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Dare anyone deny that Christians are among the most tribal of peoples in the world?  I’m not thinking of the way Christians may legitimately distinguish the church from the world, the saved from the lost, or the way lines must necessarily be drawn between orthodox and heretical views, or even about denominations (as Trueman likes to point out: “Denominations mean that somebody somewhere still believes something”).  Rather, I’m thinking about the way Christians divide and gather, further divide and gather into value-based societies distinct from and uncooperative with one another.  Is it me, or is the problem pandemic?

On one level, the problem exists simply at the label of labeling.  We have and need ways of describing ourselves, our commitments, and our ambitions.  The natural tendency is to create a moniker, a one-word or one-phrase representative of deeper meanings.  I don’t know that this is avoidable or good even if it were avoidable.  We’ve been naming things since Adam, and good names carry meaning, history, and identity.  That’s why any call for doing away with labels won’t work.  Sometimes we hear things like, “Can’t we just call ourselves ‘Christians’?”  But what is “Christian” but a label?  And what must “Christian” mean in order to escape a reductionism that leads to rank individualism?  We need labels–good labels– that communicate who we are.  So, we’ll never escape naming ourselves and the quest for a one-size-fits-all tag seems quixotic.

But there’s something deeper than naming that feeds the tribalism.  Beneath it all run three tributaries that dump into the lake of tribalism.

First, there are the relational inclusivists.  We know them by their Rodney King-inspired mantra: “Can’t we all get along.”  The inclusivists develop itches and rashes anytime disagreement may be spotted.  They prefer one large group of all Christians, a mass unity in which they’re sometimes willing to overlook critical differences while we sing “We Are the World.”  They interpret their bigness (at least their desired bigness) as evidence of the rightness of their cause.  Inclusivists stand aghast at the number of tribes around them, interpreting every division as evidence of failure or unfaithfulness.  They style themselves the party of love and acceptance, but they’re just as tribal.  Listen to how they describe and demonize folks outside their group as unloving, cold, narrow, peevish, and more concerned with theology than either God or people.  On what do they base this?  Very often they base it on group membership more than on the actual attitudes and behaviors of the “other tribe.”  If you’re not in our big group of love then you must belong to some other camp less loving than we are.

Second, there are the exclusivists.  In one of my favorite episodes of The Andy Griffith Show, young Opie and his friends come to the jail complaining about the uselessness of history.  Andy gives them a rousing story about Paul Revere, the minutemen and the country’s founding.  The boys’ eyes blaze with excitement.  Barney stands amazed.  Following the story, Opie and friends settle some quick business like group name, mission, and place of meetings.  Then to the really important issue: Who can be a member?  Someone votes for letting everybody join, to which Opie conclusively responds, “It’s not a club unless you keep somebody out.” Opie the tribal exclusionary.  How often are our clubs and tribes simply exercises in exclusion, attempts at defining ourselves by not allowing others to be with us?  How do we do that?  Who’s really an exclusionary?  More often than not we exclude by raising the theological or ministry practice bar as high as possible.  And not just high.  We make the “test” as specific as possible, even failing applicants who give the correct answer but not with our precise terms.  The premium gets placed on conformity, and usually conformity to secondary and even unimportant issues.  Sometimes our Christian tribalism springs from this sometimes elitist and sometimes low-brow desire to segregate, exclude, and banish “others.”

Third, there are also the  close cousins to exclusionists: isolationists.  These are the folks who form tribes of one, except when they together raise their individual voices to decry all the other tribes.  They’re a loose federation of discontents, a society of non-joiners–not always on principle, mind you.  They distrust belonging and think of every grouping as “unlawful.”  They boast about not belonging to anything while criticizing everything.  Groucho Marx’s famous quip is their personal anthem: “I refuse to join any club that would have me as a member.”  They’re “just Christians” in the “mere(ly) me Christianity” sense.  Those who isolate themselves like this pretend to a higher morality, a more noble approach to relationships, one where they are never caught being cliquish or divisive because they never join.  They’re unspotted by association, solipsistic separatists, convinced of the rightness of their position because it’s their position, rarely taking a position on anything other than being against all groups and their positions.

