Tribalism in the International Church:

With Four Leadership Priorities for Unity and Mission.

Tribalism is a little too common across the evangelical church (and beyond) bringing particular challenges for leaders of International Churches and Fellowships (ICs).  Many, both leaders and church members, have loyalties based on allegiance to particular positions on the issues of the day. We take sides, set up our boundaries for fellowship and cooperation.The issues are well known: inerrancy, baptism, gender, mission, eschatology, sexuality, culture, current social and political issues, as well as denominational loyalties and traditions, political loyalties, and nationalism.

In most of our home countries, people find a church which largely fits with these loyalties. But in the IC world, so often we are all mixed up together in one congregation. So how to hold the body of Christ together as one? Some ICs do take sides on some of the issues but where does this leave those who see things differently? For example, those who are offended if women preach and those who are offended if women do not. Some have claimed that when an international church takes sides it ceases to be a true IC.What about differences on the issues around the ‘emerging church’? One IC sacked its pastor for being too fond of the emerging church and there are hundreds of former IC members who no longer attend church as the IC is not emergent enough. Each issue provides many examples.

So, what will you do to hold this community of Christians in your IC together as one body? And together to be missionally engaged beyond this community?

A good history of this world of divisions is in Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism by Molly Worthen (2014, Oxford University Press). Attempts to establish common ground have all floundered as loyalties developed around particular positions on the issues. The result is an evangelical community in which each one believes what is right in their own eyes. Tribalism is not Worthen’s word but it does capture the prevailing habit of the evangelical world to quite quickly divide based on the many issues we face.

Even though Worthen discusses world views and their impact on evangelical thinking, she does not explore one of the most fundamental of differences. Many evangelicals see the world as a doomed place and God is going to get us out of here. Heaven is our true home and destiny. Others see the world as corrupted but God is working to transform it so that heaven comes to earth. God is coming here to be with us. These two opposite conceptual frameworks shape so much of discipleship, church life, and mission. In the first, Christians leave. In the second, those not in the Kingdom will be excluded from the new heaven/earth when Jesus returns to be with us here. In nearly all ICs there are people with both these worldviews. In the IC, taking sides is unacceptable. Too often people have nowhere else to go. Or we end up with many tribal ICs in every city.

Paul, the apostle, had some pretty strong things to say about tribalism and none of it positive. He called it factionalism: party spirit in which loyalty aligns around a particular clique. It is contrary to the direction in which the Spirit works as it is a work of the flesh (Galatians 5:20). The Corinthians were particularly guilty of this form of disunity (1 Corinthians 1:10-17, 11:17-22).

We prefer to keep our moral outrage for sins sexual – somehow this is easier than facing the truth about the sacred cows within the church: those idols (loyalties) that feed disunity and encourage factions.[If only our moral outrage was better informed by the prophets who railed against the idols of the day, the injustices of society, and the neglect of the most vulnerable.]

IC leadership has the choice: inclusion of all in Christ verses tribal loyalties and the preference to seek out one’s own. This is a choice between the spirit of superiority and independency (because I am right and you are wrong) or the Spirit of mutual submission.

The English translations distort Ephesians 5:18ff and the imperative to keep on being filled with the Holy Spirit. The sentence continues with a series of participles including submitting to one another. Mutual submission is one of the products of the Spirit’s filling. Mutual submission is supposed to be one of the signs of the Spirit’s power and God’s love for the church. Factionalism is the opposite of the Spirit’s fullness.

Some may kill with bombs, swords and guns but we Christians prefer to eat one another with poisonous words. We are known for this outside the church as the media keeps everyone well informed of the judgementalism often found in the evangelical world. Tribalism, being quick to take sides, undermines the witness of unity which is the witness of love which is a witness to the power of the cross to unite with mutual forgiveness, love, reconciliation, and submission.

However, tribalism in the church expresses a deeper malaise that is pervasive across the cultures of the cities into which we are sent by our God in mission. To address in one area we must address it in the other.Pluralism and relativism (everyone does and believes what is rightin their own eyes) are deeply ingrained into the psyche of many and regarded asmorally non-negotiable.

So what of leadership in church and mission for such times as these?

  1. Learn well the difference between centred-set and bounded-set thinking. Centred-set thinking is absolutely essential for an IC. Here the focus is on Christ, Gospel and the Kingdom with plenty of room for all across the range of secondary matters (see first paragraph): a high view of God rather than a strong stance in drawing lines in the sand. With focus on Christ rather than barriers between people of different opinions, the church far better relates to others across the spectrum of beliefs within and without the church. And relationships make or break everything.
  1. The leadership of the IC must represent the tribes of the church to one another in a spirit of reconciliation: not necessarily in agreement but certainly with much mutual respect, warmth, submission, and love. How else will people be persuaded of the power of the cross is we fail to implement the work of the cross across to reconcile all things to God (Colossians 1:15-20)? And beyond the church the opportunities for a reconciling presence are legion.
  1. The leadership of the IC needs to be seen to be equally rejoicing in the presence, fellowship and ministry of all in the church even if some support positions on secondary issues that the leadership does not. Striving towards a common mind remains essential (Philippians 1:27-2:18) but not at the expense of the unity of the body (Ephesians 4:3).
  1. The leadership of the IC needs a vision for the church that is big enough to inspire all in the church regardless of the various opinions on other matters. Without such a vision, without a strong featuring of Christ and the Kingdom, people will gravitate down to debates on the secondary issues (or complaints about music and the length of sermons).

Yes, in a short article over-simplification is obvious. Each of these four needs much exploration. But the challenges are real and the reputation of our God within and without the church is at stake. Will people see the power of the cross and the Spirit in the unity of the body of Christ, or will we all just see that Christians are no different to everyone else?


Graham Chipps

January 2017

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