Note: After writing and posting this article, it came to my attention that Shane Claiborne and others officially refer to themselves as “Red Letter Christians.” I was not aware of this at the time that I wrote this and I would like to make it clear that this article is not intended to be a direct attack on Claiborne and those who refer to themselves as “Red Letter Christians” in the manner that he describes.
Chances are you may have a bible that prints the words of Jesus in red. But have you ever thought about why that might be? I mean, it does seem kind of intuitive, right? Surely we ought to care a lot about what Jesus himself said? These are the direct words of the second person of the trinity, after all.
And while there’s nothing necessarily wrong with this sentiment per se or with printing the words of Jesus in red, it’s a subtler form of a serious, albeit seemingly faithful error.
There are those of various stripes who will pit the words of Jesus against the words of the Old Testament or more commonly against Paul. There are even those who claim to base their faith on the words of Jesus alone. They are in effect, “Red-Letter Christians.”
This seems faithful. It looks like they want to strip away all the extraneous stuff, all the stuff that gets in the way of just following Jesus. And isn’t that what being a Christian is all about? Just following Jesus.
But there’s really more going on. In my own experience, such a move is often motivated by wanting to get rid of something from Paul or the Old Testament. For some, it’s an issue of what they believe Paul teaches about women, or what he says about sexual ethics or war and violence. Others think that the themes of wrath and judgment present in the Old Testament could not come from a truly loving God. Never mind the fact that Jesus himself preaches the same coming wrath and judgment of God.
This amounts to someone attempting to construct a Christianity more suitable to their own values. But this is not what Christians do. Christians do not listen to the bits that God has to say that we like, but ignore the parts we don’t like. This is in the words of Judges, everyone doing what is right in their own eyes. This is not faithfulness. In fact, if anything we need to listen even more closely to the parts of scripture that we don’t like. These are the parts that are probably calling us to repent.
Now someone might say, “Hold on a second. Jesus and Paul and the Old Testament are saying different things. You have to pick and choose somehow, so don’t we always want to pick Jesus?”
A valid point, but it reveals the central failure of this approach.
Unity and Diversity
It almost goes without saying that there is much that is consistent in the scriptures. Similar themes come up in various writings by various authors. There’s a pretty consistent message about who God is, who Jesus is, how we should live, etc. But there’s also a lot of diversity. There’s merely stylistic diversity, say the difference between poetry, history, and letters. But there’s also what seems to be diversity of content or teaching. Some parts of the scriptures, like Leviticus talk about the importance of animal sacrifice, but other parts talk about how God does not desire sacrifices (Micah 6:6-8 and Hosea 6:6) or that sacrifices are incapable of doing anything in themselves (Hebrews 10:4). Or there’s the famous difference between Paul and James on whether faith alone justifies or whether it is faith and works that justifies. (I address this specific issue here.)
So what do we do? Does the diversity of scripture mean that it does not speak with a unified voice in any meaningful way? Or worse, does it mean that we have to actually excise the parts of scripture that contradict what we have determined to be the true and faithful parts?
As for me, my answer is no. It takes a bit of hard work and sensitivity, but it’s not hard to see that what appear to be contradictions in teaching are not usually contradictions in the strictest sense. An obvious example is that not all authors will use words in the same way. Sometimes they are referring to something different when they use the same word as another author. This is what’s going on with Paul and James. Or perhaps there is more poetic language being used that has to be understand in context, as with Hosea 6:6.
There is a real unity to the scriptures because they are all inspired by God. And there’s a real diversity to the scriptures because they were written by real people in various settings with various goals. But we have to keep these two realities in tension instead of pitting them against each other.
It’s always possible to find contradictions if you aren’t interested in reading in context and reading sensitively to subtle differences among authors.
Now, this doesn’t that there is not tension between different authors and passages. The witness of the scriptures are filled with tension and paradox, but tension and paradox are not the same thing as irreconcilable contradiction. Our response to tension should be to uphold both sides of the tension, not solve the tension by picking the side that we like better and ignoring the one that makes us uncomfortable.
This applies to those who want to follow just the words of Jesus as well. They find irreconcilable contradictions between what Jesus says and the rest of the divinely inspired scriptures because they do not attempt to read these different sources harmoniously. Instead they pit them against each other, thereby misunderstanding both Jesus and the rest of the scriptures.
