Rick Barry is managing editor of The Body Politic. He has worked on campaigns for local, state and federal office, is a former writer and editor for Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City and currently oversees communications for the Grace DC church network in Washington, DC.
And the Gileadites captured the fords of the Jordan against the Ephraimites. And when any of the fugitives of Ephraim said, “Let me go over,” the men of Gilead said to him, “Are you an Ephraimite?” When he said, “No,” they said to him, “Then say Shibboleth,” and he said, “Sibboleth,” for he could not pronounce it right. Then they seized him and slaughtered him at the fords of the Jordan.
Every group has ways of differentiating between insiders and outsiders. Some of these distinctives are primary, providing a group with its very definition. Other distinctives are ancillary, traits that proceed from the primary distinctives and serve as easy ways to differentiate one group from another when the presence or absence of a primary distinctive may take too long to suss out.
In the passage from Judges quoted above, an ancillary distinctive—the fact that the Ephraimite language didn't include the "sh" sound—served as a quick way for Gileadite soldiers to suss out a primary distinctive—whether the person they were talking to was from Ephraim or Gilead.
Every community, family, club or group you belong to likely follows a similar pattern: Those who have served in the military know that they share a unique set of experiences with other veterans, including rigorous training that has informed their values and powerful—sometimes traumatic—experiences in the field that have shaped a great deal of the way they understand and interact with the world around them. But instead of interrogating every veteran they meet for the story of their training and service to establish their primary distinctives, they may simply share a secondary distinctive, such as their command, formation and unit. This allows veterans to know that they can welcome one another as members of the same group.
Some clubs or professional associations may have pieces of jewelry or articles of clothing their members wear. Fraternities and sororities have handshakes, mottos and passwords that let members identify one another across generations. Even less formal groups maintain these kinds of distinctives: Every clique of friends has catchphrases, inside jokes and various shorthands that help them differentiate between insiders and outsiders.
Identifying Our Christian Distinctives
In the Christian faith, though, God turns this basic human tendency on its head. The Christian faith's only primary distinctive is a person's saving faith in the life, death, resurrection and eventual return of Jesus Christ. And, unfortunately for us, the only person who knows for sure whether other people share our faith or not is God, who alone is capable of looking at the state of a person's heart.
Because we can not see one another's salvation, Christianity gives us a set of ancillary distinctives we need to use to determine whether someone is part of our spiritual family or not: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Much has been made of the fact that these nine qualities are called "the fruit of the Spirit" and not "the fruits of the Spirit," so I won't re-create the wheel in this article. What I do want to point out, though, is that identifying whether all nine of these qualities are present and growing in someone's life takes time. The shorthand God has given us for identifying members of the community of faith is no shorthand at all. It takes time, it takes commitment and it takes work to identify—and it can almost certainly not be identified from afar.
Losing Track of Our Christian Distinctives
For those of us who are enthusiastic about particular political, economic or social questions, it can be easy to focus on the ways our chosen policies are good, ignore the ways in which they are fallen, and begin treating them like a "shibboleth" for the Christian faith.
In 2004, I was still very new to my faith and I was trying to figure out what it meant to the way I was going to vote in the upcoming presidential election. "You can't be a Christian and vote Democrat," someone in my Bible study declared; "You can't really be a Christian and vote Republican," a friend and mentor to my then-girlfriend declared later that week.
Of course, both were wrong. The political, social and cultural diversity of the church as described in the New Testament and the assurance that "every tribe and tongue" will be represented in the Kingdom of Heaven means that the way someone votes can not place them outside the bounds of the community of faith. We can not vilify, belittle, shun or demean others for not voting the way we do.
But, just as crucially, the fact that God does not see the way we see means that if we assume that someone is morally upright because they champion our political preferences, we are badly mistaken. We must take pains to remember that our political allies are not our community of faith. When a church or a Christian community normalizes a particular political disposition, we risk confusing the people around us about the nature of Jesus' work in this world. "Come to Christ," we seem to be telling them, "and change the way you vote." Or, even worse, "Vote the way you vote and I will assume you already have Christ."
A vital faith in the living God can not be discerned by the way someone votes or assumed because of the party they represent. The only hallmarks of Christian character are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Take the time to look for them in your church and pray for the chance to demonstrate them to your political allies.
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As Executive Director of Center for Christian Civics, Rick helps ministry leaders and faith communities develop missional approaches to their local public squares. He has worked on campaigns for local, state and federal office, is a former writer and editor for Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City and oversaw communications for the Grace DC church network. He and his wife live in Washington, DC.