I’m a bit of an archaeologist. I like to dig up new words. As I was reading the dictionary the other day— an inexpensive hobby that I began during the Blizzard of `78 — I extracted this beauty out of the “s” section, Shibboleth.
A shibboleth is “A common saying or belief with little current meaning or truth.” Do we have any of these? You betcha. A big one that I have noticed in the last couple decades is our preposterous preoccupation with legalism—whatever that is. See if you recognize any of these.
“When I was young, Uncle Bedrock forced me to sit without breathing for 24 hours every Sabbath! Therefore I hate God, and it serves my uncle right.”
“My parents gave me a hard time about my drinking and getting a tattoo, and made me feel guilty. So I rejected all that $#@!! legalism stuff, and I now live just as I please. My new church, the Bi-Baptist Babylonian Beer Brethren accepts me for who I am (hic) and really like my cool new fashion trend — stapling my lips to my forehead!!”
“My church was so legalistic that they had a fun meter installed in every pew. If I so much as smiled in the sanctuary an alarm would wail and two burly members would escort me outside. I still remember the large muscular arms, the unshaven scowls... And the men were worse! No fun allowed in that church.”
People tend to exaggerate their pain. I realize that there have been cases of spiritual abuse in our past. I’m not excusing or trivializing that.
The Bible says that truth is very important, and it also says that truth must be communicated in love. Hammering truth into people with no love will damage them. I’ve been guilty of it, and there have been times when I was on the receiving end of it. In repentance we find forgiveness, and in the Word we find balance. Here’s an example from the other side of the ditch.
Awhile back, an individual became irritated with the church where I hold my membership. He said our great sin was a lack of reverence in the sanctuary, buttressed by a lack of neckties and illustrated by people talking/communicating before the service started. In short, I think he wanted us to be more grim—like himself. I can honestly say, that in twenty-five years of being a member at this church, that is the first time I have encountered his brand of ecclesiastical austerity. I asked him if he expected us to be somber because we were in the presence of God. He replied “Yes!” I said, “Are you aware that in Psalms 16:11 it says “In Thy presence there is fullness of joy? What place does joy have in your experience with the Lord?” He left in a huff (his favorite form of transportation).
Now back to our shibboleth… If legalism claims that Scripture does not say enough, liberalism claims that Scripture says too much!
It is human nature to go to extremes, and most of the exaggerations listed above are alive as well in the shiny shibboleth of pop legalism. And I believe we have done a masterful job of going to the other extreme. Buttressed by a permissive sin-loving world, ‘legalism’ has become the unpardonable sin in our culture; indeed for most progressives it is the only sin they recognize. I believe there are a couple reasons for that. For one, it’s profitable.
You see, progressivism/liberalism needs a boogey man to rally the troops to their cause. Thus they tend to see “legalism” lurking in every shadow, and find it under every rock. Liberal groups in the church raise lots of cash by jeering at obedience and shouting “legalism!” from their ivory rooftops. But obedience is not legalism. Legalism is self-righteousness Here’s a story to illustrate.
In 1989, I attended my first camp meeting as a brand new Adventist. On the drive home, I stopped and filled up my truck with fuel. When it was time to pay, I reached in my pocket for the $50 bill that I knew was in there. Only it wasn’t there. Uh-oh. I told the check-out girl my dilemma and said, “I’ll drive back to the camp meeting grounds and see if I can locate it or if someone turned it in.” She looked at me as if I were stupid. I went back, as a last resort. The first person I saw when I drove up to the big pavilion was our pastor. “I thought you left,” he said.
“Do they have a lost and found here?”
“What did you lose?” he replied. I told him the story. “Come with me,” he said. I started to feel hopeful…
We walked to the cafeteria, looking for a man. Apparently, in the pastor’s meeting that morning, Pastor Igor made an announcement that he had found something valuable on the floor as he left the restroom. He didn’t tell people what he found but if someone could identify it he would return it, otherwise he would give to the Lord. We found him eating breakfast and sat down. My pastor told him that I had lost something. Pastor Igor asked me to identify what I had lost.
“It’s green,” I said. “It has a picture of Ulysses Grant on it…it’s constructed of paper and it’s about this size” (I held out my fingers). A grin slowly spread over Pastor Igor’s face as he reached into his back pocket and pulled out the $50 bill.
Thrilled to be reunited with General Grant, I drove back to the gas station and walked in and leaned against the doorpost until the check-out girl glanced up. I pulled the $50 bill out of my pocket and showed it to her. She was dumbfounded. “When you left” she said, “I laughed at the idea that someone would turn in a $50 bill. You had ZERO chance of ever getting that back.” I told her the story. She couldn’t believe it. “Perhaps I should join that church” she mumbled. I told her she should consider it and gave her a piece of literature.
