The Danger of Theological Tribalism

I’m not sure if you’ve seen it, but social media is a cesspool that reeks of tribalism within the Christian church. Though this problem isn’t exclusive to social media, we see the majority of it there.

Tribalism is simply an unrelenting loyalty to your specific theological group, so to speak. There is not anything wrong with loyalty, but “tribalism goes awry when it is used as an excuse to exclude rather than include or when it feeds a sense of superiority” (source). Tribalism basically says, “My way or the highway.”

Theological tribalism does (at least) three things, none of which are helpful to Christ’s bride.

Exclude, Not Include

At the core of tribalism is the constant need to exclude rather than include. “If you’re not part of my theological camp, then get out,” we might say. “If you don’t feel exactly how we feel about something, then you’re not one of us.”

The deep issue with tribalism is not that different Christians are loyal to their theological positions. The sore spot of tribalism comes when we are too loyal to our theological positions at the expense of needed unity. Unity should not be sacrificed at the altar of tribalism.

We have to remind ourselves when we fall into this error of this important truth that our secondary beliefs are not law. There is room for disagreement. How we think about baptism, for example, can be different than how somebody else thinks about it, since baptism is not a pre-requisite for salvation. That is, baptism does not save you. Sure, Presbyterians are still wrong here, but they aren’t condemned (there is a little Baptist humor for you).

John MacArthur and RC Sproul displayed this unity perfectly. MacArthur, a functional Baptist (non-denominational–more humor!), and Sproul, an unashamed Presbyterian, staunchly disagreed on the mode of baptism. MacArthur believed we should only baptize believers; Sproul believed we should not only baptize believers but babies as well. Even amid debate, they remained close friends until RC’s death in 2017.

Makes You Feel Superior

If the theology you believe causes you to feel superior to other faithful Christians, it’s not the theology’s issue, but yourself. When we begin to feel superior because of our belief system–even on secondary theological issues–something has gone terribly wrong.

Any other Christian is not less-than simply because they don’t agree with you on a particular secondary doctrine. An orthodox Christian who is Pentecostal is just as justified in God’s eyes as an orthodox Christian who is a Baptist. These two will disagree on many second and tertiary doctrines, but both agree on the essential tenets of the Christian faith. There is true unity even amid different theological beliefs.

No Christian should say, “I’m better than you,” to another Christian. The moment that sentence leaves your lips you’ve forgotten the grace of God.

Causes Unnecessary Division

We cause unnecessary strife when we conflate every doctrine as a first-tier, closed-hand doctrine. That is an error as well. “Fundamentalism’s problem,” Albert Mohler recently said, “is everything is a first order issue.” Not every doctrine is an essential doctrine. When we make that error, we fall victim (or not a victim at all!) to the dangers of tribalism–this, sort of, “us against the world” type of attitude.

Unfortunately, we see this on display today in many different areas, but none greater than the “social justice” debate. We have allowed tribalism to grab hold of us and not let go, and as a result, it causes unnecessary division within Christ’s body. We should pursue unity, not greater division.

To be sure, this is all about treating other orthodox Christians with love and sincere affection. It is unhelpful and, even more, ungodly to condemn or incessantly attack another Christian for holding to a different secondary position on a theological, social, or economic topic. The only reason we should draw a sharp line is if it morphs into a first rank issue and impedes on the gospel itself. (We don’t have unity with Christians or churches that forsake the gospel, but that is not the point of this post.)

We should repent of our tribalism and yearn with tender affection for our fellow Christians. Don’t get me wrong, it’s important to have theological distinctives and care about those issues. This is why we have denominations. But don’t make secondary doctrines a gospel issue and bring easily-avoided division to the body of Christ.

Beware of theological tribalism. Focus on unity.

5 Comments

  1. Hmmm, many good points here. But as Voddie Baucham would say, “the fault lines” are growing bigger and bigger. Obviously, you have not lived through a church that went theologically liberal (I am former Episcopal Church USA member) that in most ways is no longer even Christian. Those secondary issues can bleed into the primary very quickly and if people say nothing for the “sake of unity,” the fault line will become a canyon and there will be no going back. Sorry, this type of thinking is too naive and could become even dangerous.Orthodoxy does matter.

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    1. Meg, there is a way to be loyal and firm in your theological convictions yet understand that not all Christians have to hold to those convictions. Orthodoxy *absolutely* matters—you are correct. But, of course, I will have to disagree with you that my thinking here is naive and, according to you, could become dangerous.

      We need to make sure we don’t make secondary issues morph into first order issues, but we absolutely should be aware that any secondary issue could potentially impede on the gospel if it gets out of hand. That is with ANY secondary doctrine—not just with liberal denominations.

      You mentioned there were many good points to the article. So I hope you understand my overall point to the article is not to say there aren’t dangers from both sides, but the point of the article was to say that let’s not ostracize other faithful, orthodox Christians who hold different views on secondary issues. When we fail to do that, we stay with our tribe and push other faithful Christians out—and that’s not good.

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