"Red-Letter Christians": A Bad Idea with a Bad Name, Alas

Being a “red-letter Christian” sounds like a good idea, doesn’t it? Tony Campolo, professor emeritus of sociology at Eastern University, activist, pundit, and provocateur, tells us that he wants to obey the very words of Jesus, those words that in previous generations of Bible publishing were printed in red.

His comrade Jim Wallis of the Sojourners Fellowship, also known as an activist, pundit, and provocateur, shares this self-designation and thinks that such an approach to Christian discipleship will transcend the division of American political culture between the left and right, Democrat and Republican.

So isn’t being a red-letter Christian (RLC) a good thing?

Well, first, let’s agree that Christians should try to follow Jesus. No problem there. But the trouble with the RLC concept begins immediately afterward.

For one thing, “red-letter Christian” is a terrible name. Outside of certain Christian communities that remember the old Bibles, it communicates nothing. It’s very odd that people who enjoy being au courant would pick a name so embedded in a subcultural past.

More substantially, the RLC project fails to fulfill its promise of transcending the left and right–or, at least, it has failed so far. Stan Guthrie of Christianity Today points out that the red-letter Christians seem awfully “blue”–in the colour-coding of American political life (red states, blue states) that seems exactly backward to us Canadians, who see “red” as “liberal” and “blue” as “conservative.” Guthrie remarks on the not-surprising coincidence of what RLCs understand Jesus to be saying and the agenda of the religious left.

(Full disclosure: I am a member of no political party. But in the last several provincial and federal elections, I have voted Conservative, Liberal, and New Democratic Party–Canada’s democratic socialist party–depending on the issues, the situation, and the candidates.)

For another thing, however, the whole idea of being a red-letter Christian is simply awful theology. There are lots of reasons to call it that, but for a blog entry (rather than a book), I’ll pick just a few.

1. Why privilege the gospels over other books of the Bible? They are not the earliest testimonies to Jesus. Some of Paul’s letters likely are. And “earlier” isn’t necessarily “better” anyway, as any historian will tell you. Later accounts of an event or a life can profit from earlier accounts and enjoy the more refined interpretative perspective that distance can bring.

Furthermore, epistolary teaching is not necessarily inferior to narrative teaching, so to prefer the gospels is simply a matter of genre, not spiritual authority.

2. The gospels are, indeed, interpretations, not stenographical accounts or chronicles. What we know of Jesus’ words and deeds comes to us via the (divinely inspired) renditions of the evangelists–who were no more or less inspired than other Biblical writers. One of the weird things about the RLCs is that they are acting as if they know nothing about Biblical criticism and are reading the gospels in this naïve way–when they certainly do know better.

3. Jesus’ earthly career is the hinge of history, yes, but we’re not on it with him. We don’t live in the first-century Levant, tramping about Galilee or Judea with Jesus and trying to imitate him. We are 2000 years downstream of his life on earth: downstream of his cross, resurrection, and ascension; downstream of Pentecost; downstream of the conversion of the Roman Empire; downstream of lots of other things that materially affect the calling of Christians here and now, rather than there and then.

There is a weird nostalgia at work here, and it must be repudiated. Our calling as Christians is not to “just” read what Jesus “said” and “did” and then “just” do it (so to speak). It is to ascertain from the whole counsel of God, with the help of the Holy Spirit, what Jesus wants us to do in our particular (and quite changed) time and place.

We are not, that is, to cut the Bible down to size, but to accept the whole Bible as the Word of God written. We are to compose our worship, our churches, our lives, and, indeed, our politics in the light of all it teaches, not just the parts that are attributed to Jesus during his earthly career long ago.

Are Christians to follow Jesus? Yes, of course. Are we to believe what he said, obey his commands, trust his promises, and follow his example? Yes, of course.

But let’s follow all the advice Jesus gave us, all the examples he set for us, and all the commands and promises and warnings and blessings he left us in his Word.

No “red letters” versus “black letters”–and then maybe we’ll get past “red” versus “blue.”

