1. General Christian

Why “All Letters Matter” isn’t a Good Response to Red Letter Christians

“All lives don’t matter!” shouted the speaker at the Black Lives Matter protest. I felt my body tense. “Until,” continued the speaker after a pause, “black lives matter!” 

What a rhetorical coup. By saying it that way the speaker reminded us that we are in a story. We are in a wider context. Black lives have been devalued and thus we need course correction. It isn’t about demeaning other lives. 

Similarly, Christians are in a story in which we’ve often ignored the teaching of Jesus. As the towering theologian Karl Barth put it (echoing German reformer Melanchthon), Christians prefer the benefits of Christ to Christ himself (The Humanity of God, 24). The burden of Bible scholar NT Wright’s book How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels is how Christians distill the person of Jesus into a doctrine and ignore the Jesus found in the gospels. 

A movement founded by activist Shane Claiborne and professor Tony Campolo addresses this problem with its provocative title, “Red Letter Christians.” Red Letter Christians (RLC) is an organization that “mobilizes individuals into a movement of believers who live out Jesus’ counter-cultural teachings.” They do this by paying special attention to the words of Jesus, words that in some Bibles, are in red. 

Joel Looper (Ph.D, Aberdeen), a respected acquaintance, invited me to respond to his article entitled The logical —and theological—problem with Red Letter Christians. (His article is just the latest in a number of anti-RLC articles such as this one by the Gospel Coalition and this one in Christianity Today.) Looper’s primary concern is that RLC ignores the rest of the Bible and thus lacks the necessary context to understand the words of Jesus. He writes that when we don’t understand the words of Jesus, we re-make Jesus into our own image.

In response to Looper, I must admit that my analogy with BLM isn’t perfect. “Black Lives Matter,” while provocative, doesn’t logically exclude the possibility that other lives might matter too. “Red Letter Christians,” however, seems to at least marginalize, if not completely exclude, the rest of scripture. From this, two questions emerge. First, is it legitimate to prioritize the words of Jesus over the other words of scripture? Secondly, do Red Letter Christians simply prioritize the words of Jesus, or do they ignore the rest of scripture altogether?

To answer the first question, I answer a hearty “Yes!” It is important to see all of scripture through the lens of Jesus and to prioritize Jesus’ words and witness. I grew up in a context in which all scripture was seen as “flat” or as equally inspired. Theoretically at least, a verse from Leviticus had as much weight as a command from Jesus. This kind of Bible reading has dangerous consequences. I think of the Jabez prayer rage that happened years ago in Christian circles. Jabez prays a short prayer in 1 Chronicles 4:10 that God bless him and enlarge his territory. A book, The Prayer of Jabez, promoted the prayer and sold nine million copies.  

If we continue reading in 1 Chronicles 4, we learn that the Israelites find good pasture land and exterminate its inhabitants so that they can enlarge their territory. Apparently, the prayer has been answered, and reading it in context seems to indicate that the sacrifice of others was God-ordained.

It is easy to imagine Christian colonialists using such a passage to justify the extermination of native peoples. The necessary guard against this is to interpret all of scripture through Jesus and his words “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you” (Matt 7:12). 

In an article written by Campolo that Looper quotes, Why Christians Don’t Like Jesus, Campolo explains that Christians often want retribution, a God who will bless their wars, a God that only requires 10% of us, a God who ensures our superiority. In the span and sprawl of the Bible narrative, Christians can find verses to justify almost anything. This is why Christians need to interpret everything through the demanding, merciful, and loving words of Jesus. Ironically, Campolo has the same worry as Looper—that we will remake God into our own image. Only, Campolo believes that this happens when we don’t see all of scripture through Christ.  

This begins to answer the second question: do Red Letter Christians simply see Jesus’ words as more important, or do they see them as the only authoritative words in scripture? Looper, careful writer that he is, begins by making the modest claim that RLC “rank the words of Jesus . . . as more important than the rest of scripture . . .” Later, however, Looper suggests that RLC don’t just see Jesus’ words as more important, but that RLC “ignore” and “tacitly reject” the rest of scripture. Is this the case?

It isn’t what Campolo and Claiborne claim to be doing. It is worth quoting at length from the book, Red Letter Revolution, which they co-authored:

Not only do we say that the red letters are superior to the black letters of the Bible, but Jesus said they were! Jesus, over and over again in the Sermon on the Mount, declared that some of the things that Moses taught about such things as divorce, adultery, killing getting even with those who hurt you, and the use of money had to be transcended by a higher morality.

