taking the words of Jesus seriously

When the Red Letter Christian movement got underway, there was a sense that the Evangelical community, in general, had become overly focused on the theological issues raised in the Pauline Epistles.  Without any desire to diminish the significance of theology, we recognized that the time had come to create some balance to this overemphasis on theology by taking more seriously the things that were written in the Gospels—especially in those red letters which emphasize the words of Jesus.  There was a growing awareness that Evangelicals, with the exception of people like many in the Anabaptist tradition, had sought to escape those hard sayings of Christ in respect to lifestyles.

Examples of this are easy to find.  There has been a minimizing of the Beatitudes which call upon us to be merciful.  A survey of Evangelicals suggests that the majority of them believe in capital punishment, and if a capital crime is committed they advocate capital punishment.  This, to many of us, seemed to be a violation of Jesus’ saying, “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.”

Most Evangelicals have been very supportive of recent war efforts of the United States, almost seeming to suggest that our armies marching into Afghanistan and Iraq had the right to be singing, “Onward, Christian soldiers, marching as to war…”  More simply put, Evangelicals did not seem to be willing to ask what Jesus was talking about when He said, “Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called children of God.”  Nor was there any sense that when Jesus told us to love our enemies, He probably meant we shouldn’t kill them.  The militarism which most Evangelicals support seems to run contrary to the beliefs of those Christians who take the red letters seriously and contend that one cannot read the Sermon on the Mount without coming away convinced that Christians should be committed to non-violent resistance.

Furthermore, Evangelicals have been reluctant to face up to the clear message of Jesus in Mark 10, that to be called to be Christ’s disciple is to be called to make a radical response to the poor by selling one’s possessions and giving the money to the poor.  It is in this vein of thinking that Shane Claiborne and I wrote a recently published book, Red Letter Revolution: What If Jesus Really Meant What He Said?

Related: Love Wins – A New Split in Protestant Evangelicalism by Jimmy Spencer Jr.

The difference of emphasis between those of us who want to take literally the red letters of the Bible and those who emphasize the teachings of the Apostle Paul (not that there is contradiction between the two) is only the beginning of the coming split within the Evangelical community.

Increasingly, among a significant proportion of the Evangelical community, especially among young people, there is a growing acceptance of monogamous, committed relationships for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered people.  It’s not that they have become liberal on this issue, but that they do not hold it up as a defining issue.  Statistical analysis gives evidence that every year more and more of those who call themselves Evangelicals, while still maintaining a conservative mindset on the issue of gay marriage, want to divorce themselves from a church that has labeled LGBT persons as “abominations, ” and refused to give them acceptance within the church.

On the other hand, those at the most conservative end of the political/theological spectrum of the Evangelical community have made this issue so important that they want to separate from those in the Evangelical community with whom they disagree, and leave churches that are welcoming and affirming of LGBT persons.

Abortion has also become an issue in which we see strong differences of opinion among Evangelicals.  There are those who believe that the answer to the high numbers of abortions performed each year here in America is to make abortions illegal once again.  On the other side, there are those who are upset with abortion having become an alternate form of birth control, but do not see the solution in legislation since, according to one study, 73 percent of all the abortions performed in America are economically driven. They want to see a rise in the minimum wage, universal healthcare for all Americans, pre- and post-natal care for mothers (especially single mothers), and provisions for leaves of absence without loss of employment for women who are having babies.  They also want daycare provided for mothers who have to be gainfully employed outside the home in order to support their children.

This latter group is mindful of the woman who may work at Wal-Mart for 35 hours a week at minimum wage.  Because she is not employed full-time (40 hours a week), she is not entitled to health benefits, and cannot afford the hospital costs that go with having a baby.  In addition, she is fearful of losing the only job she can get if she takes off time to have her baby. Then, when her baby is born, she doesn’t know who will care for the child when she goes back to work.  Given these kinds of circumstances, it’s easy to see why such a woman would have an abortion, in spite of moral constraints that might exist within her conscience.

There is also another force that may be moving Evangelicalism to a split, and that is that there are those who call themselves Christians who do not have what mainstream Evangelicals would consider a high enough view of Scripture.  We’ve met people who are not sure who authored many of the books of the Old Testament (the Hebrew Bible).  Some who are at the liberal end of the Evangelical spectrum raise questions about what is recorded in the red letters of the Bible.  They are not sure that Jesus really did say all that is written in those red letters.  They buy into Marcus Borg and the Jesus Seminar and believe that the apostles and other writers of the Scripture may have embellished the stories of Jesus in order to increase credibility when they declared Him to the outside world.  Obviously, mainstream Evangelicalism would say that brothers and sisters who hold to such views should not be called Evangelicals, but the problem is that many of those who do hold to these views do call themselves Evangelicals.

Then there is the matter of music.  Some in the Evangelical community have moved out of Evangelical churches simply because they feel that the worship is superficial.  They listen to the same worship songs, sung while standing for a half hour, Sunday after Sunday, and ask if there are not other forms of worship that would be more meaningful to them.  Many have moved into churches in the Orthodox community.  Orthodox churches are gaining members from the Evangelical ranks on an almost weekly basis.  Some Evangelicals have moved into Catholicism because the liturgy of churches in the Catholic tradition proves to be more meaningful to them than the kind of worship that goes on in most Evangelical churches.

Finally, there is a political divide insofar as a significant majority of Evangelicals operate under the assumption that if you are not committed to the Republican Party, you can hardly call yourself an Evangelical, and perhaps you even ought not to call yourself a Christian. I have heard, as all of us have, certain voices who have suggested that to be a Christian is, post facto, to be a Republican, given what the Republican Party stands for and what the Democratic Party stands for.  Needless to say, there are a number of Evangelicals who disagree with that kind of judgment.

Also by Tony: Why ‘Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin’ Doesn’t Work

Given all of these factors, you can understand that I think it is only a matter of time before there is a split in the Evangelical ranks because, in so many ways, the word, both theologically and politically, has become ambiguous.  I don’t think that Red Letter Christianity is ready to ally itself with either side of the split when the split does come.

What those of us in the Red Letter Christian tradition are trying to do is simply to elevate the radical lifestyle that Jesus taught as a necessary balance to the theological discussions that emerge out of Pauline theology and to challenge the church to affirm a lifestyle that will make its members countercultural who do not identify Christianity with capitalism, nationalism, and middle-class affluence.  The values inherent in such things stand contrary, in our minds, to what Jesus calls us to be.

Most of us, if not all, would contend that we love America.  We may call America “Babylon, ” but we believe it’s the best Babylon on the face of the earth.  Nevertheless, it is still Babylon, and we sense a call bidding us not to be conformed to this world.

Richard Thornton / Shutterstock.com

Red Letter Christians is a corrective to an overemphasis by Christians on doctrine without an equal emphasis on lifestyle. Can you invest in our voice as we spread this message?

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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