by Al Maxey

Issue #66 ------- September 1, 2003
Man is a creature who lives not upon
bread alone, but principally by catchwords.

--- Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894)


The Shibboleth Syndrome
Party Policy: Pronounce or Perish

"For by your words you shall be justified, and by your words you shall be condemned" (Matthew 12:37). This is a very famous pronouncement made by Jesus to the rigid religionists and petty partyists of His day -- the Pharisees. Although not contextually designed to be, it also serves as a striking commentary on a most deadly encounter between two warring tribes of the Israelites -- the Ephraimites and the Gileadites. The specific aspect of that costly confrontation that I would like for us to examine more closely is found in the following passage:

Judges 12:5-6
The Gileadites seized the fords of the Jordan before
the Ephraimites arrived. And when any Ephraimite who
escaped said, "Let me cross over," the men of Gilead
would say to him, "Are you an Ephraimite?" If he said,
"No," then they would say to him, "Then say, 'Shibboleth'!"
And he would say, "Sibboleth," for he could not pronounce
it right. Then they would take him and kill him at the fords
of the Jordan. There fell at that time 42,000 Ephraimites.

The Ephraimites were notoriously arrogant against their fellow Israelites. They deemed themselves the favored ones of God among all His people, and repeatedly displayed disdain for their "inferior" brethren. Early on they had challenged Joshua, demanding more land for themselves than the other tribes (Joshua 17:14f). We see this spirit also breaking out in their strife with Gideon (Judges 8:1-3) and in their hostilities against Jephthah (Judges 12:1-3).

"Ephraim was the largest and most powerful of the tribes of Israel. The great leader, Joshua, was of that tribe, and they seem to have thought that they had an hereditary primacy among the tribes .... that, being the chief tribe, they were entitled to be considered first in everything; that their advice was always to be sought, their wishes always to be consulted; and that the maintenance of their dignity ought to be the first consideration of all the other tribes. .... Their own dignity, and not their country's good, was their chief concern. .... It was very much the same spirit which showed itself in the Pharisees when our Lord's fame as a teacher drew such multitudes to hear Him. They thought they had the monopoly of teaching, that no doctrine which did not emanate from their schools ought to be listened to. So when the carpenter's Son opened His mouth and poured forth His lessons of exquisite wisdom and power, and enchained the attention of the multitudes, and was acknowledged as a prophet, their envy was excited. Instead of rejoicing that God had sent them a teacher mighty in word and deed, they only plotted how they might silence the eloquent tongue. The same spirit is common in our own days!" (The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 3).

The Ephraimites felt slighted because Israel's judge, Jephthah, had dared to go to war against the people of Ammon without first consulting with them and asking their assistance. Thus, they told Jephthah, "We will burn your house down on you with fire" (Judges 12:1). The reality, however, was much different than the self-serving perception of the Ephraimites, as Jephthah pointed out in verses 2-3. The people of Ephraim had been asked to come to the aid of their brothers, but they had failed to respond. Now, after the successful battle with the enemy, they are frustrated that they are not receiving their share of the glory. Thus, they are determined to destroy Jephthah. The reverse occurred, however. The people of Gilead rose up against the arrogant Ephraimites and defeated them. Many escaped the battlefield and sought to flee back home. The Gileadites had captured the crossing point to their land, however, and slaughtered 42,000 of them when they could not correctly pronounce the "password."

There was no particular significance to the word Shibboleth, which means either "a flowing stream" or "an ear of corn," other than the fact it was difficult for some peoples, the Ephraimites among them, to correctly pronounce. Thus, it was an easy way to identify those who sought to escape the retribution of the Gileadites. They simply used it as an effective password to isolate the people of Ephraim by their dialectal mispronunciation. This is a tactic often repeated throughout history, by the way. "The sibilants are notoriously difficult in Semitic languages. During World War II, the Nazis identified Russian Jews by the way they pronounced the word for corn: kookoorooza" (The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 3, p. 458).

Over the centuries, the word Shibboleth has taken on an interesting life of its own. In the study of linguistics it has come to signify: "Language usage indicative of one's regional and/or social origins," and it is "used to identify members of one's own or of another group." In an article entitled "American Shibboleth: Ebonics," by Dr. Stanley Novak, the author points out the disparity between "standardized language" and those who are challenged by their "nonstandard dialects" (often characteristic of one's region, ethnicity and social class). "These language varieties are often shibboleths, in that they simultaneously unite members of a community around their unique characteristics and differentiate members of separate communities." Thus, a "shibboleth" has come to be regarded as "a watchword; a test of loyalty; a linguistic peculiarity, distinguishing a party or denomination" (The Hutchinson Encyclopaedia). Webster's 1913 Dictionary defines the term as "the criterion, test, or watchword of a party."

