Red Letter Christianity: unpaving the Romans Road

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.

38 thoughts on “Red Letter Christianity: unpaving the Romans Road

  1. Pingback: How children save us « Mercy not Sacrifice

  2. Pingback: Integrity, zeal, and patience (Psalm 25:21) « Mercy not Sacrifice

  3. Pingback: Superimposed On Top Of The Text » Jason Coleman

  4. Pingback: People Who Have Been Invalidated » Jason Coleman

  5. Pingback: Red Letter Christianity: unpaving the Romans Road « Mercy not Sacrifice » Jason Coleman

  6. Pingback: Conversation with a None in the sauna « Mercy not Sacrifice

  7. Hi, I’ve just found you from Fred Clark’s blog. Interesting stuff! As a non-US, non-evangelical I’d not heard of this “Roman Road” interpretation before, nor of the “Red Letter Christians” but it explains quite a bit of what I’ve observed.

    Just for kicks, I’ll tell you my interpretation of this passage. I’d always thought that the “five husbands” thing was a truth telling, kind of like Jesus telling Nathaniel about seeing him under the fig tree. The basis for the woman being impressed with Jesus was that “he told me everything I ever did” which to my mind fits with this. I’d be impressed too, if a completely stranger summarized my life history in two sentences. I’m usually impressed if someone remembers my name after being told twice!

    And I agree that the Samaritan woman (outcast for being Samaritan, outcast for being a woman and outcast for being divorced and living with a man) and yet who immediately accepts Jesus and goes to tell the good news, is a contrast with Nicodemus (insider for being Jewish, insider for being a man and insider for being a teacher and in a position of respect) who struggles with the truths that Jesus is telling him.

    I wonder rather if our view of Scripture were more “action” rather than “word” centred if instead of describing ourselves (some of us) as “born again” Christians we shouldn’t rather call ourselves “well women” believers.

    OT: Have you looked through the whole bible at what tends to happen at wells, and people who meet there? Puts yet another spin on it which I will leave you to think about!

  8. oh my word. I am sitting here stunned. I have never even imagined the story of the woman at the well in a sympathetic way. Never. Every sermon has been just as you described. She was a sinful woman, sleeping around and living with all of these men. I can’t even believe I’ve never thought about it like that, or even considered the fact that men did the divorcing….I’m just shocked. I had no idea how pervasive that kind of theology has been woven into how I read the Bible.

  9. Pingback: Smart people saying smart things

  10. Pingback: Communion or correctness? The underlying question. « Mercy not Sacrifice

  11. I went to a Christmas Eve service at a First Baptist Church in SC a couple of years ago and after the reading of the Christmas story and singing of Christmas hymns, the minister got up and preached from, and I’m not making this up, 2 Corinthians 13 v.4. This poor guy couldn’t even take a Christmas break from preaching from Paul, couldn’t let Jesus take his first breath before crucifying him and getting him out of the way so Paul could tell us the real gospel. They’ve even paved over the top of the manger with the “romans road” theology.

  12. Morgan, where did I suggest you are the first person to ever read the text that way?

    I did not mean to get your defenses up. I am not persuaded by the Romans Road reading of this chapter any more than you are. I’ll leave at that.

  13. This is not what I take as the primary point of the post, but I’m interested in Morgan and other people’s responses to the following thoughts.

    Morgan argues that everyone privileges something. That is likely unavoidable, but I think it is a separate problem from reading things into the text that are not necessarily there. Morgan points to the Romans Road issue. I see him doing the same thing, though. Morgan’s reading of the text reads a lot into the words on the page. We gets lots of “maybe this” or “maybe that” which then creates the interpretation. If Jesus was offering sympathy instead of judgment then we should do likewise. Of course, we don’t know whether Jesus was offering sympathy any more than we know if he was being judgmental. All we have is the text that tells us what was said and a bit of the action.

    When I’m in Bible study, I might have an interesting conversation about how our reading of this passage changes based on how we hear this exchange with the woman, but I certainly would try to avoid preaching on this part of the text if my sermon relied heavily on me reading behind the words to identify hidden motivations and states of mind.

