In Judges 12, the Ephraimites are at war with the Gileadites. Because the two tribes were closely related, it was difficult to tell who was a friend and who was an enemy. But because the two groups had different accents, they used code words to distinguish friend from foe. When someone was suspected of being an Ephraimite, the Gileadites would ask him to say the word "shibboleth." If the person had an Ephraimite accent and pronounced it "sibbboleth," the Gileadites would kill him on the spot.
We have our own shibboleths in conservative evangelicalism. We size people up as either "with us" or "against us" based on what they believe about certain issues we deem important. Some of our shibboleths are:
Your view on hell
Your view on homosexuality
Your view on the role of women in the church
Your view on the environment
Your view on postmodernism
Your view on evolution
Your view on inerrancy
Your political affiliation
Your view on the "emerging" or "emergent" church
When we hear someone's views on these issues, we categorize them as either "with" us or "against" us. When we ask the question, "What do you think about hell?" we don't care so much about what influences their theology of the righteousness of God and eschatological justice, we just want to know if they are "with" us or "against" us. Are they a liberal, or are they one of the good guys? (Or, conversely, are they a fundamentalist, or are they one of the good guys?)
I realize that shibboleths are a part of all cultures and sub-groups and evangelicals aren't the only guilty parties, but I think we take it one step further.
If our preachers don't regularly preach on the shibboleths, we start to questions whose side they're on, anyway.
I think that is why evangelical preachers are accused of preaching nothing but hellfire and brimstone and why God hates the gays--if they don't, people question their conservatism.
Now, I am all about preaching the Bible and teaching the truth. But really, how much ink is spilled in the Bible on these topics compared to how much they're brought up in church? How many times did Jesus tell people they were going to hell and that this meant a literal place with literal fire that consciously torments you literally forever? How many people did Paul hand over to Satan because they were postmodernists?
I take the conservative position on most of the above issues. But perhaps what makes me different is that I have friends who don't. Some of these people are a lot smarter than I am. Some of them love God a lot more than I do. Some of them know the Bible a lot better than I do. Not everyone who takes a "liberal" position on these issues is trying to destroy the Gospel. They read the same Bible as me and serve the same God. They just see things a bit differently. I disagree with their ideas, but I am okay with some diversity in the body of Christ.
There is a time and a place to set boundaries. The great church councils decided that there is orthodoxy and heterodoxy. Jesus cared a lot about what people believed about Him. But I think we define orthodoxy a lot narrower than those who have gone before us. Maybe we need to learn to hold fast to what is essential, but to show some humility in other areas.
Jesus was most interested in telling people to follow Him and build for the kingdom of God. Paul was most interested in telling people about the life-changing effects of the cross and the indwelling Holy Spirit. John was most interested in the significance of Jesus--who He was, why He died, and what difference it makes in the way we treat each other. Maybe these are the things we should care about, too.
Over a thousand years after the conflict between the Ephraimites and the Gileadites, shibboleths came up again in the community of faith. This time it happened in the city of Antioch. The Jews of the day went to great lengths to distinguish themselves from the godless Gentiles. They didn't eat meat sacrificed to idols, they didn't work on the Sabbath, and they circumcised their sons. There was never a question of whose side they were on--their lifestyle made it apparent. But Peter, the apostle to the Jews, started eating with the Gentiles in Antioch. But when the kosher good ole boys came up from Jerusalem, he changed his ways. He made sure his eating habits said "shibboleth" and not "sibboleth."
But Paul called him out. Peter wasn't living the Gospel.
In Galatians 3:26–28, Paul writes, "You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus."
The Gospel transcends the shibboleths.
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