After reading the article by Tony Campolo entitled “Is Evangelicalism Headed for a Split” that a friend shared on Facebook today (and various writings over the years by brothers like Shane Claiborne and others who identify as “Red Letter” Christians–RLC for short), I feel the need to offer a bit of critique (in a loving and friendly way, hopefully!) of what I see as very problematic the RLC approach.
“The difference of emphasis between those of us who want to take literally the red letters of the Bible and those who emphasize the teachings of the Apostle Paul (not that there is contradiction between the two) is only the beginning of the coming split within the Evangelical community.”
First of all, I respect Tony Campolo and the ministry of other progressive-leaning evangelicals like Jim Wallis, Shane Claiborne and others who are fed up with Right-wing-dominated evangelicalism. While I can’t completely embrace their positions on some issues such as capital punishment or total pacifism, I VERY MUCH sympathize with where they are coming from, as I have been an outspoken critic of much military interventionism, unqualified support for Israel over and against Palestine, and unjust practice of capital punishment…all of which many of my fellow evangelicals seem to have little problem with.
However, Campolo’s approach also has serious problems.
Let’s be clear. ‘Red letter Christians’ do not “take literally the red letters of the Bible”.
Why do I say this?
Because none of them have gouged out their eyes or cut off their hands (Matt. 5:29, red letters).
None of them ‘hate their mother and father’ (Luke 14:26, red letters).
None of them sell ‘all their possessions’ to give to the poor (Mark 10:21, red letters).
They have to own clothing, eco-friendly transportation, books, and computers on which to blog about taking Jesus’ words ‘literally’ after all.
My point is that it is disingenuous to say things like “we take the words of Jesus literally” or “Jesus meant what he said” or “I just follow the plain teachings of Jesus”…all of which I’ve heard many of my more progressive evangelical friends claim (and which I’ve also heard many conservative evangelicals claim regarding things like sexual ethics and church discipline, mind you).
Jesus didn’t speak into a vacuum. In fact the only way we know what Jesus said–the only reason we have “red letters” (which are editorial choices by Bible publishers rather than original to the text, of course) to begin with–is because Jesus’ Inspired, Authoritative, Commissioned Apostles, or those whom they taught, wrote down their testimony to what He said and did.
None of the red OR black letters in the New Testament were written by Jesus. They are all, in this sense, black letters. They are all Apostolic. They are all Authoritative. To pit the words of Jesus against the words of Paul, James, Jude, John of Patmos or the author of Hebrews…or to imply that somehow the ones said to have been spoken by Jesus carry more weight than the others, is a claim that I just can’t justify making or embracing.
Just as some evangelicals put emphasis, time in studying, and prominence in theology on Paul’s writings to an unhealthy degree, it seems that RLCs do the same thing, but in the opposite direction. This is why RLC ends up being, in my opinion, a reactionary movement in danger of losing (or having already lost) its balance in its (admirable, in my opinion) attempt to provide a counter to the more politically or theologically conservative varieties of evangelicalism (i.e. the McArthurs, Falwells, Robertsons, Mohlers, Geislers and Grudems) within the evangelical community).
But to my RLC friends, I only offer this warning:
If you are not careful and diligent you will become simply a more progressive form of folk-theology. You will be the mirror-opposite of what you reject.
You will be guilty of THIS.
I don’t want to see this happen.
I respect many of you (including good friends!) who run on such circles, and I certainly sympathize with your desire to offer a corrective to unbiblical, rightwing, uber-conservative evangelicalism, especially the rank nationalism that often infects it.
But for the reasons above, I’m afraid I cannot join you in being a self-proclaimed “Red Letter Christian.”
However, I will continue to see those of you who do adopt such a label as brothers and sisters in Christ and fellow ministers of the Gospel of our Lord and Savior. I only offer this as a corrective to what I see as an overreaction, albeit from a desire to do good and be faithful to Jesus.
This is definitely an “in-house” (rather than a “farewell” ;)) post.
From the Dojo,