Shibboleth

Shibboleth

Donald L. Norbie

Mr. Donald L. Norbie of Greeley, Colorado, a frequent contributor to “Food for the Flock” magazine, serves the Lord in assembly building and student work.

“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 …” (Judges 12:6).

The tribe of Ephraim attacked Jephthah and the men of Gilead. When they were beaten back they fled to the fords over the Jordan River. But Jephthah and his men had seized the fords. How could they distinguish who was friend or foe? Racially and linguistically they were one people.

But the dialect of Ephraim omitted the “sh” sound and only had an “s” sound. It is much like the Scandinavian people today who do not have the “th” sound. As men approached the ford they were halted and asked to say one word, “Shibboleth.” If a man omitted the “h” sound he was killed without mercy. One letter wrong made him an enemy and he was slaughtered.

Church history is full of such confrontations and the slaughter of many. Minor disagreements over the phrasing of doctrine and rigid creedal adherence have led to excommunication and the maligning of good and honest men. Churches too often have acted in the spirit of Jephthah’s men and slaughtered brethren over a word or a letter.

This is not to decry the need for Church discipline and purity of doctrine. There are essential truths concerning the Person of Christ and His work which must be believed if one is to be a Christian (2 John 9-11). His complete Deity and manhood must be proclaimed. His perfect sacrifice for sins and salvation by grace through faith must be insisted upon.

Many disputes involve areas in which our knowledge is very incomplete. “We know in part” (1 Cor. 13:9) and this should drive us to our knees in humility. Can we not allow our brethren liberty to think and express themselves a little differently without a slaughter over “shibboleth”?

For example, our knowledge of the incarnation is far from perfect. Who will be bold to say, “I understand Christ’s incarnation completely”? The mystery of the infinite God merging with finite humanity overwhelms the mind. Let us be careful how we express this union in our feeble words. And let us be charitable toward our brethren who also grapple with these concepts.

The inspiration of Scripture is another area to boggle the mind. The eternal God with perfect wisdom chose to communicate His message to man through weak, imperfect human authors, using their knowledge, background and vocabulary. True, they were borne along by the Holy Spirit, but their earth-bound humanity exudes from every page. The divine and the human blended so perfectly one cannot separate them. What a mystery is this! Be careful how you define the inspiration of Scripture, but be charitable toward others in their faltering attempt.

One might also add prophecy or eschatology. Do you feel that you perfectly understand prophecy? Can you teach Revelation with the assurance that you will never modify your views, that you have perfect understanding? And yet churches reject brethren who may differ on details of prophecy concerning Christ’s return. There is more heat than light in many discussions. The truth is there are brethren who love the Lord who hold the pre-tribulation rapture or the post-tribulation rapture or even the amillenial position!

J. N. Darby wrote a letter to Newton on Feb. 3, 1841, in which he said, “I was not united with the brethren for exact opinions on such or such a point … If it were a foundation truth for the soul, no peace could be held with error: mistake in the interpretation of Revelation, one may exercise much patience with.”

Shibboleth? Be careful whom you reject and destroy for the sake of a word or letter. All of us must confess that at times we have expressed God’s truth imperfectly. Let us be tolerant toward our brothers and sisters who struggle with the same human fraility. “Let us love one another.”