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Red Letter Christians

Updated: Nov 26, 2020

Last week’s blog was on the authority of the Bible. If you’re a parent, grandparent or mentor, there’s a second alarming trend coming your way – “red letter Christians”.

A few years ago, two hugely influential writers, Tony Campollo and Shane Claiborne, wrote a book entitled, The Red Letter Revolution. In the author’s own words, the basic premise of their book is this;

“Not only do we say that the red letters (the actual words of Jesus in red letters in the four gospels) are superior to the black letters of the Bible, but Jesus said they were! Jesus over and over again in the Sermon on the Mount, declared that some of the things that Moses taught about such things as divorce, adultery, killing, getting even with those who hurt you and the use of money, had to be transcended to a higher morality.”

In all fairness, I agree, as do most theologians, that the last part of this quote is true. Jesus did “toughen up” and raised the bar of Moses’ teaching in almost all of these areas. But that’s exactly why this book and this red letter revolution idea is so dangerous. It mixes, “let’s just live like Jesus” (and who’s going to argue with that!) with making commands in the rest of the Bible, including the balance of the New Testament books a virtual footnote.

But, this blog isn’t a personal assault on Tony, or Shane, two men I’ve not always agreed with theologically, but who clearly are trying to be serious followers of Jesus and are courageously calling others to do the same. But, it is a warning about red letter Christianity. My concern is that these views will only further undermine the confidence of younger Christians in the reliability and authority of all scripture for their lives. So, why would these authors do that? Here’s my theory; A new kind of Christianity There is a second book written by Brian McLaren, who has been called “The theological Martin Luther of the emergent church”, entitled A New Kind of Christianity (and sadly, it is a new kind of religion, but not historical Christianity). Rather than dissecting each of these books, I’ll try to summarize the main issues and what I believe are their motives for doing so:

  1. The Bible is full of teaching that they feel is legalistic, politically incorrect and unacceptable to many younger Christians and non-Christians. By subordinating the black letter Bible to the red lettered words, you automatically rid yourself of many troublesome passages and issues Jesus never addressed, like creation, the genocide of the Canaanites, homosexuality, abortion, one’s responsibility within the church and headship in marriage.

  2. Red letter Christians are no longer under the authority of the whole Bible. As I said in last week’s blog, McLaren views the Bible less like a constitution which has enforceable authority, and more like a library which is a useful resource for knowing God, the history of his people and for guidance on “How then shall we live” issues. Thus we steer clear of legalism, judgment and the “thus saith the Lord” absolutist mindset. As Brian says, “I encourage Christians to read the Bible as an inspired library.”

  3. All these authors point out that Paul himself told us not to follow him or anyone but Christ. “My brothers and sisters, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. What I mean is this: One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas”; still another, “I follow Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Paul?” I Corinthians 11:13  “There you have it”, say the red letter advocates, Paul himself tells us to follow only Jesus.

  4. Red letter Christians sound orthodox when they affirm that the whole Bible is inspired by God. However, they mean something different. Inspired does not mean authoritive. They believe many of the other New Testament writings, though inspired, were to a specific church to correct a problem unique to them in their culture, not a mandate for all Christians, for all times. By this logic they avoid saying the Bible isn’t inspired, which makes them sound more evangelical than they really are. Ironically, all of those authors take a much softer view of Jesus’ very direct and unambiguous teachings on hell, divorce, remarriage and sexual purity and lean heavily on forgiveness and grace. But essentially, what you have is a Bible within the Bible.

  5. The final reason I believe those authors are advocating those positions is this is a more simple Christianity. Jesus is still an attractive figure to younger Christians and many non-Christians. His concern for the poor, his warnings to the rich and his disgust for religious leaders and hypocrites make him a folk hero. Red letter Christianity is a much easier sell!

The red letter Christians have conveniently forgotten this: “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.” II Timothy 3:16

It reminds me of Satan’s first temptation. “Did God really say?”

Now what? Besides just shaking our heads and bemoaning this trend, what should thoughtful Christians do? In two days, on May 1, I’ll post a separate blog with a few important ideas for helping your children, grandchildren or people you mentor have a greater confidence in the reliability and authority of the whole Bible.

Question: Have you seen these ideas expressed by your young adult children, or heard your friends express them?

How following Jesus works in real life.

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