5 Dangers of Tribalism

Since the beginning of human history people have lived in tribes. Tribes have provided us with the protection, provision, and personal relationships we need as people created for community. While the make-up of tribes has changed over time, the essence has remained the same.

Seth Godin insightfully defines a tribe as “a group of people connected to one another, connected to a leader, and connected to an idea.” Each of us participates in a number of “tribes.” This may be especially true for those of us who claim the name of Christ and are connected to a church. We have preachers we listen to, blogs we read, and conferences we attend.

There’s an ever-growing number of tribes in the Church. Denominations, coalitions, and networks all serve as tribes within the Tribe of Christian faith. These tribes we participate in each play a vital role in connecting us to one another and catalyzing us for mission. Despite their many benefits, our tribalism is not without inherent dangers.

1. We major on the minors.

Many of our tribes gather around secondary issues. This is not bad, nor is it to be discouraged. We can do more and get further together than we can apart. The danger is when we make a minor thing, the main thing. Some things are simply more important than others. Paul said the centrality of the gospel is of first importance (1 Cor.15:3). So it matters if your convictions run more Arminian than Reformed, more complementarian than egalitarian, more Baptist than Presbyterian, more incarnational than attractional, more charismatic than cessationist. It all matters – just not as much as the gospel of Jesus Christ. We should hold deep convictions regarding all issues the Bible speaks to, but we should not make secondary things the main thing.

2. We hinder the mission.

The mission of the church is to make disciples who then make disciples (Matt.28:19-20). The mission of the church is not to grow our tribes, increase our platforms, or enlarge our visibility. Our tribes, platforms, and visibility are mere means to the end of making much of Jesus. Though we would all say our tribes exist for the glory and fame of Jesus’ name, it’s easy to experience the subtle shift toward existing for the glory and fame of our own tribes. Just because we write about, talk about, and preach about the mission doesn’t mean we’re on it. When our tribes turn in on themselves we hinder the mission Jesus has called us to.

3. We confuse the world.

While I believe denominations and networks are good and necessary, it can cause a watching world to wonder why we can’t get on the same page. When we aren’t charitable toward one another and the world around us, we cloud the message of the gospel for people in our lives who don’t know Jesus. When we bicker and divide rather than unify around the person and work of Christ, we dissolve the very heart of the message we’re called to herald (John 17:21). We should thank God for any church that makes much of Jesus and be careful how we think about, talk about, and relate with the various tribes within the Tribe.

4. We compete rather than connect.

We all have something to learn from everyone. It’s not compromise to learn from those we differ with – it’s wisdom. James 1:19says we should be “quick to hear.” That has to imply a learning posture, doesn’t it? Sadly, we tend to compete with one another, which makes it impossible for us to connect and learn from one another. I have deep theological convictions concerning God’s sovereignty, gender, mission, church leadership, and mode of baptism. Yet, the more I want my convictions or my tribe to “win”, the less I have the ears necessary to learn from the tribes around me.

5. We demonize those we differ with.

Just because a Christian holds a contrary position to us doesn’t mean that they don’t love Jesus, prize Scripture as highest authority, or have a passion for the lost. They just might disagree with us. That’s okay. The Bible charges us to refute false teaching (1 Tim.1:3), so we must contend for the faith (Jude 3). We should discuss, debate, and even disagree, but we should do so without assuming motive and condemning character.

I’m praying that every network, denomination and coalition that preaches the name of Jesus continues to grow and thrive. WHAT these tribes are is not the problem, but HOW we relate, behave, and steward our interaction with one another must be kept in careful view. Each of our tribes should strive to know Jesus and make Him known and all we do should be done in love (1 Cor.6:14).