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Say Shibboleth

“And the Gileadites took the passages of Jordan before the Ephraimites: and it was so, that when those Ephraimites which were escaped said, Let me go over; that the men of Gilead said unto him, Art thou an Ephraimite? If he said, Nay; 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 12:5,6

The book of Judges covers roughly the first 350 years of Israel’s history in Canaan and it records the many dark doings and sad happenings that took place during that time. Judges picks up the story of Israel after the death of Joshua when the Lord was no longer “King in Israel” (Judg. 17:6); the tribes were divided, the people were mixing with the heathen nations, and it was necessary for God to chasten His people. A summary of the entire book is recorded in Judges 2:10-19.

Thirteen different judges are named in this book, raised up by God to defeat a particular enemy and give the people rest. These judges were not national leaders but rather local leaders who delivered the people from various oppressors. Not all of the tribes participated in each battle and often there was tribal rivalry. Such was the case in the verses cited above from Judges chapter 12. The Gileadites, led by Jephthah, fought against the children of Ammon. The Ephraimites were given an invitation to join the fight but declined. When they realized the Gileadites had defeated the Ammonites, they were acrimonious towards their brethren from Gilead because they couldn’t participate in the victory. This rivalry between the Ephraimites and Gileadites led to a battle between the two tribes. Ultimately the Ephraimites were defeated. Those that escaped tried to go home but the Gileadites blocked the passage. Anyone trying to pass through the blockade was given a “password” that someone from Ephraim would have trouble pronouncing due to their accent. If the person said “Sibboleth” instead of “Shibboleth” then the Gileadites guarding the passage recognized that the person was from Ephraim and they would kill him.

We are many years removed from the scene that took place in Judges chapter 12, however there are battles that rage among the brethren today over issues that end up destroying fellowship and in some cases ministries and churches. I am not referring to matters of sound doctrine or Baptist distinctives; both of these are extremely important and should never be compromised (Titus 2:1; 3:10). I am not referring to preaching on specific sins; by all means name them (Is. 58:1). Rather, I am talking about the frequent arguments among independent, fundamental, Bible-believing Christians over something that does not make one bit of difference to the furtherance of the gospel. Most of these contentions can be summarized as some proud believer trying to establish the fact that he or she is spiritual and someone else is not. Their spirituality is based upon, “I do this and you don’t, so that proves I am more spiritual than you.” It is the spiritual equivalent of “Say now Shibboleth.”

Please understand it is of the utmost importance to have convictions and standards based upon the word of God, but we cannot waste time seeking to legislate our feelings or pet peeves, making them a measure of one’s relationship to the Lord. Bob Jones Sr. said, “It is never compromise to go as far as you can along the right road with anybody.” However, self-righteous Pharisees who seek to exalt themselves above the brethren will ignore all the scriptural things we agree on and enter into arguments about nonissues. These arguments always end in division. They cannot be settled because there is no scripture upon which to stand.

Since we have been on deputation, I have been asked on more than one occasion if any of the brethren have given me grief for having facial hair. I was initially surprised by the question but have since learned that some believe that facial hair is a sign that a man has sold out to live for the world, the flesh, and the devil. “Say now Shibboleth.” There are numerous other issues that are sources of debate and contention, there are many “Shibboleths” that people are asked to pronounce or give their opinion on to see if they can “frame… it right.” Christians are fighting over things not worth fighting about. If the Lord did not address the subject in the pages of the Bible, a person is certainly entitled to their convictions and opinions. It is folly however to force those views on others or to sow discord among the brethren who do not buy in to those same convictions. There are many issues upon which the brethren bite and devour one another but I will address the facial hair issue to illustrate my point.

When God wanted you to know what He thought about murder, He said, “Thou shalt not kill.” Is there any doubt about God’s view on murder? When God wanted you to know His opinion on adultery, He said, “Thou shalt not commit adultery.” No confusion there. Our Lord Jesus goes to the heart of the matter on both these issues and says about the latter, “whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.” All is obvious. God and His prophets and His ministers are all characterized by what the Bible calls “great plainness of speech.” Do you know why we argue, debate, and fight over, for example, facial hair on men? It is because there is no statement from God regarding the matter. Without a statement from God, we are left to argue over opinions.

The anti-facial hair teaching predominately came from the generation of men who fought, or whose fathers fought, in times of war while the beatnicks and hippies stayed home, refusing to defend their country, wearing goatees and beards. As a reaction to un-American, unpatriotic sluggards, men began to preach against facial hair, figuring if you had it then you were an ungodly, un-American degenerate. This preaching really took off in the 1960’s. Never mind that great men of the faith like D.L. Moody, C.H. Spurgeon, C.T. Studd, David Livingstone, George Muller, etc. all had facial hair. One should also consider that none of the popes have had facial hair, at least none that I have seen. So what does that mean? Nothing. “Say now Shibboleth.”

The Bible is my final authority for all matters of faith and practice. What does the Bible say about facial hair? Every biblical reference that I found was positive. When Hanun took David’s servants and shaved off one half of their beards, David said, “Tarry at Jericho until your beards be grown, and then return” (2 Sam. 10:5). If it is wrong to have a beard then David gave some very bad advice to his troops. In Psalm 133:1-2 we learn that brethren could dwell together in unity, even if the high priest had a beard. Isaiah 50:6 is a prophecy of the sufferings of our Lord Jesus Christ that would take place in Pilate’s judgment hall; it says, “I gave my back to the smiters, and my cheeks to them that plucked off the hair.”

The other extreme to this issue would be to say that a man is not right with God unless he has facial hair or those who take a command given to the Jews and try to force all men with facial hair to obey the Law and not trim their beard (Lev. 19:27). There is no commandment from God for the New Testament church regarding the matter of facial hair. I do not wear a goatee to be trendy, slothful, or rebellious; it is simply a matter of preference. As for others, they are at liberty to let their conscious be their guide.

This journal entry is not an angry diatribe about facial hair. Again, that is just one issue among many that some of the brethren choose to quarrel over. This journal is rather about a sin so grievous that it is listed as one of the seven things God hates – sowing discord among brethren (Prov. 6:16,19). As brethren we should not be intent on dividing brothers and sisters in Christ over matters of no importance to the work of the gospel and the cause of Christ (Rom. 16:17; 1 Cor. 3:3). We as born-again believers need to stand firm on “Thus saith the LORD” rather than imposing our preferences on our brethren by having them “Say now Shibboleth”?

“Ye hypocrites, well did Esaias prophesy of you, saying, This people draweth nigh unto me with their mouth, and honoureth me with their lips; but their heart is far from me. But in vain they do worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men.” Matthew 15:7-9

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