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THE WINDS OF SHIBBOLETHS

Thu, Nov. 25, 2010 Posted: 02:28 AM


SHIBBOLETHS

Shibboleths are likelabels. They indicate what is on the inside of a tin or a packet. Theadvertising industry uses labels to sell and impress their potential customersall the time. Another word for shibboleths is a catchword or phrase which isadopted by a party, sect, or political or religious authority, who then applythis shibboleth to their followers to identify and distinguish themselves, andby which those who are not their followers are excluded either from belongingto their party or their intellectual position. The worldwide church has passed through a long history of shibboleths, claims and counter claims of being thetrue church and the true Christian. The labels have been many’ Presbyterians,Anglicans, Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodoxy, Congregationalists, Methodistsand so on, all of which are shibboleths of one kind or another, distinguishing themselves and excluding others. In recent years this sad history of dogmatism and intolerance has been appeased to some extent by the ecumenical movements eeking to unite Christians and Christian churches around the world. But rather than lessening the shibboleths and helping Christians to discern that the true church is not in forms but in Spirit, the bishops, professors and teachers,theological colleges and seminaries have only compounded the problem byintroducing new shibboleths that confound and confuse the issue further.

WHAT IS A CHRISTIAN?

A simple enough question to answer if you are not confused by intellectual jargon. When I spent five years at university studying theology, philosophy and church history, it was one of the most difficult questions to answer because there were so many shibboleths that were just as inclusive and exclusive as the old ones. The old ones were well known and rejected by many of my teachers and professors as shameful and reproachful. It took me some time before I realised that these newshibboleths are no less shameful, damaging and intellectually false and contradictory as the old ones. A Christian is a follower and a disciple of Christ. Other simple definitions are just as true as this one. But there is a new air of intellectual prefabrication in theological circles that is entirely invalid and misleading. The shibboleths that these academics are banding aroundare damaging and false. They have attracted followers and dissenters like theold ones did but these are insidious and intellectual, so much so, that many Christians ask themselves ‘Am I a liberal Christian or a fundamentalist, a charismatic Christian or an orthodox one?’ These are misleading questions because if I am a Christian I am neither of these shibboleths. These are all false and contradictory. If a Christian is one he cannot be another without contradiction. These are catchwords that include some and exclude others. They are catchwords that divide and confuse. There is no such thing asa liberal Christian. Nor is there such a thing as a charismatic or fundamentalist Christian. There is only a Christian, a learner and disciple of Christ. These shibboleths are allintellectual constructions of  religious scholars who adopt and apply shibboleths to include their own followers and exclude others.

These shibboleths are old antagonisms in new armour. They cross old boundaries of spiritual, moral,doctrinal, ecclesiastical and political institutions only to further confoundand confuse them.

WHAT A THING IS

What is a Christian? To know what a thing is makes it possible to say what it isn’t. It is clear, however, from these shibboleths that many scholars and teachers in our colleges and universities do not know what a Christian is. Lets take one simple exampleof knowing what a thing is. A pear tree is known for its delicious fruit. It is never confused with an apple tree or a peach tree because everybody knows the names and appearances of common trees. Similarly with grape vines. Grape vines are not zucchinis or pumpkins. They are all vines but they have distinct properties and are recognised easily by their fruit or vegetable crops. Those who belong in life and manners to Jesus Christ know what a Christian is. Jesus defined what a Christian is by their roots in his own spiritual life.

He said, ‘Yes, I amthe Vine; you are the branches. Whoever lives in me and I in him shall produce a large crop of fruit. For apart from me you can't do a thing. If anyone separates from me, he is thrown away like a useless branch, withers, and is gathered into a pile with all the others and burned. But if you stay in me and obey my commands, you may ask any request you like, and it will be granted! My true disciples produce bountiful harvests.’[1]

We cannot examine the inner workings of the vine but we can know the vine by its fruit. That is the objective view. The subjective view is an act of faith and personal knowledge, not verifiable by observation but real and true, nevertheless.

A Christian is a true disciple of Christ and learns from him. He does this throughout his life until he passes to the other side of the door as C.S.Lewis put it.[[2]] We can therefore say confidently that there are no ‘liberal Christians’, or ‘evangelical Christians’,  or ‘charismatic Christians’, or fundamentalist Christians’, onlyChristians. These shibboleths are artificial constructions of those who look upon the Christian faith as a phenomenon of cultural and historical myths.Their premise is that Christianity is a mythical religion.  There are no miracles, no real Son of God and no heavenly home. This is being fed to congregations by bishops and ministers world wide.

They then divide those who call themselves Christians into types by shibboleths that include or exclude those who do not follow their own presuppositions.  They offer people imitation, a charade and skepticism which is the result of their own spiritual blindness.

C.S. Lewis says, ‘Thewhole offer which Christianity makes is this: that we can, if we let God have his way, come to share in the life of Christ. If we do, we shall then besharing a life which was begotten not made; which always existed and always will exist.’[[3]]

I am writing this article to ask you to question shibboleths and redefine what a Christian is by the image of the vine which is Christ, and the Christian and the church which are the branches. Jesus Christ is the Light of the World.[[4]] Jesus said, I am the light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life.’[[5]]

[[1]] John 15:5-8 TLB

[[2]]The Quotable Lewis, C.S. Lewis Tyndale House Publishers1989

[[3]] Ibid page section 170, page 93

[[4]]John 8:12 TLB

[[5]] John 8:12TLB

selwyn perry