Professor Kemmer (a professor of linguistics at Rice University in Houston, Texas) writes, "A shibboleth is a kind of linguistic password: A way of speaking (a pronunciation, or the use of a particular expression) 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. This phenomenon is part of the 'judge a book by its cover' tendency apparently embedded in human cognition." The exclusionary aspect of this term is clearly seen in the fact that it is often "applied to a telltale custom distinguishing the elite from the ordinary folk" (Merriam-Webster's Word for the Wise). This last source also informs us that the term has picked up an additional meaning over the years: "It can also describe an entrenched or mindlessly repeated opinion."

It doesn't take a genius to perceive that shibboleths abound in the church of our Lord Jesus Christ, and such party watchwords and tests of loyalty are being used to separate brethren. The tragic result is warring tribes within the family of God, and brethren slaughtering brethren over countless silly "shibboleths" that each party has made their own "test of loyalty." Parrot the party line .... or perish! That is the battle cry of those who stand at the river and interrogate every brother who comes near their borders. Those who don't speak "correctly" must be silenced for the good of the land. It matters not that they are brethren; that is seemingly insignificant. What matters is that they don't "speak the same thing" as those holding the sword.

I know of a congregation where people were stationed at the door of the building "checking versions," and no person was allowed into the church building if they carried any version other than the KJV. Shibboleth. When I was preaching in Hawaii a man and his wife flew over to check us out and determine our "soundness." They reported back that my lessons seemed "sound" enough, and we were very friendly, but that I was most definitely a "false teacher" because he had observed me "eating a cookie in the church building" following a Wednesday evening Bible class. Shibboleth. A dear friend of ours, who was an Elder in New Mexico years ago, and who also happened to be a black man, was not allowed entrance into a church building he and his family visited one Sunday while vacationing in the South. They were told they would be "allowed" to stand outside on the porch, however, and some of the "good brethren" would hand the communion trays to them out the door if they wanted to observe the Lord's Supper! Shibboleth. The shameful list goes on and on and on! Number of cups; fermented or unfermented; trays covered or uncovered; singing during communion or silence; women passing the trays. Shibboleth. Small groups; eating in the building; youth rallies; contemporary songs; Sunday schools. Shibboleth. Music; the "treasury" and its use; institutions; cooperation. Shibboleth. We could list a thousand other things we fuss, fight, feud and fragment over. We ought to be ashamed of ourselves!!! "Men, you are brethren, why do you injure one another?" (Acts 7:26).

"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 other words, in essentials they were brethren, but they had become enemies over party preferences. A shibboleth had become sacred, and brethren were slaughtered at the river because they failed the test of party faithfulness.

"We must be careful not to assume that trivial external distinctions are signs of deep and important differences until we have proved the fact. We may erect the test of a 'Shibboleth' to separate people who have no such fundamental distinctions as those of the men who had been true to Jephthah and the men who had enviously opposed him. The danger is that we should thus magnify the importance of the 'Shibboleth' itself, and so become narrow and sectarian" (The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 3). Brethren, it is time to lay aside our sectarian shibboleths, which have divided us too long, and embrace the reality of our brotherhood. We are family .... let's stop injuring one another!

Reflections from Readers

From a Reader in California:

The more intimate our relationship with Him, the more audacious it becomes to boast that we are the only ones who will be saved. All of us -- everywhere -- are so fickle in our comprehension of absolute faith that it is obscene for us to think we have an exclusive claim to salvation. Praise Him for your ministry!

From a Reader in New Mexico:

Al, thank you for being a "Light in the Desert." I can say without a doubt, your book Down, But Not Out has helped me grow spiritually closer to our Lord Jesus and to understand His grace even better.

