (albeit divinely inspired translation, often by those who knew Jesus well), which necessarily changes the shades of meaning. Given that we trust John’s translation of Jesus’ words, which can probably be fairly free at times, why shouldn’t we trust his teaching about the consequences of Jesus’ words?

    • John that’s a really interesting point, thanks. Yes, the idea that we somehow have the unmediated teaching of Jesus, free from any interpretation of Jesus’ first hearers, does seem fanciful.

      • So my issue is, regardless of color, who was doing the “recording “ as Jesus spoke? I’m not being negative nor facetious—— just a serious question. Are we to believe that these are the “actual” words? And if not – why are they in quotes? Thanks.

        • That’s a good question, and has been the subject of much scholarly debate.

          For a long time, critical scholarship was dominated by scepticism, assuming that the gospel records were at best distorted memories primarily shaped by the needs of the community.

          But this now faces several problems. First, how come the later questions of the community were not served better by the gospels, if the community shaped them freely. Second, why are there so many embarrassing details that don’t show the apostles in a good light?

          More than that, this approach assumed that the gospels were late, some even thinking John was written in the mid-second century. But no scholars believe that, and the better explanation is that they were written during, perhaps near the end of, the lifetimes of the eye-witnesses. That explains the frequent inclusion of unnecessary and artless eye-witness detail.

          Further, there has been a lot of study of literacy and writing in the first century, and it is clear that popular literacy was much more widespread than previous thought. Graffiti and things like the Vindolanda Tablets provide evidence here. So there is no particular reason to think that people didn’t take down things Jesus said at the time.

          There is also evidence that, being from Galilee, Jesus often taught in Greek. And it is clear that he said the same thing, or taught the same lesson, on more than one occasion.

          There, at least, are some pointers.

    • Not familiar with some of your terms but can’t we express this in a simpler fashion: Red Letter Christians are Christians who ignore other Christians to ignore most of the Bible. Shouldn’t that give any Christian pause?

      • This article entirely misses the point by focusing on the name “Red Letter Christian’s!”

        This is a mistake to ASSUME that the mame ignores the rest of the Bible, it is a ludacris lie!

        Of course Red Letter Cristians believe in the entire Bible! How stupidly rediculas!

        The name of course is meant to point us to Jesus Christ’s teachings & examine What Would Jesus Do? By examining what Jesus preached!

        What you realize is that Evangelical’s who support Trump, have created a white a Jesuslessness Jesus, in their Americanized Jesus.

        Because, Trump IS the antithisis of Christ’s teachings, for example, supporting locking up the foreigner inside of cages, and riping apart families and, putting chidren into cages or worse by kidnapping immigrant children by adopting them out!

        Instead, Jesus us taught us in RED LETTERS, to welcome the foreigner with hospitality! NOT WITH CAGES!!

        Trump IS antichrist!

        Trump does the opposite of what says!

        Trump’s a compulsive liar! Yet Trump’s Evangelical’s have no discernment of the Holy Spirit to realize they are being lied too?!


        They must either be really decieved or they’re White Supremacists twisting the Gospel message into an Americanized white Jesulessness Jesus, who refuses to lovingly feed the poor, and lock up the foreigner in cages, and for some reason they think they are Supreme race!?

        Where is the conviction of the Holy Spirit who convicts us the errors of our ways, teaching us not to hate?

        Are we in the end times, witnessing the great falling away of Christians like Evangelical’s who support an antichrist like Trump?

        • Thanks for the contribution…but it would be more persuasive if expressed in less strident tones. And I think you might be doing to those you disagree with just what Trump does to his political opponents in your description here…

          • Sadly, you lost me with multiple political references. Are you trying to explain your concern with a movement regarding how much of the Bible one reads, or are you advancing a political agenda. Don’t read into this statement anything about my political affiliation, I’m just tired of articles that pull us into a debate politically. Also, the way your responded to the commenter does exactly what you say they shouldn’t do and that is to inject ridicule into the message. You are using your ability to write to very keenly associate them with someone with whom you disagree in order to give them a dig.

