I figured it might be good for my hits to push back against an exegetically questionable pot-shot taken at what has been called “Red Letter Christianity” which generated reverberations here and here. As many of you know, I contribute frequently to a website called Red Letter Christians. The guys behind this site, Tony Campolo and Shane Claiborne, have recently written a book called Red Letter Revolution (which likely prompted the sniper fire). The concept of Red Letter Christianity is to turn our attention back to the words that are attributed to Jesus (which are colored red in some Bibles). Whether you were aware of this or not, most of the teaching in American evangelical Christianity today actually comes from Paul’s New Testament letters instead of Jesus. In particular, the book of Romans has been paved over the whole of scripture like a giant road that smothers the other voices within the Biblical text. One task of Red Letter Christianity is to jack-hammer into this concrete and liberate Jesus from underneath it.
Let me give you a perfect example. I preached a sermon a few weeks ago called “Jesus tells the truth,” using the conversation that Jesus has with the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4. Here’s my test for you to see whether you have buried Jesus under your Romans Road. When Jesus tells the Samaritan woman to go get her husband and then answers her reply that she has no husband by saying, “The truth is you’ve had 5 husbands and the man you live with now isn’t your husband,” is he (1) convicting her of her sin or (2) expressing sympathy and acceptance to a woman who got rejected and divorce-slipped by 5 men (which was not adultery under Mosaic law and was a unilateral decision men could make against their wives for any reason, c.f. Mark 10)?
If you automatically answered #1, it’s because you or whoever interpreted this text for you in the past superimposed the Romans Road paradigm for Christian conversion on top of the text (conviction of sin — Romans 3:20, despair of your own righteousness — Romans 7:24, justification through faith in Christ — Romans 3:26, 5:1, assurance — Romans 8:1, eternal life — Romans 6:23). For the woman to “get saved” according to this formula, she has to be convicted of her sin, throw herself at the mercy of Jesus, and then accept His salvation. The problem is that words like sin, forgiveness, repentance, or salvation do not occur anywhere in the conversation between Jesus and the Samaritan woman. There is no reason to conclude from the words as they are written in the text that Jesus couldn’t have been sympathizing with the woman rather than rebuking her when he told her the truth about her love life.
But if she ran off and became Jesus’ first evangelist by bringing half of her town to meet Jesus without first going through the conversion process that every legitimate “born-again” evangelical is supposed to go through, that would be like getting ordained as a preacher without getting baptized first. So a panicked Romans Roader has no choice but to superimpose a judgmental tone into Jesus’ voice and assume that the woman’s enthusiasm for calling her friends out to meet Jesus is proof that she was convicted of her sin and tacitly accepted her need of Jesus’ salvation (even though it doesn’t say so anywhere in the text). The worst example of this kind of eisegesis is in Ray Comfort’s god-awful book Conquer Your Fear, Share Your Faith where he justifies bullying people on the sidewalk into saying the sin’s prayer by claiming that’s exactly what Jesus did with the Samaritan woman in John 4. This scripture is the cornerstone proof-text of Comfort’s entire “Way of the Master” evangelism by bullying program.
The truth is we don’t know if the woman “got saved” or if the other members of her town did, at least not if “getting saved” has to follow the Romans Road formula. John 4:39 says that many Samaritans “believed in [Jesus] because of the woman’s testimony.” But what did it mean to them to “believe” in Jesus? In John 4:42, the Samaritans say, “We know that this man really is the Savior of the world.” But did they know in what sense he would save the world? Did they know more than Jesus’ closest disciple Peter, who had no doubt that Jesus was the anointed Jewish messiah but rebuked Him for saying He would die on a cross? It’s fruitless to speculate. What we do know is that the text makes no mention anywhere of sin, forgiveness, or repentance, so the Samaritans in the story are left in limbo if a Romans Road salvation is the only way you can get your hand stamped for the New Jerusalem. For what it’s worth, they didn’t get baptized either and Jesus had gone to Samaria in the first place because the Pharisees said he was baptizing more people than John (John 4:1).
So what can this text possibly have to offer us if we can’t use it as a self-fulfilling proof-text for the Romans Road approach to evangelism? Well, a lot actually. It’s pretty remarkable that a woman who got rejected by 5 men (and whored by the 6th) and was enough of a social outcast that she had to go to the well at high noon could then go back into her town and gather a throng of people to rush out and meet Jesus. It’s such a beautiful expression of God’s perfect foolishness when He chooses people at the bottom of society to be His agents of transformation. Jesus’ acceptance of this woman who had been rejected by the men of her town says a lot about who Jesus is and who we can expect him to be with. We don’t know why they rejected her. Maybe she was ugly. Maybe she was barren. Maybe she smelled funny. Jesus not only accepted her; He made Himself dependent upon her by asking her for a drink of water. The best way to validate people who have been invalidated is to need them for something.
UPDATE (HT John Meunier in his comment): The other dimension of this story that opens up when we have not fixated on the “sinfulness” of the woman’s five husbands and made Jesus’ conversation with her into a clumsy “model” for sidewalk evangelism is that she serves as the perfect foil to Jesus’ last major spiritual conversation partner, Nicodemus, in John 3. A thoroughly socially rejected member of a socially rejected people group is able to respond to Jesus faithfully in a way that “Israel’s teacher” couldn’t. This would fit with John’s overarching polemic against “the Jewish leaders” (c.f. John 5:10-15, 7:45-52, 8:31-47, etc).
The Bible is way more interesting when we read its stories without importing and superimposing doctrinal formulas on top of them. To pave over the Bible with any formulaic concrete is disrespectful to the authority of scripture and idolatrous of our human knowledge. It is true that some people who identify as Red Letter Christians have a lot of beef with Paul’s teaching and some try to say that they follow Jesus instead of Paul. But the reality is that Romans Roaders have followed Paul to the exclusion of Jesus; just because they are so much the majority of American evangelicalism that their teaching seems as natural as the air doesn’t mean that it isn’t wrong. So it’s disingenuous to take pot-shots at Red Letter Christianity as though it were not a reaction against a legacy of bad Biblical interpretation that requires correction.
Of course, another way of looking at this is to recognize what Paul tried to teach his crazy, argument-loving Corinthians: that all of us are created for different functions and all of us need different combinations of “meat” and “milk” from God’s word according to our unique walks with Christ which don’t all follow the same paved path. Because of the diversity of roles that we play and paths that we take as complementary parts of a single body, each of us is going to emphasize a different aspect of the Bible. Some will be Red Letter Christians; some will be Isaiah Christians; others Job Christians; others 1 John Christians. Having different emphases is not a problem as long as we respect the rest of the canon. Where it turns into heresy is when we force the whole canon to fit into our favorite book and engage in doctrinal battles in order to “promote controversial speculations rather than advancing God’s work” (1 Timothy 1:4). So don’t hate on Red Letter Christians; be respectful and open to learning from them so that they will let down our defenses and learn from you.