Are you a Red Letter Christian? “Red Letter” refers to versions of the Bible that put direct quotes from Jesus in red ink. Red Letter Christians are those who believe that the ethics and teaching taught directly by Jesus should take priority over other agendas presented in the Bible. Tony Campolo and Jim Wallis are two figures who have been prominent advocates of this framework. In fact, Sojourners has created what they call they the Red Letter Christian Network. The listing of leaders in the network includes (among others) Randall Balmer, Diana Butler Bass, Shane Claiborne, Obery Hendricks, Tony Jones, Brian McLaren, Ron Sider, and Barbara Brown Taylor.
I reject this title and always have. It strikes me as an overreaction to excesses many perceive to have come from the religious right. I believe this new Red Letter agenda is every bit as flawed as the agenda it seeks to replace. Why? To answer that, I’m going to give you this wonderful excerpt from Jack Stackhouse's Making the Best of it: Following Christ in the Real World. This comes from a section dealing with mistaken perceptions of what it means to imitate Christ.
“What would Jesus do?’ therefore is the wrong question for Christian ethics. If we keep asking it, moreover, we will keep making the perennial mistakes many have made, such as prioritizing church work over daily trades (“because Jesus gave up carpentry for preaching the gospel”); valorizing singleness, at least for clergy (”because Jesus didn’t marry”); and denigrating all involvement in the arts, politics, or sports (“because we never read of Jesus painting a picture or participating in political discussions, much less kicking a ball”). Instead, “What would Jesus want me or us to do, here and now?” is the right question – or, if I may, Who are we, for Jesus Christ today?
Connected with this material issue, the issue of the imitation of Christ as the main motif of Christian discipleship, is a formal issue for ethical method. Many Christians, including some quite sophisticated theologians, seem to equate the priority of Christ himself versus other figures with the priority of the gospels versus other books of the Bible, such as the prophets or the epistles. But this is an important hermeneutical error (bemusingly reminiscent of 1 Cor. 1:12: “I belong to Paul” or “I belong to Cephas” or “I belong to Christ.”), and in at least four respects.
First, even though the gospels come first in the canon of the New Testament, they are probably not the earliest testimonies to Jesus in the Bible. Paul’s early letters, most scholars agree, predate most or all of the four gospels. So if we are seeking access to the most primitive layer of “Jesus tradition,” in terms of whole books (rather than this pericope or that saying or this hymn or that parable in the gospels), Paul’s work would deserve priority.
Second, we should not be privileging whatever we guess is the earlier material in the New Testament versus the later, because all of it is inspired by God and therefore has the same status: Holy Scripture. Any historian knows that sometimes later accounts are better than earlier ones precisely because the later accounts can have benefited from access to several earlier accounts plus perspective that only time can bring. So there is neither theological nor historical ground for preferring “earlier” to “later” – and that goes for preferring Mark’s gospel to John’s too.
Third, privileging the gospels in the name of privileging Jesus would make sense in terms of the relative status of the Lord Jesus versus his disciples, the epistle writers Paul, Peter, John, and others. But the gospels are authored not by Jesus but by other Christians: traditionally, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. So to privilege them is simply to prefer Matthew to Paul, or Mark to Peter, or John to, well, John (I-III John) – which reduces to a preference of genre, of gospels versus epistles. Such a preference hardly has literary or theological merit. (Indeed, the championing of the gospels over the rest of the New Testament is particularly odd coming from educated Christians, who sound as if they have discovered a red-letter edition of the Bible, except that their new version prints all of the gospels in red ink, while the rest of the Bible remains in black.)
Finally, the story of Jesus is, of course, the key to history. But to emphasize the gospels over the rest of the New Testament is to forget that Jesus is Lord over all of history, Head of the church that succeeds him in earthly ministry, and in fact Author of the whole New Testament via the inspiration of the Holy Spirit – as he is the God who inspired the whole Bible. The better hermeneutical path, therefore, is to keep clearly in view what each of the books of the Bible has to offer us and to draw upon them according to their distinctive natures, regarding not only their genre strengths and limitations but also the place of their subject matter in the Christian Story. We Christians are not to be forever repristinating the experience of the disciples trooping about with Christ in ancient Judea – nor, for that matter, the experience of the disciples in the early chapters of Acts. For there are more chapters in Acts, and the unfinished nature of the book has itself prompted many readers to the conclusion that God intends the rest of the church to keep writing it, generation by generation, until the Lord of the church returns, to fulfill the promise made at the book’s beginning (Acts 1:11) (190-192)Amen!