School of The Rock


What is a Shibboleth?

Written by Paul Race

A shibboleth is any characteristic, be it linguistic, cultural, or doctrinal that is inconsequential in itself but which people use to stereotype other people for good or for ill. 

The term started out as a linguistic distinctive.  Technically, “shibboleth” is an ancient Hebrew word for a head of wheat. In Judges 12, warring Hebrews used regional differences in pronunciation of this word to determine if a stranger was a enemy or not.  Were the Benjamites killed for bad pronunciation?  Hardly.  Their pronunciation simply betrayed them as enemies, just as many regional accents betray their speakers today.  

Cultural shibboleths are equally widespread in class-conscious cultures. Let’s go back a couple centuries to a literary example.  In Pride and Prejudice, Bingley’s sisters regard Mrs. Bennet as being “below them” because she talks loudly about money in public places.  Mrs. Bennet, on the other hand, has no idea she’s exposing her family to ridicule. 

In the 1970s and 1980s, an American who noticed that cultural shibboleths were keeping highly-qualified professionals from reaching their potential in the corporate world wrote two books - Dress for Success and Live for Success - to enable readers to fit in with the upper classes, at least while they were at work.  Clothing, posture, manners, mannerisms, speech patterns, nothing was off limits, because everything is judged, and such judgments often kept the most qualified people from positions where they could do the company the most good. 

In my corporate career, I’ve also seen evidence that the right mannerisms, speech patterns, and even hand gestures could promote totally useless men to positions of great responsibility.  (The old Peter Sellers movie Being There is not so far removed from the truth.)

You would like to think that the church of Jesus Christ, which eschewed cultural boundaries in the first century (Gal. 3:28), would be beyond such petty distinctions. You would be wrong.  Sticking just to linguistic and cultural shibboleths for the moment, I was in one church with a well-educated pastor whose sermons and Bible studies were always thoughtful and well-researched, but who occasionally had a grammatical “slip.”  Some time after he left, we got a pastor whose grammar was “better” but whose ignorance of history, literature, popular culture, and even of the Bible (other than his favorite proof texts) was evident nearly every time he opened his mouth.  A church leader told me how proud he was that the new pastor wasn’t an embarrassment like the old pastor, because he used better grammar.  I didn’t even know how to answer that.

In other words, the church is hardly immune to linguistic or cultural shibboleths.  But it adds another kind of shibboleth that is - believe it or not - far more dangerous:  doctrinal shibboleths.

Why My Church is Better than Your Church

As Christians we theoretically know the “big picture.”  God made the world. Jesus is the Only Begotten Son, born of a virgin, lived among us, died for our sins, came back from the dead, will welcome us into Heaven, and will eventually return to Earth to “judge the living and the dead.” 

But many believers behave as if it’s more important to have their exact flavor of religion than it is to know Christ. I’m sure this dates back to the days when most Americans considered themselves churchgoers, even those who never went.  Some folk obviously believed that the only way to grow their church was to snag “converts” from somebody else’s.  That wasn’t true then, and it certainly isn’t true now.

There was never any real value in spending so much energy explaining why our church or denomination was better than anyone else’s.  In today’s world, it’s a shameful neglect of our real mission - making disciples, not making Baptists or Nazarenes or Lutherans or whatever.  And yet there are still Christians who consider it their “mission” to drive wedges between Christians or groups because they have a different take on some minor doctrine or a different mode of baptism or something than we do.

Doctrinal Shibboleths Persist

Without even thinking hard, I could probably list sixty doctrinal shibboleths that I’ve witnessed being used to divide the “sheep and the goats” in my 42 years as a Christian.  But I won’t list them, because I have too many Christian friends who don’t know the difference between some fringe doctrine their old pastor beat into the ground and the great truths that he should have been expressing instead.   Hinting that all the energy they poured into defending some borderline “distinctive” (instead of reaching nonbelievers for Jesus) was wood, hay, and stubble  would just confuse them and hurt their feelings.

What’s Next, Secret Handshakes?

It doesn’t help that folks addicted to some shibboleth or another often invent their own vocabulary or adopt code words that mean something different to them than they do to other folks.  For example, the word “grace” in some circles means “predestination.”  Don’t ask me how that came to pass - it’s too convoluted to explain.

Once when I was visiting a previous “home church” that had gone from Arminian to Five-Point Calvinism in my absence, an old friend asked me if I believed in “the Sovereignty of God.”  She was really asking if I now held the same extreme view of predestination as she now did.  I told her “Of course I believe in the Sovereignty of God!”  She said, “Praise Lord!”  To her, the exchange meant that I was also now on the “right” side of the argument. But I had intended the Biblical meaning of the phrase, not the “special meaning” that her church leaders had assigned to it. God is sovereign, is He not?

My Shibboleths

Okay, I’ll be honest.  There are a few things that I feel strongly about. For example, I believe in baptizing people who are old enough to know what they’re doing by immersing them in water.  That said, I have a number of good Christian friends who were “christened” as babies and think that “covers it.”  Since they’re devout Christians, and in some ways better Christians than I, I’m not willing to proclaim that only people baptized according to my personal interpretation of the Bible can be saved.  Of course this sets me apart from churches that believe that only their mode of baptism is “correct,” or the denominations that preach that you can’t be saved unless you’re baptized in their church by one of their ministers.

