Red-Letter Christians

Matt Friedman has a column on Agape Press, and links to it from his blog. In it, he complains of Christians, in his words members of “the Evangelical left” who call themselves red-letter Christians. The name is derived from the practice of some Bible editions that put the words of Jesus in red.

To Friedman, the main reason for them to do this is apparently to avoid certain topics that are discussed in more detail in the parts of scripture that are not in red. To quote him:

One wonders, of course, if the real reason they have decided to use Scripture this way is that Jesus never actually uses the terms “homosexual” and “abortion.” The Red-Letter designation ostensibly frees these passionate lefties from the issues they despise the most and the texts that more directly address them.

My question is equally direct. Do many conservative Christians (I know that it is not all conservatives) dislike the idea of the red-letter Christians because it emphasizes the texts that “more directly address them?” Is it because they would like to replace “Blessed are the poor in spirit” with “Blessed are the spiritually satisfied,” and “Blessed are those who are persecuted” with “Blessed are those who fight for their own rights while ignoring the rights of others?”

The Christian right has made numerous issues, from the environment, to criminal policy, to economics, and huge numbers of allegedly moral issues a matter of Christian faith, rather than personal choice and strategy. Much of this agenda is directly contradicted by the words and life of Jesus. Indeed, it is not at all surprising that some Christian conservatives would like to keep the emphasis off of the words and actions of Jesus.

It’s particularly ironic to see Mr. Friedman quote Matthew 5:17-20, a great passage on the law, and a favorite of mine simply because it shows that salvation produces fruit, something that some evangelicals, especially “Paul centered” evangelicals, tend to ignore. He believes, correctly I think, that this passage points out to us that there is value in much more of the Bible than in just the red letters. But in using it to find material on homosexuality, for example, he would run afoul of the fact that all Christians ignore at least part of the law. How do you explain that? Right next to the passage commonly used against homosexuality, Leviticus 18:22, are commands not to hate one’s neighbor, ritual commands about sacrifice, and in 19:33 the order to treat an alien in your land as a citizen. What do we do with all of these?

Personally, I think there’s something to learn from all of them. In fact, I do have a bit of a problem with the concept of a “red-letter Christian” myself, but only if the words of Jesus are set against the rest of the words of scripture. But the words and actions of Jesus should be set at the center, and should be the guide by which we interpret the remainder of scripture. I discussed this issue in my prior post on the two laws. For Christians, Jesus provides the focus, the direction and the organizing principle for the way we understand and implement the rest.

This may run counter to our standard view of the Bible as all equally inspired, but while I will accept that the entire Bible is inspired it is not all equally applicable at any time and place. As a follower of Jesus, I find my direction in the application of the rest from Jesus. If implementing my understanding of a passage in Paul involves violating a command of Jesus, I’m going to take a second look at the Pauline passage.

I think the red-letter Christians have it right when they put the words of Jesus at the center. They continue to be right when they use the words of Jesus as a guide to interpretation for the remainder of scripture. If they put the words of Jesus in opposition to all the rest, or use them as a way to discard the rest, then I think there’s a problem, and one may lose one’s balance.

And with all of this, I still find quite a bit of support for Christians who are not right wing.

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  1. Good thoughts on a divisive subject. MUCH more balanced and thoughtful than my first reaction to the Friedman quote. I’ll have to read the rest of that.

  2. I’d rather put the story of Jesus at the center.

    Red-Letter Christianity is merely a modern-day Marcionism which tries to eliminate the harder statements of the NT.

  3. If we follow Friedman’s logic to its natrual conclusion, I think we’d have to question Jesus’s own motives. Did he, too, “despise” issues like abortion and homosexuality? Or just what was his motivation for defying 21st century Republican orthodoxy?

  4. Nice post. There is much that is attractive about “Red-letter Christians” to me, as well. I have learned much from Wallis, Campolo, Sider, etc.

    I just like Sider’s approach the best (the most academic of the bunch with a life to match). When making the compassionate and anti-war case, he dives right into the Old Testament and proceeds through ALL of Scripture.

    The “red-letters” are, in many ways, the “self-portrait” of Jesus. I want to pay them special attention, and do.


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