Red Letter Christians

red-letterIn a recent perusal of the internet, I have come across an organisation called Red Letter Christians. This group, headed up by the noted American evangelical Tony Campolo, wants its followers to focus on the sections of the Bible that are printed in red letters – the words ascribed to Jesus. By chance I have such a Bible which is printed in this way and it is the one known as the Scofield Bible. This is a version of the Authorised Version published for Christians focussed on End Times. Scofield’s notes in the margins help the reader to follow the text within the framework of what is known as Dispensationalist ideas. Users of this version would be among the most conservative of Protestant readers and many would follow the ideas of the late Tim Lahaye, whose life and work we considered a few days ago. Red Letter Christians, by contrast, are among the more radical and socially engaged, right on the edge of the evangelical family. Indeed, Tony Campolo himself has recently asked not to be counted as an evangelical. This is because he is aware of all the negative associations that he believes are attached to the word by those who are outside these circles. We might note, by way of comment, that the word ‘Christian’ has also become contaminated by similar negative associations.

What kind of Christianity do we find when we focus on just the words of Jesus? To answer this question, we need first to mention the things that we do not find mentioned in Jesus’ discourses. We do not find copious condemnations of ‘unsound’ people who do not believe what ‘orthodox’ people do. We do not find an obsession with sex as long as partners entering into a commitment are faithful. We also do not find a preoccupation with building barriers and boundaries which would exclude people who are not like us from intruding into our lives. This last point is perhaps an indication that Jesus would have had very little time for the styles of political life that have developed in our time.

What are the values that we discover when we look at Christianity through the eyes of Red Letter Christians? According to the website, (which is of course freely open to everyone), the first mark of taking the words of Jesus seriously is for us to regard all people as being made in the image and likeness of God. Any kind of racism or one of the phobias directed against other people are completely ruled out when we consider the words of Jesus as in some way authoritative. A second point is that the perspective of Jesus concerning the Bible and indeed the world itself is normative for Christians. Jesus appears to have read the Bible in a distinct but nuanced way. From my perspective, this approach does not allow the followers of Jesus to cherry-pick particular passages from the Old Testament in an effort to find the model for a perfect society. The law may say one thing according to Jesus, but this does not stop new things emerging out of the old. A readiness by Jesus to add to and qualify the revelations of the past gives us permission today to escape from the tyranny of inerrancy doctrines. We are encouraged to read, study and listen to Scripture. Jesus allows us to discuss and critique passages of Scripture and decide whether or not particular passages are relevant to us today. Of course we cannot claim to get it right every time or know with precision what Jesus might think on each passage. But at least we seem to have his permission to engage in a discussion, even if more than one possible solution may emerge. Such differences are, I believe, healthy and will always be part of the life of a Christian mind. The fact that some Christians find the lack of a single answer intolerable is no reason for the rest of us to close down healthy discussion.

Many of the words of Jesus are commands to act and behave in a particular way. The command: ‘Go and do likewise’ at end of the Good Samaritan parable is not just telling us to do something; there is the expectation that we will learn through doing it. Love is not just a word on a page, it is an attitude and disposition which, when we practise it, we are learning how to live in a Christian way. When we learn to love in Jesus’s way, we are also learning about power and its use and misuse in society. Love through service, as we noticed in a recent blog, is a type of love that is able to avoid any abuse of power. The words of Jesus also teach us to have a radical understanding of how power in fact operates in society. Jesus’s words are often radical and counter-cultural on this topic.

Another particular concern of Jesus was to bring to our attention the needs of the poor, the sick and those in any kind of trouble. Helping such people in whatever way we can will also help us to learn how important it is to love without any expectation of reward. Any looking for some kind of payback when we help others is, if we think about it, a subtle power game. Too often we do things for others as a way of making ourselves look good or to gain some other advantage. A genuine concern for the ‘poor’ will bring nothing for us; rather the person we are helping will, we hope, feel supported and sustained. Jesus, in other words, is concerned that our world should be a place where people love one another with a love which genuinely seeks nothing but the welfare of the one who is the target of concern.

The Red Letter Christian through his or her study of the mind of Jesus will be an individual well attuned to the way that many assumptions within our society need to be challenged. In short there is a political dimension to this movement which might mean that some of our comfortable certainties about society need to be examined afresh. Working for the good of others, particularly the poor, is not easy in a society which wants to protect the privileges of the better off. Not unnaturally radical Christians have tended to side with a more left wing approach to political questions. But whatever our politics, the Red Letter Christian will probably never want to remain in a defined political party. Subversive counter-cultural thinking, such as we find in the sayings of Jesus, will always be on the move. As soon as a group of Christians think they have found a political stance worth following, it will probably be time to move on. The words of Jesus will never be contained in a single political point of view.

One final remark about the attitudes of Red Letter Christians would be to note that any follower would want to challenge every kind of human boundary. A Christian listening to the words of Jesus would want to reach over boundaries of class, faith and every kind of cultural or racial difference. We have already suggested that the Red Letter Christian would never reach a point of equilibrium. The attitudes and the understanding of the world among such people will probably never stand still. This last comment is probably my own reading of what such an organisation might do. No doubt Red Letter Christians are probably compelled for practical and organisational reasons to be a little less maverick and more flexible than I have suggested. I have, nevertheless, given my reader a commentary and my hopes for this new movement for some Bible loving Christians in the States. Perhaps it will catch on in this country as there. Whatever form it may take in the future, it will provide something refreshing and potentially transformative for us all.

About Stephen Parsons

Stephen is a retired Anglican priest living at present in Northumberland. He has taken a special interest in the issues around health and healing in the Church but also when the Church is a place of harm and abuse. He has published books on both these issues and is at present particularly interested in understanding the psychological aspects of leadership and follower-ship in the Church. He is always interested in making contact with others who are concerned with these issues.

