Challenging the Tribalism of Your IC Leadership:

A Vision for the Practice of Unity.

Which Christian tribe do you represent? Is your International Church (IC) leadership embracing of the diversity of evangelical life and practice or do you incline more to being an IC that better suits those of a particular denomination, or politics,or nationality, or culture? Tribalism in the church is the antithesis of the unity of the Spirit and yet tribalism/factionalism is frequently the norm in much of the church. The IC is one expression of church that should most demonstrate how the tribalism of evangelical culture is unacceptable. I have written before on this sin of tribalism and on one of the fundamentals for breaking it down.I have also written on the New Testament vision for unity in the IC.

There is much diversity across the global church worthy of being celebrated but when that diversity works against the achievements of the cross, then we must call it sin. The cross brings unity (Ephesians 2:11-22), factionalism questions the power of the cross to unite, and so all forms of tribalism/factionalism in the church may be sin in the eyes of God.Unity is the witness intended by Jesus “for the world to know that you have sent me.” In your IC, what do people see, the unity of the cross or the divisions that effectively suggest we are no different to the rest of the world?

A true IC is far more than just a church typical of a particular country, or theological emphasis, or denomination to which various people from other backgrounds join in. Yet many ICs are just this. ICs in ethos and practice need to be multi-everything within a commitment to Biblical faith and practice. Yet learning to be multi-everything takes time and effort. Some have a heart for unity but unwittingly encourage tribalism in their practices because these practices have not been adequately thought through.

In the following, there is a review of several realities that can make or break the unity of the IC. Much more could be said on each but the intent here is to stimulate thinking and learning not answer all the questions.Fundamentally, we must be “quick to listen and slow to speak” if we are to make any real progress with these challenges. This is not a how-to set of formulas; there are no short-cuts that rescue each of us from the need to think within each unique context. Amongst others, each of these is needed to break down evangelical tribalism.

  1. Working With The Holy Spirit.

Everyone wants to see the Spirit work but we have differences in what we expect. Regardless of these differences we can pray for the Holy Spirit to work.All can do this – praying for anointing, empowerment, grace, equipping, healing, justice, peace, wisdom, direction, and all aspects of the Kingdom to increase towards fulfillment. So …..

  • Avoid divisive language. That is, language that evaluates Christians on the basis of what kind of experience they may have had of the Spirit.
  • Don’t be prescriptive, or stereotypical, in expectations and requests. God determines the what, how, where and when of His work and promises, not us.
  • Recognize the diversity of experience of the Holy Spirit – from quiet and subtle through to dramatic and loud.
  • Recognize some changes come gradually and others through breakthroughs.
  • Understand how much your own culture and personality influence your expectations of the Holy Spirit.
  • Recognize the full range of concerns towards which the Spirit is working. This includes …
    • Renewal of all the earth – Psalm 104:30.
    • Conviction of the world,both individuals and societies – John 16:7-11.
    • Submission to one another – Ephesians 5:18-21.
    • The Fruit of the Spirit – Galatians 5:22-23.
    • The unity of the body of Christ – Ephesians 4:1-6.
    • Gifts for every member ministry – 1 Corinthians 12.
    • Ultimately the whole of the Kingdom transformation and reconciliation of all things is the Spirit’s agenda. In other words, the Spirit’s work is for far more than just individual impact.

The beauty of the IC experience reveals how much God works in such diverse ways through such diverse church traditions and practice. Recognizing the Spirit’s diverse work in others reduces the tendency towards a narrow fundamentalism. By taking seriously the every-member ministry of the body we enhance the Spirit’s work. Sometimes there has been too much emphasis on some gifts to the neglect of others. Yet all are to give and receive and all are to be respected. Every member ministry in an IC means welcoming the ways in which diversity of cultures, personalities, and traditions impact on the what and how of such ministry.

  1. The Fullness of God and the Limitations of Church Services.

No one style of church service expresses the full God-ness of God.All have their place – from the exuberant, to the liturgical, to the contemplative, to the emphasis on silence, to the emphasis on the intellect. Each draws out a particular feature of God’s character and work. And each only draws out some of the ways in which we experience Christ and grow in Him. When some only ever experience one particular style of church service, or one particular style of songs, the opportunity to grow in faith and a deep knowledge of God is weakened. This is more than just a matter of different traditions of culture or denomination having a place in the services. It needs more thinking than this.

How best can we incorporate a variety of expressions of God’s God-ness into each service and into the services of an IC over a period of time? This will need creativity, research into other traditions and possibilities, and reflection on how a variety of corporate experiences are needed to express the vastness of God; liturgy as well as extemporaneity, silence before the throne as well as shouting to the Lord, small group prayer as we as prayer by one for all, quiet confession as well as excited praise.