My really big shibboleth is how I feel about the Bible. I believe it is true.  For example, I believe that the historical parts are historical.  (When it says the Philistines killed Saul and Jonathan, I believe that is a historical statement of fact.)  I also believe that the miracles that are recorded in the Bible really happened, from God speaking to Moses out of a burning bush to Jesus walking on water.  I also believe that the metaphorical expressions in scripture (such as Daniel’s visions) are expressing factual information, even if they take some study to “work out.” 

I confess that I have relatively little tolerance for self-professed believers who pick and choose which parts of the Bible to believe.  For one thing, history proves that it only takes a generation or two for denominations that start out by abandoning apparently minor convictions (did Paul really write the letter to the Ephesians?) to move completely away from the core doctrines of the faith (is Jesus really God?). 

At the individual level, I’ve seen folks whose personal moral code broke down whenever it was inconvenient to take some aspect of scripture (like “Thou shall not covet thy neighbor’s wife”) too seriously. Such self-professed “Christians” are standing in quicksand, and they will gladly drag you in with them, given half a chance.

So, belief in the accuracy, integrity, and authority of scripture is one of those things I’m not real flexible on.  I hope you can forgive me that bit of ”inflexibility.” :-)   

What if My Shibboleths Get Confused with Biblical Truths?

I have been in prayer meetings where we were asked to pray for someone who had “abandoned the faith,” when all that really happened was they had lost their conviction about some fringe doctrine that most orthodox, Fundamental, or Evangelical Christians never believed in the first place.  But to that group, abandoning that shibboleth was equal to abandoning one’s belief that Jesus died for our sins.

Worse yet, I’ve seen groups alienate the lost because they asked them to commit to some arcane practice or some unique fringe doctrine before they could come to Jesus for salvation.  Or, nearly as bad, burden new believers with so many non-Biblical responsibilities that they neglect their primary responsibility - growing in Christ. 

What if My Shibboleths Eclipse Biblical Truths?

I’ve taught and preached the Bible in a wide range of circumstances, including teaching adult Sunday school or leading Bible studies most of my adult life - and in three very different Fundamental/Evangelical denominations.  One thing I’ve learned is that most Christians don’t know their Bible, but they know their church or denomination’s shibboleths in great detail.  Folks who don’t know where to find the scriptures about being saved by grace through faith know exactly where to find the prooftexts for every fringe doctrine they’ve ever had hammered into their heads by spiritual leaders with an ax to grind.  (Sorry for the mixed metaphor, but you know what I mean.)

Sad to say, I have also met self-proclaimed Christian leaders, even Bible professors in conservative “Christian universities” who would defend some fringe doctrine to the death but aren’t entirely convinced that Jesus is God. 

Something is very wrong when the church spends so much time “majoring in the minors,” in a world full of people who don’t even know or understand our core beliefs.

What Truths are Really Worth Dying For

One expression of our core beliefs is a second-century (probably) list that is usually called the “Apostles’ Creed.”

    I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth.

    And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord; Who was conceived by the Holy  Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried; He descended into hell; the third day He  rose again from the dead; He ascended into heaven, and sits on the  right hand of God the Father Almighty; from there He shall come to  judge the living and the dead.

    I believe in the Holy Spirit; the holy universal Church; the communion of  saints; the forgiveness of sins; the resurrection of the body; and the life everlasting. Amen.

Such creeds were used by the early church to make certain converts knew what they were committing to before they were baptized.  (We have a whole article about such early creeds here.)  That said, they make a convenient summary of the truths that early believers were willing to die for.  Are you willing to die for those truths?  Most Christians like to think that they would be, given the challenge.

But are there other “truths” that are just as important to you as the truths expressed by that Creed?  The truth is, we all have something in our personal theology that we’ll have to admit we were wrong about when we get to Heaven.  But if you’re using those glitches, fringe doctrines, and secret codes to beat down or reject the fellowship of well-meaning believers who just may not share your particular quirks, you may have some explaining to do when you get to Heaven as well.

Closing Thoughts

When I was a young believer attending a state university, I had devout Christian friends who were Lutheran, Charismatic, Southern Baptist, Church of the Brethren, Church of Christ, and so on.  We had many Bible studies in which people from six or seven backgrounds studied some chapter of the Bible side-by-side and shared what Paul would have called the “meat” of the word gracefully.  Those days didn’t last forever, unfortunately, but to me that came a lot closer to true “Christian fellowship” than a lot of programs and organizations I’ve come across since.

At the same time, I had one friend who thoroughly enjoyed arguing doctrines.  To him it was literally a recreation.  One time when we were working together, facing a slow day, he said, “Paul, what do you want to argue about today?”  “I’d rather not argue,” I said something like, “Can we just find common ground instead and talk about what God’s doing in our lives?”  And he respected my stance. He’s with the Lord now, after an untimely death, and I’m sure the last thing on his mind is who scored the most points in our last debate, or even who turned out to be right on some point and who turned out to be wrong.  God made the world, Jesus is God made flesh, Jesus died for our sins, and we are saved by grace through faith, and that is a gift of God, and we will spend eternity with Jesus.  So much of the rest is an accident of culture and upbringing; let’s not let it poison our fellowship with other believers or turn into one more example of why so many outsiders think Christians are small-minded.

God bless and guide you,

Paul Race 

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