          • My concern is that this selective approach to reading the NT is driven by a particular pre-determined political/social agenda. And that is made quite explicit by RLCs.

            And I don’t understand your comment about ridicule. The previous is a serious comment; perhaps the written tone doesn’t translate well.

        • You are decieved…as the devil uses Hollywood and left wing media to broadcast lies such as the cages bit…to discredit Trump and alow MS 13 gang members and anyone else including terrorists to live anywhere in the US including “sanctuary cities”. Trump is against abortion and is pro family and has made our economy strong again through eliminating overburdensome regulations and taxes etc. Obama weaponized the IRS and FBI to try to change the election and its results…as did Hillary and the DNC using a fake FISA warrant to spy on Trump and other Republicans and Trump asdociates etc. and a wasted 2 year Mueller investigation and currently now a fake impeachment. The real liars are CNN and shifty Shiff and other Dems who dont care our economy is doing great with stock market record highs and black employment its lowest ever with prison sentence reform etc. accomplished under Trump. Racist? Ridiculous. He will soon win again in 2020 in a landslide with many minorities voting Republican in record numbers. You are clueless. God is on Trumps side, not the LGBT pro abortion evil side.

          • It is quite difficult to take this kind of comment seriously when the list of verified lies by Trump is longer than your arm…or both your arms and legs. The Devil is, according to Jesus, ‘the father of lies…’

        • The cages were the previous administration. This is indisputable fact that both parties know, even snopes.
          Might want to check that anger. Pretty sure the red letters do.

    • You point is well taken, shades of meaning. I feel “Shades of meaning” bears further exploration to develop a more complete understanding of the benefits, and the consequences of your statement.

      How do “shades of meaning” occur? I will let you answer that question.

    • Hello John,
      What Jesus said in those Red Letter Words, is TRUTH. He said to follow Him. He preached, He taught, raised the dead, and healed the sick. He wants his born again believers to do what he did. Go into all the world, or where ever you are, and tell this good news-“Preach the Gospel.” -(Mark 16:15-20).Tell the people, “The Kingdom of God has come unto them.” When you have faith in Him, and DOUBT NOT, He WORKS WITH YOU AND HE IS Always PRESENT TO HEAL. People who have faith and doubt not, get healed from all manner of diseases; Cancer, diabetes, heart disease, you name it. He even grow out legs and arms. I have seen this happen many times; even in my my ministry. Get baptized in the Holy Spirit. and receive the power. – (Acts 1:1-8 and Acts 2:4-5 KJV). Develop a relationship with him. Accept and confess HIM as your “Savior and Lord” today! You will see “miracles, signs, and wonders,” in your ministry. JESUS loves you!
      Praise God! Be Blessed! NOW IS THE TIME! *(Remember, old COVID-19 and Delta is roaming the earth).
      Dr. B. J. Punch

  2. That’s why I don’t like red-letter Bibles (apart from the fact that with my fading eyesight they are harder to read!)

    Sadly, it’s increasingly difficult to buy an American published Bible which isn’t red-letter. I have a Zondervan TNIV which is red-letter despite the translators’ introduction which says, ‘… the issuing of “red-letter” editions is a publisher’s choice – one that the Committee does not endorse.” So as usual the market wins!

    It’s a much wider issue than just the red-letter movement.

    • Indeed, and there is another whole post or two to be written about the impact of the market on Christian publishing, and the printing of Bibles in particular.

  3. Let me be more blunt: Jesus-words-only is a dangerous cult-like perspective as it drives a wedge into the Trinity and commits (by omission or deliberately) the fallacy of the finite Jesus.

    Once Christ is stripped of his context, heritage and promise He becomes little more than an anachronistic flower child of the sixties.

    • Interesting comment. I did rather think when I wrote this that I was going against the grain and would get some negative reactions…clearly I am not alone!

