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Shibboleth or Sibboleth?

Category Articles
Date October 5, 2007


During the judgeship of Jephtha, a civil war erupted between the Gileadites, members of the tribe of Benjamin, and the Ephraimites. The controversy was about the failure of the latter to help Jephtha in his war against the Ammonites. When Jephtha was victorious, the Ephraimites complained that they should have been asked to participate in the battle. Jephtha reminded them that he had previously issued a call for help, but they had not responded. At this, the Ephraimites hurled terrible insults at Jephtha and his men, and this so infuriated the Gileadites that they turned on the complainants with a vengeance. In the battle that ensued, many Ephraimites were killed and when those who survived the slaughter tried to escape by crossing the Jordan River, their pursuers caught them. Anticipating this move, the Gileadites had stationed themselves at the fords where the river was shallow and where the fugitives would be likely to cross.

The Gileadites used an ingenious device to catch these men. To make sure that no Ephraimite would escape by pretending to be a member of another tribe, they made each fugitive pass a simple test. Apparently, the Ephraimites spoke a dialect that did not use the diphthong ‘sh.’ So they pronounced the word ‘shibboleth’ – the Hebrew word for river or stream – as ‘sibboleth.’ The Gibeonites knew this; so whenever a man wanted to cross the stream, they would point to it and ask him to call it by its name. If he said, ‘sibboleth’, he was killed on the spot. In this way thousands of Ephraimites perished.

Although the Ephraimites were partly to blame for this disaster because of their contemptuous behaviour, it was Jephtha and his men who were mainly responsible for this massacre. They were wrong in treating fellow Israelites as if they were Ammonites. Civil war is terrible because it sets brother against brother and turns friends into foes.

Unfortunately, Jephtha and his Gileadites have not been the only ones to commit this evil. Many times Christians too have treated their fellow believers as if they were enemies. The method employed in identifying them as such is often similar to the one used in this story recorded in Judges 12. Thus the term shibboleth has come to represent any test whereby an individual may be classified or identified as not belonging to ‘us’ but ‘them.’

The Bible and church history are replete with examples of how such ‘internal warfare’ has harmed and weakened the church and brought dishonour to the cause of Christ. James speaks of ‘wars and fightings’ among brothers in the church, and he says: ‘Speak not evil one of another, brethren. He that speaketh evil of his brother, and judgeth his brother, speaketh evil of the law, and judgeth the law… who art thou that judgest one another?’ (cf.4:1-4).

The Proper Use of Shibboleths

Before giving some examples of the wrong use of ‘shibboleths,’ however, let me first illustrate their proper use. Just as you can tell where a person comes from by his or her accent, so it is often possible to recognize a person’s spiritual background by certain things he says or does. Sometimes these are only small things, but these seemingly insignificant ‘give aways’ may be a sufficient index to a person’s over-all character. By their peculiar way of pronouncing that certain password, the Ephraimites revealed their true identity. So we, in a thousand ways, also betray our real character. It is impossible to conceal these small telltale signs. Try as we might to hide our identity, sooner or later it will show itself by something we say or do.

A person may pretend to be a Christian so that he talks like one and acts like one, but situations will arise which will force him to reveal his true identity. Some temptation faces him and the way he reacts will give him away. At such times a person has no choice but to act according to his true nature. The Ephraimites could not pronounce that certain word the way the Gileadites did. Although their lives depended on it, they found it impossible to say ‘shibboleth’.

As long as shibboleth refers to a test through which God puts us, it is a legitimate device whereby we must examine ourselves and others.

Some Divine Shibboleths

What are some of these divine shibboleths? The first one is the new birth. ‘Except a man be born again,’ Jesus says to Nicodemus, ‘he cannot see [or enter] the kingdom God’ (John 3:3,5). The second one is repentance. ‘Except ye repent,’ the Saviour warns his audience, ‘ye shall all likewise perish’ (Luke 13:3). The third one is faith, specifically faith in Christ. ‘Without faith it is impossible to please God,’ the apostle declares (Heb. 11:6). Then there is sanctification or holiness, ‘without which,’ the same apostle says, ‘no man shall see the Lord’ (Heb. 12:14).

Other key doctrines that must be believed include salvation by grace, the substitutionary atonement of Christ, the trinity, the infallibility of Scripture, the human and divine natures of Christ and the virgin birth. These and other great truths of Scripture are God’s shibboleths, which we have to be able to ‘pronounce’ correctly.

These biblical shibboleths we have to insist on as we deal with souls. We must judge others and ourselves by them. Only those who speak this language are true Israelites. All others are to be regarded as strangers to grace and to God.

