The Positive Prophet of Red Letter Christianity

The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the editorial opinion of The Christian Post or its editors.

Tony Campolo has been a man on a mission for some time now. As a professor, sociologist, pastor, public speaker, and author, Campolo has always endeavored to live out his faith. He has also sought to present Christianity in what he feels is the most "positive" light. In fact, Tony's personal website describes his role this way: "The Positive Prophet of Red Letter Christianity."

Expand | Collapse

And there are certainly plenty of positive things which Campolo has accomplished during his 80 years on earth. He has donated much time and effort to Compassion International, as well as to the National Youth Worker's Convention. And he founded and led an organization to assist needy communities in the Third World, as well as in "at risk" neighborhoods across North America.

It's kind of hard to go wrong while assisting needy people in Third World countries. But the same cannot be said once a person begins to dabble with theology.

Tony Campolo has done his share of dabbling with Scripture. For example, he provided leadership for the "Red Letter Christians" movement, even writing a book with that title. The goal of the movement simply states: "By calling ourselves Red Letter Christians, we refer to the fact that in many Bibles the words of Jesus are printed in red. What we are asserting, therefore, is that we have committed ourselves first and foremost to doing what Jesus said."

But what happens when you begin to make up new doctrines based on your interpretation of the red letters? You suddenly find yourself in way over your head, even when your motives are genuine and your heart is filled with compassion. The currents within any culture tend to sweep away those who are guided more by emotion than by what the Bible actually teaches.

Campolo made quite a splash recently when he announced that he has changed his view regarding homosexual practice. Up until now, he has contended that such practice is sinful. But now he claims, "I am finally ready to call for the full acceptance of Christian gay couples into the church." He obviously thinks this change is a more positive approach to the issue.

Interestingly, Campolo also indicated, "I am painfully aware that there are ways I could be wrong about this one." Hmm. It doesn't sound like he is exactly brimming with complete confidence over his new position. Nevertheless, he has chosen to take the plunge in the name of Red Letter Christianity and positivity.

But where in those red letters did Christ ever indicate that homosexual behavior ceased being sinful? Where did Jesus ever "lower the bar" on human sexuality? In actuality, Christ raised the bar. Jesus made it clear that just looking at a woman lustfully is by itself a grave violation. (see Matthew 5:28) For thousands of years, Jews and Christians have faithfully proclaimed the truth about human sexuality. And the red letters of Jesus did nothing to provide any cover for homosexual practice.

If the sexual boundaries had indeed been moved, and so drastically at that, surely Jesus would have informed us. But Christ never even hinted at such a radical departure from God's design for marriage between a man and a woman. And so in our day, many "positive prophets" find themselves completely at odds with what Jews and Christians have taught over the centuries concerning homosexual practice.

But Campolo's "positive" approach to religion extends beyond just his recent affirmation of homosexual behavior.

Last year, Jonathan Merritt wrote an article entitled, "Tony Campolo's Surprise Reaction When His Son Came Out as a Humanist." Bart Campolo sat down with his parents and explained that he had become an agnostic humanist. Merritt wrote that according to Bart, Tony had this unexpected response to his son's announcement: "You know me. I am not afraid you're going to hell because the God I believe in doesn't send people to hell for eternity for having the wrong theology. I'm sad because Christianity is my tribe, and I liked having you in my tribe."

And yet, the red letters of the New Testament lovingly warn people about the reality of hell for those who don't trust Christ. It is not a "positive" outcome for unbelievers, but it came nevertheless straight out of the mouth of Jesus. Those red letters are as solid as the cross where the red blood of the Savior was spilled for sinners. And because of Christ's sacrifice, paradise in heaven awaits all who repent and trust Jesus alone to wash away their sins.

It seems the Red Letter folks have missed the connection between wrong theology, wrong beliefs, and eternal consequences.

If wrong theology and right theology have no bearing on a person going to heaven or hell, then why did God tell us just the opposite in Scripture? If true doctrine doesn't have the power to lead a person into the Savior's arms forever, then what good is the Bible? Obviously, some well-meaning Christians have not worked through all the implications of what Jesus actually taught about heaven, hell, and sexuality.

I suppose it's not always easy to be a positive prophet of red letter Christianity. After all, no loving person enjoys addressing uncomfortable topics, especially when family members are involved. Tony Campolo loves his son, and he also loves people around the world. Such love is noble and praiseworthy. At the same time, one must question what kind of "Christianity" people end up with if the "less than positive" aspects of Scripture are discounted as nothing more than right-wing rhetoric.

And who gets to define what is "positive" in the first place? Has God ever declared that Scripture has some positive aspects as well as some negative aspects? Or did the Holy Spirit simply deliver the entire Bible to us as the truth? You know, red letters and all.

Come to think of it, the gruesome nature of the cross where Christ suffered and died was not exactly a "positive" experience, to say the least. That is, unless you come to grasp the big picture as laid out not only in the red letters of the New Testament, but throughout all of Scripture. If a person is going to do away with sexual sin and hell, then what about the crucifixion? Maybe that's another area where some major revisions could help make Christianity a little more positive.

And sure enough, there are plenty of folks today who choose to redefine why Jesus endured horrendous pain, suffering, and death on the cross.

You see, those who tamper with Scripture always end up tampering with more than just one doctrine. They get lost in the forest of human reasoning, and they assume that their progressive ideas are superior to those traditional doctrines of the atonement, sexual sin, and eternal hell. Or if not superior, at least more positive.

It's certainly convenient to pick and choose which words of the Bible you are going to affirm. But after all is said and done, a person can end up talking himself right out of the message which came straight from the Holy Spirit into the minds of God's prophets and apostles. (see 2 Peter 1:20,21 & 2 Tim. 3:16)

It is truly disconcerting when "positive prophets" present dangerous new doctrines which were never spoken by our Savior, and therefore never written in red letters. To put it simply, these new doctrines are rooted in human emotions rather than in biblical facts.

But that shouldn't come as a big surprise to anyone. All of us would be tempted to tamper with God's Word if we allowed our emotions to dictate our interpretation of the Bible. Our unstable feelings can easily run rampant over the unchanging nature of Scripture, if we allow it.

Feelings come and go, and they change over time. Tony Campolo's feelings gradually changed concerning God's design for human sexuality. But Tony's feelings and opinions are not nearly as reliable as the Word of God. And so positive prophets will continue to spin their tale of a theology which brings people of all religions to heaven, and which allows man to define the appropriate boundaries for his sexual experiences.

But let's never forget that not all prophets speak on behalf of the Lord. In the words (and red letters) of Jesus, "Many false prophets will appear and deceive many people." (Matthew 11:24) Whether you consider that statement from our Lord to be "positive" or not, it is the truth. And truth always outweighs man's emotions, opinions, and fluctuating feelings.

Dan Delzell is the pastor of Wellspring Lutheran Church in Papillion, Neb. He is a regular contributor to The Christian Post.