0 Responses to “"Red-Letter Christians": A Bad Idea with a Bad Name, Alas”

  1. Steve Martin

    Its not very often I disagree with both Campolo and Wallis – if Evangelicalism had a few more of them we’d be a lot more relavent. But, in this case, I do disagree with them. Bang-on post John. Thanks.

  2. Brandon Blake

    Did you read Campolo’s response to Guthrie? Ironically, it is guys like Wallis, Campolo, Boyd, and Sider who don’t start with Jesus words but rather the words of the prophets for their politics. So on the one hand Campolo chides Guthrie for not taking the red letters over the rest of the black letters, yet he, Wallis, Boyd, Sider, et al, transcend the red letters with the black letters of the prophets! Huh!? LOL. Why not start with Gensis and creation and creational mandate? Also, I think Campolo is being less than honest when he wants to defer the leftist label. As much as he says that he is transcending left and right politics, I’ve never had a problem believing that he was leftist in his approach to politics i.e. concentration on left leaning policies and solutions. Transcending right and left policies recognizes the legitimate role and responses of government to do justice, not asking, “Do the candidates’ budget and tax policies reward the rich or show compassion for poor families?,” or “Do the candidates’ policies protect the creation or serve corporate interests that damage it?” This is not to say that those are not legitmate questions, it’s just that they are too narrow in scope.

  3. Rainer

    Who cares about the name – red, blue, green – whatever. It has nothing to do with politics. Nor should it…

    “Why privilege the gospels over other books of the Bible?” Because we are all trying to follow Jesus. Although, yes, they are “interpretations” by the writers of the gospels, they are still the best accounts we have of the direct teachings of Jesus, where the writings of Paul are more about the application of those teachings (as Paul understood it).

    And yes we are “downstream of the conversion of the Roman Empire; downstream of lots of other things” that may have negatively impacted Christianity. That doesn’t mean everything is wonderful “downstream”. Maybe we do need to carefully look back to before those “other things” happened to see where we might have gone off course.

    Although some people might object to the “Red Letter Christians” name, the idea isn’t a bad one.

  4. J

    I have a friend who is a pastor anda cartoonist. He is semi-retired. He worked two 10-year stints as a paid minister. In between he was a television producer for about 15 years.

    He has never liked the red letter Bibles much. For one thing, he’s colour blind, which makes it hard for him to read the red text. But for another, he thought the red letters caused us to focus too much on what Jesus said at the expense of what Jesus did. (Note the influence of Marshal McLuhan, who pointed out that the medium is the message. That is, the medium we use shapes us to some extent, whether we realize it or not.)

    My friend pointed out that the red letter Bibles distracted us from the “para-word.” (A para-word is something that is not spoken. It’s an action, or a multi-sensory element.) My friend suggested that I read the gospels and simply look for what Jesus did. A couple of years ago I did just that, and quickly realized that Jesus communicates A LOT without saying anything. For example, just about every time he heals someone, he touches them. The gospels also describe Jesus as looking at people, listening to them, eating, drinking, crying, etc.

    It was a life-changing encounter with Jesus for me.

    Since following the advice of my friend, I’ve often wondered how different our culture’s experience of Christianity would be if Christians paid as much attention to the “para-words” of Jesus as they do to the “red letter words” of Jesus…

  5. Glenn

    J Post #4,

    Thanks for this post. It gave me an “aha” moment where the light came on and I realized how true this is in my own life. I’m going to go back to the Gospels and read the “black letters” of Jesus and reread what I’ve neglected for so long!

  6. Matt Wiebe

    To make a targum on your title, I think that it’s a good heart producing a well-intentioned but ultimately defective idea with a stupid name.

    There also seems to be a confusion of roles. This is posing itself largely as a public/political organization, but it seems to mostly just want to talk to evangelicals and remind them about the call to justice inherent in the gospel. I agree with the heart, but I’m confused about the posture and content.

  7. Brian E.

    Professor Stackhouse, thank you for this weblog entry.
    Would you agree that Jesus’ nature, words and deeds are the foundation or focal point for how we understand all that is written in the Word?

    Also, are you suggesting that it is wrong to give priority to some parts of Scripture?

  8. remylow

    spot on! it inevitably pits some parts of the bible against the others, e.g. Jesus vs Paul, when really we should be reading it all in light of fulfilment in Christ.

    i too dislike red letter bibles.