But there’s a deeper root to tribalism still.  Each of these streams flow into the lake of tribalism but they flow from the mountain of alienation and pride.  Whether we see ourselves or others as inclusivists, exclusionists, or isolationists, we’re really simply witnessing the brokenness of relationships that date back to Gen. 3, the hostility of Gen. 4 in softer tones, and the pride of Genesis 11 cloaked in Christian garb.  The confusion of Babel continues as various groups build their more perfect tower to heaven.

While we still suffer the confused tongues and misunderstanding, the reversal of Babel’s curse has begun in the cloven tongues and nation gathering of Pentecost.  In this already/not yet, we live with vestiges of paradise lost and foretastes of paradise regained.  But this in-betweenness can be frustrating and painful.  The old man dies violently, reluctantly.  He sometimes exerts his greatest rebellion where we’d expect to see the brightest indications of new life, like a resistance fighter spraying graffiti on the shiny monuments of the state’s power. Our battle for sanctification reminds us that the war is won, the city captured, but there are still pockets of resistance in streets and small neighborhoods aligned with the old man.  Our fight for less tribalism and more unity–a unity premised on like precious faith, defined biblical truth–continues apace the Molotov cocktails, rocks, and ambushes of a tribal instinct as old as Genesis 10.

What’s the answer?  I don’t know really.  But we can start with being honest about which stream we are in ourselves.  Let’s stop characterizing others and cast a critical eye at ourselves.  We do have logs to remove, don’t we?  I suspect that a little truth telling to ourselves about our stream and motivation could go some ways in opening us up to seeing some issues and some people differently.

Then, it seems to me, there should be some talking across tribal lines.  The elders of the clans should gather and the people should smoke the peace pipe.  That doesn’t mean leaving your clan; it simply makes your tribe civil.  It seems necessary to say that neither tribe gets it all wrong or all correct.  Surely we should desire as wide a unity as possible, and we should also exclude those that threaten that unity with falsehoods.  There most certainly comes a time when we should not join, even though we must recognize the inescapable requirement to belong to the local church and the global church.  Escaping tribalism probably feels a little chameleon-like depending on the issue.  There’s something for us all to learn from one another.  We should be skeptical of that little voice which resists peace, bristles at talking with “others,” and finds balkanization cozy.  That’s the flesh, not the Spirit.  We should do everything to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.  We should ask ourselves if we’re doing our part to end the tribalism and the lazy labeling that often accompanies it.

But this is precisely where the digital age’s democratization of information can be a real enemy.  We can now publish too quickly, without the requisite literature and peer reviews that inform us, balance us, and open us up to “the other side.”  What we often end up publishing is the silt and debris that gathers along the banks of our particular tribal streams.  We’re well past the point when Christians should ask themselves whether their computers aid or hinder our fallen tribal instincts.  Don’t get me wrong; I’d certainly prefer the democratization of technology and information to the control and restriction of media by a small cadre of elites.  But I most prefer a sanctified distribution of media control and use.

It’ll be easy to justify our next misinformed missive with an easy reference to our indwelling sin or with some valiant reference to “taking a stand.”  If we do, we’ll miss the opportunity to grow in practical holiness by a degree.  The next keystroke could be one more death blow to the old man or it could be one more arrow thrown for tribalism.  Do we actively think of our keyboards and our digital “spaces” as opportunity for sanctification? Too often I don’t.  And I’m afraid it sometimes shows in my own tribalism.

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19 thoughts on “Christian Tribalism in the Era of Democratized Publishing”

  1. David Reimer says:

    Hmmm… There might be something in the air, as I’ve seen this theme cropping up recently in quite unrelated places.

    I did some thinking about this issue from a different angle, but in which “tribalism” is noted along the way:

    If all that piece does is raise the profile of Joshua 22 in these discussions, that will be a good thing. I hope!

  2. John says:

    Thanks for a great post, Thabiti!

  3. josh says:

    Thabiti —

    Isn’t this whole article cry out for something like the ‘Elephant Room’ you aggressively and loudly repeatedly denounced?

