“By calling ourselves Red Letter Christians, we are alluding to those old versions of the Bible wherein the words of Jesus are printed in red. In adopting the name, we are saying that we are committed to living out the things that Jesus taught.” Red Letter Christians pgs. 20-21
In II Timothy 3:16 we read that, “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” ALL scripture is inspired. Not just part of it. Not just the red letters. So why would anyone choose to be a “partial Bible Christian” instead of a “whole Bible Christian?” Why should I call myself a “Red Letter Christian” and not a “Red and Black Letter Christian?” Shouldn’t we be open to and guided by all 66 books, all 1, 189 chapters, all 31, 373 verses and (in the King James Version) all 775, 693 words? That is a fair question that deserves an honest, personal answer.
Let me begin my answer with a familiar scene. Haven’t you been in a gathering of Christians where the leader asks, “Does anyone have a favorite Bible passage to share?” It does not take a rocket scientist to know what the group leader knows – namely that most people gravitate naturally to certain passages more than to others. Most of us have our favorites. So, when the leader asks if anyone has a favorite verse to share, hands go up all over the room and we hear an assortment of familiar and not so familiar words recited.
Can you imagine how odd it would seem for someone to say, “For me all 31, 373 verses are equal”? In that setting, being a “whole Bible Christian” is actually to be rather peculiar. The comment about all 31, 373 verses sounds out of place. The “whole Bible Christian” sounds like someone who is new to fellowships like this. More importantly the person comes off as not having had enough interest to have read the Bible often enough to have found any favorite passages at all.
The fact is that, as we get into Bible Study, some parts of the Bible will really speak to us and others won’t. We are totally into some sections, and our eyes glaze over when we read other passages. We soon realize that some passages have been more instrumental in our faith journey than others. Some passages have helped us present the faith more clearly than others. Some passages bring it all together for us. Other passages seem unrelated to anything. John 3:16 “For God so loved the world that he gave His only begotten son…” resonates with more urgency for me than Genesis 27:11 – “my brother Esau is a hairy man….” Yes, all scripture is inspired. But not all 31, 373 verses carry the same weight for my faith.
I BELIEVE GOD INTENDS IT THAT WAY. IN FACT, I BELIEVE GOD’S PURPOSES ARE WORKED OUT BY PEOPLE WHO READ THE BIBLE THAT WAY.
I enrolled in seminary almost half a century ago. In the years since, I have repeatedly seen the Church of Jesus Christ be challenged, energized, enlivened and led by faithful persons who lived what I am calling “Partial Bible Christianity.” There is no doubt in my mind that these “PBCs” have consistently lived and believed the words to Timothy that “All scripture is God inspired….” But these people have also found that God was most fully directing their lives through certain particular passages, certain particular verses.
When I was ordained into the ministry, “social action” was in. During those years of the 1960’s and 70’s activists took their texts form the Old Testament prophets. Look up Amos 5 and return to the late 1960’s. “Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.”(24-25). Look up Matthew 25:31-46. “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?”(37). Activists got energized at the thought of Jesus driving the establishment’s money changers out of the Temple for exploiting the people. Activists preferred Luke’s record of Jesus having said, “Blessed are you who are poor, ” (6:20) to Matthew’s version, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.”(5:3). Social action has its favorite passages.
The evangelistically minded did not cotton the activist’s passages. They preferred their own. Jesus’ words to Nicodemus recorded in John 3 rang true. “Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”(verse 3b, KJV). Saul’s (Paul’s) conversion on the Damascus Road (Acts 9) was held up as normative for everyone. Jesus’ commissioning his disciples at the end of Matthew’s Gospel, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations…” (28:16-20) were believed by many Christians to be the purpose of the church. Across the years, people who take evangelism seriously have their texts.
The Charismatic movement was sweeping through many congregations. Every Wednesday night of my first year in seminary a group of students met for prayer, celebrating the gifts of the Spirit, hoping Pentecost would sweep anew across the campus and across the church. Acts 2 was their text. Paul’s teaching in I Corinthians 12-14 gave validity to their experience. Charismatics have biblical support for their emphasis.
In like manner today Christians who argue for strict rules of behavior, especially in matters of sexuality, have their texts. And those who insist on practicing grace and more openness have theirs. People who believe that women should play a lead role in the church point to passages reporting that Jesus traveled and was supported by women. These people point to passages where Paul put women in positions of leadership. At the same time, people who do not believe that women should be in positions of leadership call attention to passages attributed to Paul where he says they should not lead.
It is obvious to me, after these many decades in the ministry, that “Partial Bible Christians” are people who know their Bibles, and who stand up for their understanding of what the Bible teaches. They know what the Bible taught them and they are not bashful about letting us know what they have learned.
And quite frankly they drive me nuts. The activists, the evangelicals, the Pentecostals, the defenders of morality and dispensers of grace, those who include and those who exclude women are all dead sure they are not only right, but righter than anyone who does not wholly agree with them. If you do not see it their way, you are judged to be un-biblical. They make me feel as if I am constantly on trial. I feel that my words have to be carefully chosen so as not to appear to belong to some group with whom these people disagree. I have personally found that to be a centrist is to be hammered or ignored by both extremes in most debates. In case I have not been clear, let me say it again: these people drive me up a tree with their certainty and their judgments and their condescending manner!!
And yet…and yet…these people who drive me nuts are often the very people God has called to model what the faith is all about. They are the ones who live their faith. They are not people for whom the church is just another club, a place to go if the kids don’t have soccer practice, a place to have your name on the membership list and give as little of your time and money as possible. For them, following Jesus is life itself. This stuff matters. It is who they are. It is whose they are. History is made by these people who have latched onto certain passages of the Bible for special life giving power, direction and purpose.
“All scripture is inspired by God.” But some of it filters deep down where we live. It touches our hearts and our minds in special ways that can change our lives, and change history.
It is the people who have focused their faith on certain passages of Scripture who shape church history. Think about it. The Apostle Paul was moved by something the Old Testament Prophet Habakkuk said about the just living by faith. Paul included Habakkuk’s insight in his letter to the Galatians. Centuries later, Luther’s world was rocked when he read that verse in Galatians and the whole history of the church was changed. It was – as usual – not the whole 775, 693 words of the whole bible, but the intensity of the few words in specific passages that had the power.
The activists, the evangelicals, the Pentecostals, and yes, the conservatives and the liberals, can drive us nuts. They are forever telling us that THEY have the truth. And they can make us feel like second-class citizens sometimes, when we do not go along with everything they say. They make me long for “Whole Bible Christians” who leave me alone. But, my friends, it is the folks whose lives are renewed, defined and driven by their favorite verses and passages who are the ones who bring life to the church, who model for us what it means to take discipleship seriously, who make history.
We who call ourselves Red Letter Christians fully believe that “All scripture is inspired.” But we are focused with laser intensity in the words Jesus spoke. Those words are the text for the sermon we call our lives. We find power in those words. We find direction. We find purpose. We find life itself. In that sense we dare to stand with the great company of “Partial Bible Christians” who have served the Lord faithfully across the centuries.
Dr. John Galloway is a retired Presbyterian minister and graduate of Princeton University and Princeton Theological Seminary. A frequent guest preacher, Dr. Galloway is the author of three books, the latest of which is Ministry Loves Company, a guide on how to be a parish minister. He is also the Executive Director of Tony Campolo missionary organization, EAPE.