Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Conservative Evangelicals and Shibboleths

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.


Rob Dilfer said...

I would say that several of the shibboleths you listed, as well as some more I might add, are topics that are quite important to have a right understanding of. I don't believe that we have an option not to care about or address some of those issues. I think the distinction, though, is in whether we are identifying certain beliefs for the purpose of blessing and guarding one another in love, or for the purpose of determining whether they are with "us" or against "us". I often wonder how to address some of these issues in a completely humble and loving way, and I still don't have a clear answer. I, like you, have plenty of friends that don't share all the same beliefs as me on certain topics. Some topics are less significant than others, but some are quite urgent. More often than not I find myself just holding my tongue to avoid getting into heated and fruitless debates. At the same time, I have a sense of urgency because of writings like 2 Peter which warn of slipping into false teachings. I often wonder about how gradual the slope is from curiosity to apostasy. But I agree that we can approach our differences in a judgmental rather than loving way, and sometimes, on a bad day, slip into judging and classifying people with different views than our own. I have both done this and been a recipient of it in the past, and I know no good can come from it. All in all, it's a touchy subject, but an extremely important one.

Matt said...

Thanks for the thoughts, Rob.

I hope you don't misunderstand me. It's not that I don't "care" about these issues or that I don't think they're important. I have beliefs about all of these issues--even strong beliefs about many of them.

I also think that heresy is not something we should take lightly. There are such things as orthodoxy and heterodoxy, and we should speak out against heresy. Paul handed a guy over to Satan because he believed the wrong thing about the resurrection.

The problem, as I see it, is that often the "right understanding" of a doctrine isn't so clear cut. There are a lot of biblical and theological questions that don't have easy answers.

And yet, many people are zealous for easy answers, and they demonize those who hold other positions without properly understanding why others believe what they believe.

I wrote this post, not because I think these issues are unimportant, but because I think too many people demonize others without taking the time to understand them.

Take evolution, for example. Personally, I believe in a literal 6 day creation. But I have many friends who are theistic evolutionists. They believe that God created the world and humanity, but they believe that Darwinian evolution was the means by which He did so. They can make a good case for this, both through the Scriptures and biology. I had a friend suggest to a Sunday school class he was teaching that you could be a Christian and believe in evolution. When he said this, one of the kids shouted, "That's wrong!"

Do we really want to say that? Do we really want to say that someone who doesn't believe in a literal six day creation is going to hell? Most people probably do not know the biblical, scientific, and theological arguments for theistic evolution. Yet most are convinced it's wrong, and many think it is incompatible with Christianity.

Personally, I don't think theistic evolution is the best explanation for why we are here. But I appreciate how someone might think it is. I don't think it's heresy, and I'm not going to preach against it. But some would doubt my conservatism for refusing to call out the liberal Darwinists, because 6 day creationism is a Shibboleth.

I appreciate your taking the time to read and comment. It gives me a chance to clarify what I am saying.