    1. Dan says:

      Josh – I thought of that as well.
      Thabiti – I love this article and your points, but I was thinking something similar to Josh while I was reading it. Especially this part (and the paragraph right in front of it):

      “…it seems to me, there should be some talking across tribal lines. The elders of the clans should gather and the people should smoke the peace pipe. That doesn’t mean leaving your clan; it simply makes your tribe civil. It seems necessary to say that neither tribe gets it all wrong or all correct.”

      Do you have any helpful thoughts about why the ER was not what you are calling for (so well) in your article?

      1. Thabiti says:

        Hi Dan,

        I don’t know if my thoughts are helpful, but please see the comments below made in reference to Josh’s question. In short, I don’t have a problem with ER as a forum or its stated aim of having frank conversation between brothers who may disagree at points. The issue for me was always the issue of maintaining orthodoxy and inviting a man who, imo, does not uphold it. At that point, we’re back at paragraph one of this post which calls for drawing lines between those who hold the faith and those who do not. Were there no Jakes on the ER panel, you’d likely not heard from me at all (just as I made no comments following the first event).

        I hope that helps in some way.

        1. Dan says:

          A very helpful clarification. Thank you for taking the time to do so. I do hope many leaders/churches/pastors read your article and begin to smoke that peace pipe together and put down the hatchets. It can be embarrassing how my “tribe” interacts with other tribes. Thanks again.

          1. Thabiti says:

            Thanks bro!

    2. Thabiti says:

      Dear Josh,

      Thanks for reading the post, brother, and leaving a comment. I’m grateful you would take the time to do so, and judging from the pointed tone of your comment it seems you’ve read the post with an emotionally engaged heart. I want to honor your time and your heart, so let me offer a couple responses:

      First, just to be clear: I did not “aggressively and loudly repeatedly denounce” the Elephant Room as a medium for people to meet and talk. The issue was not the ER as a forum; I never even commented on ER1, for example. The issue was the affirmation of Jakes as a “brother” given his teaching on the Trinity. If you read my original post on the ER, you’ll see that I clearly affirm the right of organizers to hold the event and invite whomever they wished. There was nothing wrong with the forum as such or the goal of brokering conversation with folks who wouldn’t normally talk together. So, it seems important to me to distinguish between the forum and the participants in the forum.

      Which brings me to a second response. I fully understand and respect that some are happy to affirm Jakes as orthodox while I’m not. That, in my mind, was the issue. As the opening line of this post says, there remains the necessity of drawing lines between “orthodox” and “unorthodox” lest we empty Christianity of any meaningful content whatsoever. I assume you and I would agree in principle that such lines need to be drawn, even if we might disagree about precisely where to put the lines. For my part, the Trinity is a cardinal issue requiring such a line. But this post isn’t addressing the division between orthodox and unorthodox, but lines within orthodoxy itself, a kind of party spirit among the faithful.

      Third, again for clarity’s sake and to perhaps encourage different word choice or characterizations in the future, I wrote exactly two posts directly addressing ER2–my original post stating concern about Jakes being invited and a post following the event in which I listed a number of reflections. I wrote two others that included brief attempts to clarify what I was/was not saying and to even extend charitable defenses of ER motives. For example, on Oct. 4th, I wrote:

      In all honesty, I think [redefining the scope of invitees to include ‘leaders’ rather than ‘brothers’] was a decision made with the best of intentions in order to make comfortable the most people–a potentially embarrassed Jakes who might be uninvited, potentially uncomfortable panel members who might not wish to endorse Jakes, and a potential viewing public that might view the Jakes invitation as an endorsement of Jakes as orthodox. I think the ER folks were trying to serve multiple important needs.

      I believed that then and I believe it now. A week later, on Oct. 10th, I wrote in follow-up to a multi-site post:

      I want to allay concerns and quiet Evangelical conspiracy theorists trying to connect the dots between posts [multi-site and ER2] and read any animosity between the lines. Those who know me tend to think I try to say what I mean and mean what I say. As far as I’m concerned, there’s no personal animosity to observe in any of this–even where I seriously disagree with the ER decisions. I’ve never intentionally slandered MacDonald with either of these labels [celebrity pastor/rock star pastor].