When Jesus said he was giving us new commandments, I [Campolo is writing here] believe they really were new commandments. They certainly went beyond the morality prescribed in the black letters that we read in the Pentateuch. Furthermore, we don’t think you can really understand what the black letters in the Bible are telling you until you first come to know the Jesus revealed in the red letters. This in no way diminishes the importance of those black letters; we believe that the Holy Spirit directed the writers of Scripture so that all of Scripture was inspired by God. (Red Letter Revolution, p. 5). 

Looper devotes much of his article to the danger of disregarding eyewitness testimony and the other writers of scripture. He rightly notes that the eyewitnesses/New Testament writers had the best understanding of the language Jesus was speaking, knew the context, and had access to words from Jesus that we don’t have.

It doesn’t follow, however, that those who especially treasure the words of Jesus disregard the testimony of the eyewitnesses and the New Testament writers. Red Letter Christians should know that they are dependent on the first eyewitnesses for the words of Jesus. In order to best understand the red letters, Red Letter Christians need to pay attention to the context in which the eyewitness place Jesus’ words, the early Christians’ commentary on Jesus’ words, and the acts of Jesus in which the words are embedded. Red Letter Christians should be the biggest fans of the early writers and eyewitnesses.

This doesn’t mean that there isn’t the occasional literalist in progressive circles— who, in a new Marcionite enthusiasm—would take the shears to all but Jesus’ words. But that isn’t what Campolo and Claiborne are doing, in my opinion. Pick up any of their books and their respect for all of scripture is evident. And, while I’m not familiar with all of them, I suspect this is true for those in the RLC “leaders’ network.” 

Why does RLC prompt this concern in Looper and others? Certainly, the name is provocative, and for anyone concerned with scriptural authority, it is understandable that it might prompt questions. Beyond that however, Looper writes that he is uneasy the RLC will “downplay, ignore, or even oppose” the evangelical and Catholic church teachings on the issues of abortion and gay marriage. 

There are two important responses to this: a) focusing the words of Jesus doesn’t mean that a person will necessarily “oppose” the evangelical and Catholics stances on these issues, and b) he is right that an RLC person might “downplay” or “ignore” them—and that is a good thing.  

First, it isn’t true that an emphasis on the red letters decisively tilts people toward gay marriage and legalized abortions. In the case of abortion, there is no Bible verse which specifically prohibits abortion. Indeed, some of the most powerful arguments against abortion come from Jesus’ words about his care for children and “little ones.” Beyond that, both Campolo and Claiborne are “womb to tomb” pro-lifers. That is, they are anti-abortion, but they also care about all the other forces that rob life such as poor health care, wars, gun violence, and capital punishment.

As for gay marriage, conservative veterans of the marriage wars will attest that their best argument is not the few Bible passages which seem to condemn gay sex. After all, most commentators agree that in the context of Biblical times, such sex was usually exploitative. Rather, the central conservative argument is that Jesus reaffirms a “creation ethic” of heterosexual marriage when he affirms in Mark 10:6-8b, “But at the beginning of creation God ‘made them male and female.’ For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife and the two will become one flesh.”

To be fair to Looper, Campolo has become affirming on gay marriage (as am I). Claiborne, while speaking against the ways the church has hurt LGBT+ people, has never come out as affirming, and has received strong criticism from the guardians of progressive dogma for not doing so.

To return to the question, why might it be wise to downplay or even ignore these evangelical and Catholic stances on abortion and gay marriage? As the words of Jesus attest, his primary concern was not to be a morality coach for the wider society. 

Instead, Jesus called the people of God to live out an ethic of love so costly, compelling, and winsome, that people would be drawn into God’s love-conspiracy. By advocating this, I’m not arguing for an easier, softer Jesus. I’m arguing for the Jesus of the New Testament, a Jesus who was tough on the people of God (demanding that they live out God’s sacrificial love) and welcoming to outsiders.

I’m asking that we judge the church by the example of Jesus, and not project on to Jesus the later preoccupations of the church. During Jesus’ time, gay sex and abortion were all well-known practices, and yet Jesus never says an explicit word about them. Jesus did however call out the religious leaders for their hypocrisy and self-righteousness. 

What if the church were known for the humble confession of its misdeeds, and its self-sacrificing love? Wouldn’t that be a better stance than being known for being “anti?” 

What if all of us, both conservative and liberal Christians, paid special attention to Jesus’ words, words which call us to sacrificial love? 

I agree with Looper that context matters. But this insight goes deeper than he seems to acknowledge. We live in a historical context that has pushed the life and teachings of Jesus to the side. We live in the current context of an unfaithful church that uses the black letters of the Bible to neuter and tame Jesus. We must resist this by interpreting everything through Jesus. Jesus’ own teachings are the best access we have God’s will and wisdom. It is the red letters that hold our feet to the fire of God’s costly love. It is the red letters that matter most. That is why I’m glad to be a Red Letter Christian.

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