Dumb Teaching: Red Letter Christians

There is false teaching…and there is just dumb teaching.

This is the last of four little rants that I’ve been writing on for the last few weeks. But this one is probably the worst – it’s my big axe to grind.

This week in Edmonton, one the church’s most dearly beloved evangelical leader is here to visit – Tony Campolo.

And what is his talk about?

It’s about being a “Red Letter Christian.”You know how the old NIV puts Jesus words in red. Well that’s all you really need to read when it comes to being a really good Christian says Campolo.

And what does that actually mean? Well it’s Campolo’s attack on Paul of course. The Gospels, says Campolo, is where real discipleship happens. Jesus, says Campolo, was a kind soul who spoke on the Kingdom of God blessing the poor, where Paul was just a cold doctrine-head who only cared about establishing order in the church and speaking against homosexuality.

But there are four reasons, at least, for why this is nonsense:

  • First, because Jesus said the Holy Spirit would come to lead us into all truth (John 16:13). Part of that meant using Paul to write Scripture after the ascension of Jesus. In other words, Jesus not only endorses Paul but we actually need Paul and the rest of the New Testament writers (Luke, Peter, James etc.) to have a complete walk with God in all truth.
  • Second, Paul knew theology yes, but he is intensely practical. Paul cared so much for the poor (Gal 2:10). Paul cared about families and how they followed Christ (Col 3). Paul is no ivory tower theologian. He worked with his hands. He mentored people.
  • Third, the red letter thing is dumb because Jesus didn’t actually write the Gospels. So the red letters are biographical, and not actually authored by Jesus. And if Luke wrote Luke, then isn’t Acts just as inspired by the Holy Spirit? And if John recorded Jesus’ words in his Gospel what about the words Jesus spoke in Revelation? What about 1,2,3 John? Pretty soon you start to realize that…wait a minute…the whole New Testament should be in red letters!
  • Fourth, this Red Letter thing is nonsense because…there were never any red letters to begin with. When the New Testament Greek Manuscripts were written and compiled the words of Jesus were not written in some special ink, or red ink, or whatever. Some translation team for the NIV or something decided to put Jesus words in red for effect. But all the original manuscripts were in black…all black letters.

So what are we really dealing with here? Well it’s nothing short of classic theological liberalism – finding a “canon within a canon.” That’s what biblical liberals do. Some parts of Scripture bother them, so instead of reading them and repenting they find a few special verses they like, isolate them from the rest of the progressive revelation of Scripture through history, and then make those few verses the focus of their life and walk with God. I’m sorry but that is just not discipleship. It doesn’t cut it.

Nope. You need the wholeBible if you are going to be a whole Christian. And that means that when you are offended by parts of the Bible, like Paul, that means you are out of line – the Bible isn’t.

You see the trouble is if you keep walking down that road – where Paul is the bad guy and Jesus is the good guy – eventually Jesus also is going to become the bad guy.

Let me explain. Peter completely upholds Paul’s writings as sacred text (2 Pet 3:16). Jesus told Peter that he would be the rock on which he would build his church, which also meant giving him the authority to “bind and loose” (Matthew 16:13-20).

So then…where does it end? If we dismiss Paul’s authority do we also dismiss Peter’s authority? And if we dismiss Peter’s authority do we dismiss Jesus authority? Was Jesus is wrong? Are the red letters wrong? Oh wait. There are no red letters.


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