F&F: Do We Need a New Shibboleth?

Judges chapter twelve briefly records a rather obscure episode in the history of the Hebrew people. but that seemingly insignificant event has given western civilization a word and an idea that it has never forgotten. It is a word and an idea that bear directly upon what it means to be faithful to the Word of God.


There was bad blood between those Israelites who settled west of the Jordan River (Ephraim and Manasseh) and those who settled east, on the plateau of what is today known as Jordan (Gileadites). Judges describes one occasion when the Gileadites captured the fords of the Jordan. Some from Ephraim were trapped east of the Jordan. When they tried to conceal their identity in order to be allowed to cross at the fords, they were asked, “Are you an Ephramite?” If they replied “No” they were then asked to pronounce the word “shibboleth.” The dialect of the Ephraimites made their pronouncement of that word distinct; they said “sibboleth.” It is a difference between the “sh” and the “s” sound, and it was enough to identify the enemy. Those who could not say “shibboleth” were killed.


Thus, a shibboleth is any word that signals that a person is part of a particular group. It is a verbal test of fellowship. Christian people of all kinds have used shibboleths to identify friends (the orthodox, the accept, the safe) and to exclude enemies (the heretic, the excluded, the dangerous). The Nicean Creed insisted on the word homoousion (of one substance) rather than homoiousion (of like substance) when talking about Jesus’ relation to the Father (325 A.D.). A century later, theotokos (mother of God) was used to suppress heretics who were hesitant about the Marian doctrines.


Today, there is a new shibboleth. It is the word inerrancy. It is the word that some are using to separate the true Christians from the false Christians, safe baptists from dangerous baptists. It is the word that many want to use to describe what it means to be faithful to the Word of God.


Baptist share with the Reformers of the sixteenth century a love for the Bible. Together we affirm that Holy Scripture is the supreme and sufficient authority for Christians. The confession of faith used by most Southern Baptists was originally penned as the “New Hampshire Confession of Faith” of 1833. It was slightly revised in 1853 by J. Newton Brown. In 1925, acting on behalf of the Southern Baptist Convention, E. Y. Mullins led a committee to revise and expand the confession. It was given the new title “The Baptist Faith and Message.” The first article reads:


“We believe that the Holy Bible was written by men divinely inspired, and is a perfect treasure of heavenly instruction; that it has God for its author, salvation for its end, and truth, without any mixture of error, for its matter; that it reveals the principles by which God will judge us; and there is, and shall remain to the end of the world, the true centre of Christian union, and the supreme standard by which all human conduct, creeds, and opinions should be tried.”


What was intended to be “the true centre of Christian union” has become the chief source of Christian division in this century. In the last century, slavery was the issue that divided most of the religious groups, including Baptists (thus giving rise to the Southern Baptist Convention). But in these days, Scripture has driven a wedge between people and churches. Every major denomination in America has struggled with how to declare their faithfulness to the word of God.


The baptist way of faithfulness to the Word of God can be summarized as believing what it says, obeying what it commands, and hoping for what it promises.


The Bible tells a story that begins with creation and end with the grand consummation of the ages in the return of our Lord Jesus and the defeat of the Evil One. The story includes chapters about Abraham and his travels, Moses and the Exodus, Joshua and the conquest of the Promised Land, David and the kingdom, Elijah and Elisha and the rise of prophecy, Shalmaneser ad the fall of Israel, Nebuchadnezzar and the destruction of Jerusalem, Ezekiel and the Exile, and finally Ezra, Nehemiah, and the rebuilding of Jerusalem.


In the New Testament, the story turns to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus followed by the development of the Christian churches throughout the Mediterranean world.


This story is told as a true story and we read it as a true story. It is not myth, fable, or invention. It is the history of God at work in the world. It is written for our edification; it is to inspire and instruct us. It is written for our participation; we become part of the story.


Baptist people believe what the Bible says. It speaks about sin and salvation, about righteousness and wickedness, about love and hate, and life and death. But the Bible does not say all that some people want it to say, and this is the point of contention. In telling the story, the Bible makes incidental references to ancient ways of life, economic features, social customs, cosmological ideas, historical assumption,s even geological patterns. Some people who are influential and articulate want to include these elements as part of the story we believe. They say that to believe the story is also to accept important and inerrant all of these other matters. More than that, to believe the Bible is to transfer all of these ancient ways of thinking and assuming into the modern world. They charge that those who refuse to go along with this strategy deny the truth of God’s word. This is the very doctrine that has gained ascendance among the new leaders of the Southern  Baptist Convention.


This is the meaning of the word inerrancy as it is being used as a shibboleth among Christians today.


One of the best illustrations of this new method of interpretation is in regards to the  opening chapters of Genesis. There, ancient cosmology is used to tell the story of how the eternal and omnipotent God spoke into existence the entire universe. The spiritual and theological message is about the difference between God and the created order, about the power of God, about the goodness of creation, and about the uniqueness of the human race. But some interpreters want to make the geological and “scientific” elements of this story part of the divine truth that must be believed. This ideology is called “scientific creationism.” It is bad science and bad theology.


