Concerning Reasonableness, Togetherness and Shibboleths
During World War II, some U. S. soldiers during the invasion of Normandy and in the Pacific theater used the word “welcome” or “lollapalooza” as a password to verbally test people who were hiding or unidentified, on the premise that the enemy would mis-pronounce the word. Germans would pronounce “welcome” as “velcome” and the Japanese would pronounce “lollapalooza” with “rorra.” George Stimpson’s in his “A Book about a Thousand Things” notes that if the password was mispronounced sentries would “open fire without waiting to hear the remainder.” Other measures included questions about Baseball teams or athletes to screen the real from the pretender.
Such passwords are as old as the Bible. Judges 12 records that the men of Gilead at war with the Ephraimites tested the fleeing fighters asking them to pronounce the Hebrew word “shibboleth.” The Ephraimites were not able to pronounce the “sh” sound but said “s” revealing their true identity – and as a result they were slaughtered: “And the Gileadites captured the fords of the Jordan against the Ephraimites. And when any of the fugitives of Ephraim said, ‘Let me go over,’ the men of Gilead said to him, ‘Are you an Ephraimite?’ When he said, ‘No.’ They said to him, ‘Then say Shibboleth,’ and he said, ‘Sibboleth,’ for he could not pronounce it right. Then they seized him and slaughtered him at the fords of the Jordan. At that time 42,000 of the Ephraimites fell.”
Professor Kemmer, Professor of Linguistics at Rice University writes, “A shibboleth is a kind of linguistic password: A way of speaking (a pronunciation, or the use of a particular expression), a slogan or catchphrase that identifies one as a member of an ‘in’ group. The purpose of a shibboleth is exclusionary as much as inclusionary: A person whose way of speaking violates a shibboleth is identified as an outsider and thereby excluded by the group.”
The book of Judges is not the only example of the power of a shibboleth – “The word shibboleth has become a proverb for the minute differences which religious parties thrust into exaggerated prominence, and defend with internecine ferocity. In theological warfare the differences of watchword or utterance have sometimes been the actual cause of hatred and persecution; sometimes the two opposing parties have been in agreement in every single essential fact, but have simply preferred other formulas to express it” (Ellicott’s Commentary on the Whole Bible, vol. 2, p. 237). In the Trinitarian controversies of the 4th century, particularly over the deity of Jesus, the difference between adding an “i” or extra “o” to the Greek word defining his nature meant the difference between heresy and orthodoxy, banishment and even death. Some like Arius held that “homoosious” was adequate to define Jesus as similar in nature to the Father. Others like Athanasius held that “homoiousios” was more accurate defining Jesus as identical in nature to the Father. The controversy and debate was so fierce that Gregory of Nyssa complained
“Everywhere, in the public squares, at crossroads, on the streets and lanes, people would stop you and discourse at random about the Trinity. If you asked something of a moneychanger, he would begin discussing the question of the Begotten and the Unbegotten. If you questioned a baker about the price of bread, he would answer that the Father is greater and the Son is subordinate to Him. If you went to take a bath, the bath attendant would tell you that in his opinion the Son simply comes from nothing.”
The controversies of past generations may seem irrelevant or petty today but they were invested in with as much passion and polemic as today’s hot button topics on which we are told the fate of the church, the nation and universe seem to hinge. Part of the problem besides hyperbole is that the discourse of political demonizing (ala Fox News) has become the predominant method of discourse and dealing with differences. Or perhaps as that great theologian George Gershwin more profoundly put it (and Louis Armstrong sang it): “You say eether and I say eyether, You say neether and I say nyther, Eether, eyether, neether, nyther, Let’s call the whole thing off! You say potato and I say potahto, You say tomato and I say tomahto; Potato, potahto, Tomato, tomahto, Let’s call the whole thing off”
Shibboleths were not only used to weed out the “enemy” in the past – they still draw the battle lines today. Here are a few shibboleths over which I have been declared friend or foe depending on whether I agree or disagree in no particular order (I’m sure you could make your own list):
- Have you been baptized in the name of Jesus only?
- Do you use the King James Version?
