The Trouble with Tribalism
People can’t live without tribes.
Well, they can — but lonely existences are for the few, and they often don’t work out so well. So, people tend to associate with others who share interests, characteristics, and values. Grateful Dead fans become Deadheads, Jimmy Buffet fans become Parrotheads, and Green Bay Packer fans become Cheeseheads, or something like that. You get the point, though: birds of a feather flock together.
The same is true for followers of Christ. There are denominational tribes, of course, but there are much more than that. There are intra-denominational enclaves, cross-denominational enclaves, and Christian enclaves which have nothing whatsoever to do with denomination. Christians so much love to mingle that a website called Christian Mingle still exists.
Many of these tribal affiliations are good — denominational boundaries, for example, keep us able to worship together without arguing all day about baptism or communion or other particular points of doctrine. Those issues settled, we can agree to leave those age-old debates to each his own and huddle with those we find like-minded. We get to have a family meal without the family feud. This is a good practice, to live at peace with one another as we are able (Romans 12:18).
But there is another kind of tribalism afoot that flourishes particularly in our internet age. This kind of tribalism is not so much centered as it is decentralized and distant. Whereas years ago, believers might have only considered the people they physically met on a regular basis as the core of their tribe (think local church members, family, etc.), today that tribal base is expanded as fast as fiber optics and 5G can take them.
Now, this article is not one of those pieces that names names, so you’ll have to humor me with this illustration. Let’s say you have camps that are in the pastor X tribe, and camps which are in the podcaster Y tribe, or the thought leader Z tribe or — just for the sake of argument — a social media influencer Q tribe. Now X, Y, Z, and Q (well, maybe not Q…) may all be well and good pastors, podcasters, thought leaders, and influencers. And all may be worthy of emulation, training themselves for godliness and having nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths (1 Timothy 4:7).
But here’s where it gets a little tricky. While the XYZQ+ leaders may be all on the up and up, and even may be teaching up and up things, there’s a well-primed temptation to let these tribal leaders do the pastoring, podcasting, thinking, and influencing for us — while we sit back and unleash our volleys in the comment section.
In fact, one of the greatest problems with these internet tribes — and tribalism in general — is that the tribe always sets the agenda. That means, if the tribal chieftains want the conversation to be about how Christians should respond to monkeypox, then the conversation will indeed be about how Christians should respond to monkeypox. Now here in Washington, D.C., which currently has one of the higher monkeypox infection rates in the nation, that may be an issue worth discussing. But if you’re in Montana, which has zero cases as of this writing, the conversation will still be about how Christians should respond to monkeypox, even if your most pressing need is to determine how Christians should respond to stampedes or TV shows about cowboys. The tribe has spoken, and you’re out of luck — all because the tribal leader lived in Washington, D.C.
While the tech that facilitates this decentralized tribalism is new, wrongly prioritized tribalism is not. Paul, in calling for church at Corinth to be united, lamented:
For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers. What I mean is that each one of you says, “I follow Paul,” or “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Cephas,” or “I follow Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? (1 Corinthians 1:11–13, ESV)
Paul’s point was that while he, Apollos, and Cephas (Peter) may all be well following the Lord, no subgroup can supersede the one who ultimately brings unity. When Christians identify with a tribe over and above Jesus – and where he has uniquely placed them — their eyes are diverted from the leader they need most.
The same goes if we’re putting the agenda of a distant tribe before the agenda of what the Lord has put physically in front of our faces. After all, pastor X is not going to be preaching the funeral of your spouse. You can’t just call up podcaster Y to talk when a major event is happening in your life. Thought leader Z will always have his thoughts, but his scope may never stretch into how to handle your troubled teen. And the fact that influencer Q’s prescriptions for the tribe are not one-size-fits-all will soon become evident.
Tribes may be good and helpful, but we must resist the temptation to let an alien agenda eclipse the local lineup God has for us. Don’t neglect the tribe who knows you best for a tribe of whom you only know. As Paul summed it up for the Corinthians, “… Let no one boast in men. For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future — all are yours, and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s.” (1 Corinthians 3:21–23, ESV)
Jared Bridges is editor-in-chief of The Washington Stand.