As you drive by the church I pastor in San Diego, one of the things that immediately catches your eye is the color of our entrance doors. Red! In fact, the color is so prominent that we have incorporated it into our church logo. This is a common color for traditional church doors. A variety of explanations have been offered over the years to explain why.
The first is simply practical. Until modern developments in pigmentation, red was one of the few easily made, durable colors of paint. This is why many old barns were painted red. According to the Farmer’s Almanac, the early farmers that settled in New England didn't have extra money to spend on paint, so most of their barns remained unpainted. By the late 1700s, farmers looking to shield their barn’s wood from the elements began experimenting with ways to make their own protective paint. A recipe consisting of skimmed milk, lime and red iron oxide created a rusty-colored mixture that became popular because it was cheap to make and lasted for years. It is thought that these same farmers—as members and volunteers of their respective churches—took the leftover paint and applied it to their churches doors. Red paint spread in popularity due to its functionality and convenience, becoming an American tradition that continues to this day.
A further explanation that goes back to the Medieval period is that red marks the church as a place of sanctuary—a place of refuge and safety from violence and injustice (comparable to the cities of refuge found in Numbers 35:9-12). If a person being pursued by the local populace, police or gentry could reach the church door he/she would be safe. Nobody would dare do violence on sacred ground and, in most cases, the Church was not subject to civil law during that time. The red door was fair warning to pursuers that they could proceed no further. One who claimed sanctuary in this way would then be able to present his/her case before the priest and ask that justice be served. This is beautifully pictured in Victor Hugo’s classic novel, Les Misérables, where the recently released convict, Jean Valjean, finds shelter in the church after he is turned away by everyone else. His host, the Bishop of Digne, introduces himself. “This is not my house,” Bishop Myriel declares, “it’s the house of Jesus Christ, a refuge for the outcast.”
The red door was fair warning to pursuers that they could proceed no further.
Some have tied red doors to the remembrance of the martyrs and the ultimate sacrifice that they made for their faith. Tertullian famously said, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”
The spiritual explanation I find to be the most poignant is that red symbolizes the blood of Christ. Just as the blood of the lambs marked the doors of Israelite homes in Egypt during the first Passover, so the blood of the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world marks the doors of the New Israel.
Just as the blood of the lambs marked the doors of Israelite homes in Egypt during the first Passover, so the blood of the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world marks the doors of the New Israel.
A red door symbolically portrays the theological centerpiece of the Reformation tradition: “The Cross Alone is our Theology.” In the words of Christ himself, “I am the way and the truth and the life, nobody comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). We cannot enter the Kingdom of Heaven but through the shed blood of Christ for us.
Like the door to your home, a church entrance is its interface with the outside world. While there is nothing particularly sacred about a doorway, there is no better location to place a sign to display the faith of those who reside inside. “The household of faith,” as St. Paul calls the church, would not exist apart from the blood of Christ, for it is in the blood of the Lamb that our robes have been washed clean (Rev. 7:14). The red door serves as a good reminder of this fact as you make your entrance into the sanctuary.