The January 27, 2007 Edmonton Journal (Canada) ran an article with the blazing headline Tony Campolo wants to take back the evangelical movement from the religious right. Although there isn’t really anything new about Campolo in the article, it occurred to me that too few are aware of his claims and even less have challenged his views. Of course, to do so risks being labeled mean spirited, divisive, or callous to the plight of the poor. However, I don’t pay much attention to emotional blackmail, so I thought I might visit two excerpts from this article. First are his views on the “religious right.”
In an interview, Campolo said that while the religious right likes to focus on hot-button issues such as homosexuality and abortion, Jesus was more concerned with the injustices of poverty, violence and intolerance.
The second is how he labels himself:
Because of the negative connotations associated with the term “evangelist,” Campolo and a group of about 15 socially conscious evangelists got together and came up with their own label, red-letter Christians, to describe Christians who strive to live by the words of Jesus.
As I read this a few thoughts came to mind. First, is the Jesus of the Red Letters truly “more concerned with the injustices of poverty, violence and intolerance” and silent or unconcerned about the issues of abortion, homosexuality and doctrine? Second, as we listen to Tony Campolo and other Red Letter Christians , they infer that Jesus no longer communicated with his followers after the resurrection. The only pages of holy writ that should be of any earthly value to Christians, in their view, are contained in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Nothing else contains red letters and is therefore completely irrelevant. Of course, if someone is primarily a social activist, such statements as “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23) come across as a little judgmental, narrow minded and intolerant. Statements about the importance of sound doctrine or correcting false teaching as we find conveyed from Paul to Timothy:
As I urged you upon my departure for Macedonia, remain on at Ephesus, in order that you may instruct certain men not to teach strange doctrines (I Timothy 1:3)
If inspired and coming from the risen savior through the Apostle Paul are troublesome since they interfere with Campolo’s view that Conservative Christians are “doctrinaire.” Doctrine is certainly a primary theme in the New Testament epistles. Unfortunately for Campolo and the others, the Jesus of the Red Letters also held a very high view of sound teaching and truth. It was He who said in Matthew 7:15:
Beware of the false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves
He elaborated in Matthew 7:16-23 as I have pointed out in Beware of False Prophets
Poverty, Violence and Intolerance
In Matthew 10:5-8 Jesus tells the disciples:
These twelve Jesus sent forth, and commanded them, saying, Go not into the way of the Gentiles, and into any city of the Samaritans enter ye not: But go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. And as ye go, preach, saying, The kingdom of heaven is at hand. Heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out devils: freely ye have received, freely give.
Don’t go to Gentiles or Samaritans. Give freely to Jews but not to Gentiles or Samaritans. Then there His exchange with the woman of Canaan in Matthew 15:24-26:
But he answered and said, I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Then came she and worshipped him, saying, Lord, help me. But he answered and said, It is not meet to take the children’s bread, and to cast it to dogs.
Is this the sort of red letter tolerance of which Rev. Campolo speaks? A slight modification of Jesus own words from Matthew 26:6-10 on poverty may be in order:
Now when Jesus was in Bethany, in the house of Simon the leper, there came unto him a woman having an alabaster box of very precious ointment, and poured it on his head, as he sat at meat. But when the [red letter Christians] saw it, they had indignation, saying, To what purpose is this waste? For this ointment might have been sold for much, and given to the poor. When Jesus understood it, he said unto them, Why trouble ye the woman? for she hath wrought a good work upon me.
“Would Jesus wear a Rolex?” is a favorite question for Campolo. The answer is, “That depends.” In the gospels Jesus had incarnated as a suffering servant in fulfillment of prophecy. Yet, in the Old Testament we read that His house of worship had been constructed of the very finest and most extravagant materials and fabrics. When He returns it will be as the reigning king with the best of everything. The description of the New Jerusalem in Revelation 21 is certainly of greater extravagance than a Rolex. But then again, the Old Testament and Revelation aren’t Red Letter and therefore perhaps not authoritative.