Fast forward five years... I am at a constituency meeting, standing outside talking to an Ohio pastor. Pastor Igor walked by. I called out to him, “Thanks again for the $50.” “You are most welcome” he said as we shook hands and laughed. After Igor walked away, the other pastor asked, “What that was all about?” I told him the great story. His response stunned me. “I’m not surprised that he (Igor) returned the money, the man’s a legalist.” Whoa…???
After I recovered, I replied “If that’s the case, I’m glad he wasn’t a liberal.” The accusing pastor didn’t say much to that.
While shibboleth liberals are ever fighting the last battle (perceived legalism), there is a rising tide of lawlessness in our world and churches. This world’s ills today are not the result of legalism. They are the result of lawlessness. And we can’t say we weren’t warned. Jesus said “And many false prophets shall rise, and shall deceive many. And because iniquity shall abound, the love of many shall wax cold. But he that endures unto the end, shall be saved” (Matthew 24:11-13). Here is what we can expect this year, friends. Lying teachers are going to be leading a lot of Christian people (deceive many) into a lot of sin and it will destroy something vital—their heart.
Peter Berger speaks of a time when a sacred canopy covered over culture. That sacred canopy was the Christian worldview (that’s not to say that everybody believes it implicitly). But now that canopy is being ripped away, and another kind of canopy is being put in its place. There is an attempt to bring all religions together under the rubric of pagan spiritualism. The “Christian emergents” speak of a “great shift” that is happening. This is a massive movement, friends, and it is driving itself into our church/culture under the guise of doing good. I believe that you and your children are facing opposition that has not been known in the west for hundreds of years. And the shibboleth of our day is still on the lookout for legalism.
These are not simply hot-button unrelated issues, but a full scale affront to the everlasting gospel. The new “spirituality” and its outbred iniquity has a coherent agenda – motivated from a diabolical center, moving and reproducing like algae in a lake. It is the revival of a new pagan religion, one that undercuts faith in the Word of God. Closer to home, it is the outworking of Satan’s wrath against the remnant—those who keep the commands of God and have the faith of Jesus. And they are not legalists.
So here is the problem with Preposterous Pop Shibboleth Preoccupation (I made that up).
• It distracts us from reality. Like modern day Don Quixotes charging at windmills, we become oblivious to the rising waters of iniquity lapping at our feet. Or go one step further and picture John Paul Jones with arms folded and water up to his neck “I have not yet begun to fight!”
First Mate (treading water) “Sir, don’t you think it’s about time you did, the bloomin ship has had it!!??”
• It wastes energy. Fighting the last battle wastes a lot of ammunition—ammunition that ought to have been spent on the real enemies of our life and church. Paul warned us that “perilous times were coming” and he described those times in eighteen ways (2 Timothy 3:1-5). Fourteen of those descriptors are variations of iniquity, and four are pride. This is real stuff. Right now. Let us humbly seek God’s righteousness as the solution — and take our blinders off.
• It can bring about our death and the death of our children. Being preoccupied with “legalism” makes us indifferent to lawlessness. I’ve seen a lot of people lately take up drinking, dancing, chewing and immorality just to prove that they are no longer legalists. All that proves is that we have unfit ourselves for heaven (1 Corinthians 6:9). There ain’t no such thing as righteousness by lawlessness.
• It is a club to beat people with. For years, the accusation of legalism has been the favorite power whine of Ohio, the ecclesiastical equivalent of “I’m gonna tell Mom!” But that’s not just Ohio. Most of the NAD has been massaging this shibboleth for about thirty years. Here’s how the modern translation goes: A guy says, “I believe in honoring the Lord by keeping His commandments, praying together daily to Jesus, loving my neighbors, eschewing sin and guarding my family from the tinsel and glitter of the world.” A response from CNN is something like “So you are a Neo-Nazi, anti-semitic, homophobic, chauvinistic member of a hate cult!!” Or the response from pop church Shibbolites is: “So you are a legalistic, mean-spirited, short-sighted, vengeful, judge-monger!!” Uhh…no.
I close with a story that wraps this all up. 1996. Ohio camp meeting again. One of the speakers was a tall guy who liked to write about potatoes. In one of his presentations he referred to Mr. Wong (remember the book, “The Man who couldn’t be killed?”). It was about a Chinese fellow who found Jesus and gave his whole heart to Him, earning a twenty year prison sentence for his faith. The unbelievable things that this man endured in prison because of his love for Christ and His Law, utterly shame us by comparison. The potato author said Mr. Wong was…you guessed it…“A legalist.”
No he wasn’t!
He was obedient (Matthew 24:13). And loving (1 John 2:3). And faithful (Revelation 22:14).
God calls that the Remnant
(Rev. 14:12; 12:17).