      Beyond these comments, I don’t think I made any other substantive references to the ER during the entire 4-month period between my first post and leading up to the event itself. I hardly think two posts (one before and one after) and two further comments (largely in defense or at least in clarification) count as “aggressively and loudly repeatedly” denouncing ER as a medium for conversation or its organizers as men and Christians.

      Finally, if we’re really genuine about discussion with folks who disagree with us, I hope we can also include folks who disagree even about who to invite or not invite.

      I hope we can lay this to rest and move forward. Those of us more intimately involved in a lot of these disagreements have certainly made sincere and at times painful efforts to do so. I hope others less involved can do likewise.

      Thanks again for your comment. Grace and peace to you today,

      1. josh says:

        I believe that you believe all that you wrote here, but there is plenty you left unsaid about the role you played in both James MacDonald and Mark Driscoll leaving the gospel coalition.

        You can lecture me all you want about word choice and make yourself feel better about the whole thing, but anyone who knows, knows you threatened to take the entire African-American group out of TGC if MacDonald wasn’t booted and organized an ‘intervention’ phone call with the entire T4G speaker group to threaten him.

        so claim you didn’t ‘aggressively and loudly’ denounce the event all you want, but you are being disingenuous at best and dishonest at worst.

        1. Thabiti says:

          Dear Josh,

          Thanks again for sharing your perspective. You obviously feel strongly about your perspective and feel your position is right. You may choose not to believe me, but since I’m the accused and I am aware of what I did and did not do, I can say with complete confidence before my Lord who will judge the living and the dead that you don’t know all the facts.

          I appreciate your passion and your willingness to stand for what you think is right. I respect it. But, simply, you’re wrong. I did not and do not speak for the AA members of TGC or any other members for that matter. I did not threaten to take anyone out of TGC. I did not “organize an ‘intervention’ phone call.” To my knowledge, Mark Driscoll was never involved with or named in anything I was involved in. You’re simply wrong on all counts.

          It’s always good for us all to remember Prov. 18:17–“The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him.” Apparently you’ve heard one case. It might be wise to hear the response and examination.

          I don’t intend to turn this stream into a rehash of these issues when the principle parties have handled things to our satisfaction, by much of God’s grace. But I don’t want to leave you with mistaken impressions perhaps formed when even the parties directly involved didn’t have the full benefit of the others’ actual actions and intentions. If you’d like to talk, I’d be happy to share what would be appropriate in the interest of peace and understanding. If so, email or call me directly. If you’d like to leave it here, I’d respect that as well.

          Having never met you to my knowledge, know that nothing here is written with any ill will. I pray fresh mercies on your life and ministry, and the fuller light of understanding and wisdom between us.

          Grace and peace,

  4. rc sproul jr says:

    Well in my tribe we love Braveheart and Andy Griffith, even if Opie can be a touch snobbish. But I will look past the implicit insult to the former and explicit beef against the latter to say “Well said, brother.”

    1. Thabiti says:

      Hey brother,
      Didn’t Mel Gibson make “Braveheart” like three times? Seems like I saw the same movie with a different title a couple times ;-)

      As for Andy Griffith, we own every season on DVD in my little tribe at home. We love Andy and Opie; so no “beef” against Opie at all! ;-)

      Thanks for dropping by and commenting, brother.

      1. rc sproul jr says:

        Yup, my dad is waiting for Gibson to fight the English in Australia, and perhaps after that, in outer space.

  5. John Metz says:

    Thanks for this post. I found it to be a very good diagnosis of today’s Christian situation. The historical references going back to Genesis and Babel were helpful. The brief reference to Pentecost as a reversal of Babel was excellent.

    I also appreciated your statement, “I don’t know really” (a bold statement for one in the public arena!) coupled with your suggestion of dialogue. It is hard to explain why dialogue is not practiced more between ‘tribes’ or why some refuse to dialogue where there is misunderstanding.

    I am a new reader of your blog and just want to state my appreciation for this post.

    1. Thabiti says:

      Dear brother,

      Welcome to the blog. Thank you for your very kind words and encouragements! They are greatly appreciated! I pray that you receive continued encouragement reading here.

      Much grace and peace,

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Thabiti Anyabwile

Thabiti Anyabwile is a pastor for Anacostia River Church in southeast Washington, DC and a council member of The Gospel Coalition.

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