Last month, Christianity Today published on its website a critical piece on Red Letter Christians. Because we can always learn something from our critics, many of us read Karren Swallow Prior’s “But Jesus Didn’t Say…” with interest. Much like C.S. Lewis before her, Prior exemplifies what a good English professor can teach us about how to read the Bible.
Indeed, as a Christian who wants to learn to read the Bible better, I’m grateful for her work.
But as Content Coordinator for Red Letter Christians, I also feel compelled to clarify what I take to be a misunderstanding of our movement. Indeed, just such clarity is another gift our critics offer us.
While Prior begins with quotes from our website, correctly pointing out that our movement has tried to “take Jesus seriously” in terms of Christian practice, she quickly turns to say that “practice cannot be separated from interpretation.” Which is a good point… and one that our contributors make often. Christian practice often reveals—or betrays—how we really view Scripture. Though we confess with our mouths that Jesus is Lord, the message we live can contradict our words.
Jesus invented a word to describe this problem: hypocrisy. Today, we’re often confronted with Gandhi’s words on Christian hypocrisy: “I like your Christ; I just don’t like your Christians.”
But this isn’t the connection Prior makes between interpretation and practice. Her point is not that we demonstrate our interpretation in how we live, but rather than how we read shapes how we live. In the language of the academy, hermeneutics shape ethics.
And once again, she is right. Only, the hermeneutic she chooses to attack—what she calls the “Jesus-first” camp—is not one Red Letter Christians has articulated or embraced. She quotes, rather, the position taken by some Southern Baptists, shortly after the Southern Baptist Convention was taken over by reactionary elements in the late 1990s.
I remember well those controversies because, having grown up in a Southern Baptist congregation—a wonderful place I still consider home—I was just beginning to face the internal contradictions in our tradition. When the new leadership of the SBC argued that “wives must graciously submit to their husbands, ” they noted that they were quoting Scripture—God-breathed and authoritative for faith and practice. But their way of reading Ephesians, it seemed to me, betrayed something about the practice of the white men who had recently come to power.
As a young white man myself, I learned that this reading also betrayed something about my own formation and assumptions.
Initially, the emphasis on wifely submission struck me as odd because it simply wasn’t what I’d seen growing up. Devout Southern Baptists, my parents had stressed the Lordship of Christ, the Bible as our creed, the importance of the church and the value of a personal relationship with Jesus. They had not emphasized gender hierarchy. My mom, who still leads worship at our home church, often led the congregation in prayer and was respected as a spiritual leader. She taught men and women in Sunday School because she was a good teacher. No one questioned this. Until the controversy over wifely submission in the SBC, I thought it was just the way things were.
But this peculiar emphasis “wifely submission” while neglecting the clearly complimentary command in Ephesians for husbands to love their wives as Christ loved the church—all in the context of mutual submission “out of reverence for Christ”—led me to re-read Ephesians and to learn a great deal about how Southern Baptists before me had read the book. I learned that we were Southern Baptists because some of our forefather’s had found justification for the practice of race-based chattel slavery in the biblical injunction for slaves to submit to their masters. This wasn’t a position anyone was still arguing in the late 1990s. But I began to suspect our tradition had learned some bad habits while proof-texting Scripture to justify un-Godly practice.
I wasn’t confronted with a choice between “Jesus-first” and “Bible-first, ” but with a crisis of faith. My people’s history forced me to face what Frederick Douglass had seen so clearly at the founding of the Southern Baptist Convention—that there is a difference between “the Christianity of this land” and “the Christianity of Christ.” Douglass knew too much about the goodness of Jesus to reject Christianity. But white Christian practice forced him to clarify his distinction. “I mean by the religion of this land, that which is revealed in the words, deeds, and actions, of those bodies, north and south, calling themselves Christian churches, and yet in union with slaveholders.”
However we read the Bible—and there are, admittedly, better and worse ways—we read it in vain if it does not challenge the sinful patterns in which we are all so entangled. In so many ways, this is a point more basic than anything we might call “hermeneutics.” But it is precisely the point that Red Letter Christians seeks to make.
I am still Baptist—and, thereby, still evangelical—in large part because I met Tony Campolo at precisely the moment in my life when this distinction was brought home by the events I’ve just described. Though he wasn’t yet using the term “Red Letter Christian, ” Tony made absolutely clear that the Jesus I had committed my life to follow was not a representative of the “religion of this land, ” but rather presented a radical alternative to the self-righteous, patriarchal, violent and sexist religious culture I was surrounded by. Tony helped me to see that if I kept following Jesus, I would have to learn a whole new way of life.
So I was saved by Red Letter Christianity. Maybe it’s the zeal of a convert that prevents me from understanding how this basic point about integrity—a way of life that lines up with the Jesus we claim to follow—could be misunderstood as an unorthodox hermeneutic. It is, at the very least, my gratitude for Tony and the community I’ve found among fellow Red Letter Christians that compels me to clarify this distinction in response to Prior’s conflation.
But once again, I must thank Prior for helping me to realize again why Red Letter Christianity matters. We invite Christians of all denominations and traditions to ask, What if Jesus really does offer us a whole new way of life?
What might it look like to leave behind the religion of this land and live the Christianity of Christ? If that single question expresses the basic desire of your heart, then you’re a Red Letter Christian. If you want to hear from others who are trying to follow the Jesus Way, you can find us here.