The new Christian shibboleths. Are you in or out?

Shiao Chong

Josh Larsen
TC Staff
October 31, 2013

Some Christians who hold to these "shibboleths" - opposing abortion, say, or pursuing social justice - would probably describe them as "causes." So I wonder, Chong, how you would suggest Christians can live out their faith in areas they're passionate about - areas they may feel called by God to engage - without allowing their convictions to become shibboleths?

Shiao Chong
October 31, 2013

Great question Josh.
I think the first thing to have is humility. We all need the humility to recognize first of all that it is not OUR cause, but GOD's cause. In other words, we are all members of God's team or different parts of the one body.

As different as a nose seems from a hand, our differences - including our different causes - are still probably part of a bigger plan that God has in fulfilling his mission to reconcile all things in Christ Jesus. So, we need to have the humility to recognize that our pet causes are not the only cause or even the most important cause, even if we feel that it is.

We need to trust that God works it all out for the good. And ideally, these causes should complement each other.

I think they become shibboleths when we elevate our causes into the most important cause that ALL Christians should support. We need the humility to recognize that God gifted different individuals with different gifts and passions for different callings all as part of his mission to reconcile all things.

October 31, 2013

Love this line: "though the Bible might be infallible, shibboleths are not." It's too easy to consider my own standards to be reasonable while those of other people are mere shibboleths.

October 31, 2013

Part of the problem of shibboleths is how they function as a wineskin: they're cultural markers, or boundaries. We all need them, all use them. In that sense they are inescapably ours. I can think of two ways to manage them: first to remember that my belief does have cultural boundaries, that no matter how welcoming I am I will still miss people. Not because I'm bad, but because I am and remain a creature of my culture.

Second, especially on hot button issues, I find it useful simply to remember that the other person(s) is also beloved by God. That is, the danger in shibboleths is temptation to think of the other as outside God's Grace, that "we" does not include them. Such a view does not mean I surrender my convictions (although I may modify them or tone them down), only that I see my opponent as beloved. This is a cruciform work because if Christ did not die for jerks like my opponent, who did He die for? The Cross bids me see past my culture.

Marta L.
November 1, 2013

In the United Methodist Church (my denomination) we are fond of citing a line we attribute to John Wesley: in essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity. I've heard there's some dispute about whether he actually said it or was the first to say it, but I still think the basic principle is a good one.

It means that unless something truly is essential to the faith - like with the above-mentioned person who curses Christ, for instance - we should give them the liberty to take a position <i>as a brother or sister in Christ</i>, and not have that fundamental relationship be shaken by that position. You're free to eat at Chick-fil-A or not, or supporting Obamacare and food stamps, or whatever other shibboleth you might care to name; and taking that position won't change the fact that I love you as a child of God. That may mean disagreeing with you, vehemently, because these things are important in their own way, quite often they're earth-shattering for certain people. But I will wrestle with you over them as a brother, as someone I love. And no matter what you say on those things you're still my sibling-in-Christ.

Admittedly this is more an answer to Josh than the original author's post, perhaps! But I think this is how we live out our faith while avoiding shibboleths. We can hold to our convictions where they are good, where they are warranted, but we cannot use them as a wedge to drive a divide between the faithful. Because these shibboleths - even important ones that matter - just pale in comparison to the glories that bind us together: God's mercy, for instance, and His redemptive love of sinners such as thee and me. That doesn't make them unimportant - just less important than the things that connect us.

As an aside, "The West Wing" has a very nice episode dealing with the topic of shibboleths, framed around some illegal immigrants from China who try to prove they're Christians (and so face prosecution back home) as part of their asylum claims. If people are interested in this topic it might be worth checking out. (S02E08, simply titled "Shibboleth," available on Amazon and Netflix I know)

Shiao Chong
November 1, 2013

Great points all.
Marta L, I have always liked the Wesley quote, but I guess the problem is that many people confuse their shibboleths as essentials, which is what makes them a shibboleth in the first place. That's why I think humility is really a pre-requisite.

And a big AMEN to your statement: "We can hold to our convictions where they are good, where they are warranted, but we cannot use them as a wedge to drive a divide between the faithful."

Add your comment to join the discussion!