      • Subjectively, the fallacy I mention seems to be the part of the Emergent experiment that has persisted despite the failure of the experiment as a whole.

        In the end, Christ can no more be understood without examining the ‘black letters’ than a house can be built by starting with the second floor.

        • It always makes me chuckle when I read someone saying that the emergent experiment has failed. Yet here we are discussing its influence upon the church.

          Just because the markers that the church tends to use to measure success (size of congregation etc) are not seen it doesn’t mean that the conversation has failed.

          I would suggest that many people in many evangelical churches are having the conversation but do not feel comfortable expressing it because to do so is to face criticism.

          • That does raise the interesting question about ‘success’ or ‘failure’. I don’t think i can say anything about the US situation, but it is striking in the UK that it appears church growth is mostly happening in inherited forms of church, with perhaps Messy Church an exception (though there is a big debate to be had on whether this is ‘church’ or pre-evangelism).

            Something that does not seem to be explored much is the way that alternative/progressive/post-evangelical church often functions as a long route to the exit door for many long-standing Christians.

          • The emergent experiment /has/ failed. Rob Bell has shown his true colours and has set up camp as an evasive, Oprah-friendly denizen of a quasi-intentional ‘spiritual’ community. Brian Mclaren’s generous orthodoxy has proven to be little more than narrow, fashionable compromise and Franky Schaeffer continues to have daddy issues that would drive a therapist into therapy. The emergent experiment was little more than a failed re-branding of ‘liberal’ Christianity and like all expressions of chronic compromise it is terminal if not dead on the bough.

            We are discussing its influence inasmuch as its influence was to sicken and weaken after a disease has run through the Church body.

            There was no conversation. Simply recapitulation.

          • J, we might be talking about different kinds of ‘failure’. In terms of influence, Alan is right that people are reading and following.

            I suspect the failure you are referring to is a perceived failure in offering a convincing and coherent hermeneutic. I think I am probably with you on that—though I do very much agree with the idea that we must give Jesus’ teaching prominence in ethical discussion. See the exchange above with Alan about the death penalty.

          • Ian – I was attempting to reply to Alan. It looks like the threading/reply system had some mischief in the placement of the comment. I’ll address individuals directly to avoid shenanigans in future.

            The failure i referred to was the failure to establish the Emergent church as some ‘third way’ between the deeply entrenched left and right wings of Christendom. As time passed it proved to be defined by the tropes of progressivism and as such it placed itself on the left with an intention of countering the dogma of the Christian right.

            As for primacy of Jesus’ words, I would respectfully say ‘it depends’, for the reasons of parity among the Godhead that I’ve mentioned already. Certainly red-letter types have in my experience relied more on the OT than NT drawing on the social justice behaviour expected of Israel.

    • What you mean to say it that following Jesus instead of worshiping a post Easter deity disempowers the church and redirects us to the teachings of a first century prophet .

      • I think you might be labouring under the false dichotomy between the so-called Jesus of history and the Christ of faith.

        The earliest documents in the NT include the letters of Paul, and we find, in one of the most significant, early, undisputed letters of Paul the incorporation of Jesus’ identity into the monotheism of the Shema, in 1 Cor 8.

        The first followers of Jesus evidently thought that you could not encounter the historical Jesus unless you saw in him the unique presence and action of the God of Israel.

      • Interesting. Is everyone forgetting the evangelical propensity to elevating scriptures to shame some while ignoring scriptures that are inconvenient when it comes to justice issues? Evangelical Chritianity as we have today has totally gutted any moral authority it may have once held. Their new Lord and Savior id Donald J. Trump. Take care of your own hypocrisy before picking at Red Letter Christians!

  4. “The reason for the problem is that the writer of this is locked into the same assumptions as the people he is criticising—that the opposite of ‘inerrant’ is ‘errant’ and so the Bible must be one of these two.”

