Disentangling Faith from Tribalism

knotted up ropes

2016 was a watershed moment for the Evangelical movement in the United States of America. It was a moment that had been building for decades. It did not come out of nowhere. Kristin Kobes Du Mez outlines the rise of this moment in her excellent work Jesus and John Wayne, I would recommend reading it if you would like the historical background. The Evangelical movement had to make a decision about a singular question and that question was whether it would embrace a tribalistic identity or if it would choose an identity that transcends tribalism. It unequivocally chose the former.

I want to let you in on a little secret, the clamor for tribalism is nothing new.

Humanity loves to divide and separate along tribal lines. There is safety in knowing who the “them” is. If we are going to be safe we need to know who our enemies are. Who are the people that are “out to get us?” Who are the dangerous people that are trying to destroy the very things that we hold dear?

One of the most popular television shows over the last number of years is Yellowstone. It's a drama set in Montana around the largest private ranch in the state and the never ending quest of people to steal it away from the Dutton family. The whole show is centered on the need to identify who the newest enemy is and how protect “mine” from the enemy. I think what makes this show very attractive to so many is that it taps into the innate need to know who our tribe is.

Us vs Them. In vs Out. Me vs You.

According to the Cambridge Dictionary the popular usage of the term “tribalism” could be understood this way, “a very strong feeling of loyalty to a political or social group, so that you support them whatever they do.”

In our world today we are seeing more and more people walk away from faith because of many in the church who care more about protecting the institution or the “tribe” than about truth. In the 70s and 80s we saw people leave the Catholic Church in droves because of the priest sexual abuse scandals. The crime perpetrated by the priests was evil all on its own, but what drove people away was the cover up. In the 2000s we are seeing the same kind of thing happening in the Protestant church, particularly in Evangelicalism. The institutions have been exposed to be covering for the awful things that are done by many in positions of leadership.

When a faith tradition decides that protecting those in power and the institutions they represent is more important than the people they are called to care for should we be surprised that there is a walking away?

I'd say there should be an expectation of it.

Why is this happening? Why is there such a protection of the institution and its leaders?

It is because we have decided that we are in a war with “those people.” When you're in a war you need rally around “our people.”

When we Christian-wash the failures of these movements and try to pretend that they aren't happening or we try to minimize them, we do great harm to the cause of the gospel. When we acknowledge them and bring them into the light then there is some hope in disentangling ourselves from the tribalism that is inherent in the hiding.

The deepest problem with tribalism though is that it is antithetical to the way of Christ.

Jesus in one of my favorite stories from the Gospels is talking with a Samaritan woman and he has just proven himself to her as something of a prophet and she says,

Oh, so you’re a prophet! Well, tell me this: Our ancestors worshiped God at this mountain, but you Jews insist that Jerusalem is the only place for worship, right?”

“Believe me, woman, the time is coming when you Samaritans will worship the Father neither here at this mountain nor there in Jerusalem. You worship guessing in the dark; we Jews worship in the clear light of day. God’s way of salvation is made available through the Jews. But the time is coming—it has, in fact, come—when what you’re called will not matter and where you go to worship will not matter.

“It’s who you are and the way you live that count before God. Your worship must engage your spirit in the pursuit of truth. That’s the kind of people the Father is out looking for: those who are simply and honestly themselves before him in their worship. God is sheer being itself—Spirit. Those who worship him must do it out of their very being, their spirits, their true selves, in adoration.”

Do you see how Jesus challenges the entire underpinning of tribalism? He dismantles the “us vs them” by saying, “But the time is coming—it has, in fact, come—when what you’re called will not matter and where you go to worship will not matter.” All that matters is the worshiping in spirit and truth.

The Apostle Paul makes it more explicit in his letter to the Galatians, “In Christ’s family there can be no division into Jew and non-Jew, slave and free, male and female. Among us you are all equal. That is, we are all in a common relationship with Jesus Christ.”

We have to disentangle ourselves from the various tribes that we find ourselves in. I imagine that if Paul were writing this today he might have put it in political terms, “In Christ's famil there can be division into Republican and Democrat, socialist and capitalist, male and female. Among us you are equal. That is, we are all in a common relationship with Jesus Christ.”

The beauty of the way of Jesus is that it transcends the various tribalistic aspects of any particular culture.

If you've grown up in the church and you're looking around at the tribalism that you see, know that it isn't the way of Jesus. It is right and good to disentangle yourself from the political tribes and even religious tribes that claim to be the “Jesus way.”

Remember, ”...the kind of people the Father is out looking for: those who are simply and honestly themselves before him in their worship.”

The way of Jesus transcends the tribes.

Evangelicalism is not the Jesus Way. Progressivism is not the Jesus Way. Liberalism is not the Jesus Way. Conservatism is the not the Jesus Way. Fundamentalism is not the Jesus Way.

From each of these (and more) there are aspects of truth and we include them in our journey but then we transcend them to worship God in spirit and truth.

The process of disentangling ourselves from our tribes is hard and it is painful. It will leave us lonely for a season. It my break our hearts. We will likely lose relationships. But, at the end of the day moving from “us vs them” to a “Cosmic We” is so worth it.

When we disentangle from the tribe we can find the path toward loving neighbor, loving enemy, and loving God with all of who we are.


If you made it this far, thank you for reading! If you found this helpful, insightful, interesting, or even just kind of average, would you please share it with your social feed?

If you aren't receiving these posts in your inbox please subscribe right here: