Red Letter Christians: Cherry-Picking The Gospel?

There is a nondenominational group out there that calls themselves “Red Letter Christians.” They get their name from the old practice of publishers printing the words of Jesus in red. This focus on Jesus’ words sounds pretty good at first, but after taking a closer look it appears that this group misses out on key points that are fundamental to the true gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. In this article, we will take a look at what Red Letter Christians believe and see how they differ from conservative Christianity.

“The Red Letter Christians organization is a movement of left-leaning Christians who place a higher priority on the “red letters” of the Bible which traditionally represent the words of Jesus. Although that might sound good at first glance, when you look closely it might not. This group sometimes distances itself from other teachings and doctrines that Christians believe are equally inspired by God but aren’t explicitly found in many Bibles’ marked red letters of the words of Jesus Christ.”

1. The Origins of Red Letter Christians

I remember that when I was a child you could rarely pick up a Bible that didn’t have Jesus’ words printed in red. I have several

today that are red-letter additions. I’m fine with that. The first red-letter edition of the Bible goes back to 1899 so it’s a very common thing with which Christians are quite familiar.

However, the group called the “Red Letter Christians” is another thing entirely. The group was started in 2005 by Tony Campolo and Shane Claiborne. The two had become friends while working together on President Bill Clinton’s Spiritual Advisory Council. They shared a common vision of wanting to see the church be more relevant in today’s world. In order to do this, they felt that the church needed to focus more on.

No Personal Attacks

First of all, you must remember this is not a news blog and it has quite a bit of my own theology and commentary. In my life of ministry, I have heard both Tony Campolo and Shane Claiborne both. I appreciate that both of these men share a vision for helping the poor, seeing to the physical needs of the less fortunate, and quite a few other very worthy goals. I do not have malice or ill intent toward either of them.

However, Tony Campolo seems to impose liberal and politically correct views on his interpretation of scripture. As a very young man, I heard him speak about sacrificing to take care of the poor. That message caught my ear and I remember portions of it to this day. There were some very practical actions that he stated about how Christians could help the poor. I was immediately a fan.

However, as the years went by I noticed how his path had gone much farther to the left than what I was comfortable with. Maybe it was that way the first time I heard him and I just didn’t get it.

(Dr. Campolo suffered a stroke in 2020. The last news we had was that he was at home and recovering. We pray for him and wish him nothing but the best in that process).

The sermon I heard from Shane Claiborne included many challenges to help the poor and disadvantaged. However, at the end of his sermon, he manipulated the crowd of over 10,000 ministers into repeating the most liberal, anti-military diatribe I’ve ever heard in a setting like that. God is a God of love that we must display.

As Rev. Claiborne begin his recitation that he asked us all to repeat, my Sr. pastor and I went along with the opening lines as they were fairly harmless. However, seconds later, we looked at each other and stopped. We agreed that we could not and would not agree to such a statement that unwisely stated viewpoints in which we did not agree. As Christians, we must stand against injustice whether it is feeding the needy or engaging in combat with an evil nation or terrorists who kill the innocents.

This post is not written to attack these men. This is an explanation of how I interpret the tenets of the Red Letter Christian viewpoint of the scriptures.

Red Letter Christians: Points of Agreement With Them?

As I mentioned earlier, I heard some things from Tony Campolo in terms of helping the poor that I remember to this day. I also know of some good things that Shane Claiborne has done for the poor and needy. I’m not here to question motives.

I’m not fond of the Red Letter Christian movement or of some of the doctrinal stances of the two men who founded it. However, I have some agreement with some points they list on their website. Here are some examples:

Western Christianity had lost its focus on Jesus…” Maybe I can’t agree with that as a blanket statement. However, if you’re not concerned about the state of Western Christianity you might need to take another look.

“We want a Christianity that looks like Jesus again, that acts like Jesus, that loves like Jesus.” Sign me up for that one. I am certainly including myself. I need to allow the Holy Spirit to work through me to be more Christlike. That certainly includes helping the poor, the widows, the needy, and the downcast.

“God is not a Democrat or a Republican. Our allegiance is not to the donkey or to the elephant, but to the Lamb.” I agree with that premise. Although I am concerned about many of the policies of the left – morally and financially, my allegiance is to God and not a particular party. I will exercise my right to vote for the person whose policies I believe most closely resemble principles found in the whole of scripture.