And if this weren’t enough, there are two other reasons why this idea is untenable.
1. Jesus sends out his apostles and thereby commands us to listen to them as well
Jesus handpicks his apostles and sends them out to preach in his name:
And he went up on the mountain and called to him those whom he desired, and they came to him. And he appointed twelve (whom he also named apostles) so that they might be with him and he might send them out to preach and have authority to cast out demons.
The apostles, like the prophets, are similar to royal messengers. They come with the message of the king. Disregarding the words of the messenger who has been appointed by the king is the same as disregarding the words of the king himself. The apostles are not just teachers who speak merely out of their own knowledge and understanding, but Paul often speaks of things being “made known to me by revelation” (Eph 3:3). To be sure, there are times when the apostles are wrong (e.g. when Paul rebukes Peter for his treatment of the Gentiles [Gal 2]) or when they explicitly speak out of merely their own authority (1 Cor 7:12), but the same was true of the prophets of the Old Testament themselves (Jer 28).
Paul often compares the church of God to a building:
So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord.
Anyone who tries to tear apart Jesus from the apostles is tearing apart the foundation of the church of God. Such people, albeit unwittingly, are not building up the body of Christ but recklessly tearing it down.
2. If we don’t have the words of the apostles, we don’t even have the words of Jesus
This is honestly the biggest flaw in this hermeneutical system. We don’t actually have the direct words of Jesus. We have the words of Jesus as they have been given to us by the apostles. The most obvious way in which this is true is that Jesus spoke Aramaic, and other than a few words in Aramaic, everything we have of Jesus is in Greek. Thus, the red letters in the Gospels are not the words of Jesus, at least not in the strictest sense.
Furthermore, aside from the translation issue, the Gospels are not the transcripts of Jesus’ teaching and preaching. Rather, the evangelists are active in the selection and presentation of Jesus. This is why Jesus looks a little different in each of the Gospels. Each writer is presenting Jesus in their own way. They’re all accurate depictions of Jesus, but they highlight different things. Thus, Jesus in John speaks differently than Jesus in Mark or in Luke. We don’t have any pure unmediated teaching of Jesus.
Now, I’ll say again, this does not at all mean that the depictions of Jesus in the four Gospels are unfaithful or inaccurate. However, it does mean that any attempt to get to the pure Jesus without going through the apostles in some way is doomed from the start. If you want to hear from Jesus, you have to go through the ones that he himself sent to speak his message.
Now, this isn’t to say that there is no difference between the teaching of Jesus and the teaching of the apostles. They do things differently; they cover different topics. There’s a lot to be said about we, especially in the Protestant tradition, have privileged Paul and focused on Paul’s letters almost to the exclusion of the other apostles and Jesus himself.
There’s a real difference between how Paul and Jesus talk about things. Jesus’s words are harder and more paradoxical. They’re radical and challenging. Paul is often more practical and down-to-earth. A great example of this is teaching on possessions. Jesus warns against laying up treasures on Earth and trusting in money. He commands the rich man who would follow him to sell everything he has and give to the poor. Paul echoes a similar orientation toward riches, but his practical advice is a bit different:
As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life.
-1 Timothy 6:17-19
There’s a similar orientation here between Paul and Jesus, but Paul’s instruction “to be generous and ready to share” is far more doable than Jesus’ “sell all you have and give to the poor.” Again, this is not to say that they disagree, far from it. They’re just different.
It’s okay to recognize a tension between Paul and Jesus, but it’s not okay to break this tension by jettisoning Paul entirely or by ignoring Jesus in favor of Paul.
Finally, we should be able to recognize that the apostles are Jesus’ gift to us. He cared about his word going out and about establishing his church in the first crucial decades. This is why he appointed men like Paul and Peter and John all the others to proclaim all that he said and did. This is a gift. It’s a sign of what Jesus promises in Matt 28, “I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Jesus did not abandon the church, but he sent the Holy Spirit who was with the men he appointed who taught and wrote down what they had been taught. These are the words that we still cherish today. We still learn from the writings of the apostles and through this the Spirit is active in guiding the church and in a very real way, Jesus is active in guiding his bride, the church, until the day when he returns to raise his whole church from the dead to reign with him eternally.
Therefore, let us not rebel against how the Lord has chosen to guide his church. He is our good and gracious Lord and only does what’s best for us.