    • John Meunier, as usual, I think that you are right on. The Greeks had a word αἵρεσις meaning “choice” to describe the process of privileging certain parts of scripture. The modern version is heresy. Virtually all ancient and modern heresies come from privileging certain parts of scripture at the expense of others. The authors picked and chose which of Jesus statements they reported in the gospels. The gospels were largely written after the Pauline letters and, in part, were intended to supplement them. Therefore, it would be no surprise if the statements of the Lord that covered the same ground that Paul covered so masterfully were omitted in the interest of brevity (i.e. John 21:25). Red letter Christianity reminds me of Søren Kierkegaard’s statement “Christian scholarship is the Church’s prodigious invention to defend itself against the Bible, to ensure that we can continue to be good Christians without the Bible coming too close. Oh, priceless scholarship, what would we do without you? Dreadful it is to fall into the hands of the living God. Yes it is even dreadful to be alone with the New Testament.”

      • Wow that’s rich. The gospels “supplement” Paul. So you want to privilege Paul and use a historical-critical argument to justify your basis for doing so while criticizing the critique your picking and choosing by saying that it is picking and choosing. The irony is breathtaking. Indeed the Romans Road is Western modernity’s best defense against the Bible.

    • Not sure that’s quite fair. When you put a “maybe” in front of something, it’s an indication that you’re openly engaging in speculation, so to say that I’m doing the same thing as someone who superimposes judgment into the reading without any basis and without saying “maybe Jesus was thinking…” is not an apples to apples comparison.

      • But Morgan, where do you come up with the conclusion that the woman was a social outcast? You make a fairly big point about the foolishness of God and wonder of how God uses the least and the last, but we have no evidence at all from the text that she was despised or shunned in any way by her village. She came to draw water at noon. I assume there is some commentary out there that reads into that something about her social status, but that is pure conjecture. It is reading into the text as surely as seeing Romans in this text is reading into it.

        All I’m arguing for is exegetical and hermeneutical minimalism. If the text does not tell us why Jesus said something, we should not presume to read the mind of God. I’m not arguing on behalf of a Romans Road reading. I have no beef with rejecting that. (Although you seem to feel much more negative about the motives of Romans Roaders than I feel. I think most of them are trying to be true to the gospel as best as they understand it.)

        My intention was not to be unfair to you, Morgan. I guess I just see apples where you see oranges.

        • So I’m the first person you’ve heard of seeing social implications in the woman going to the well at noon? It’s been part of every sermon I have ever heard on this passage. I realize that may be as arbitrary as calling Jesus’ statement about the 5 husbands a rebuke of sin, but it’s certainly not my own innovation nor does it somehow cancel out my critique of the normal reading of the 5 husband statement.

          I’m not sure I’m willing to be a minimalist purist. Paul tells Timothy the purpose of scripture is discipleship which says to me that all exegesis should be pastoral so we do speculate in order to make connections that our congregations can relate to. I realize that’s what a Romans Roader would say they’re doing by making it a template evangelism/conversion story; I just think it’s lousy exegesis pastorally speaking. If a single mom came to my church, I wouldn’t say so where’s the daddy? Whenever marriage fails, it’s a complex tragedy that isn’t just reducible to a privatized individual sin on the part of one of the spouses whether in the 1st or 21st century.

  14. You know what, Morgan? That baptism you had a couple of weeks ago is REAL. Your writing has gotten stronger, clearer, more grace-filled than ever. This is a lovely exegesis of this passage and a clear – and kind (clearly, Ben did not read the entire essay) rebuttal to the long-used and abused Romans Road transmogrification of the entire NT. Thank you.

  15. This is a well thought out post. However I have some concerns that you’re inevitably creating a false dichotomy. I love the work of the “Red Letter Christian Movement” because I share many of the same values. But to create a separate “camp” of interpretation whereby one either reads in light of Jesus or in light of Paul is simply a bad reading of the NT no matter which camp you’re in. Furthermore, it’s a perpetuation of the false dichotomy between liberal and conservative — i.e. one is judgmental and the other is led by grace. This is simply false.