11 thoughts on “Red Letter Christians

  1. Thanks for this pointer – the website is both interesting and substantial. I’m much in tune with your summary of Jesus’ message. The principle of paying extra attention to the reported words of Jesus is very good. But then it will take us into wanting to understand the context into which he spoke, in order to better relate it to our context. Jesus himself tells us to study the rest of scripture… for example, twice he says in Matthew that we need to understand what God means by saying “I desire mercy not sacrifice”. This is a quote from Hosea and so we have no choice but to try to interpret what it is about the “law and the prophets” that he regards himself as fulfilling.

  2. I too have been finding Red Letter ideas percolating into my thinking. If it can make such a difference after only knowing about it for less than 24 hours, it may well change me in many ways in the future. Although I did not discuss this, and I did not see it mentioned on the web site, the thought of imagining Christianity without the arguably dry theology of St Paul quite invigorating. It is not that we can do without St Paul in the long run but the simple exercise of first concentrating only on Jesus’ words is very salutary. Somehow Christianity becomes a somewhat lighter, less oppressive place when the sometimes arid thoughts of Paul are temporarily put to one side..

    1. I have to admit I pay relatively little attention to the epistles most of the time (including Paul), though I have studied them a bit and of course there are marvellous things there. So perhaps in my little way I’m already doing what you’re suggesting, and to me it’s natural to privilege the Gospels (including but not only Jesus’ words). This tendency has been amplified by a decision our rector made three years ago to swap our first Sunday reading (we only have one plus the Gospel). We used to have OT in Advent and Lent year after year, and NT the rest of the time. She decided that as a community we should try to tackle our fear and ignorance of the OT, so we have had OT readings throughout the year except the Easter season (in which Acts is compulsory) all this time. Now as we are completing the 3 year lectionary cycle, we will go back to NT readings (including those epistles for Advent and Lent that have never been read before!), and perhaps it will be all the fresher.

  3. I’m afraid I’ve always thought those red letter Bibles were dreadfully twee. But I can see the value of focussing on Jesus’ words. I took out the word “just” from the previous sentence. Jesus’ words are obviously going to be incredibly precious. But many of us here are fairly liberal in our interpretation of the Bible. How do we know they really are his words? What we know is that these are the words the writers wanted to emphasise, and of course, the ones they remembered. And that he probably said something like this. But this puts us in the hands of anonymous theologians from the first century, just as if we were reading Paul.
    And I don’t hold with missing out whole sections of the Bible. Many people only hear the Bible on a Sunday. Whether you miss out the Old or the New, it seems to me that it is wrong. My fellow evangelicals are the worst offenders, but not always. Some High Anglo-Catholics seem to think that the new common lectionary has to be subject to the old treatment of one Old and one New Testament reading. Thus missing out most of the New Testament because they only do the Gospel. What if the Epistle is the one that is related to the Gospel?

    1. Granted we only have Jesus “reported” words. Once you get into studying the theologies and narrative strategies of the evangelists of course you rise to a whole new level of complexity. For church readings I also don’t like leaving out whole sections and believe the main communion service would be better with 3 readings – OT, NT and gospel. But we’ve always only ever had two and the feeling seems to be that our congregations wouldn’t stand making the extra effort and time! But for preaching and private study and devotion, sometimes less is more, and then focussing on a saying of Jesus can be very productive. And I think Stephen meant to suggest that some people have got quite bogged down in arid theological debates based on Paul’s emphases, and so focussing really on Jesus’ words (+actions?) – as filtered by the evangelists of course – can be very refreshing and even corrective. It would certainly take you rather away from what I would see as misguided atonement theories, ie penal substitutionary, but obviously saying that would be heresy to some groups.

  4. Thank you Stephen. I would regard myself as somewhat aligned to the RLC thinking. And there are some real (and admirable) RLC radicals out there. Shane Claiborne springs to mind. In his books he talks of spending time working with Mother Theresa and with Christians in Iraq.

    I do think the Red Letter title, though is just slightly tongue-in-cheek. Clearly context matters. But like you Stephen, I find it refreshing. And I’m happy to belong to a group of Christians who are engaging with the poor and marginalised. A group of U3A students were using our buildings this week, on seeing the homeless drop-in one was heard to say “now that’s what I call real Christianity”.

    And Tony Campolo is not the first former evangelical to want to dissociate himself with the evangelical label!

  5. As a counterpoint to the Red Letter idea, I’m currently reading a very interesting, amusing and deep book about the parables, “Kingdom, Grace, Judgement” by Robert Capon, which I highly recommend. Being about the parables, it’s very much about what Jesus said and did, the development of his ministry and the essence of Christ crucified. In a passing aside, far from suggesting the epistles are unnecessary, he says: “on any serious view of either the inspiration of Scripture of the history of salvation as spelled out in Scripture, the risen and ascended Jesus hired Paul on the road to Damascus precisely for the job of rescuing his teaching from misunderstanding…”

    1. Yes haiku, we do need Paul. But we also deserve a holiday from him from time to time to help us re-encounter the ministry and words of Jesus. You mention the parables. That is one aspect of teaching that is a long way from Paul. Would that Paul used a few parables to explain what he meant. It would have made for light relief. But I dare say someone would have declared that his parable was meant to be read literally and historically.

      1. I guess I’m coming from a different place because I’ve not had Paul thrust at me in church, if anything he’s been a bit neglected as there has hardly ever been any preaching on the epistles, they haven’t been read for three years, and neglected by me personally as well. 🙂

        1. I’m ok with Paul. I think I’ve been subjected to some fairly heavy sermons in the past. But I have recovered! I now believe that if the letters are read well (!) they’re much easier to understand. It’s the subordinate clauses!

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