    It must, mustn’t it? Either the Bible contains errors or it doesn’t. You can certainly debate what form those errors take — whether the Bible’s errant on, say, cosmology, but not on doctrine — but there’s no third way on the fundamental question.

    I totally agree with your criticism of the Jesus seminar and red-letter Bibles for decontextualizing Jesus. The gospel sayings must be read in context, but that’s easier to do when the text can be viewed as a human creation, with all the flaws and biases that entails.

    Marcion didn’t want a flawed Bible; he wanted a perfect one that he could agree with.

  5. Hi Ian. Whilst you make some interesting points I am not sure that you understand what Red letter Christians is all about. It is not a club for those who want to ignore the rest of the bible and just read the words of Jesus; it is a response to the often seen use of bible verses without reference to Christ.

    Here I am not saying that you don’t offer a critique worth considering but that what you say does not really represent what they are trying to achieve; the blog is also a little less than generous in its approach (I am not speaking here of your own personal generosity – which I do not doubt).

    Shane has just shown what they are trying to achieve in his excellent response to Albert Molher’s defence of the death penalty. He shows that Mohler does not reference Jesus in his writing on this subject. Shane is not trying to suggest that the rest of scripture has nothing to say: he is showing that Jesus is of supreme in importance in being the revelation of God (of actually being the Word Himself).

    You say ‘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.’

    This is a misrepresentation. It is in fact a distinct mark of much of the RLC teaching to show what the words of Jesus meant in his historical context.

    In the academy I am aware that historical context is important so I feel sure that you Ian are committed to this. The problem is that a lot of teaching in the evangelical world treats the bible as if it either an encyclopaedia of knowledge or a personal promise box rather than a dynamic story of God walking with people.

    You may not like the idea but left to Mohler and others we will be using scripture to support laws without even a glance at the way Jesus dealt with people.

    Hope that helps. Al

    • “Shane is not trying to suggest that the rest of scripture has nothing to say: he is showing that Jesus is of supreme in importance in being the revelation of God (of actually being the Word Himself).”

      And therein is the problem: the clear implication that Jesus’ words in the NT trump all. This necessarily fractures the Godhead and subordinates the Father and Spirit.

      That is why the viewpoint is utterly wrong.

      • All evangelicals do this. We don’t follow OT law to the letter. We don’t see all OT prophecy except through the life, work, death, resurrection of Jesus.

        We even understand the godhead through the NT not primarily the old.

    • Thanks for the comment Alan–very helpful.

      I think it might be worth distinguishing between the teaching of Campolo and Clayborne and what is happening on the website and the articles that are posted. I agree with you that SC’s response to Mohler was quite right; how can you do any ethics without considering Jesus’ teaching? That is crazy. And SC offers a fantastic response to it.

      But the way the movement presents itself is that it has found a way to rise above the details of debate about method and interpretation–and that is simply not possible. The best informed ‘conservatives’ know their Bibles and questions of interpretation very well, and if you want to change their mind you need to engage in the debate.

      I think SC and TC can do this…but I am not sure that the RLC idea is encouraging their followers to do so.

      Perhaps history is a good example. I don’t believe that this is simply ‘important in the academy’. As I comment about the resurrection, the historical nature of Christian faith is something that all Christians need to be aware of and take seriously.

      Does that make sense?

      • Ian – I take your well put points.

        I would raise these two questions.

        1) could you be presuming that goal is to debate/win over conservatives when it might not be. The goal for some of us is to wrestle with the issues. This some times involves debates with others (I see this as a positive thing) as we are doing here. I don’t expect to win you over. I would see our respective goal as being to offer a constructive corrective to the assumptions we might make about each other’s position.

        2) could it be that our different approaches (and here I am not talking about you and I specifically) are what makes us see the others position as being incorrect. For example I find systematic theology inadequate in describing/explaining the bible. I would adopt a more narrative/dynamic approach. I wonder if what us revealed in your kind response to me here is a dismissal of my viewpoint because I don’t employ the same method as you. I am sure I have probably done the same in return.

