An excerpt from The Bible in Government and Society, now available from Tyndale Seminary Press:
Once upon a time there was a group of believers so stunted in their spiritual growth, that they received one of the sternest rebukes of any assembly to that point. Rather than recognizing God’s revelation as comprehensive and sufficient grounding for knowing God and for every good work, these believers couldn’t agree on their basis for authority. Some were saying they were of Paul, others, of Apollos or Cephas, and still others, of Christ (1 Cor 1:12). That the Corinthians manifested this immaturity in many ways comes as no shock, especially in light of their failure to (apparently) recognize that God had spoken through and was working with a number of people. Paul chastises the Corinthians and teaches them, hoping that that their “faith would not rest on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God” (2:5).
Failure to recognize what God has said is nothing new. It didn’t originate with church-age believers at Corinth, or even with Israelite believers long before them. In fact, we first see this kind of distortion in the Garden of Eden, when Eve is beguiled by Satan’s query, “Indeed, has God said?” God’s people have a long history of misappropriating His word. If we would avoid the error of the Corinthians, (which perhaps helped them justify their immoralities), or the error of some of those Israelites who had earlier fallen into idolatry, or even the error of Eve who had been so easily deceived, we must be certain about God’s word as our basis of authority and its sufficiency in making us adequate for every good work (see 2 Tim 3:16-17).
Presently, there is an increasing disregard for consistency in handling the Bible. Church-age believers have splintered into groups identified more for their disagreements than for their unity in Christ, and have done so in many cases on the basis of differing hermeneutic methodologies – differing ways of interpreting the Bible. One prominent voice, for example, speaks for a group he calls Red-Letter Christians, and describes them as,
“evangelicals who are troubled by what is happening to poor people in America; who are disturbed over environmental policies that are contributing to global warming; who are dismayed over the increasing arrogance of power shown in our country’s militarism; who are outraged because government funding is being reduced for students, often from impoverished and dysfunctional homes are testing poorly; who are upset with the fact that of the 22 industrialized nations America is next to last in the proportion of its national budget (less than two-tenths of 1 percent) that is designated to help the poor of third-world countries; and who are broken-hearted over discrimination against women, people of color, and those who suffer because of their sexual orientation.”
The prescription for these concerns is to focus on the red letters of the New Testament in which Jesus “calls us away from the consumerist values that dominate contemporary American consciousness. He calls us to be merciful, which has strong implications for how we think about capital punishment. When Jesus tells us to love our enemies, he probably means we shouldn’t kill them. Most important, if we take Jesus seriously, we will realize that meeting the needs of the poor is a primary responsibility for His followers.” In short, “The goal of Red Letter Christians is simple: To take Jesus seriously by endeavoring to live out His radical, counter-cultural teachings as set forth in Scripture, and especially embracing the lifestyle prescribed in the Sermon on the Mount.”
Much of what is described in these comments sounds quite noble (though some of it, I would argue is just flatly inconsistent with the Bible) – of course believers should be about demonstrating the love of Christ to all mankind. Nonetheless, the solution advocated above is reactionary theology, and is not unlike that of a number of prevalent groups. When we adjust or formulate our theology with the intention of resolving problems of practice, instead of looking to the entire comprehensive and cohesive revelation of God – with His diagnoses and prescriptions – we are asking for trouble. History is littered with diagnosticians who have prescribed for the symptom without recognizing the core disease. Further, trying to follow the guidebook, but giving special attention to some sections over others is a surefire recipe for misdiagnosis and consequently derives disastrous theology and confused practice.
Now, I must confess my agreement with ‘Red Letter Christians’ in one area (though for different reasons): I don’t at all prefer the term ‘evangelical,’ especially as presently understood. I find it to be imbalanced and misrepresentative of what the Bible prescribes a believer to be, even if the term itself is well intended. Sharing the euangellion, or good news, is a significant and prescribed aspect of the Christian life, but it is not all of the Christian life. The term, I think, allows believers at times either to perceive themselves (or to be perceived by others) as being spiritually successful if they are simply evangelizing in one form or another. But there is so much more to it than that. As an aside, I prefer to be known as a Biblical Christian – one who is a follower of Christ, and who recognizes that all of His words – the red and the black – are authoritative and sufficient for everything pertaining to life and godliness (2 Pet 1:3). I belong to Christ, and I also recognize He worked with and through men like Paul, Apollos (hmmm…interesting), and Cephas (Peter). Christ commissioned and enabled the writing of His word (e.g., Jn 14-16; 2 Pet 1:20-21), and it is either authoritative or it isn’t. I believe it is, and consequently, by His grace, I am subject to the obligation and the joy of following it consistently.
Perhaps those attracted to emergent and emerging theologies and to groups like the Red Letter Christians are pushing back, recognizing that there is more to the Christian life than evangelism. For that, I commend them – I believe they are also right about that. However, the solution is not to swing the pendulum all the way in the other direction (as emergent and emerging theologies seem to do), nor is it to simply focus on those sections of Scripture that address issues we prefer to consider – issues we might consider more ‘practical’ (as Red Letter theology also seems to do). Instead, what is needed is a return to the word of God in its entirety – to focus on, as Paul put it – “the whole purpose of God” (Acts 20:27).
Believers, we already have in the Bible the accurate diagnosis of what ails humanity and we have therein the right prescription to deal with that malady. Jesus didn’t speak in red letters – the black ones are His too. And when we consider (as we are doing in this context) how we ought to view government and society and how we should appropriately relate to both, we must submit to His agenda, to His diagnosis, and to His prescription.
It is my hope and prayer that the essays to follow will do exactly that. Further, I intend that they will reflect evenhandedness and consistency in handling His word, as is prescribed in 2 Timothy 2:15: “Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, handling accurately the word of truth.” Let’s take His word at face value and let the chips fall where they may.