The Problem with Christian Tribalism

Derek Ouellette —  September 4, 2013

LIVE.EssayArt_TribalismWell, actually, Christian Tribalism is the problem.

A Kingdom view of the gospel sees the purpose of Jesus as that of undoing the problem of the Fall and Babel. Renewing humanity. Restoring unity. Bringing about one body under one King. This, in fact, is a key feature in Paul’s theology. It’s in almost everything Paul talks about, whether money or the Lord’s Supper or spiritual gifts or when he makes pleas with brethren in Philippi to be united and so on. Unity, one “Tribe” in Christ (if I can use that lingo), is at the heart of Paul’s theology. In fact it stands as the very occasion for his greatest epistle, Romans. And is beautifully illustrated in one of his most personal letters, Philemon, as N.T. Wright has shown so well.

But of course Jesus’ Tribe is made up of people. Redeemed people. But people none-the-less. And people have their own minds. And they have the audacity to think for themselves. And not everything has been delivered to us in black and white. And even some very important things are hotly contested among the people within Jesus’ Tribe. So within Jesus’ Kingdom are “regions” (if you will). Neighbourhoods. People who cluster together because they have certain core convictions that unite them. They form tribes within Jesus’ Tribe. Communities within Jesus’ Community. Regions within Jesus’ Kingdom.

One thinks of the Gospel Coalition, Red Letter Christians, BioLogos, CMI, “Progressives,” and so on (of course many in these tribes overlap). Tribes within Jesus’ Tribe.

Okay. I have no problem with that. If that’s how we are understanding “tribes.” But of course we get the Progressives who think they best represent Jesus’ Tribe; the Gospel Coalition who think they best represent Jesus’ Tribe; and Red Letter Christians who think they best represent Jesus’ Tribe (and so on). I fit best, I guess, in the Progressive tribe except when my kin run around acting like… well, Mark Driscoll. Like as if they have Jesus in their back pocket. It happens all the time.

The truth is, I have a pretty strong aversion to key doctrinal ideas in the Gospel Coalition. But there are elements in their theology that, I think, Progressives would do well to emphasize. And the same is true in reverse. I think in a way the different tribes within Jesus’ Tribe could learn a lot from one another. I think we need the different tribes in the same way that we need different Bible translations.

So that’s tribes within Jesus’ Tribe. It’s more complex than even that. But let’s move on to the real problem: Tribalism.

Tribalism has two main definitions:

1. The state or fact of being organized in a tribe or tribes.
2. The behavior and attitudes that stem from strong loyalty to one’s own tribe or social group.

The first definition merely refers to the fact of tribes. It’s what I’ve been talking about so far. But that second definition is what I mean when I talk negatively about Christian Tribalism. Because tribalism goes beyond all of that and gets personal. The loyalties and attitudes get so strong that the mere look at a member of another tribe, or the mere mention of their name causes anxious unrest or anger. Desires to debate or attack. It anxiously cheers when someone demonizes them, without taking an honest look at the situation. It just doesn’t care. It sees members of other tribes as enemies out of the box. It throws down the gloves. Shoots first and doesn’t ask at all.

One thinks, as one of the most recent examples, of the RHE/John Piper debacle that occurred a few months back. The stench of ungodly tribalism was so strong that people are still trying to justify their demonization of the man by appealing to “Jesus’ Tribe.” (For those who don’t remember: news flash: Piper wasn’t saying a thing about God’s character in that situation.) I don’t mention this to bring a controversial situation back up to the surface. It’s merely the most recent high-profile example I can recall. So let’s move on quickly.

My point is that we do have an obligation to be fair-minded towards one another. This does not mean to be “fair” in the liberal sense of the word (as in, “politically correct,” “find common ground at all cost” and all of that nonsense) – of course!

There has to be room for debate and discussion, for calling each other out and for correction in the same way that different Bible translations engage each other, offer different angles on the same texts and sometimes dispute each other. But tribalism goes way beyond that. Way. It’s about taking a contemptuous posture toward persons of another tribe for simply being in that tribe.

And tribalism makes Christ-likeness impossible.

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Derek Ouellette

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a husband, new dad, speaker, writer, christian. see my profile here.
  • Rob Grayson

    A good description of the problem. Proposing a solution is much harder…