  9. John Stackhouse

    Brian E. asks about Jesus’ role in hermeneutics, as well he should. I think our metaphors (“foundation,” “focal point”) can make quite a difference here. So without getting too detailed or technical on a blog, I’ll say just the following.

    Jesus is our Lord and Saviour, and his earthly career was the most important event in world history. But his own abiding pre-eminence does not entail that his earthly career should provide the governing template (another metaphor!) for all theology.

    Why not? Because Jesus is an individual with an individual calling in a particular context. Yes, he is the Son of Man and our exemplar, but he is also not us (he is Lord, and we aren’t; his earthly career was 2000 years ago and ours is now; etc.)–so we have to think carefully about just how what happened then applies to what he wants to have happen now.

    So to say “foundation” or “focal point” might be right on, but we’d have to talk about it more to be sure we’re meaning the same things by these metaphors.

  10. Heidi Renee

    One never gets very far opposing something by trying to look like you’re supporting something else. The fly in the ointment here is the disgust so many of us feel toward the lack of conscience much of the church has toward human suffering in lieu of chosen moral issues. Reactionary movements rarely have the legs they need to walk out the hope they have to swing the pendulum to the other side to overcome the inertia the current movement has.

    The heart of this is so important, and if it is only the words of the title that are tripping people up let us call those who have fallen to really focus on the issues and not the propoganda.

    Let us challenge the current movement to a deeper call to the heart of Christ instead of tearing down those who are trying to overcome the inertia with passion and sincerity.

  11. Ben

    Excellent post John. It really points out the lack of theological acumen and political imagination in these two activists/writers.

  12. mac

    My wife and I have been reading Campolo’s latest salvo in the US Culture War “Letters to a Young Evangelical.” While he cloaks his politics in theology (it’s the same thing he accuses the Religious-Right of doing), there is no doubt that this is an apologetic for his liberal political leanings as well as a recruiting pamphlet. Mind you, he tries to take the high road by rejecting any sort of Religious-Left label even though he is one.

    We stumbled upon his RLC classification and wondered about this departure from classic evangelical beliefs (see Bebbington). Was not the Hebrew Bible the inspired and authoritative text for both Jesus and the apostles? Did not Marcion cause problems in the Church by going down this same path (albeit much more extreme than Campolo, Wallis, et al.)? Finally, how does one properly theologize as a RLC?

    At best, Campolo is trying to separate himself from those with whom he disagrees. At worst, this RLC classification is the product of a left-leaning political foundation.

  13. Adam

    I think that we’ve misunderstood Tony’s heart on this. He is not purposing that we only read the red letters, that we read them more often, or even that we give them more weight. He is attempting to swing the previous overemphasis Evangelicals had with the Pauline sections of scripture back to Christ. Tony makes Jesus at the center of his/her reading/understanding/application of scripture instead of Paul.

    A few other random points:
    -The return to ancient ideas within contemporary evangelical faith is very “au courant.” Read some of Robert Webber’s work (he has a series called Ancient/Future Faith, Worship, etc). Thus, using the term “red letter” fits within the mindset of emerging (not a big fan of that term though) christians.
    -If you read first hand the works where Tony brings up the idea of a Red-Letter Christian he is not pushing for the use of the term as a new designation or sect. He is simply trying to communicate the need to focus on Jesus as the center to not only our lives but also our bibles.
    -You are right to say that RLCs are more blue than red. I don’t think that Tony’s point of RLC is to put people on the knife’s edge of politics. The point is to remove the political colour as the master status and replace it with Christ. RLCs will always be in flux between the political poles as they search to vote for what they think right.
    -Lastly, I’m just a guy who works to pay my bills and seeks to follow my Lord the best I can. I’m not the final authority. I’m not the last word.

  14. John Stackhouse

    Just a couple of clarifying points, Brother Adam.

    First, I know Robert Webber’s work well. He and I taught together at Wheaton in the 1980s. You’re missing my point.

    Second, I have indeed read where Tony Campolo speaks of being RLC. I even link to a place where he discusses it in the original blog entry.