A desire for maturity brings a willingness to learn to appreciate different kinds of services with which we are not familiar or which we initially find difficult: because we appreciate that such experiences will enhance our knowledge of the greatness of our God and stretch our faith and confidence in Him.

Communion services are likewise. Being served in one’s seat, or going forward to kneel to be served, or sitting together around a table; each brings a different kind of experience in the remembrance of Christ’s sacrifice and the anticipation of the banquet to come. Communion can be part of a church serve or part of a shared meal. Likewise, how we drink from the cup (common cup or individual cups), or whether or not we have juice or wine, each gives emphasis to different features of the meaning of communion and our understandings of the Christ and His achievements on the cross and in resurrection. There is no reason why communion must be served in the same way every time.

Remember, there are reasons why each tradition is valued by so many.

  1. The Weighty Challenge of Politics.

Politics, especially political allegiances, is obviously potentially divisive. IC experience soon reveals the spectrum across the evangelical world. Some passionately conservative/right wing, others equally passionately left wing and looking for societal change, and some are ambivalent or clueless. Never assume that to be Christian means being automatically right or left wing.Many are alienated when the church presumes all are the same politically. To oversimplify …..

  • Right wing – emphasis on individual responsibility.
  • Left wing – emphasis on societal responsibility.

Scripture gives us strong evidence for both! And Scripture also gives us plenty of reason to critique both sides of politics in every country! Party loyalty is very difficult when all the Biblical priorities are appreciated.

So …..

  • Learn the difference between political/economic/social ideology (especially the one you were brought up in) and the political, social and economics theology of the Bible.
  • Learn the politics of Jesus in His political role as Lord of Heaven and Earth.
  • Learn the Kingdom’s character of justice, righteousness, peace as well as holiness, compassion, love, and grace. The Kingdom gives us the values and agenda for the rule of Christ and therefore for our own political perspectives.
  • Learn the Kingdom’s particular passion for the well being of the most vulnerable, be they poor or refugees or violated. Scripture expresses a particular passion for justice for the least in society.
  • By all means address political issues through the application of Scripture but the church is not the place to promote the cause of any particular party or ideology.
  1. Workers all for the Kingdom.

Divisions in the church sometimes are based upon whether or not one’s occupation is seen as God’s work. When some work is devalued the effect is to devalue the person doing that work. Tis true that not all work is good but most work has much potential for the Kingdom’s impact on life and society. Explore theologically how the diversity of occupations in the church can each one be a contributor to the Kingdom’s increase. The key is in the starting point for such theology. Start with the statement of Jesus, “All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me.” If Jesus is Lord of creation, then He rules over all creation with an agenda for all things (Note Paul’s repeated use of the phrase “all things” when describing the global purposes of Christ.). This helps to break down the tendency to elevate some occupations over others.

Be careful how you apply the label ‘missionary’ to some but not others. It is a word loaded with cultural and political baggage. For some it is understood in many very narrow ways while for others it has a broad application. Many refuse to use the word because of its cultural baggage and the implication sometimes that only missionaries are actually working for the Kingdom.

With such a theology, the IC can help its people to better appreciate how their work has potential in word and deed to serve the interests of the Kingdom: not just some in the church but each and every one.Here we are talking about our actual work, and its intrinsic value, and not just the potential of our work context for sharing the Gospel with others. The goal is to ensure each one can see how all work can be missional.When all in the church see how their occupation has potential for Kingdom transformation, then barriers between people on the basis of occupation are broken down.

Fortunately, there are some good publications available on the theology of work.

5. The Agenda of Individual and Corporate Maturity.

Political ideologies and the culture of self-indulgence have too often corrupted our vision for Christ-likeness and true discipleship (sacrificing all to follow Him in Kingdom mission). Maturity should be a basic goal for the church’s life and ministry (Ephesians 4:11-16). But maturity has more recently been sacrificed on the altar of feel-good spiritual experiences or political ideology. The journey towards increasing maturity – both individual and corporate – should shape every facet of the church. How leadership is practiced, how pastoral care holds together acceptance and change, bible study, expectations of the Holy Spirit, what and how each part of a church service is designed, how the Gospel is explained to others, and so on.

A good understanding of maturity is an essential part of figuring out how to be inclusive of all in the life of the church. Without the ideals and priorities of maturity, we too easily slip into elevating secondary things – and these tend towards favouring some to the neglect of others.

A mature understanding of maturity will require some research. The intrusion of questionable culture into our reading of Scripture makes this a particularly challenging exercise. Maturity is measured by Christ-likeness but what exactly does this mean? Start with Philippians 2:5-8 and then dig deep in the Gospels.

