Culture At Large

The new Christian shibboleths. Are you in or out?

Shiao Chong

“You cannot be a Christian and believe in evolution!” declared a young man in one of my campus ministry gatherings. In my work as a campus minister, I have come across many similar sentiments. Not surprisingly, I have also met those, especially science majors, who felt judged by their Christian peers as less Christian because they accept evolution as factually true. These experiences made me wonder if being anti-evolution has become a Christian shibboleth.

According to my Canadian Oxford dictionary, a shibboleth is “a long-standing formula, doctrine, or phrase, etc. held to be true (especially unreflectively) by a party or group.” Based on the story of Jephthah in Judges 12, who used the phrase “shibboleth” as a pronunciation test to differentiate Ephraimites from Gileadites, the term acquired the meaning of partisan code that determines if a person is “one of us” or “one of the enemy."

Lately, I have found that many North American Christians are increasingly relying on shibboleths to determine if someone passes as “one of us.” Being anti-evolution, anti-abortion (often synonymous with anti-feminist), anti-gay and anti-global warming – for some Christians, these can be considered shibboleths. Other Christians have other shibboleths: being non-judgmental, championing social justice and pursuing gender equality, for example.

I am not saying that any of these positions are wrong, per se. But I think it is wrong to use them as initial litmus tests for someone’s faith.

For starters, shibboleths are more than simply neutral categories. They are partisan codes meant to exclude or include someone. They are used to determine how we associate with someone. Shibboleths are not ethically neutral.

Secondly, they are becoming a new form of legalism. Instead of learning about someone through their actions, we now judge them based on whether they adhere or do not adhere to certain positions on specific topics.

Many North American Christians are increasingly relying on shibboleths to determine if someone passes as “one of us.”

Thirdly, shibboleths are almost always extra-Biblical in that they add more to what Biblical principles suggest. They are human constructs made by mostly well-meaning Christians to confirm their version of what the Bible suggests is a “good Christian.” And though the Bible might be infallible, shibboleths are not. Thus, we would be judging people based on fallible human categories that might have some Biblical basis, but are ultimately more about towing a party line than being faithful to Scripture.

Furthermore, how much of these extra-Biblical shibboleth formulations are shaped by a particular culture and time? At one point, being pro-slavery was a shibboleth for Christians in the Southern United States.

Unity in Christ is now confused with uniformity in partisan shibboleths. Shibboleths, therefore, create artificial barriers between Christians, preventing us from relating to people to find out who they really are and what they really believe. It can prevent us from recognizing our commonalities. Shibboleths predispose us to prejudge people – they make us prejudiced.

I can think of only one explicit shibboleth in Scripture, from 1 Corinthians 12: “no one who is speaking by the Spirit of God says, 'Jesus be cursed,' and no one can say, 'Jesus is Lord,' except by the Holy Spirit.” The explicit rejection of Jesus clearly puts one outside the family of Christ-followers.

It is almost poetic justice that the term “shibboleth” originated from a story where Israelites were killing fellow Israelites, albeit from different tribes. Are we not using shibboleths today to metaphorically slay each other as Christians from different tribes?

Therefore, can we drop our shibboleths, save the rejection or acceptance of Jesus? If people claim to be Christian but differ from us in their politics, ideas, practices or even certain beliefs, can we be humble and gracious to each other? Otherwise, it seems as if it will be difficult to heed Jesus’ call to “love one another,” which is one of His most explicit commands.

Topics: Culture At Large, Theology & The Church, Theology