Many editions of the Bible print the words of Jesus in red. As best I can tell, this phenomenon represents a fairly new innovation in the history of Christianity. Then again, owning multiple print Bibles also has as newness about it. Several of the Bibles, including the one I read daily and use for teaching, render the words of Jesus in red ink.
The subject of whether or not Bible publishers should publish Jesus’s words in red concerns a different post on a different day. Today I am concerned with the movement or group of those calling themselves “Red Letter Christians.” I have met two different sorts of people who put special emphasis on Jesus’s words over the rest of the Bible. The first kind does not really constitute a sort of organized group. Usually the individual adheres to a sort of civil religion form of Christianity and exhibits a fairly shallow understanding of the Bible. To swipe a phrase from a relative, I would describe the individual as a good old boy with a good old theology. He summarizes depth of his thought on Scripture thus: there’s just something about those words in red, isn’t there? Isn’t there, brother?
The Red Letter Christians, the other group, have a much more thoughtful air about them. I am going to critically interact with their ideas, yes. Whether or not I think what they have to say passes muster (I don’t), I want to exercise caution regarding how I discuss Red Letter Christians. Taking Every Thought Captive shall not descend into the tactics (nor the vitriol) seen in so-called discernment blogs. I will indeed question what these people say, but until one of them makes me fear for my family’s safety, I want to maintain a hospitable disposition, willing to welcome these individuals into my home. Hence my tagging of the associated Twitter account. I do not challenge them, but if I post about them, whomever handles their social media deserves a heads-up. Let there be courtesy on earth, and let it begin with me.
I have posted Dr. Tony Campolo's introductory video to the organization here.
I sympathize with a call to pay attention to the words of Jesus. The Gospels reveal Jesus as profoundly, terrifyingly insightful. His ability to best the best, the Pharisees, Sadducees, and scribes, never ceases to amaze me. Of course, one might expect such wondrous things from the eternally existent Son of God. When assessing our own lives, what fruit we bear when alone (or in front of an applauding crowd), we often squirm when we read the words of Jesus. On the matter, C. S. Lewis wrote,
As to ‘caring for’ the Sermon on the Mount, if ‘caring for’ here means ‘liking’ or
enjoying, I suppose no one ‘cares for’ it. Who can like being knocked flat on his face by a sledge- hammer? I can hardly imagine a more deadly spiritual condition than that of the man who can read that passage with tranquil pleasure.
All people should heed any call to pay attention to the words of Jesus, for these words reveal God to us. With a significant portion of the Bible given to telling the story of Jesus, recording his actions and teaching, we should indeed feast from the tables of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. We can and should always ask the question: does my faith correspond with the person of Christ Jesus? A focus on the Gospels certainly yields much in the way of instruction unto godliness.
Then again, so does the rest of the text of the Bible.
Herein does my first criticism lie. The emphasis on an authentic, truer, ancient, original or in any way superior form of Christianity which excludes any part of the canon of Scripture has a problem. I have often privately criticized Reformed believers (of which I am one) for dwelling so much on Paul’s letters to the exclusion of other portions of Scripture. I will grant such exclusion proves implied and functional (rather than explicit and propositional), and it does not represent the best of the Reformed camp. For example, one finds a wealth of resources on John (including many sermons) from Desiring God, and Ligonier Ministries has over 600 different offerings on the Gospels. The making “more special” a particular part of Scripture at the expense of the whole creates a sort of “canon within the canon” mentality which removes part of what makes the Bible glorious—its wonderfully dynamic nature. Not every verse of Scripture has equal density (Romans 8:1 would have more than say, 1 Chronicles 5:3), but all of it exists for a reason. For instance, the Psalms will teach us about how to grieve much more than the Gospels. The Gospels do speak on the matter, but the Psalms hold much more to say on the matter.