  1. One Baptism?

Quite obviously, this is a divisive issue. Yet clearly there are people of real Biblical faith on all sides. Some regard it has very important and others less so. Here we are not talking about sacramentalism. To break down tribalism and be the best an IC can be, the leadership of the IC needs to find a way to embrace all in Christ regardless of their view of baptism. Expatriates are not going to change their minds on this just because the local IC does not consider their understanding as valid. IC people come from a great mix of traditions regardless of the particular preferences of the IC leadership.

The IC needs to ensure that all are able to practice their particular understanding of baptism. No one should be asked to sacrifice their conscience on the basis of the stance of another. So if the IC leaders are unable to practice a particular form of baptism, as best they can they should make provision for other leaders who are so willing. Better to avoid some members of the church needing to go outside the church for the baptism they believe God would have them practice.

It is one thing to hold to a particular understanding and practice but it is quite another to presume that everyone else must do the same; and weaken the unity of the church in doing so. We have had centuries of debate amongst Bible believing Christians and this has not resolved the issues. Tribalism results from failing to give due respect and make adequate provision for others in the IC who hold to a different understanding.

  1. Eschatology: Without a vision, the people …….

Eschatology is much neglected in the church: perhaps because it confuses us with many of the issues being more about secondary technicalities and speculations. Perhaps it is because we do recognize that there is too much diversity of opinion. However, without a strong eschatology the church will always drift towards secondary issues in the present and the vision of the future that drives everything from Genesis to Revelation will be all but ignored.

Sometimes our eschatology is little more than escapism; the God-get-me-out-of-here version of Christianity. The Scriptures have a different vision, the future completion of new heaven and new earth and all things reconciled and renewed. This is God’s Kingdom completed, and the full presence of God and the Lamb with us: the creation renewed and God’s people living with God in the New Jerusalem that fills the earth.

Dominance of secondary issues is the product of people without a future worth living and dying for. Scripture is more future oriented and hope flavours every page. Without hope and vision the people will wander into mediocrity. The present will be our fixation and loss of perspective will lead us into a search for wanting it all now. Which of course fits well with the culture of the day for so many. “Haven’t you got something better to think about?” is a common reaction to much of the fuss that happens in the church.

It is very hard to motivate the church to engagement with mission and society in word and deed if there is little clarity of vision as to what we are expecting of God when Jesus returns.

There is already much tribalism centered on eschatological positions. But we cannot be the church without an eschatological culture and direction. So we have much work to do! It is complicated by the ways diversity in eschatology is due to a diversity in Biblical hermeneutics. Fortunately, in the evangelical world of scholarship there has been a wealth of good publications recently on these issues. Perhaps we might start with the implications of Jesus’ enthronement as Lord of Heaven and Earth and explore what Scripture says about His job description.

  1. Equal opportunity or gender-based opportunity.

In every IC there are people (men and women) who are troubled if women preach or lead, and people who are troubled if they do not. There is a myriad of understandings on which ministries women may or may not serve in, and likewise on which positions in the church women may or may not hold. This is compounded by a variety of ways of understanding male headship – from the strongly opposed to the strongly supportive. Most claim Biblical warrant for their understanding on the issues. And most are probably not open so much to be persuaded otherwise if you want to convince them that your understanding is the correct one.

Tribalism in the evangelical world feeds on this issue. And does so successfully.

Do we divide the body of Christ and break the unity of the Spirit on this question, or do we commit to respecting one another and find a way for all to be included in the life of the church without causing offense? 

We need to recognize that whatever the ministry or leadership position, BOTH men and women can do it well or badly. We need to stop being stereotypical about what the opposite sex is like. Men get it wrong mostly about women and women get it wrong mostly about men. We need to recognize that both men and women are shaped by culture and by the extent to which opportunities for personal and capacity development have been given to them.

How your particular IC resolves the tension is not for me to say. It is not an easy one to address well and will require intervention from the Holy Spirit to help some let go of some opinions that they hold too passionately. It will also require considerable listening to one another as to why they understand the Biblical material as they do. The very fact that there such a variety of opinions as to what the Scriptures are saying should cause us all to be a little humbler with our opinions.

  1. The Touchy Issue of Finances.

In the IC are people with many different backgrounds and expectations on issues of stewardship and finances. Some more principled and some more prescriptive. Not everyone responds well to a particular approach to stewardship. Across the church, there are different ways of encouraging people to give and there are significant sensitivities in many to how the church handles these issues. There are different understandings of the how much the New Testament shifts the approach to givingaway from the legalities of the Old Testament. Some are passionate about tithing (but not usually so much on all the other giving requirements of the Old Testament law!) while others understand the New Testament to have adopted a quite different approach (tithing is never mentioned in all the passages where Paul writes about giving). All these perspectives are in your IC as well as those who know little about the issues but just hate the way the church, as they see it, so often seems fixated on money.