    If we take a step back from the text and try not to give into our biases for or against other interpretations, we’ll find that that “judgment” can be grace-led. We might also find that much of our “grace” is very cheap in terms of what it means for those of us who want to follow Jesus. Jesus did not abstain from judgment — he abstained from dehumanizing others and divorcing that judgment from love. Critiquing Paul too harshly can eventually lead to antinomianism. And grace is also found within the law.

    I’m with you in spirit. But let’s allow the text to stand on its own and even critique us at times. Let’s try to avoid false dichotomies just because we don’t like how others misinterpret the text. And for God’s sake, let’s give Paul the credit he deserves as a brilliant leader and follower of Jesus.

    • You read the whole piece, right? Because your account of what i said sounds different than what i thought i said. What I’m saying is that the Jesus not Paul reaction is understandable but obviously inadequate and we shouldn’t pretend that the Paul not Jesus account hasn’t predominated American Evangelicalism. Instead we should be open to others having different favorite verses than we do & not try to claim a monopoly on the canon. Wesley explicitly used a 1 John hermeneutic for all of scripture. Everybody privileges something.

      • I did but I admit I probably had some prejudice about your first paragraph that skewed my reading. I’m always overly suspicious of ideas of “reading Jesus” into Scripture considering all of what we have from Jesus is at least second hand. I’m with you in spirit that too much fundamentalism has been overly legalistic — this is actually a misreading of Pauline theology. I suppose I want to avoid the “Jesus not Paul” theology that defines itself by what it is not. Antinomianism is a slippery slope. But I apologize that I probably read the remainder of your blog with a personal bias.

        • This isn’t a question of legalism. This is a question of whether Romans is allowed to exegete the rest of the Bible. Ironically, the greatest antinomianism and nihilism results from taking a radical doctrine of imputed righteousness from the Romans Road. This is the grounds on which Wesley would have attacked the Calvinists.

    • Jesus taught of the dangers of judging others. There is a difference between perception and judgment. Just because he was aware of her past, doesn’t mean he was judging her. He taught things like… “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone”. It’s God’s job to judge others, not ours. It seems the more theologically inclined we become the more judgmental we also become. This is what gives religious people a bad name. Spirituality 101 lesson 1 is, God is God and I’m not. My job is to concentrate on my own spiritual demonstration, not someone else’s. Self righteousness doesn’t look good on anyone, even Jesus! That’s why he taught that we will be judged, by whatever measure that we judge others. Paul was very instrumental in the success of the Christian movement, but I would never think of letting his writings override the teachings of Jesus. That would be stupid. (Not judgmental, just perceptive.)

  16. Thank you. Another great post. There are too many “Romans Road” Christians whose judgmental attitudes keep people from wanting to be part of the Church community.

  17. Interesting argument, Morgan. I must not hang around enough Romans Roaders because I’d not heard the text preached that way before.

    The whole exchange about her husbands seems to me to be a minor part of the overall text, at any rate. Much more central to the text are the issues of Jesus’ identity as Christ, proper worship, and the Jewish-Samaritan divide. The last verses of chapter 3 seem to me to be foreshadow of the theme of chapter 4.

    • I call my wife a fundamentalism-denier because she’s never had any direct exposure to evangelical discourse and she’s always incredulous when she hears me share what we used to talk about in our Bible studies. If you read John 4 in an evangelical small group Bible study, the focus would be on how Jesus called out the woman on her sin as a model for how Christians should evangelize other people. I had not thought before how she serves as a foil to Nicodemus, which only reinforces my point in this piece — the outsider Samaritan woman gets it; the insider Jewish Pharisee doesn’t. Her rejectedness (5 husbands) is important because of the counter-witness it contributes to in her contrast with Nicodemus.

      • That whole “insider not getting it” and “outsider getting it” is one of the things I remember learning (in a Bible study) a long time ago…it really surprises me more people do not know about that; I had assumed it was a common knowledge kind of thing!

      • Hmm… I’m not sure I’m comfortable with that distinction. He did say he came to serve, not to be served. Worship is more complicated than simply praising somebody. We worship Jesus by gathering together to become His body.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s