Two Cheers for Tribalism

I initially thought I was going to post just a couple of times on The Future of Protestantism, but as I wrote, the thing grew on me. So look for at least one more after this one.

This particular set of concerns involves the matter of tribes and tribalism. I think we have to be very careful here. Now I take it as a given that there can be a problem — narrow provincialism when there ought not be narrow provincialism, whether oriented to geography, ethnicity, or favorite teachers. “I am of Paul, I am of Apollos” is certainly to be resisted as a real temptation (1 Cor. 1:12). Two sets of Christians who love the Lord ought not to be hating on each other (Jas. 3:10). The Scriptures are full of warnings against malice, biting, envy and so on. But tribalism? Doesn’t it depend on what the tribes are actually doing? If we all love Jesus, then warring tribalism is obviously out. But simple tribalism?

Because we are using the word as a term of disapproval, in a way that the Bible does not use it, it seems to me that misdiagnosis is a very real possibility. The commission to disciple all the tribes of the earth is going to necessitate some kind of tribalism at some point, right? This means a careful discussion of the ins and outs of tribalism is greatly needed. For example, what is the practical behavioral difference — scripturally speaking — between a tribe and a flock?

Many of the complaints that are leveled against Protestant tribalism seem to me to be complaints that would have equal force when leveled against flocks of sheep. But we are supposed to be sheep. Pastors are supposed to be shepherds. How is a pastor supposed to teach his flock “not to be so tribal”? A stick of dynamite would probably do it, but that seems counter-intuitive (Matt. 9:36).

Jesus is the door of the sheep fold (John 10:7). His sheep hear His voice (John 10:3). Christ has numerous sheep, and they are not all from the same fold (John 10:16). Pastors are to be examples to the flock (1 Pet. 5:3), so that when the chief Shepherd appears they might receive a crown of glory (1 Pet. 5:4). This makes pastors under-shepherds. One of the gifts that Christ gave us from Heaven was the gift of pastors (poimen) — shepherds (Eph. 4:11). When we plant churches, we are gathering people into flocks, and since we can’t gather everyone in one room all at once, we should recognize the temptations that will come from it as a design feature. A big part of what happens here is the way it is supposed to be. God wants us to deal with these temptations wisely, but it seems to me dealing with them wisely excludes assuming that the mere existence of tribes must be tribalism.

The Bible doesn’t really speak of tribes negatively.

“After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands” (Rev. 7:9, ESV).

There is only one throne . . . but there are many tribes gathered there.

And Jesus spoke of the government of His church in the language of tribes, and this language encompasses all the potential trouble that would entail.

“That ye may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom, and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Luke 22:30).

As it happens, in the New Testament there were tensions between the apostolic tribes just as there had been between the original tribes of Israel. What a shock, and welcome to earth.

As I have sought to help parents establish classical Christian schools, which are grounded in the cultural history of the West, one of the charges we frequently have to answer is the charge brought by multi-culturalists. We are teaching books left to us by dead, white guys, and what’s with that? My reply has been that you don’t teach respect for other cultures by teaching students or allowing students to despise their own. You don’t instill honor for mothers generally by dishonoring your own mother.

If I love and respect my own mother, I understand fully why someone else would respect and honor his mother. And if I have contempt for my own mother, then my labors on behalf of motherhood generally are not credible. Catholicity about motherhood is a good thing, but we really want to hear about it from loyal and dutiful sons.

Applied to this discussion, when we talk about evangelical Protestantism, what we should be after is a kind of patriot cosmopolitanism — and in the context of this discussion, I see Fred Sanders as embodying this spirit and attitude very well. He shows far more than simple “agreement with,” and goes on to a dogged “loyalty to.” We tend to assume that local loyalties make broader ecumenical loyalties impossible, but I think this is actually the reverse of the truth.

The right kind of tribalism is therefore a necessary step toward unity between the tribes, and it is that precondition that I think we are missing. As I read the mood of this generation of Protestants, what I see is deracinated rootlessness, and you cannot address the problems caused by such rootlessness by giving them all a highly nuanced grad school version of the same rootlessness. Now we can express our ignorance of who we are  supposed to be with big words. But we don’t need the grand tour with no home to return to. We actually need a map with an x on it that says “you are here,” a place we can go visiting from, and return to with relief and gratitude.

Now having said this much, we should still know that party spirit and factionalism is a great danger. Tribes are not a sin, but since they contain people, there are sins associated with them.

“For I fear, lest, when I come, I shall not find you such as I would, and that I shall be found unto you such as ye would not: lest there be debates, envyings, wraths, strifes, backbitings, whisperings, swellings, tumults” (2 Cor. 12:20).

I earlier cited the famous passage about Paul and Apollos. But it is not often noted that the hyper-sectarians in that Corinthian mix were the anti-tribal ones, those who trumped everyone by being “of Christ” (1 Cor. 1:12). Top that. In other words, you cannot defeat the spirit of sectarianism by calling your faction “the Jesus faction.” That just makes you the worst of the lot.