As with most other issues, there is a need to shift the emphasis onto the generosity and sufficiency of God and the implications of this. Not so much on what we should do but on the past, present and future generosity of God.

For example, we learn to forgive, to love, to seek justice, because God demonstrates so perfectly these same practices towards us. The more we see the grace of God the more we learn to extend grace to others (which helps us understand why there is so much hate and judgementalism in the evangelical church!). The more we see and appreciate the generosity of God, the more we learn to be likewise. The more we see God providing for us, the more we are able to take the risks and give generously.

An emphasis on the generosity of God, and examples of consistent generous giving by the church itself, will do much more to encourage generous giving on the part of the members of the church.

Sermons on stewardship should mostly be about God.

  1. Your God is Too Small.

No matter who you are, this is true of you! There is a great need to preach and teach less on how people should live, and what they should not do, and much more on the vastness of our God including His vision for the Kingdom completed in new heaven/earth. We underestimate how much culture and personality are real factors in how to live out the faith. So our practical guidance too readily misses the mark. And we underestimate how demotivating it is for many to be reminded so often as to how much they do not measure up!

A focus on the how people should live, or how people might be blessed by God, inevitably tends towards the secondary issues that feed tribalism. Alternatively, a focus on God and His vast sufficiency generates a God big enough to be looked to with confidence by all. Faith grows not by being told more about faith (though there is a place for this) but when people have an expanding vision of the greatness of God in Christ. Anthropocentric preaching, church services, and church life are now the norm. The language of God is there but the real agenda, and most of the detail and direction, is us. Sadly, so many are blind to the extent to which their ministry is anthropocentric.

In every sermon, and every Bible study, one of the primary points should always be “What does this passage or theme teach us about God Himself?” What kind of a God is He? What about His character, His attributes, His purposes, His sufficiency? A focus of this kind more readily generates common ground that unites across the factions of evangelicalism.

  1. Culture: More Intrusive then We Realize.

We all need to better understand well the negatives in your own cultural, national and denominational DNA: there are many!The hardest culture to understand is your own because we all unconsciously take so much for granted. Easy to see the strengths but harder to see the negatives. Yet these negatives will impact on our ministries and church and be a cause for some to feel like they don’t really belong in their IC. It takes years to peel back the layers of one’s own cultural DNA. And it can hurt when we discover that others see in us the negatives of our culture long before we do.

Culture directly affects how we listen, how we respect others, how we think through the issues of leadership, how we exhort and encourage, how we understand Biblical content, how we engage with the Holy Spirit, and how we work towards being inclusive of those who are so different. Culture shapes our fears (and we all have lots of these), and directs how we escape when the pressure is too much. Leadership culture varies considerably from country to country and denomination to denomination. Some cultures respond well to fiery preaching while others hate it. Some are strongly submissive and others just as strongly independently minded and quick to critique. Some talk loudly which others find offensive, and the softly spoken seem to be just ambivalent to those who are loud.Culture has much to do with time management and approaches to administration. Culture strongly inspires the values that we all bring to the life of the church.

Culture may or may not be the primary cause of tribalism but tribalism readily feeds well from the smorgasbord of culture. So much misunderstanding arises from failure to see how others process issues differently, think differently, and apply differently.

Hopefully, you will have noticed already that all of the challenges addressed above involve major cultural influences. For all of us, if we are neglecting serious exploration of culture, especially our own, we are probably contributing more to the factionalism of the church than we realize. We all make our mistakes but mistakes are fewer when cultural appreciation is built into the DNA of our thinking.

Every IC leader has a calling to serious and deep exploration of culture, but especially his or her own. All the issues noted above will be much more difficult to address if one’s own culture is not understood and critiqued well. Understanding culture is an indispensable major item in the job description of every IC leader.

        These eleven challenges are not some sort of IC leadership supermarket where one picks some and leaves most. Each brings requirements for much learning and critical thinking if we are to be the kind of IC leadership that attacks the sin of tribalism and thereby passionately takes up the cause of Christ for the unity of the whole body of Christ. Remember, the witness of the church is directly strengthened or weakened to the extent to which the Christian church is seen to practice the unity of the cross. Why should people believe that the cross is powerful when it seems to be not powerful enough to break down the barriers and make us one (Ephesians 2:11-22)?

Perhaps we might start by being proactive in strengthening relationships with the leaders of other ICs in our city or country. They no doubt are different and there are both good and not so good reasons for this. Listen and respect, learn from one another.

In the evangelical world of tribalism, we cannot be faithful to God without a serious commitment to understand this tribalism and work against it. But we must be hopeful as well because there is no doubt at all that God is hard at work breaking down the barriers of factionalism in His Church. What He has begun already on the cross He will bring to completion on the day of Christ’s return.


Graham Chipps

January 2017


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