Just what is a ‘Red Letter Christian?’


There are fairly divided feelings over the phrase “evangelical Christian” these days. The term evokes all kinds of images, and for many who do not identify themselves as evangelical Christians, most of those associations are negative:

Slick snake-oil salesmen disguised as preachers, soliciting peoples’ money on TV.

Angry tirades issued from bullhorns on street corners about the sinful state of the world.

Hypocritical attitudes toward others, suggestive that somehow the rest of the world simply doesn’t get it.

An almost fetishist obsession with sexual mores, particularly homosexuality. Thankfully, these are broad stereotypes that do not describe all evangelicals. The greatest detriments to the movement itself tend to be, however, that so many of the biggest evangelical figures tend either to make more enemies than friends (see Bob Jones) or they get caught up in scintillating scandal, very similar to the things they’ve preached against (see Jimmy Swaggart, Ted Haggard, et al.).

There are those within Christianity who have tired of the hard-line, angry, judgmental labels attached to the term “evangelical,” and they’ve resolved to reclaim it. The so-called Red Letter Christians are identified as such mainly because they focus less on arguing about the many interpretations people have of scripture on hundreds of do’s and don’ts, and instead focus on the messages that Jesus offers directly in scripture.

If you’re not familiar, there are some Bibles that highlight all quotes from Jesus in red, thus the name “Red Letter Christians.” Their philosophy, at the risk of oversimplifying, basically comes down to one straightforward mandate: If Jesus said to do it, then go do it.

This movement was begun by activists such as author, preacher and humanitarian Tony Campolo, and celebrated by the likes of Jim Wallis, progressive Christian media icon and editor of Sojourners magazine. The point is that Jesus was pretty direct about our responsibility to others, and he mentions care for the poor and marginalized, so we have work to do. Regarding hot-button issues like homosexuality, Jesus says nothing in scripture about it, so it’s deemed that our energy as Christians should be put into something more important than condemning others.

And they’re doing this in the name of evangelical Christianity.

I should say here that I agree with 95 percent of what the Red Letter Christian movement stands for. However, I do have a couple of bones to pick with them.

First of all, the idea that Red Letter Christians are somehow avoiding the cumbersome, divisive process of the various meanings that arise when interpreting scripture is bogus. By selecting parts of the Bible to emphasize at all, regardless of your reasoning, you are interpreting. You’re saying that these parts are more important than other parts.

Also, any time you read scripture, you’re interpreting it: It’s unavoidable. Also, I’m of the opinion that scripture itself is an interpretation of what went down at the time. I know, I’m making no friends with literalists with this one, but I think if God had wanted us to have an infallible, perfect understanding of things, it would have been downloaded directly into our brains, and not written, rewritten, paraphrased and handed down through oral tradition over hundreds of years. Talk about a setup for interpretation!

Second, the Red Letter Christians try to get off the hook somewhat by making homosexuality a non-issue. In fact, if they truly believe in their mandate to stand up for the oppressed, then gays and lesbians should be high on the list of those for whom they advocate.

Having said all this, I’m excited about the prospects of this young movement. In fact, I’m confident that, if combined with the emergent movement born from the evangelical side, the Red Letter Christians may just be the fresh, compelling voice for justice and activism we’ve needed for so long.