- Home school
- Public school
- Young earth
- Old Earth
- Republican platform
- Complementarian view of gender
- Egalitarian view of gender
- Pre-mid-post tribulation
- Baptized in the Holy Ghost with the initial evidence of speaking in tongues
- Not speaking in tongues
- Praying for healing
- Spiritual gifts cease
- Spiritual gifts continue
- Altar calls
- President Barack Obama
- Singing with musical instruments
- Singing with no instruments
- Drums in worship
- Women speaking in church
- Women teaching
- Meeting in a building
- Meeting in a living room
- Receiving a salary as a pastor
- “the Toronto Blessing”
- Government mandated health insurance
And the list goes on. I am not indifferent to doctrinal distinctions. I am not advocating an abandonment of exegetical exactitude, theological precision or moral discrimination for a warm & fuzzy togetherness. However, if you’ve ever been on the receiving end of the “shibboleth” sentry challenge you know the discomfort of waiting to be declared ecclesiological friend or foe on what may not amount to more than a spiritual mole hill. More importantly, not all distinctions or controversies are created equal – or essential to faith, saving or historical. The danger is trivializing what is truly important and distorting those truths which are saving and define the gospel.
Despite risking an immediate anathema by some readers by quoting him, in a marvelous paragraph on the essential and non-essentials of unity, Calvin says – “For all the heads of true doctrine are not in the same position. Some are so necessary to be known, that all must hold them to be fixed and undoubted as the proper essentials of religion: for instance, that God is one, that Christ is God, and the Son of God, that our salvation depends on the mercy of God, and the like. Others, again, which are the subject of controversy among the churches, do not destroy the unity of the faith” (Inst. Bk. Ch.1). There is a difference between essentials and non-essentials, and a difference even between matters of importance and saving fundamentals – and the way of wisdom is to know the difference.
The Apostle Paul’s correction to the Corinthian church because some are denying a resurrection from the dead and by implication denying the resurrection of Christ shows a non-negotiable element of the gospel truth by which they are “being saved” (1 Cor. 15:2). In contrast, his discussion in 1 Cor. 8 of what one eats or does not eat is a test of freedom and love in action – how one lives this out is negotiable as long as it is guided by love. The first letter of John insists the truth that the Son of God, Jesus Christ has come in the flesh and its denial is not simply a difference between opinions or semantics but a difference between spirits – the Spirit of God and the spirit of antichrist (1 John 4:1-3). Equally the test of obeying God’s commands or truly loving one another is a defining difference between those who know God and those who do not (1 John 3:4-10; 1 John 5:1-2). How much of the fussin & fightin’ in history or today have to do with these matters? At times it seems little more than the “unhealthy craving for controversy and for quarrels about words, which produce envy, dissension, slander, evil suspicions, and constant friction among people” warned of in 1 Timothy 6:4-5.
Richard John Neuhaus, in “Freedom For Ministry” makes an important point: The choice is not between schism for the sake of truth or superficiality for the sake of unity. One serves the community poorly if one does not contribute to it the most vigorous advocacy of what one believes to be right. Disagreement is not to be tolerated but to be nurtured. As John Courtney Murray was found of remarking, disagreement is an achievement. What we call disagreement, said Murray is usually just confusion. It takes clarity, integrity and hard work to arrive at real disagreement. But in all our disagreements and confused agreements the unshakeable confidence is that our unity – like the peace the angels announced to the shepherds –is a given. The confidence rests on our ‘sacramentum’, our mutual pledge of allegiance, to reverence one another within the mystery of our being a people led by God toward that time in which we shall ‘know even as we are known.
An old motto, credited to Augustine as well as Meldenius, “In essentials unity, in non-essentials freedom, in all things love” points us one way to have real disagreement and maintain unity. The 18th century evangelist George Whitefield who preached to Arminians & Calvinists said it this way – “I truly love all that love the glorious Emmanuel, and though I cannot depart from the principles which I believe are clearly revealed in the book of God, yet I can cheerfully associate with those who differ from me, if I have reason to think they are united to our common head.” (Works, Vol. 2, p.242)
A sectarian rejects this and says everything matters and is of equal importance and therefore creates a narrow ground of fellowship (or to put it bluntly “all those who agree with me/us”). A latitudinarian view surrenders most of what matters and any basis for togetherness will do. The fundamentalist split-off movements of the 1920’s & 1950’s that divided and subdivided over the timing of the rapture, the exact time schedule of the 70 weeks of Daniel 9, women’s hairstyles or use of makeup are an example of the former. The once confessional “mainline” churches that have revised historical faith statements to silliness an example of the latter.
