The “Born Again” Shibboleth

by Brian Walsh

Some years ago I was teaching a course on postmodernity and a biblical worldview. The material was difficult for some of the students, both intellectually, but perhaps more to the point, it was difficult spiritually. And before class one day a student was just kind of hanging around as I was getting my act together. He clearly wanted to talk. So I asked him if there was something on his mind.

“Well,” he began, “I did have a question.”

“Sure,” I replied, “go ahead.”

“Are you born again?” the student asked.

An interesting question, and certainly a deeply loaded question for this young man.

So I replied, “If by being ‘born again’ you mean, ‘do I root my life in a relationship with Jesus Christ?’ then the answer is clearly yes. But if you mean, do I find myself comfortable in a certain subculture of modern Christianity, then the answer is no.”

It was clear that this answer wasn’t quite getting at my student’s question so I continued. “But if the question means, ‘can I trust you?’” (at which the student quickly nodded his head), “then the answer is decidedly no. If all that it takes to get you to trust me is for me to say that I am born again, then definitely no. I am not born again, and you should not grant me any trust too quickly.”

The student thanked me for my answer, remained silent in the class that followed and did not return to the next class.

Now I’ve got lots of friends who find the language of being ‘born again’ to be at the very heart of their understanding of Christian faith and their own identity as Jesus followers. And I do not doubt the sincerity of their faith. I do, however, sometimes get the distinct feeling that they doubt the sincerity of the faith of anyone who does not use this same ‘born again’ language to describe their own discipleship. And that is deeply problematic. In the next post I’ll say some more about this, but let me just make one point here.

The metaphor of being ‘born again’ has only one occurrence in the whole Bible! Once! That’s it! In one place, in John’s gospel, we meet the language of being born again employed to describe Christian conversion. Once! And yet a tradition of Christianity that purports to place a premium on the authority of Scripture has taken this one metaphor and made it into a shibboleth of admission.

If you don’t use this language, then … well, then you aren’t “born again.” That is to say, you aren’t a Christian. This isn’t submission to Scripture, this is making all of biblical interpretation, indeed all of Christian self-understanding subject to an over-emphasis and an over-interpretation of one solitary biblical text. Certainly isn’t the “whole counsel of God” is it?

Now this is likely not all that revolutionary to most readers of this blog. It isn’t likely anything all that new either. In my next blog I’ll say a little more about why being “born again” is likely a pretty bad idea.

Brian Walsh
Brian is an activist theologian, a retired CRC campus minister, the founder of the Wine Before Breakfast community, and farms with Sylvia Keesmaat at Russet House Farm.He engages issues of theology and culture, and has written a couple of books you might want to check out. His most recent offering is cowritten with Sylvia Keesmaat and entitled Romans Disarmed: Resisting Empire, Demanding Justice.

8 Responses to “The “Born Again” Shibboleth”

  1. lisa

    I’m glad you brought this up! I’ve got this nagging uneasiness when people ask me whether I’m born again, or when they ask me whether I’m “saved”, …heck, even when I ask myself whether I am a Christian. I want to answer, “ya, totally”, but the honest answer is more along the lines of, “I would like to be” or maybe “Something I don’t understand is slowly uprooting my life.” As I’m growing up I’m starting to see and respect the *mystery* of (my) salvation and I’m completely stumped putting it into simple terms.

    well anyways, looking forward to your next post.

  2. Andrew

    I noticed my tendency to this. Not ask “born again?”, but at least wanting to get someone’s label. I was talking with a classmate here in Utah and the words “Are you LDS?” almost escaped my lips. I stopped myself because I realized that I wanted a short cut in the relationship that would probably be misleading. If he answered yes, then I would consciously and unconsciously ascribe to him many thoughts and motivations that he may, or may not, have. Instead, I decided I will find out these things the old fashioned way… conversation.

    Great post!

  3. E

    Andrew, I like the word you used there – short cut. I think that’s exactly what questions like “are you X”, or “do you Y” are about. And most often I’m in agreement that “old fashioned” conversation can do more to elicit the kind of information we’re after. But I think we have to be able to recognize when these questions are useful. For instance, if I ask someone, “are you Anglican?”, am I trying to establish whether they love organ music, sing hymns and baptize babies? Or am I trying to establish whether they might know my husband who works for the Anglican church? So often we throw around words and phrases that aren’t appropriately constructed to get at the information we’re after. I know I’m trying to think harder about the words I use….

    And Lisa, loved your comment. Like you, I’m stumped…and just thankful He turns all my fumbles into better things.

  4. M.joshua

    Well, the term “born again” is used twice in that conversation with Nicodemus in John 3 and once in 1 Peter 1. I only know this because I’ve had the same frustrations that you’ve expressed and I searched this out a little while back.

    But, Just like any label, it quickly becomes a relegated to a reductionist “insider and outsider” feud and misses the point just as much as the idea that the Rich man and Lazarus is a story to tell us what Hell is like.

  5. Empire Remixed « Irreligious Life

    […] is a post he Brian wrote entitled the Born Again Shibbolet. Would you call yourself “Born Again”? Why do you do that when the phrase is only found […]

  6. Paul R

    Born again — teaching of Jesus and corner stone to so many religions — but why? Even in Jesus time these words even brought confusion — I was raised in one of those religions that if you did not claim BA then you were LOST — I have thought for a long time and after all my thinking — I feel it all comes down to us needing to see that we need a relationship with GOD! So — I wonder if it means we are born again when we figure this out? OR is it after we spend a lifetime trying to figure out how to have this relationship do we get to be “Born again” IDK — but I can tell you that one small statement by Jesus can not and should not be the FULL bases of a belief about ones final safety nor about others faith systems — Just my thoughts—

  7. Why Being “Born Again” is a Bad Idea | iCanuck

    […] Brian Walsh is a former professor of mine at Wycliffe College and one of the people in my life responsible for messing me up.  He wrote two blog posts at Empire Remixed about the term “Born Again” and I have linked to them before but I can tell by looking at my blog stats that not many of my readers clicked through to his original post.  So here it is again. […]

  8. 5 Reasons I No Longer Use “Born Again” to Describe My Faith | Joel D. Black

    […] tension. Several years ago Brian Walsh wrote these two insightful posts over at Empire Remixed: The Born Again Shibboleth and Born Again a Murderous Shibboleth and suggested we replace this born again metaphor with one […]


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