Man-Made Shibboleths and their Effects

In addition to these divine shibboleths, however, there are also certain man-made touchstones that some people use to judge others. Most of these concern non-essentials, some relating to doctrinal issues, for example, the subjects of baptism, its mode, meaning, and efficacy; the order of the divine decrees; the number of covenants – two, three or more; how to interpret the millennium; etc., etc. These things are important, of course, and as members of our Free Reformed churches we need to be in basic agreement on them, but in our dealings with members of other churches, such doctrinal distinctives should not be used as tests to determine whether a person is a Christian or not.

Other shibboleths have to do with details of liturgical practices, such as how many times during the service the congregation should stand or sit, exactly how the worshippers should be attired, whether the common cup or individual cups should be used in the Lord’s Supper, which Bible version is to be used, how to address God in prayer, etc., etc. Now all these things are important and it is not always easy for consistories to provide the kind of leadership that will result in a consensus that is acceptable to all.

In many of these cases, Scripture gives us general principles rather than specifics. Take modesty for instance. We all agree that women and men (too!) are to be properly dressed when coming to God’s house. But what exactly constitutes modesty? There will always be different opinions on that subject. Yet I believe that Holy Scripture and sanctified common sense will help those who seek to please God rather than themselves to find a ‘happy’ medium and not act in a divisive of offensive way. Also here it is true that ‘the meek He will guide in judgment and the meek will He teach his way’ (Psa. 25:9).

In trying to come to an agreement on some of these touchy issues we should exercise patience with each other and refrain from making hasty judgments. Matters like these should never become shibboleths or litmus tests for one’s orthodoxy and state of grace.

TRADITIONS and traditions

The problem, as I see it, is that many are not able to distinguish between God’s shibboleths and those devised by man. Some of these man-made shibboleths may be based on time-honoured traditions and customs that have their value and should not be lightly discarded, if at all. But they are traditions with a small ‘t’, which have grown historically and have become part of our heritage and identity and should not be given the same status as Traditions with a capital ‘T’. The latter are biblical and divine precepts that are binding on all men for all time.

Christians have always disagreed on what are essential and what are non-essential matters. We need to sit down with each other, therefore, and calmly discuss our differences. We should explain, especially to our young people, why certain things ought to be done in a certain way. In doing so it is very important that we have scriptural proof for the positions we take on any given issue. It is not enough to say, we have always done it this way and I like it this way, therefore why change? This may have been sufficient in the past, but such an approach does not work any more with young people today, many of whom are not only better educated than their parents, but who in some cases are also more interested in spiritual matters than some of our older members, even if they have difficulty saying shibboleth.

Things that Can Never Change

Do I propose, therefore, that we should give in to every wish for change? Absolutely not! It is incumbent on those who insist on doing things differently to come up with good scriptural reasons, otherwise it becomes a matter of ‘change for the sake of change,’ which can do no one any spiritual good.

Certain things may never change, and as churches we have the duty to insist on God’s shibboleths. These are relatively few in number, however, and are very clear. Ultimately, there is only one: faith in Christ. Yes, the doctrine of justification by faith alone, by grace alone – that is the article whereby a church and an individual stands or falls. That is what Luther said and he could speak from experience. God had shown him the way out of legalism into the gospel way of salvation. As a poor, lost sinner he learned by grace to rely on the Lord Jesus Christ and his finished work alone.

Alas, many since Luther have forgotten that little word ‘alone.’ The shibboleths of their traditions (with a small ‘t’) and their ways of doing things have become so important that they have become the litmus tests to determine who is and who is not a Christian.

Spiritual Maturity is the Key

Scripture teaches that the best, i.e., the most mature, Christians are those who show the most love to Christ and to their fellow men. They diffuse an aroma of graciousness, kindness, and loving concern for others. If we belong to Christ, we partake of his nature and become like him: we will have a burden for the lost, show compassion towards the needy, be generous in forgiving, patient with those who are ignorant, practising the kind of charity that ‘beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things and endureth all things’ (1 Cor. 13:7).

With the love of Christ directing us, we will learn to deal with those with whom we differ on minor and even major issues. We will gladly make allowances for these differences and put the best possible construction on what others say and do. But above all, we will not judge others by looking for shibboleths or passwords that cannot be found in God’s dictionary, lest we shut out those whom God has shut in. ‘Take heed,’ Jesus warned, ‘lest you offend one of these little ones’ (Matt. 18:6). The Saviour was asked once what to think of someone who was casting out devils in his name but who did not follow him and his disciples. Jesus simply said this: ‘Forbid him not; for he that is not against us is for us’ (Luke 9:49-50).

The Puritan Richard Baxter may well have been thinking of this verse when he coined his famous maxim: ‘In essentials unity; in non-essentials liberty. In all things charity’

Rev Cornelis (Neil) Pronk is emeritus pastor of the Free Reformed Churches and serves as a teaching elder of Providence Free Reformed Church of St. George, Ontario.

This article is taken with permission from the Editorial of the September 2007 issue of The Messenger, the official publication of the Free Reformed Churches of North America.

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