Who knows what the parties will say, do, or believe in the future? The Bible has to be my plumb line for my life decisions, including the leaders for whom I vote regardless of what letter is beside their name.

So, I can’t argue with some of their surface premises. There are some goals or portions of our Christian thought that we have in common. If it only stopped at those…

2. What Red Letter Christians Believe

As mentioned, Red Letter Christians put an emphasis on the words of Jesus in the Bible. They state that they believe in the “black letters’ also and that the entire Bible is God’s word. We believe that the entire Bible is “God-breathed.”  (2 Timothy 3:16)

Yet the Red Letter teachers favor and lift the words of Jesus above other scriptures. How could someone disagree with something like that? Jesus spoke much of helping the poor and the needy. He was a healer. He showed compassion like no one on earth ever has before. I get that. So, why not lift His words higher than the other parts of the book that we believe He inspired? I mean, doesn’t that sound like a good idea?

Well, no. Biblical teaching that is done outside of the clarity of the whole counsel of scripture can bring confusion and harm. So, are the “right-wing evangelicals” getting it right without fault. Of course not.

First, God doesn’t contradict Himself. The teaching of the Apostle, Paul is about half of the entire New Testament. Paul was specially sent to bring the Gospel to the Gentiles and he wrote volumes about true Christian discipleship and the lordship of Christ.

Paul and other biblical writers dealt with issues that we have no record of Jesus addressing personally. However, that in no way suggests that those other issues were not important. Our basic belief in the entire scriptural narrative would lead us to believe that Paul and a host of other biblical authors were inspired by the Holy Spirit in what they taught. With the Holy Spirit, Jesus, and God the Father being in total unity, how could we not put the same weight on the Pauline letters, for example, as we do letters written in red?

Second, The Red Letter Christians claim to distance themselves from political affiliation. However, it doesn’t appear that way. However, it certainly looks like the founding of the movement was to a degree politically motivated. They thought that the evangelical right had become too strong and didn’t represent all Christians. The fact is that the beliefs of the evangelical do not represent all Christians.

Why We Write About Red Letter Christians

I was raised in the Baptist faith. As I grew up and begin to see and study on my own, I saw some that I didn’t agree with in terms of traditional Baptist methodology. However, I would still say that the Baptist doctrine that I learned as a child is still very close to what I personally believe.

We should all reach out to the poor and needy.

I believe with all of my heart that we should examine ourselves in terms of caring for the poor, needy, the helpless. I believe in standing for people that are oppressed, etc. No argument there. However, there are waves of other issues as well.

So, I don’t have plans to write about my differences with all of the denominations and variations of those who follow Christ.

However, the premise of Red Letter Christians is really disturbing to me. That a group would minimize the majority of the sacred texts in order to magnify one portion of it makes me uneasy. very uneasy. Jesus was God. He was perfection in a pair of sandals. He was truth and spoke the truth. However, He had a very specific mission.

Plus he spoke to a very specific people group in one of the most fascinating and pivotal times in history. Then He sent the Holy Spirit and the Holy Scriptures to help train and instruct us. Just because He didn’t speak out on some of the moral issues that we face today does not mean that he is not passionate about those issues.

5. Conclusion

I don’t like to disagree with folks. Tony Campolo affected me positively when I was younger. He’s not my enemy. I would love to have a cup of coffee with the man and hear in a more exact and personal way about why he believes what he believes.

But, as to how I feel about his movement, I will say this. It is said that in Goldsboro, NC in 2019 that Tony Campolo said this, “We just can’t get this thing off the ground.” Although we definitely need more Christlike and loving movements to get off the ground. I’m not pulling for the Red Letter movement to be the one that does.

Another quote from Tony Campolo that is really telling is this:

“One of the other things that the Religious Right has on people like us, is that they know the Bible better than us. I mean this very seriously. They have memorized Scripture. They can quote chapter and verse.”

I’m well aware that the Devil quoted scripture, but maybe if the Red Letter folks would dig more into the whole counsel of scripture, and affirm those biblical teachings, then a lot of us might join them.

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