I was asked today “Are you a red letter christian?”

The context for this was a Facebook ‘discussion’ (an oxymoron?) about the Israel Folou tweets and the traditional conservative view of same-sex relationships. As part of this discussion I had said “The religious hypocrisy I see Jesus attacking is the religious leaders who place heavy burdens on people (‘others’), and don’t examine their own personal lives and actions. This placing burdens on OTHERS, rather than genuine self-reflection and personal change is the problem. And I see this these days in the sexuality ‘argument’. Straight christians telling gays what they should or shouldn’t do – this is placing burden/law on ‘others’ – and is actually based on a very small number of highly debatable scriptures.  If Jesus had said “don’t be gay”, it would be quoted/tweeted everywhere. But he said “Give to whoever asks of you” (& many other things like this) – these get conveniently ignored or explained away. This, combined with telling gays what they should do, becomes the speck in their eye plank in my eye behaviour that Jesus criticized.”

The question about ‘red letter christian’ presumably relates to the prioritizing of the words of Jesus (hence marked red in some bibles), and promoted by people like Tony Campolo (one of my heroes), Jim Wallis & Shane Claiborne in the 2000s. Wikipedia has a nice summary including “… an evangelical movement that focuses on the teachings of Jesus Christ, particularly in regard to social issues.  … While many Christians throughout church history have defined themselves as emphasizing the teachings of Jesus, this modern movement was initiated by Wallis and Campolo, who felt the religious right spend too much time on two issues: abortion and homosexuality. They believe Christians should be paying attention to Jesus’ words and example by promoting biblical values such as peace, building strong families, the elimination of poverty, and other important social justice issues. They believe that these are the issues that Jesus spoke of directly, and therefore these issues should be social and political priorities. Other issues such as the question of homosexuality and abortion are viewed as important but over-emphasized by both liberals and conservatives.”

The ‘red letter’ question brought to mind something I taught as part of Hermeneutics (Interpreting the Bible) at Bible College two decades ago. This was something I developed myself, and I (still) haven’t found written anywhere – although presumably wiser & more eloquent people have written about it in much detail.

The reality is that christians take some scriptures as being more relevant, authoritative and applicable than others – and this is the right thing to do. BUT unfortunately this can be done in an unbalanced and self-serving way – as I was trying to point out in the FB discussion. A few debatable NT scriptures that might be about some sort of same-sex thing are used to tell others (gays) how they should live, while hundreds of very clear scriptures about materialism, care for the poor, loving our neighbour (starving in Sudan) as ourself are conveniently ignored.

Assessing the relevance/applicability of Scriptures
It seems to me that there are a number of considerations that should be taken into account when we determine the applicability of specific scriptures in our personal lives today. AND we should ensure that we are much more self-critical than critical/prescriptive of others – our aim with this should be to learn more about how I should live – not what I should tell others to do.

Here are some of the general considerations IMHO. The list is not exhaustive (you can probably add to it), and is not in any particular order. The first ones are what I taught at Bible College. The last three are more recent additions as a result of my journey.

  • Who said it? – Jesus? Paul? Pharisees? Cynics? Enemies? Satan?
  • Who was it said to? – Disciples? Followers? Crowds? Religious leaders? People testing Jesus? Specific individuals? Specific tribes? Israel?
  • Where was it said? – Gospels? Paul’s writings? Ecclesiastes? Revelation? Leviticus?
  • What type of saying it is? – Command? Comment? Reflection on life? Lie or deception? Poetry? Philosophy? Song? Myth? Cynical comment on life?
  • How many times it was said?- Many times? A few times? Once?
  • How similar is the setting to our current time/place/culture? Can we understand the context it was written for? And if so, how similar/different is that to our context today?
  • How clear is it? – Are the words used in the scripture clear/unarguable? Unusual? Unclear? Debatable? A strange choice of words? (other ‘better’ words were available but not used)
  • How does it look viewed through the ‘lens of Jesus’? (eg Greg Boyd  & Brad Jersak )
  • How does it fits with the ‘trajectory of Scripture’? This is “a hermeneutical approach that seeks to locate varying ‘voices’ in the text and to view these voices as a progressive trajectory through history (or at least through the Biblical witness); often a trajectory that progresses through to the present day.” wikipedia

All of these questions help us evaluate and prioritise the relevance of specific scriptures towards the way we (should) live our lives today – helping answer the question “How then should I live?”

So – back to the original question “Are you a red letter christian?” – it seems that in many ways I am. The answers to the considerations/questions above lead to a prioritising of the words of Jesus, and especially what he said to his disciples – so many of the red letters become very important. And I tend to agree with the red letter viewpoint that many ‘christians’  “spend too much time on two issues: abortion and homosexuality.” and that instead we “should be paying attention to Jesus’ words and example by promoting biblical values such as peace, building strong families, the elimination of poverty, and other important social justice issues”.