A new phrase has recently emerged in the Christian lexicon and even has an article on Wikipedia. “Red letter” Christians focus on the words of Jesus (the red type in some Bibles) and endorse more progressive political views. The phrase appears to have been birthed out of a desire of some evangelicals to distinguish themselves from those that are politically conservative: the so-called Religious Right. This raises several questions for me:
Do not all evangelicals profess a commitment to the teachings of Jesus? Evangelicals have historically affirmed both the authority of Scripture and the centrality of Jesus. In that sense, are not all evangelicals by definition “red letter” Christians?
For one group to identify themselves with the words of Jesus seems to imply that other politically conservative evangelicals do not follow His teachings. If they assume they are the only group following Jesus’ teachings, then “red letter” Christians would be making the same mistake they claim of conservatives.
If the concern is to make a distinction among evangelicals along political lines or social issues, might it be more helpful to use a label that avoids pejorative connotations, like “progressive evangelical” or, as Jim Wallace puts it, “19th century evangelical”? Instead of abandoning “evangelical,” perhaps we need to be reminded of the breadth of its original meaning.
The second question concerns theology rather than nomenclature. It is of course laudable that “red letter” Christians want to emphasize and focus on Jesus. But how can one emphasize the recorded, spoken words of Jesus while affirming the totality of the Bible? Can Jesus’ words be understood or obeyed apart from the Old Testament, Pauline epistles or the Revelation? Or even apart from theology and tradition? In what sense are the “red letters” different from or worthy of more attention than the other parts?
My concern is that focusing on the “red letters” may take a dangerous step toward advocating a “canon within a canon” whereby one part of Scripture is deemed more authoritative than the others. Eastern’s mission statement recognizes both the Old Testament and New Testament as inspired and authoritative in faith and life.
As an aside, it is sometimes impossible to know what the “red letters” are. Red text is a modern and at times subjective imposition on the text; nothing in biblical Greek sets quotations apart from the text. Take for example, John 3:10-21; where do Jesus’ words end and John’s begin? After verse 21 (NIV, NAS) or at verse 15 (RSV)?
In these turbulent times, my fear is that the designation “red letter Christian” will further polarize and divide followers of Jesus along political boundaries.