I’ve personally used the term “red-letter Christian” for a while. I actually didn’t know there was an official “movement” by that name – one that was formed by people who were concerned about the politicization of Christianity and its seeming alliance with right-wing political groups. Their claim is they want to transcend politics and unite people in what they perceive to be Jesus’ true calling – one involved with social justice and environmental stewardship (among other things).
That’s really not how I’ve used that phrase in the past. It’s probably worth talking about the concept of Jesus as a revolutionary political figure (which he wasn’t). I find it interesting that a group determined to transcend politics seems to embrace politics and government as the solution and tool by which we do God’s will – the irony being that if I do in fact focus on the “red letters” in my Bible (the ones spoken by Jesus), I don’t actually see Jesus talking about anything concerning what a government should do about social issues. I see a lot of things about what an individual ought to be doing – and none of them involve appointing a government to go do my work for me.
“If Jesus didn’t say it…”
But that’s for another article. What I’m talking about is a more general application – the idea that the “red letters” are somehow more significant, more important than the rest of the scripture. I think this is a crucial concept to understand if we’re going to study the Bible and come to a full understanding of what it means to be a Christian.
The theory is simple: If Jesus didn’t say anything about it (or in some cases, if he didn’t say much about it), it must not be that important. Therefore, it should at least be de-emphasized, and in some cases even ignored.
The problems with this concept are numerous, but the main one is that Jesus himself seems to have had no intention that people should take that approach. Quite the opposite!
Many writers, but one Spirit
Where did Jesus’ words originate? Not with Jesus – believe it or not. Jesus himself was the first to assert that! As he said in John 7:16, “My teaching is not mine, but his who sent me.” In the next chapter, he adds, “I do nothing on my own authority, but speak just as the Father taught me.”
If that sounds similar to something an apostle or a prophet would say, that’s because it is! Peter discussed this in talking about his own role as a witness to Jesus’ teachings and miracles:
“And we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place … For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” (2 Pe 1:19-21)
Peter was guided and instructed by the same source as was Jesus. The same is true for Paul, and the rest of the other apostles. And there’s a reason for that: because it was the role Jesus chose for them. When Jesus sent out the 12, he told them to “teach them to observe all things that I have commanded you.” (Matt. 28:20)
The Gospels and the epistles serve the same purpose
Jesus told Peter that “upon this rock, I will build my church” – but Jesus didn’t talk about the church or even make an attempt to establish it while he was on the earth. Instead, he equipped the apostles to go out and preach the Gospel after he had ascended. They did that, bringing Jew and Gentile into one body in Christ, which was “built on the foundations of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief cornerstone.” (Eph. 2:20) So wouldn’t that mean that Jesus built the church through the teaching of the apostles? They were Christ’s instruments, and should be regarded as such.
That’s what Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were when they wrote the Gospel accounts, and it’s what Peter, James and Paul were when they wrote and spoke to Christians around the known world. The epistles came from that same spirit that created the “red letters”, and should never be seen in opposition to them or as a secondary element next to them. They are part of the exact same story, through the same Spirit, with the same goal: be reconciled to God through Jesus Christ.