        I do appreciate you taking the time to respond.

        • Wrestling with the issues is good…though Campolo does explicitly say that the aim is to address those who identify Christianity with the religious right.

          However, I am curious that you class me as someone ‘to be won over.’ As I point out on the post, I have written on many of these issues, and was reading Yoder, Tom Sine and the like many decades ago!

          I would agree with you in your comment about systematic theology. Doctrine must reflect on but then lead back to Scripture, not the other way around. have you read my post on ‘Satisfaction’ and the long debate that followed?

          I would also say that method is neither neutral nor detached from Scripture…

          • Thanks Ian

            I didn’t mean to suggest that I should see you as someone to be won over. The opposite in fact. I was referencing what saw as your critique of RLC – that they are approaching things wrong if they are looking to convince the ‘right’.

            Offering is a challenge is perhaps not the same seeking to change.

            Thank you for your thoughts. I will keep reading.

            I would say that I still feel you have created a slight caricature of RLC that means your critique is slightly misplaced. I don’t say that to suggest you have nothing important to say but in the hope that you might have a further look at what being ‘red letter’ means for those involved. Is that ok.

  6. Jesus is not known except as mediated by the Bible writers, and to insist arbitrarily on the particular logia that are preserved there is naïve, as well as not having much faith in Christ’s promise of the Holy Spirit to the Church after his ascension.

  7. The other objection to the red letter approach is that it can privilege the words of Jesus over the actions of Jesus. Failure to consider the actions leads to a different perspective on Jesus (contrast the Jesus seminar, which majored on the words, to EP Sanders’ approach to the historical Jesus, which began with his actions).

  8. Is Tony Campolo in the UK at the moment? It would be good to hear you in conversation with him, because as you suggest above he would be perfectly capable of debating the problems you describe. I wonder if something is being lost in translation here between US & UK contexts?

  9. Thanks for this, Ian, really helpful. Groups I’m involved with – especially Business Connect, Jersey – are keen RLC-ers particularly because of their concern for social issues which I know you agree with. Their approach has helped me understand more of the subversive nature of the Kingdom of God, especially in terms of worldly power as seen in heirarchy and institutions vs the power Christ demonstrates that flips that on it’s head – as seen throughout scripture whether it’s written in red or not!

    So… the group’s name is rather unhelpful as you point out – but I’ve found their approach interesting and helpful and it’s transformed how I think about Church and the Kingdom. Maybe they should rename themselves – I wonder if they intended us to take them so literally?

    • Thanks Sarah. I am not sure it is just about renaming though. Interestingly, there is now a large and growing literature on the anti-imperial nature of the NT from an academic point of view…and this would be at least as effective a place to start, even with noting the anti-imperial elements in Pauline theology.

  10. I’ll weigh in here a bit and move off the theology which I think you addressed adequately and correctly into contemporary dynamics in the United States and the broad assumptions and charges RLers have broadcast onto others. In light of the Claiborne/Liberty University debacle here in the United States I started looking into this RLC movement. I was aware of it but hadn’t really looked into it. I scrolled the revival tweets (event at Liberty U) including the back and forth between RLC’s and those not with the movement. I then had some conversations on Facebook. While I don’t doubt for a minute these are fellow believers, and I admire their passion, their commitments to the causes they are involved with, something just didn’t feel right. I’ll even go as far to compliment them that many of them have done far more for the Kingdom than I have. I have respect for many of the big names involved, even if I don’t agree with them.

    The discussions I had were enlightening and frightening. While I admire their desire for “justice”, the problem is I think their sense of what justice means is distorted. All of what I found stains of socialism, social justice, identity politics, and on the faith side of the movement I see too much that resembles Black Liberation Theology and/or collective salvation. I’m not suggesting any of the movers and shakers in the movement are of these schools themselves, but the overarching message seems close to it and is certainly attracting those elements to their cause.