I know guarding “the fords of the Jordan” has been going on a long time. Given human nature, I doubt it will change soon. It’s easier to build churches, movements & sell books by defining the other guys as the devil’s spawn. The date of Easter, the use of vestments or Luther’s vehemence with Zwingli over “is” concerning the Lord’s Table may be old news but today’s debate over “kephale” (head) in regards to gender or whether a living room sofa or a padded pew is more conducive to being missional has replaced them. I readily grant that the health and future of the church is tied to holding on to faith in the resurrection of Jesus but I will not surrender that glorious truth to be as important as what kind of furniture we place our posteriors on. Even if the hair-splitting seems unlikely to reach the point of spilling blood (at least in the U.S.) there is something wearying about the suspicion, defensiveness, demonization and depersonalization that accompany the process of being “shibbolethized.” More importantly, it trivializes and distorts the gospel.
I believe this is more than the travail of a sensitive soul – I do think God has a different view. Consider the prayer of his Son in John 17:21 – “that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” There is a unity of disciples that convinces the unbelieving kosmos that Jesus was sent by the Father. The opposite is true – there is a disunity of his disciples that will lead the world not to believe. Ok, I can imagine the “yeah, but” protests. Frankly, I have them too because I’m still thinking this out. I have argued with the same passion and certainty of my own position and missed the person for the polemic. There are times when I grow weary of the weary struggle for mutual understanding and think “why bother?” I have no 5 point prescription. However, I know there’s something different and greater that God intended.
The “shibboleth” of Judges is more than the use of a linguistic litmus test. It was not over the nature of God or the Shema, the right way to circumcise or proper priestly protocol. It was the rivalry, competition, pride, jealousy and the lust for self-preservation of the tribes over the good and the survival of the nation to the extent they would be willing to kill each other than worship, serve and take on their common enemies together. The low point of Judges leads slowly but eventually by God’s guiding, sovereign hand to the establishment of the rule of a united kingdom by David of the house of Judah. But that was only for awhile. Something more has been promised that the prophets saw yet to come – one flock and one Shepherd (Ez. 34). Ever since his resurrection and ascension, the son of David and Son of God rules in glory on heaven’s throne. We know by divine revelation that he is head of his body and Lord of his church but we still await his rule to be fully established on earth as in heaven and especially in his own household. Ephesians 4 speaks of a unity is that is yet to come – “until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to measure of the full stature of Christ” (Eph 4: 13). Most would agree that we haven’t seen or experienced that yet! But it will come – Christ created one body by his death and he has been working, is working and will be working to bring about the maturity and fullness of his body – to have us grow up into him. It won’t come through manifestos, task forces, edicts, constitutional amendments, authoritarian structures, Robert Rules of Order, consumer surveys or popular vote. It requires all the gifts of Christ’s ascension. It also requires that we differentiate between friend and foe and welcome one another “as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God” (Rom. 15:7). I long to see that unity. Like many others, I may have had a brief glimpse of it.
One night on a mission trip in Guatemala, (ironically made up of a team of differently labeled tribes of believers in Jesus) above the noise of traffic and bar music down the street, I heard the sound of beautiful harmonious singing. Up on the hill was a church building with lights on the inside that from the volume of the voices had to be filled with people. Earlier in the daylight it had been hard not to miss the one other import from North America besides vulgar culture – denominations – Baptist, Assembly of God, Nazarene, Wesleyan with signs all declaring their brand of “church-i-anity” or “isms” in huge letters around town & on every hillside. However, on this night no signs, labels or names could be seen – only the light and the singing inside coming out the open windows. I didn’t recognize the song, nor understand it since it was in Spanish but they sang with such life and passion if it had been “Join hands, then, members of the faith, whatever your race may be! Who serves my Father as His child, Is surely kin to me,” (“In Christ There is No East or West”) I wouldn’t have been surprised. Christ’s light and praises filled the night. And there was no name brand attached to it but his own. That’s worth “growing up” into!