taking the words of Jesus seriously

Today’s blog post is in response to a comment I received from my post “Why the Religious Right Will Dominate”:

“How sad that the depth of the ‘new and improved evangelical’ theology is limited to the ‘red letters; in scripture. Is the implication that these are the only (or most important) words of God worth our devotion? As an “old and outdated” evangelical I will keep the whole of scripture as the Word of God, thank you.”

Let me begin with saying that this remark is not the first time the alarm has been sounded regarding the concept of Red Letter Christianity. Whether it is the critique that ‘Red Letter Christians’ view the ‘red letters’ as more divinely inspired or more significant, it is a critique that often finds me wherever I may go.

And I welcome the critique. I am not without fault and throughout my life I have taken a few theological turns that my friends and supporters have help straighten out. The name and mission of Red Letter Christianity is one of those issues that I have prayed and contemplated about frequently throughout my life, especially in the past couple years.

Allow me to explain:

First, Red Letter Christianity is not an approach to Scripture that seats the ‘red letters’ of the Bible above any other letters from the Bible. There is no hierarchy of ‘red letters’ down to ‘black letters.’ Instead, Red Letter Christianity places an emphasis on Christ’s words as found throughout the New Testament. Much in the same way that certain churches identify with Micah 6:8 or John 3:16 our movement identifies with the specific words of Christ with regards to action and deed. Christians who emphasize Micah 6:8’s call to justice, kindness and mercy do not believe the rest of Scripture as less than this verse. Rather, this specific verse stands as a model from Scripture for people to live by. In the same way, Red Letter Christians emphasize the words of Christ, especially Christ’s teachings in the Sermon on the Mount, as a call to action and justice.

Second, a study of Christ’s teachings found within the Red Letters undoubtedly point’s readers over and over again to the entirety of Scripture. Throughout his teachings, Christ directly and indirectly refers to the teachings of the law and the prophets. Whether Christ is referring back to Leviticus or Isaiah, the Red Letters vividly show the connection between Christ’s words and the whole of Scripture. As Jesus himself says: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.”

Finally, the purpose of Red Letter Christians is not to establish a new theology but to assist and encourage followers of Jesus to live out the lifestyle prescribed by Christ. Too often Christians become caught in the web of theological debate arguing between issues such as free will vs. predestination. While these issues of course do have a place in the faith, the purpose of Red Letter Christians is to help folks remember that Christ calls us to a radical counter-cultural lifestyle and to assist folks in living out that lifestyle.

Undoubtedly it is a good thing to question and critique those aspects of the faith that do not seem to fit quite right. It is my hope that this defense helps to clarify and elucidate uneasiness that individuals have been feeling and expressing. I am excited about the movement of Red Letter Christianity and the impact it will have throughout our world. For those of you still questioning allow me to quote Jesus, “for whoever is not against us is for us” (Mark 9:40). I can assure you that I am not against you but am for, together with you, the betterment of our world through the spread and proclamation of Christianity in both word and deed.

About The Author


Tony Campolo is Professor of Sociology at Eastern University, and was formerly on the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania. For 40 years, he founded and led the Evangelical Association for the Promotion of Education, an organization that created and supported programs serving needy communities in the Third World as well as in “at risk” neighborhoods across North America. More recently, Dr. Campolo has provided leadership for the Red Letter Christians movement. He blogs regularly at his own website. Tony and his wife Peggy live near Philadelphia, and have two children and four grandchildren.

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