    I don’t disagree there are terrible parts to American history and contemporary politics. I don’t disagree there are issues with race and social economics in my country that need addressed. (I’d argue these issues are currently distorted and the solutions are deeper than government solutions, all a different discussion.) I don’t disagree there are disastrous consequences to wrapping the cross in the flag. What I disagree with is this attitude that X is the reason for it. That “X” I’ve seen in these discussions are “whites”, “conservatives”, “Trump supporters”, “white Evangelicals”, “Conservative Evangelicals” and the assertion that the bulk of these demographics have strayed from the gospel and given themselves over to idolatry of “Christian Nationalism” and have not individually aided the poor, homeless, and suffering. These were repeated themes and issues in the discussions I waded through.

    Ok…all of that is fine. We can disagree on those issues and debate the role of the Church in all of it. But don’t pretend this isn’t a political movement itself. Tony Compolo can claim all he wants this isn’t a right/left thing, but when all of your talking points, priorities, and “bees to the honey” seem to indicate otherwise there’s a problem with your claims. That’s only one part of the problem. The next comes in the form of doing all of this while pointing a finger at everyone else who disagrees with you as making religion political. Yet there they are, doing the same thing, and perhaps even worse. I ran into repeatedly in attempted conversations with RLers this treatment: Oh you disagree with me or brought this up so you’re obviously a Christian nationalist. Time and time again my reply was…no I disagree with you on this and this because it’s what I believe, not some adherence to a political ideology or elected official or governmental or secular institution.

    One of the retweets going around during the Liberty University situation was I believe from TC. He said verbatim, “America is the best Babylon there ever was, but it’s still Babylon.” I won’t argue there’s people that think of the USA as a new Israel. But I believe both these views are wrong and not many believe either one. How about we say we’re not Israel or Babylon? This doesn’t mean we can’t learn from the mistakes and greatness of either. But if we’re going to stop making religion political then stop making religious political statements.

    I felt sorry for Liberty University. Claiborne referred to it as “the belly of the beast”. That’s a pretty heavy and unfair charge I think. Has Jerry Falwell sacrificed the integrity of his role as a Christian leader by attaching himself to Trump? Probably, I argued that same point during the 2016 election. But does that mean all of Liberty University has done the same? Or that all Trump voters have done that? Or all Conservatives have done that? Does that mean that one Trump voter in a high position at an Evangelical university is indicative of entire body of believers and/or political block? Certainly not. For a group of people that seemingly strive to be nuanced in matters of faith they are verily generalized and presumptuous when it comes to a great many around them.

    Here’s the deal for me. I grew up a Congregationalist, attended an Evangelical Bible college and I’m now a Lutheran. Politically a Libertarian (lumped often with the Conservatives whether right or wrong), live in the rural Midwest. I work in state government directly for an elected official. I wasn’t a Trump voter. (I didn’t vote for Hillary either of course) I know thousands of Trump supporters, “right wingers”, Christians – and they are all very different from each other on politics and religion. I could walk down my work hallway and poll a political survey from everyone RLers consider the one in the same and I guarantee the results aren’t going to be as tightly confirmed as assumed. I’d do the same with religious issues and I guarantee there’d be considerable variance as well. You don’t know what others have done to serve the Lord and their fellow man or the reasons for their votes.

    I throw out all of this just say I look at things more than just face value. Context is important. Red letter, black letter, red state, blue state….there’s plenty in between and it all makes a fuller picture. Part of that picture is treating those around you without contempt when you disagree and assuming the worse in them and assigning faults from your biases onto them. That applies across the board to everyone, and from what I’ve seen this movement looks an awful lot like what they despise.

  11. My red letter approach to Jesus doesn’t dehistoricize him, because it understands him as a Jew trying to live the life of a Stoic sage and teach Stoicism to Jews. I think of it is these terms: Jesus is not about justification from a default damnation stamped on us by Adam’s sin (a concept Jesus never mentions) but about how to live life wisely, and therefore Pauline justification (you’re damned by default, now justify yourself) is not a valid category in Jesus’ thought world.