“Thy word is truth” says the prophet, and I say “amen.” But when modern would-be prophets take the lean meat of God’s word and flavor it with salt and pepper and exotic spices and then bury it beneath gravy and serve it was assorted dishes to suit the own taste, I say, “No, thank you. A single piece of meant, broiled over an open fire, and served and a vegetable and a glass of water will be just fine. It will provide all the nourishment I need. All the rest just clogs the arteries and expands the waistline.”


We believe what the Bible says about what God has done for our redemption. Paul said that the scriptures are able to make us “wise unto salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 3:15). Thus, we read the book as the plan of salvation and do not consult it as a manual for every other aspect of life and learning. We read it for moral guidance, but not necessarily for financial planning or military strategy.


Baptists try to obey what it commands, and the Bible has many commands:

  • Be fruitful, and  multiply, and subdue the earth.
  • Honor your rather and your mother.
  • Love your neighbor as yourself.
  • Give thanks to the Lord for the Lord is good.
  • Repent, and believe the good news, for the kingdom of God is at hand.
  • Do not judge.
  • Honor one another about yourself.


Dale Moody, the great theologian, was fond of quoting the great New Testament scholar J. A. Bengel (1687-1752): “Apply all of yourself to the Bible, and apply all of the Bible to yourself.” Bengel was a Lutheran, but this is a baptist principle!


From the very beginning, this emphasis on obedience has characterized baptist life. Our intent was not so much to describe the Bible or debate its inspiration as it was to live according to its teaching. Donald F. Durnbaugh has highlighted this dimension of the baptist vision in his book The Believers’ Church: The History and Character of Radical Protestantism. He quotes approvingly the Reformation baptist Hans Denck who said, “No one can truly know Jesus unless he follow Him in his life.”


If there is one element that distinguished the baptist way of doing church it is this insistence upon actually living in conformity to the Word of God. This is the genius behind the idea of the regenerate church, believer’s baptism, and church discipline. Members are received as they testify to a saving encounter with Jesus Christ, not because they can recite a specific doctrinal creed. Likewise, members are excluded for moral laxity but rarely ever for theological deviation.


It is this wholehearted affirmation of the necessity of obedience that gave rise to the twin baptist efforts of ministry and missions. From the Mennonites of the sixteenth century to the Southern Baptists of the twentieth century, baptists have been known for their readiness to come to the aid of folks in need. Millions of meals were served in the wake of Hurricane Hugo in 1994; eighty percent were donated and served by Southern Baptist ministry teams. Two hundreds years before the larger, stronger churches of the Reformation took up the missionary endeavor, baptist people were taking seriously the command to go into all the world and preach the gospel. It was a baptist pastor, William Carey, who ignited the modern missions movement in the last decade of the 18th century, and the first non-Catholic missionary society in the West was organized  and supported by baptists.


Baptists seek to obey what the Word commands: repent, believe, sacrifice, preach, serve, grow, learn, mature, and press on to the future that awaits us in Christ Jesus.


This brings us to the third and final element of a baptist understanding of faithfulness to the Word of God: we are called to hope for what it promises.


“Our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body. Therefore, my brothers and sisters, that is how you should stand firm in the Lord” (Philippians 4:20-41).


A similar exposition of the resurrection of the body in 1 Corinthians, chapter 15, ends with an admonition to stand firm.


Baptist people have seen themselves as the eschatological (end times) community. Sometimes, this has been taken to excess with the resultant and altogether misplaced confidence about the soon return of Jesus. But better to err on that end of things than to become so lackadaisical about the coming that we lose touch with the purifying power of the blessed hope. John the Apostle wrote, “Everyone who has this hope in him purifies himself” (1 John 3:3).


Baptists hold dear to the Word of God, even if many cannot in good conscience pronounce the shibboleth that has become the word of division and death for many modern-day Ephraimites. The biblical story of the shibboleth is set on a battlefield. It is no accident that some baptists today see their calling as a crusade against those who refuse to pronounce the sacred word inerrancy. Harold Lindsell, the late baptist writer and theologian, published a book in 1976 that has set the tone on baptist relations for the last two decades. It was entitled Battle for the Bible. with this image of warfare, he advocated the use of inerrancy as a shibboleth, as a means of determining who are friends and who are foes to the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.


To be fair, the clamor for inerrancy may be fueled y a genuine desire to defend the Bible from those who would strip it of its authority and power, or those who through radical biblical criticism would strip it of its divine inspiration and trustworthiness. But such people do not live among baptists. people such as baptists are not among those who need to speak some sacred shibboleth to declare their loyalty to Jesus, his Word, and his Way. We believe in our hearts and declare with our lips that his Word is true. We declare with our lives that his Way leads to life and happiness. We declare with our hearts that his Promises are certain. This is enough.