Secondly, it would seem Red Letter Christians want to take Jesus in his own words (ironically, my words, not theirs) as opposed to hearing from another human being about Jesus, even if that individual held the office of apostle. One part of the site bears the label “The Red Letters,” and it contains many references to the words of Jesus. The site does not claim to reference all he said, but it does purport to highlight these as influential in the movement. Each reference deserves meditation by Christian believers. The list begins with the Beatitudes of Matthew 5, and it includes John 18:10-11, which I find particularly challenging (though Matthew 26:52 would seem a better reference to me, given the group’s pacifism). However, three crucial things have no mention here. The list does not include Matthew 20:24-28, or its parallel, Mark 10:41-45. In these passages, Jesus explains he will be the ultimate servant leader—most especially in the giving of his life as a ransom for many. The compiler of the list included the first eighteen verses of John 10, stopping before Jesus provides an incredibly explicit statement of his own self-understanding. In John 10:22-39, Jesus declares his deity to his opponents—he claims oneness with the Father. Finally, to my surprise given Luke 23:34, none of the passages relating the crucifixion appear on the list.
If the movement desires to take the words of Jesus seriously, as Dr. Campolo said in the video, why exclude the two most important things Jesus said? He stated his self-understanding as God in John 10, and Matthew 20 and Mark 10 state his purpose: to give his life as a ransom. Furthermore, the crucifixion provides the context for some of Jesus’s most memorable words. Why exclude the words from one of the only events all four Gospel authors included in each of their works?
Red Letter Christians fails to represent Jesus according to himself; the movement does not take the words of Jesus seriously enough. For example, when Jesus says looking lustfully upon another individual breaks the Seventh Commandment, everyone who has ears should hear; God does not wink at sexual sin. Our category of sexual sin intensifies with the reading of Matthew 5; it does not relax. So why does the site for Red Letter Christians devote so much space to something termed “sexual minorities?” Has Jesus said anything to expand the categories of sex God termed legitimate and good?
If Jesus purposed to die, and he indicates he did in John 2:19-22 (another passage not referenced by Red Letter Christians), no complete understanding of Jesus can ignore it. With the lack of reference to the crucifixion, Red Letter Christians misses the central part of the work of Jesus according to the Gospels. If the man claimed divinity, as he did, surely we cannot ignore such a thing. Yet, Red Letter Christians does ignore Jesus’s words on being God’s Son. If one fails to begin to understand the gravity of these claims, one has no reason to seriously reckon with the words of Jesus. He reduces to another tragic figure; a little pond’s visionary big fish eaten by the sharks of the sea.
Long ago, I learned someone else already said whatever I want to say, and he said it better than I ever could. And so John Owen writes, “So much as we know of Christ, his sufferings, and his glory, so much do we understand of the Scripture, and no more.” If we do not understand and believe the deity of Christ and all its mystery and the atonement he accomplished in all its horror, we understand none of his words, nor the people historically known as “Christians.”
Red Letter Christians and any group bearing resemblance to them have a certain attractiveness about them. They seem to authentically follow their own words and avoid a credible charge of hypocrisy. Hypocrisy remains a charge leveled at the evangelical church at large, and unfortunately, the charge often has some credibility. While those of us past the age of 25 usually possess the experience (or the cynicism) to process hypocrisy within the evangelical church (thinking of no one specific, and certainly not my own church), our young people do not. When they find Christ compelling, but do not find the believers they know compelling, or incongruent with the Jesus they received from those same believers, its no wonder they might find the thought of a group promoting something like Red Letter Christians attractive.
As explained above, I think Red Letter Christians fails on its own terms, and I have not discussed other problems they have. Let us then teach and live in a such a way congruent with the Christ of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. We must follow the Jesus presented in the letters of Paul, Peter, James, and Jude. If we do not, we can have no surprise when a line of thought rivaling our own takes the attention of our young people as well as their hearts.
C. S. Lewis, “Rejoinder to Dr Pittenger,” in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, ed. Walter Hooper (Grand Rapids: William B. Eermdans Publishing Company, 1970), 182.
John Owen, Meditations and Discourses on the Glory of Christ, vol. 1 of The Works of John Owen,(Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 1993), 343. Reprint.