    Third, I’m not judging Tony’s “heart” one way or the other. How could I? I’m discussing a label, an idea, and a method that I think are bad–however well-meant they are.

  15. Adam


    Thanks for your clarification.

    “Why privilege the gospels over other books of the Bible?” I still struggle to believe that this is what the Red Letter Christian movement is trying to do.

    Tony is known for saying things in a particular way as to get on people’s nerves. I remember listening to his sermon from Urbana 87 (I think). In it he preaches from 1 John 3:16 and concludes, “Does this mean Christians shouldn’t drive BMWs… YUP” (not exact quote). The reality is that the Christian understanding/use of money is much more complex than Tony’s statement. However, we, myself especially, often hide behind something being complex so as to maintain our own comfort level. Tony preaches the extreme to make a strong point.

    When he talks about reading the red letters of the Bible he doesn’t put a “privilege” on them over other books; he puts the privilege on Jesus. He’s preaching the extreme to move people away from a Pauline emphasis. (Would you agree that Evangelicalism has an over emphasis on Paul?? I’d like to hear your thoughts on that.)

    “Jesus’ earthly career is the hinge of history, yes, but we’re not on it with him. We don’t live in the first-century Levant, tramping about Galilee or Judea with Jesus and trying to imitate him.” Do we not, though, need to understand his teachings and the life of Christ in its original context first before we make it current? Yes we are not living in ancient Galilee or Judea; but we base our faith on Jesus who did live then, and chose that specific time in history to come. And as Christ is the center of our history he should also be the center of our Bible. (Another question: How do you believe we are to understand the Old Testament?? Do we read it through the lens of Christ?? Also, how do we understand Jesus, do we read him through the lens of Paul or do we understand Paul through the lens of Christ?)

    Just some more thoughts… Love to hear more of your’s.

  16. John Stackhouse

    I don’t admire Tony Campolo’s penchant for overstatement. Simplicity is good; vividness is good. Oversimplification and bombast are not good. Anyone who wants to keep being introduced as a professor and enjoy the aura of the academy needs to respect and use words better, in my view.

    As for your other questions, these are worthy matters of hermeneutics that I can’t answer here. But I do respond to them in my forthcoming book, Making Sense of It All: Following Jesus in the Real World, scheduled for release by Oxford University Press next spring.

  17. Claudette

    In my humble opinion there is too much labelling going on today. Personally I enjoy the word of God from Genesis to Rev. I do not understand everything but I don’t think of it as red-letter etc. My take on reading the bible is from 2nd Tim 3:16,17. The word of God is profitable whether it was spoken directly by Jesus or Moses because Jesus himself is the Word.

  18. Kimberley

    Campolo came to speak at my school (Trinity Western University) this week. Despite some views that I found a little extreme (ie: trust Jesus to provide instead of investing in RRSPs), I thought he left the students with a good overall message. He said that Christians do a great job at charity, but we can do better in the area of social justice. What good is it to help an African man start a small business if he cannot sell his goods because imports from the USA are sold for cheaper? Campolo is a captivating speaker, and I think overall he is a positive influence on young evangelicals.

  19. Orphielle

    Pay no attention to Jesus’ Word.

    Although He is God, in His human aspect, He forgot what the Word of God was all about–An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. Jesus actually belittled God’s Truth, by saying “You may have heard that it hath been written…, but I say unto you.

    God obviously doesn’t want us to turn the other cheek, or sell all we have and give the money to the poor. Common sense tells us that.

    The Bible is 100 percent true, if you skip the Gospels, which were written not by Prophets like Paul and Ezekiel, but by ordinary story tellers with a liberal agenda.

  20. Orphielle

    Satire, of course. Isn’t this a satirical blog?

    If not, well excuse me; and have a merry Christmas, John.

    • John Stackhouse

      Well, yes, we do engage in satire from time to time–you’re right. No excuse necessary!

      I just didn’t follow the line you were taking. I didn’t see what I wrote, or what anyone else wrote, to be encouraging people to skip the Gospels, much less to ignore “Jesus’ Word,” which is, after all, the whole Bible. So the satire just didn’t connect for me–sorry!

      I hope your Christmas is merry also.


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