  12. The problem is not that that most Christians ignore the “old.” It is that most Christians (or so-called Christians) do not treat their fellow humans by the dictates of the “red letters.” After all, the “new” Testament was supposed to replace the “old” version, ” most specifically as detailed by the Sermon on the Mount. Context” doesn’t really matter; one must remember that the “old” Testament was included as part of the Bible because it was the only text available to accommodate the beliefs of Jewish converts. It is a measure of Christian hypocrisy that that the “old” version of theology with all its acceptance of violence is held up as a moral and ethical “standard.” It was, after all, used as “justification” for all manner of social ills, from genocide to slavery to racial discrimination. The “new” Testament was new for a reason.

  13. I laughed out loud! When I read the post about the problem with red letter christians. One concern was that they are only focusing on democratic issues and ignoring traditional evangelical values like “personal morality?!” From the top of the heap, Jerry Falwell jr. , Frankin Graham and other high profile leaders to the people who fill the pews, they have lost any right to judge anyone about personal morality. DONALD TRUMP has become their new Lord and Savior, and they have declared that personal morality no longer matters in choosing the leader of our nation. Call me a red letter Christian any day before you call me an Evangelical. That title is considered an insult by the majority of Americans. NOT because they have moral standards but because they have traded them for pilitical wins. Just to add a little humanity to this issue, imagine having been thrown out or being shunned and judged immoral by the same people who voted for a president with no morality and no remorse for it. Not only is it so ridiculous as to be funny, but it hurts. A lot. Evangelicals will face a reckoning. And possibly their ultimate demise. And it will be because of their hypocrisy. Silence equals complicity.

    • And of course by ‘evangelicals’ here you mean ‘white American fundamentalists’. This hasn’t been the historical meaning of ‘evangelical’ and is not the meaning in the UK or the rest of the world. (Most evangelicals are black African or Asian.)

  14. To equate the Words of Jesus with the words of Paul or any other person created by Christ, is blasphemous. When Moses and Elijah appeared on the mountain with Jesus and Peter tried to put them all on an equal level, the Father appeared in a cloud and what did He say? “This is my Beloved Son, HEAR HIM.” Jesus said the words He spoke He received directly from the Father and that it was everything that God wanted us to know concerning Himself and His Son. Jesus is the full and final revelation of the Father.

    Paul said in one of his letters that he was filling up In his body what was lacking in the suffering of Christ? The Perfect Son needed Paul to perfect His sufferings? Paul admits to using trickery and deceit in one of his letters. Can the Holy Spirit inspire sin? Paul admits to boasting and bragging. Jesus directly contradicts this. Can the Holy Spirit inspire words directly contrary to the Word of God, Jesus?

    I hope you can see what I’m saying. Jesus is the Word of God (John 1:1, Luke 1:2, Rev 19:13) not the Bible. The Bible no where says it is the Word of God but plainly testifies that Jesus is the Word. What Jesus says has supreme prominence. Remember Jesus said He has been given all authority in heaven and earth and that He would send the Holy Spirit who would bring to remembrance Jesus’ Word. Read the Gospels again and see what Jesus really teaches. You will see He contradicts Paul on many points. Jesus said the Law and the Prophets were preached UNTIL John the Baptist and SINCE the Kingdom of Heaven has been preached. Jesus said He has other sheep not of His fold that He must bring to Him so that there will be one fold and One Shepherd. There is no different dispensation that many try to proclaim. The Son of God said one fold One Shepherd. Listen to the words of Jesus because He said the Words He spoke, as recorded in the gospels, will be what will judges us at the last day.

