Shibboleths and Bigger Tables

Then said they unto him, Say now Shibboleth: and he said Sibboleth: for he could not frame to pronounce it right. Then they took him, and slew him at the passages of Jordan: and there fell at that time of the Ephraimites forty and two thousand.” Judges 12:6

 Polish-born American rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of the leading Jewish theologians and Jewish philosophers of the 20th century, wrote: “Speech has power. Words do not fade. What starts out as a sound, ends in a deed.” Rabbi Heschel knew the impact words have on the world.

Those closest to me know my love of words, and their power to create, shape, hurt, divide, and even destroy. Shibboleth – a term originating from the Hebrew word shibbólet (שִׁבֹּלֶת‎) and referenced in the passage from Judges 12 above – has long been a word used to divide and separate. In today’s language, shibboleth has also taken on a wider meaning, referring to any “in-group” word or phrase distinguishes members of a group from outsiders.


I was reminded of shibboleths this week while discovering a new website recently launched to “score” churches on how affirming they are of the current en vogue shibboleth: gender/sexual orientation. This site, whose leadership team is composed entirely of individuals rejecting anyone not speaking into their view of truth on the subject of unqualified acceptance and advocacy, is similar to other outspoken proponents on this topic ranging from pastors hoping to demonstrate enlightened cultural sensitivity to outright opportunists with impressive sounding credentials like “20-year ministry veteran trying to love people well and to live out-out the red letters of Jesus” who seize on cultural events to advance their personal need for adoration. As if those truly called to ministry ever exit as veterans (see 2 Timothy 4:7 on an authentic view of ministry).

I’ve referenced neither the site nor the pastor(s) in question – they don’t need additional promoting here and some of you may already know (or even follow) their teachings. My issue is not their belief structure, but rather a seemingly myopic and unrelenting insistence that Scripture is inherently wrong or misunderstood on this subject. And a demand that Christians clarify where they stand or be labeled as intolerant and “phobic.”

Their basic reasoning goes something like this. Scripture, while divinely inspired, has been “misinterpreted” by man. The writers of the 66 books in the current Protestant Canonical Bible wrote with a limited understanding of biology and science, with no way to fully appreciate the fluidity of gender identity and sexual expression afforded by 2,000 years of scientific advancement. To ascribe “truth” to the teaching of Biblical writers is, well, simply unintelligent and backward.

Good old-fashioned fundamentalism

One could spend an entire 3-years of seminary dissecting the intellectual flaws in this argument. Perhaps I’ll tackle that in another post. For now, I’ll make a different case. Proponents of single-issue Bible errancy is nothing new. Pick your pet doctrine and throughout history there have been those who will argue that the Bible is wrong because their belief is different.

In many ways, this is no different than good, old-fashioned fundamentalism. Endless versions of fundamentalism exist across Christian belief but one of my favorites to highlight is the King James Only movement. Essentially, these folks believe the King James Version of the Bible is the sole authentic and accurate English translation from the most reliable Greek New Testament manuscripts (the Textus Receptus or Majority Text). According the KJV-only advocates, all other translations have been corrupted either through negligence or intent.

Codex Vaticanus 354 S (028), an uncial codex with a Byzantine text

Fundamentalism of all stripes (but especially these two types) suffer from a number of strikingly similar problems, especially for Christians searching for a true and faithful walk. Here are a couple.

Rejecting historical truth for culturally-acceptable litmus tests

Those who believe a single translation from 1611 (or 1769) is the only legitimate English translation of the Bible ignore common sense and the rigor of sound scholarship born out over hundreds of years. Those advocating Biblical neutrality on gender relations simply misread or misinterpret the literal writing of scripture. Either way, in both cases advocates begin with a point of view and then search for justification rather than starting with the source text and reading for discernment. And often the “experts” they bring to their arguments are either self-taught, have qualifications unrelated to Biblical scholarship or determine they can play arm-chair psychoanalysts on scripture writers.

 Grounded in Gnosticism

Flourishing throughout the Mediterranean world in the second century AD, the Gnostics believed they alone possessed “secret” knowledge that made them somehow more enlightened. Modern stepchildren of Gnostic beliefs are convinced they are purveyors of the single truth and those disagreeing with them are unenlightened, uneducated, or heretics. KJV-onlyists believe they’re in on a conspiracy to corrupt the original intent of Bible writers driven by a diabolical agenda. Gender-neutralists argue they alone have determined the true, enlightened meaning of the Bible on this subject and those who disagree are morally inferior or simply unenlightened.

Single issue dividing lines

In both cases, their chosen issue is the “single greatest question” facing the Christian faith – a modern shibboleth, as it were. To the KSV-onlyist, a fellow Believer reading from a translation such as New International Version, Revised Standard Version, New English Translation, etc. is receiving heretical teaching from contaminated Bibles created by liberals bent on perverting the Word. To gender neutralists, the modern church is anti-God if it doesn’t embrace with unquestioned acceptance their definition love.

To be clear, I assume no evil intent from either of these camps. Unlike some strains of fundamentalism that maliciously twist religious dogma to fit a worldview of domination or enslavement, these folks aren’t executing a veiled, hidden agenda to challenge God’s Word or authority.

They instead claim a special interpretation of scripture which fits their view of the world rather than the divinely inspired will of God. They then use that interpretation to determine who can be inside their group, and who is excluded because of their moral or religious shortcomings.

A recent book by one of these advocates with a title evoking expanding the table of grace (again, I’ve decided not promote either of these camps here) makes the argument that God’s Love is not the “limited view” described in scripture but is rather something larger, a place where no one is rejected, no one is asked to change who they believe themselves to be, a place where sin has no clear definition.

What struck me when I read the book (which I did), was how the very thesis of the work itself was negated in the Introduction, where the implication was given that anyone not subscribing to the author’s worldview was somehow “outside.” The author went further in a blog post from a few days ago suggesting anyone who questioned his vehemence was unwelcome at his Bigger Table.

The true bigger table

We read in Luke 5 that after calling the tax collector Levi to follow him, Jesus joined Levi’s friends (fellow tax collectors and other identified sinners) for dinner. When confronted by fundamentalist Pharisees and scribes to explain why he was socializing with sinners, Jesus offered an answer that beautifully reconciles the notions of invitation, grace, repentance, and redemption: It is not those who are well who need a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.”

God’s invitation and His table are, indeed, open to all – regardless of where we stand on this or that social issue, no matter how far from grace we may have strayed. The choice to “pull up a chair” is, indeed, ours.

Yet unlike the no-consequences theology of many in the modern “acceptance” movement, or the narrow single-issue theology of fundamentalism, God’s invitation has a single explicit price – repentance. We can come as we are, but to stay we must change, turning away from the life of denial and rebellion where He met us.

“Go and sin no more,” Jesus told the adulteress in John 8. Notice that he didn’t say “Welcome to the party, woman – now go and sin some more.”

Accepting a seat at God’s Bigger Table implies changing our hearts. It means leaving behind our insistence on pursuing the transgressions always whispering to us, the erection of walls to separate us from each other, or the belief that anything we do must be from God and is therefore acceptable in His eyes.

Shibboleths protected the Gileadites in their battle against the Ephramites at the fords of Jordon. Today, they simply serve as obstacles to a fully-realized Kingdom.  Jesus’ invitation is simple:

Colossians 1:17

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