An oft quoted passage used to support the idea that our first priority is to feed the poor and eliminate hunger and poverty in our life time comes from Matthew 25:35-40:
For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me. Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink? When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee? Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee? And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me. (Matthew 25:35-40)
In actuality, the broader context of Matthew 25:31-46 seems to show that the concern of the Red Letter Jesus was for His people Israel. The passage begins with Jesus taking His throne (25:31). He gathers all the nations and separates the sheep (His people) from the goats (those who are not His people) in verses 31 – 33. In 34-39 we have the discussion about feeding, clothing, etc with the clarification in verse 40:
And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.
The “least of these my brethren” are the sheep or His people. In other words His people with means provided for His people who lacked. We find virtually nothing of the Red Letter Jesus calling His people to eliminate hunger, poverty or even AIDS from non-believers.
We find a similar thought from the Apostle Paul (I realize that this is not red letter and may therefore be suspect) in Galatians 6:9 & 10:
And let us not be weary in well doing: for in due season we shall reap, if we faint not. As we have therefore opportunity, let us do good unto all men, especially unto them who are of the household of faith.
“Especially” (or particularly, above all, mainly, chiefly, principally) “the household of faith.”
Don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that Jesus advocates intolerance or turning a blind eye to the poor. As a Jew, which Jesus was in His incarnation, He was acting in fulfillment of prophecy to the Jewish Nation. He was also familiar with the Mosaic Law (I do realize that this is a redundant statement since He is the God who gave the Law to Moses) which made provision for poor strangers (non-Jews) who were among them. For example in Leviticus 19:10 we read:
And thou shalt not glean thy vineyard, neither shalt thou gather every grape of thy vineyard; thou shalt leave them for the poor and stranger: I am the LORD your God.
I talked a bit about this in The State of the Church – Confused :
Paul writes about contributing to the poor saints in Jerusalem (Romans 15:26). The key word being “saint.” Again, I am not saying that as believers we should turn a blind eye to the suffering in the world. Christians have been the leaders on that front for millennia. We see it in the writings of the last pagan emperor of Rome, Julian the Apostate. He was attempting to resurrect the pagan religions of Rome and was not finding success. We read in his letter to his priest in Galatia:
“Why do we not notice that it is their kindness to strangers, their care for the graves of the dead, and the pretended holiness of their lives that have done most to increase atheism [i.e., Christianity]? I believe that we ought really and truly to practice every one of these virtues. And it is not enough for you alone to practice them, but so must all the priests in Galatia, without exception…In the second place admonish them that no priest may enter a theatre or trade that is base and not respectable…in every city establish hostels in order that strangers may profit by our generosity; I do not mean for our own people only, but for others also who are in need of money…for it is disgraceful that, when no Jew ever has to beg and the impious Galileans [Christians] support both their own poor and ours as well, all men see that our people lack aid from us.”
Providing for the poor, whether they are of the household of faith or not, is a good and admirable thing. But, if we provide for their physical suffering without addressing their lost condition, we are only momentarily comforting them on their way to an eternity separated from God.
As far as abortion and homosexuality, Jesus was clear that saving a life was of more importance than even keeping the Sabbath in Mark 3:4:
And he saith unto them, Is it lawful to do good on the sabbath days, or to do evil? to save life, or to kill? But they held their peace.
It is not likely that we would hear Jesus saying, “Well, personally I am against abortion but I wouldn’t want to put my personal opinion on someone else.” No, He was fairly clear that preserving innocent life had priority over somone’s else’s feelings.
But what of homosexuality? As a good Jew, Jesus affirmed the Mosaic Law when He said in Matthew 5:18:
For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.
A section of the law, Leviticus 18:6-23, outlined prohibitions on a variety of sexually immoral practices. Among the many things we also find homosexuality and bestiality condemned in Leviticus 18:22 & 23.
I would respectfully suggest that Mr. Campolo and the “Red Letter Christians” obtain and read the full edition of the Scriptures which surrounds the red letter section. In doing so they may, as Paul Harvey might say, have “the rest of the story.”