    One final thing, Paul said by faith alone. Jesus, the Judge, said those who did the good deeds will be resurrected to life and at the judgment seat He separates the goats from the sheep and what is His standard of judgment? Did you feed the poor, did you visit the sick and imprisoned etc…..good WORKS. Read it for yourself please. Jesus said ravening wolves would come in and deceive many and divide the flock. Jacob prophesied of his son Benjamin in Gen 49 that he would be a ravening wolf. Paul is from the tribe of Benjamin. Paul is a false apostle. Paul said all in Asia turned their back on him. Ephesus is in Asia Minor. Jesus sent a letter to Ephesus in Revelation and commended them for testing and expelling the false apostles. Seriously study the Bible and and seriously study and consider the Word of God, Jesus the Christ.

    • ‘Jesus is the full and final revelation of the Father.’ Indeed he is…and we know about him through the apostolic testimony of the writers of the New Testament, including Paul and the others.

      If you think Paul is a false apostle, then you are going against just about every ecumenical Council of the Church, which I think rather supports my point.

      • If all I had was the Gospels that would tell me all I need to know about Jesus seeing as He said He revealed everything that the Father wanted known.

        I don’t need the ecumenical Council of the Church to validate what Jesus taught and proclaimed.

    • RLC, at the hands of the right, is suffering the same fate as BLM. Black Live Matter in no way, shape or form meant that other lives didnt matter, however the right chose to focus on the 3 words, totally ignoring the meaning and reasons for them. The right demonized BLM while at the same time hypocritically embracing All Lives Matter to the exclusion of Blacks. By [again] hijacking the narrative, the right turned a positive movement into a devisive one that they could control. RLC does not mean or imply that the other words in the Bible don’t matter, and its ridiculous to suggest otherwise. In hijacking the narrative of RLC, the right presents this God vs Jesus scenario, [again] diving people into camps. Thing is, Jesus is God’s word made flesh, so there is no way to separate the two.

      • Thanks for the comment, but I am not sure the two situations are comparable.

        As I point out in the article, two difficulties with RLC is that

        a. you don’t *need* to focus on Jesus’ words to show the importance of care and relationships. It is all over Paul as well.

        b. RLC are actually pretty selective about some of the Red Letter words themselves. Jesus says an awful lot e.g. about sexual morality (more than he says about economics or the poor!) and about repentance, judgement, and Gehenna.

        For some reason these do not feature largely in the RLC agenda…!

  15. My thoughts are that this is complete contridiction. The red texts talks directly to this in Matthew 5.17. Hence the article has no bases.

  16. And here I was reading the Bible in Red to check out passages to see if it has the same ideas as the other Bibles I have. I am just trying to find Jesus from Beginning thru OT to today. Very informative.

  17. I was reading earlier today that Shane Claibourne is speaking at the Baptist Union general assembly this year, so went to find a bio on a “this name sounds familiar” search and saw the connection to Red Letter Christianity. A quick google of that led me here, and boy oh boy do I not remember these comments. 😉

    Article still holds up though Ian. Do you think think the proverbial ‘limelight’ has shifted now (7 years later) and the worries about RLC getting too much of a foothold on English evangelicalism were unfounded?

  18. Read what the red letters say about the Holy Spirit in John chapters 14-16. He will glorify Jesus, not Paul or anybody else. I respect you have an opinion, but Jesus words trump Paul. Can you see the difference? Read Deut 13 to see why Paul is in the bible. Jesus is the only way and His red letters are what he taught. If we love Him we will keep His commandments.

    • Hang on—you are suggesting that Paul is the false prophet of Deut 13? The Paul who offers earliest testimony to the recognition of Jesus as one with the Father? Paul who talks of Jesus being exalted with the ‘name above every name’? Paul who took the message of Jesus outside of the confines of Judaism to the wider world? Paul the greatest missionary and church planter the world has ever seen? And whose writers were quickly included in the God-breathed canon of Scripture? That Paul? Are you kidding?

      Paul agrees that Jesus is the only way—which is why we need to listen to what the Spirit says to us through him!


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