From a Preacher in California:

Brother Maxey, I am the Minister of ------- Church of Christ in ------------, California. I have just completed reading through the entire Maxey-Thrasher Debate. Thanks for the incredible study. I read the entire debate in about six or eight sittings over the last two weeks. It totally interrupted my normal studies, but I couldn't quit. At times, however, I could not read Thrasher's posts as thoroughly because the spirit in them was monotonous and after several posts they offered nothing of value. I have always defended the doctrine of Hell, but as I have come to know God better I have struggled together with others of like faith to comprehend why God would keep a place within His own being for the purpose of torturing people forever. I also couldn't conceive of how this place could be deemed "from the presence of the Lord and the majesty of His power." Could such a place logically exist or its teaching coexist with orthodox theology regarding God's omnipresence?

Anyway, I have been forced to discard what is commonly held as true in our tradition and begin again the journey toward a more sound understanding of who God is and what God is doing. While I value the results of this process, this has happened on too many occasions in my life (grace, Holy Spirit, the boundary of Christian fellowship, ...). I can't believe how much garbage we seem to have to eat as young children in the faith. Satan's influence is so much more pervasive than we imagine, and it is a miracle that any of us can see God at all through all of the muck both in and out of religion/theology.

Know that your patient work in this debate has started an unquenchable fire in me that will burn until the chaff is gone and the wheat is left, if you know what I mean. I tried to share some of this discussion with a small Wednesday night class and one man thought that this might fall into that category of "foolish controversies" because perspectives of what will happen are not matters of salvation. I tried the best that I could to communicate that this study's value is in defending the character of God and not in determining who's in and who's out. May God grant you unending wisdom so that your fruit as a conduit of Truth may super-abound. Your grateful brother in Christ!

From a Reader in Idaho:

I am new to your Reflections site. It having been recommended to me as a site I might find interesting. Torture or Termination? -- Reflections #45 -- is the first article I've read, but look forward to the others. I have also wrestled with the idea of eternal torture. I cannot find it in myself to believe that a God of justice would sentence even the worst of sinners to never-ending torment (even considering His ways and thoughts being higher than ours). I have come to the same conclusions you have, for nearly the exact same reasons. One other thing I found interesting, while I was studying this subject, was the conspicuous lack of this eternal torment idea throughout the OT.

Thank you for having the courage to open your thoughts on this subject -- (and what looks like many other subjects). I have been often disturbed at the fear some have of discussing any "controversial" subject. On the surface, the reason given is that it might allow "heresy" to creep in, frighten the sheep, and divide the body (by which they usually mean their particular group). Unfortunately, stifling questions has created what they profess to fear. Our inability to "reason together" is the reason we are scattered in denominations. If we remain humble and love the Truth, the Holy Spirit can sustain us through our reasoning together process and bring us to knowledge.

From a Reader in New Mexico:

Al, Just wanted to say thanks for issue #65 -- The Sins of Sodom. The passage in Ezekiel is one of my favorites to quote with respect to Sodom. I'm often surprised by how few people are aware of it. Although the Ezekiel passage really convicts me and causes a bit of fear within me, I think it needs to be used to help align our thinking. It's a great one to draw our concern back to the plank in our own eye.

From a Reader in Texas:

The Reflections you have just written on Sodom and Gomarrah's sins is terrific. I think this issue of Reflections needs to be printed and posted on every bulletin board in our nation.

From a Reader in (Unknown):

On your Sins of Sodom issue, I was convicted as I read it. I have been guilty of not helping people in need, and as I read your article I felt the need for forgiveness. I have just recently come out of a legalistic Church of Christ and am still hurting from what has been left behind. Family, mother, brother, son and his wife, and family and friends, some who do not keep in contact with me. I thank you for your articles. I haven't read them all but they offer such hope and the grace of God. They uplift as well as convict.

From a Reader in Ohio:

Brother, at first reading of The Sins of Sodom my thoughts were -- "Yeah, I know just who he's referring to!" However, as I pondered it, the repeated thought kept coming to me ... "Why don't you take it personally?" .... "Forget about them and the other guy!" OH, BOY! It's amazing how the message can then get right to "where we are personally!" I think you would agree that the Holy Spirit can take what you've offered in your Reflections a "zillion miles" farther than you perhaps had in mind. OVERWHELMING!! May the words of encouragement you receive "ring so loudly" that you won't even hear those "other words!"

From a Reader in (Unknown):

I appreciated your article on the death of an Elder's wife and how some feel that that renders him suddenly unacceptable to serve the flock. Hello! Wake up people! What does the death of a wife have to do with the position of service and overseeing the flock?

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