This is why, when it comes to tribalism of the wrong kind, reformers are in the very greatest danger. I do not mean that reformers necessarily fall into this trap — I merely mean that they are uniquely susceptible to it. In saying this, as one who prays for reformation and revival as a regular part of my prayers, please note that I am preaching to myself here. The reformer is one who wants to see reform across the board in accordance with the Word of God, and who could be against that? But for two cents the devil can transform this into a proposal for church unity based upon everyone else dropping their bigoted traditions and doing what I suggest.

The reformer wants people far away to repent of their distant errors, and he wants neighboring people to repent of the errors he was most recently associated with. But very rarely do reformers want everybody to repent of his proposed agenda for reform. But most of the time the proposed agenda for reform is an essential part of the problem. Where do we think all these old tribes came from? They usually come from somebody’s suggested reforms, and because they are not universally adopted, they just result in new tribes.

So in the negative sense of tribalism, the reforming tribe is likely to be the most tribal. I remember one time making the mistake of referring to the Church of God as a denomination, and being corrected by someone associated with them. No, they were not a denomination — they were the answer to denominationalism. No doubt it seemed that way to somebody once upon a time, but now they are just one more denomination. The same goes for all those highly denominated non-denominational churches. It is a good thing we quit denominating them — that might have caused us to sin.

One last thing. When a non-denominational zeal reaches its zenith, as it does with the Church of Christ and the Local Church, that claim necessitates that they read themselves right out of Protestantism. Groups that see themselves as “the one true church” can’t be Protestant, any more than the Roman Catholic church can be Protestant. This is because Protestantism cannot be sectarian to such an extent, by definition. When churches like the Presbyterian, Lutheran, and Methodist confess themselves Protestant, they are confessing that their particular tribe is part of a larger confederation of tribes. The Protestants are like the Iroquois Nation, and I think we should let the Lutherans be the Mohawks.

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Joe
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Joe

I curious about your use of the word “tribe.” Do you think that the word “tribe” in the Scriptural passages you cite refer to the ecclesiastical tribes of the current discussion? Could you explain how the statements made about them in the Bible apply to the ones we are talking about? It seems that you are justifying (cheering) one on the basis of something very different. What am I missing?

Ken Brennan
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Ken Brennan

Tribalism. Having made my first communion and confirmation as a child, and latterly as a former member of a Charismatic church, having also been a godless drug addict for a spell, now a member of a nominally evangelical church that is actually reformed baptist, and having a Catholic mum and Pentecostal dad, and also just being generally rather Irish, I get this.

Arnold Rowntree
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Arnold Rowntree

I just knew this would come down to hairstyles.

Nathan
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Nathan

16 And other sheep I have, which are not of this fold: them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice; and there shall be one fold, and one shepherd.

Does this not seem to indicate that the one tribe is the Israelites and the other the Gentiles, and that in Christ, all shall be one sheepfold with Christ as the shepherd? Further, is this not the opposite of the sense in which the passage was used in the article?

Jon Marq
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I spent my teen years in the Church of Christ, and served as a minister and missionary of the “one true church” for many years. Several of my fellow ministers spent much of time trying to find a way out of our sectarian movement into the evangelical community. Soon we discovered that evangelical is not enough, so we embraced the Reformation and Calvin. It turns out “Reformed” is not enough. Neither is Catholic. But Christ alone. (The church I help pastor still hasn’t found what we are looking for in tribal terms, but we hope to join a (presby) tribe… Read more »

Barnabas
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Barnabas

My adoption into brotherhood with Christ transcends the tribe, it doesn’t destroy the tribe. The destruction of the tribe is a postmodern project.

carole
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carole

This is a very interesting topic and I look forward to the second part.

The multi-culturalists of public education, who oppose reading the dead white guys, are like blog commentators who can’t be bothered reading the original post. Why study the conversation from the beginning, when they can jump in at the end and object.

Nathan E.
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Nathan E.

1) This is highly confusing. I get the overall point, but I think one can separate ecclesiastical tribalism from political tribalism/nationalism. Actually, I commented on the video and pointed out that Leithart’s reference to “Protestant Nationalism” was off the point. However, I am sympathetic to his point that sometimes Protestants can be a bit too sectarian and simply retreat to commitment to their own denominational identity while refusing to learn from others, and ignoring the call for visible unity of the brethren. 2) More clearly on the “Protestant Nationalism” front: This is something to celebrate, along the lines of your… Read more »

Mark
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Mark

“… referring to the Church of God as a denomination, … now they are just one more denomination.” — It’s certainly true. As one who grew up in the Church of God and even became ordained there, I saw this up close & in person. “No creed but the Bible,” they say. Yet when, as part of the ordination process, I was required to write one succinct paragraph each describing my beliefs regarding 14 separate doctrines — withOUT quoting Holy Scripture, — I got in a little trouble when a couple of my paragraphs didn’t exactly line up with their… Read more »