Q&A: Tony Campolo

The well-known Baptist leader applies his 80 years of experience to liberals and conservatives, arrogance and humility, Richard Rohr and John Piper.

tony campolo

Liberal and conservative, progressive and traditional – both sides tend to have their proof texts to which they appeal. Is there something either ‘side’ could learn from the other in terms of how they approach Scripture?

I think there is a tendency to have deaf ears to the other side. But it is my opposition that always sees the weaknesses in my own arguments. I don’t see them very clearly. Thus, I think we can learn from each other as we listen to each other, even as we carry on a fairly intense dialogue. 

I think if we do not come in a spirit of humility, if we do not come to each other across those lines, with that kind of attitude – ‘here is my position, I could be wrong’ – we end up really attacking each other and nothing is gained. Over the years, I look back at my interpretations of Scripture and I realise that the way one interprets a particular passage changes – thanks to education, hearing other people’s points of view and so on – and I think everyone’s interpretation does. I think that if each side says ‘I could be wrong’ and ‘over the years I have seen my own interpretations of Scripture change’, you are going to have a reasonable discussion and not preach at each other. But both sides must entertain that possibility. 

So I always have to be open to the fact that the other side will help me to see Scripture in a new way.

You worked with Brian McLaren on Adventures in Missing the Point [a book in which Campolo and McLaren debated key issues from liberal and conservative positions]. Would the Church as a whole benefit from more open and honest disagreements and debates like that? 

Of course the Church would benefit. That is almost a truism. But let me say that Brian McLaren and I are friends, and when the discussion took place, on the basis of friendship, I did not feel, and he did not feel, threatened as we posed points in opposition to each other’s. When we threaten each other, and when we are afraid of each other, we run into painful conflict. Perfect love casts out fear. 

When two brothers in Christ care about each other, and share a kind of Christian love for each other, fear of the other person disappears. What you know and I know is that, in the discussions that take place within the Church, too often the parties are afraid of each other and afraid that they won’t win the argument – that is what makes those discussions destructive. People who care about each other, who are not threatened by each other – they can carry on discussions and the whole process can become really a blessing to both parties.

There is a trend on both the Left and Right, liberal and conservative sides, to infer in rhetoric or even to state outright that people are not ‘real Christians’ if they disagree on certain points that have historically never been central to our faith. How do we move to a point where we can disagree wholeheartedly and still acknowledge each other’s legitimate faith in Christ?

I think whenever there is a conversation between people who call themselves Christians taking place, there has to be a recognition that it is God who does the judging. I do not have the right to say to any person, ‘you are not a Christian’. Even those who question some very basic doctrines. I think the apostle Paul says it well: “This one thing I know: Christ and his crucifixion and his Resurrection.” That is the bottom line for me. I think if someone says, “I believe that Jesus is the incarnation of God, that his death on the cross takes care of my sin, and that his Resurrection is affirmed and that he is in the world today and he is a presence now” – these are the things that cannot be compromised. Everything else is up for discussion, every issue is up for discussion. I think that Pope John XXIII said it well: “On secondary issues, we’re going to have liberty. On primary issues, it is a different thing. But in all things, there must be love.”

Does our faith today shape our morality, or is our contemporary culture’s morality shaping our faith? 

That is the kind of dichotomy that I think encourages conflict and is not productive. The reality is that theology is always carried on in the context of interaction with the dominant culture in which you are living and the questions that arise in that society. That is why we have theologians. Every generation has to recast its beliefs in terms of the situations and questions that have arisen in their own generation. 

So often we have theologies that are answering questions that were raised 500 years ago and we are not dealing with the questions that are arising in our contemporary situation. I believe that theology is always an answering discipline. 

When I was a young kid, the dominant issue that had been raised by the culture, that the Church was called to answer, was the question of what do we do with people that are divorced or remarried. People were being thrown out of the church if they were divorced and remarried. I think the dominant question right now is what are we going to do about gay marriage? 50 years ago no one talked about that issue. 

We have to remember that Scripture says we know in part and we prophesy in part. I think that sense of absolutism, you know: ‘my way is Yahweh, if you don’t agree with me then you are not in accord with God’, is in fact to make the self a god. We used to talk about the doctrine of infallibility that the Pope had. I think so often that evangelical Christians believe that they’re Popes who are infallible. People on both sides do that.

The growing popularity, particularly among young Christians, of the likes of John Piper on one side and Richard Rohr on the other, suggests that the ‘centre’ ground of Christianity might be being abandoned in favour of more extreme positions. Why do you think these views are so popular?

One of the nicest things about finding people like Piper and Rohr is that we can let these super thinkers, and I consider them both super thinkers, do the thinking for us. We tend to look for somebody who is a brilliant articulator and whose words resonate with our own feelings. And then whatever that person or leader has to say becomes absolute truth for us. We tend to stop evaluating what they are saying.

If some wonderful Christian, like Piper on the one side and Rohr on the other, says something that looks wonderful, we tend to say: “This is the truth.” Piper has the truth. Or Rohr has the truth. No, no, no – they have part of the truth, not because I said so, but because the Bible says so.

We are lazy people and do not want to struggle with the issues ourselves. So we let some brilliant person struggle with the issues and then accept whatever she or he says. I think that both Rohr and Piper would be upset if people simply took what they had to say without question. I think these are genuine members of the body of Christ and would say: “This is what I believe but I am willing to be questioned, I don’t want you to believe things simply because I say so.” I think that is what both of them would say. And it goes for the left and the right as well.


Tony Campolo is Professor Emeritus of Sociology at Eastern University in Pennsylvania, USA, and is the author of more than 35 books, including one in which he debated with Brian McLaren on issues of faith and theology. He blogs regularly at RedLetterChristians.org


 Tony Campolo was talking to Chris Hall


This article first appeared in the issue of Mission Catalyst titled At sea over Scripture


Reproduced here with the kind permission of BMS World Mission