Tribalism1—(n): 1) a tribal consciousness or loyalty, especially: exaltation of the tribe above other groups. 2) strong in-group loyalty
This word, which rocketed to popularity in the 1960s, is currently experiencing another renaissance. Likely the factionalizing of our society has caused this resurgence. We form groups with people who think, act, and believe like we do and assume everyone else is wrong. Turn on the evening news or pop over to your favorite social media feed to see this in action. Or, sadly, look around your church on Sunday morning.
Churches have been grappling with tribalism, or divisiveness, since the beginning. The earliest New Testament book (James) deals with this problem, and Paul teaches extensively on the topic in his first letter to the Corinthian church, though it pops up in one way or another in most of his epistles.
Nothing has changed in the past 2,000 years except what we divide over. We have moved from arguing over meat sacrificed to idols to bickering about gluten and vaccines. But the hearts behind the contentions remain unchanged. Tribalism—loyalty to a faction—reveals a heart of immaturity and pride and will be cured only by gazing afresh at the cross.
Symptoms of Tribalism
For since there is envy and strife among you, are you not worldly and behaving like mere humans? (1Co 3:3)
For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there is disorder and every evil practice. (Jas 3:16)
The first hallmark of divisive tribalism within a church is a culture of envy. At first, this may seem counter-intuitive. After all, why would I envy them? They’re the ones in the wrong group!
The Greek word for envy is zelos, from which we can get two English words, one positive, one negative: jealous and zealous. Greek scholar Spiros Zodhiates, in defining the negative sense of this word, says this: “Zelos may degenerate into a jealousy which makes war upon the good it sees in another, thus troubling that good and diminishing it.”2 When that shift takes place, a group has gone from having differing opinions—a good thing—to manifesting a classic symptom of contentious tribalism.
Disagreements within a church (or the Church) are bound to happen, whether over medicine, worship preferences, version of the Bible, schooling practices, or just about any other topic you could imagine. Finding a church in which everyone agrees with you on every one of those preferential issues would be like finding a microscopic needle in a haystack the size of Mount Everest.
And that’s how God wants it.
He made us with different preferences and opinions. However, the enemy loves to take those preferences and twist them into weapons that we use against each other. Suddenly my choice of where I send my kids to school or what I feed my baby becomes a club with which I can intimidate people within my congregation. I’m so zealous for my own preference that I hate you for not sharing it.
Without fail, this envy will lead to a second symptom.
It’s no wonder that strife, or as James calls it, “quarreling” is the next step down the ladder. When preferences become assault weapons, fights inevitably break out.
Maybe you’re thinking of your church and are pleased that you don’t see such foolishness there.
But what about online?
Christian social media has disintegrated into a haven for just this type of rubbish. Envying, quarreling, divisive posts, snarky comments, and caustic retorts have driven wedges within the Church and have done nothing to further the cause of Christ. Rather, I’m afraid they have given the unbelieving world a very sour taste of the Savior and His Kingdom.
Quarrels and striving may not be present face-to-face in your church, but likely they’re creeping into your congregation via the internet.
A Surprising Symptom of Tribalism
Envy and strife are no-brainers when thinking about how to diagnose a culture of division within a local church. But Paul, in his letter to Corinth, brings up another, perhaps more surprising, symptom: stifled spiritual growth.
Speaking in the context of addressing the factions that had arisen in Corinth, Paul tells the church this:
For my part, brothers and sisters, I was not able to speak to you as spiritual people but as people of the flesh, as babies in Christ. I gave you milk to drink, not solid food, since you were not yet ready for it. In fact, you are still not ready, (1Co 3:1-2 CSB)
Quarrelsome divisions stunt your spiritual growth.
This rubs against the grain because it defies the logic of our quarrels. We’re fighting precisely because we think that we’re the ones who are further along spiritually than the dopes we’re berating. Not so, says Paul. Anyone participating in this type of immaturity is a spiritual infant. Quarrelsome tribalism reveals not our maturity, but our immaturity as believers.
Paul goes on to make the indictment a bit worse, telling the Corinthians that they cannot take solid food because of this issue. Without repentance, a disunified church will never grow spiritually. While I believe this applies to the local church specifically, I also believe that to the degree that I harbor a resentful, envious, divisive spirit in my heart against another faction of the true, universal Church, to that degree I will be stunted in my own spiritual growth.
The Treatment Plan for Tribalism
We all need to do a little heart-searching for areas of contentious factionalism lurking within. Whether your eyes have been opened and you know exactly where you’ve been guilty or you’re concerned and want to be on guard, consider three lanes on the highway toward unity.
Understand whose you are (1 Cor. 3:23).
As Paul concludes his three-chapter discourse on this very topic, he hits the Corinthians with this:
and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God. (1Co 3:23)
Because tribalism thrives on a loyalty to the sub-group—to mask or not to mask, the right version of Scripture, the right way to worship—it blinds us to the unity we ought to have as a whole. Paul’s ultimate point is that whether the believers in Corinth were discipled, baptized, or taught by Paul, Apollos, or Peter, they ultimately don’t belong to that sub-group. They belong to Christ!
I’m not advocating that we let go of important doctrines or saying that theological differences don’t matter. They do. However, I’m also talking about people who believe the good news of Jesus Christ and have hope of eternity only because of His atoning death and resurrection. It’s that truth that makes the mountain worth dying on. All other mountains (and molehills) must take a backseat to the unity we have in the Gospel. May we discuss? Yes! May we disagree? Absolutely! May we bite and tear? God forbid!
We must remember that we belong to Christ.
Boast Only in Christ
. . .as it is written: Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord. (1Co 1:31)
Simple, right? This is the exact opposite of envy. It’s not puffing up my side or using my beliefs as a weapon against your side. It’s boasting in the only thing that I can: the Lord Jesus Christ. Once again, we’re back at the cross.
The next time you partake in Communion at your church, look around as you eat and drink in remembrance of Christ’s sacrifice. In that moment, you and your brothers and sisters are united in boasting in Christ and His work on Calvary. Later, when you feel the urge to gossip about or roll your eyes at another person in your church because of their “silly” belief, recall that image. What unites you with that person with whom you disagree is far more important than what divides you. The work of Christ is all any of us have to boast in.
Receive the Word with Humility
My dear brothers and sisters, understand this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger, … Therefore, ridding yourselves of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent, humbly receive the implanted word, which is able to save your souls. (Jas 1:19, 21)
Writing to a group of believers struggling with partiality and disunity in their midst, James counsels his readers to “humbly receive” the Word of God, and to be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger (v. 19). We often cite this verse as advice on anger management (and it is good advice), but in the context of James’ letter, it’s really about our attitude toward the Word. When we arrogantly cling to our own superiority, we assume that the sermon, the devotional, or the application questions are for other people. No doubt, this is the root cause of our stunted spiritual growth.
If we hope to grow in humility and unity, we must humble our hearts to admit our need for the truth of Scripture. This requires acknowledging that we haven’t arrived and have more to learn and might just need to repent. The Word will take us back yet again to the cross where we find hope for our failures and forgiveness for our sin.
In the mirror of Scripture, we see ourselves as we really are: weak, foolish, and broken.
And we see the Savior in whom we boast as He really is: mighty, compassionate, and merciful.
Only by remembering the Gospel, boasting only in Christ, and accepting the Word of God can we destroy the tribalism lurking in our hearts.
1 Definition from Merriam-Webster online dictionary, accessed Dec. 9, 2021
2 Spiros Zodhiates. The Complete Word Study Dictionary: New Testament, “zelos”