What power is sufficient to tackle humanity’s innate tendency to tribalism?
Tribalism is the ugly habit of drawing boundaries and making distinctions that enable you to define some people as ‘in’ and some people as ‘out’. It therefore matters a great deal, and for two reasons. On the one hand, the pattern of a person’s in-cluding and out-cluding is the expression of their deepest convictions about what is true and what matters – whether and how they behave at this point tells you a great deal about them; on the other hand, including or excluding people is a fundamental expression of love, or lack thereof, and since love is the basic Christian virtue – command # 2, or as John puts it, “whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love” (1 Jn 4.8) – failure to love is a serious failure.
Sometimes tribalism is as crude as racism – ‘our’ colour/race is in, and any other colour/race is out (for example, Jews and Gentiles in Ephesus). Sometimes tribalism is convictional, and takes the form of groups at ideological war with one another, as in party politics. And sometimes tribalism is as banal as me and my friends with whom I feel comfortable and trust, whereas ‘they’ are not from the same stable as me.
Paul is convinced that there is a power that can overcome the tendency to tribalism. It is the gospel of Christ, and in particular, the corporate reality that that gospel creates. Ephesians, where these issues are right on the surface, is clearest on this:
For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. (Eph 2.14-16
Romans, which on my reading has equally significant ‘tribalism’ issues bubbling along just beneath the surface (in the form of Gentilizing – the opposite of Judaising), says much the same thing:
For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. (Rom 12.4-5)
Notice three things about this:
One effect of the achievement of God in Christ – the gospel – is to create a body, the body of Christ. In Christ, that is, in his body, is where salvation is to be found. That is why one author could write: “the nature of the new covenant drives us to the conclusion that there is a certain sense in which extra ecclesiam nulla salus” (translation: outside the church there is no salvation). Which New Perspective author wrote this? Again, Don Carson, in the same article ‘Reflections on Assurance’! Note very carefully, Paul is (of course) not saying that being a member of a group called the church is what saves a person, which would open the door to mere nominalism. However, he is saying that being in Christ by faith – united with him in his death and his resurrection (which is what saves a person) - necessarily includes membership of the body of Christ, because that is part of what it is to be in Christ. To be in Christ is to be made to be members one of another. To be a Christian is necessarily to be in the church, part of the one new humanity, a member of the body of Christ. I belong to them, and they belong to me – whether either of us likes it, or each other, or not – because we both belong to Christ.
A crucial thing follows from this.
Since it is the gospel that necessarily creates the church, it is also the gospel that determines the character of the life of the church. We must church by grace, precisely because we are saved by grace. And the flip side is true as well. When you don’t church by grace (ie when you act tribally), it is the reflection of the fact that you don’t really enact the truth (or perhaps even believe the truth) that we are saved by grace. What is it to church by grace? Many things, but it at least means that no one has any right to demand of someone else who confesses Christ, that they fulfil certain requirements before they stand fully justified before me as a Christian sister or brother (just like God didn’t do for us). It is Bonhoeffer who captures ‘church by grace’ best in the first chapter of his book Life Together – some selections:
Not what a man is in himself as a Christian, his spirituality and piety, constitutes the basis of our community. What determines our brotherhood is what that man is by reason of Christ. our community with one another consists solely in what Christ has done to both of us. This is true not merely at the beginning, as though in the course of time something else were to be added to our community; it remains so for all the future and to all eternity.
That dismisses once and for all every clamorous desire for something more. One who wants more than what Christ has established does not want Christian brotherhood. [. . .] Just at this point Christian brotherhood is threatened most often at the very start by the greatest danger of all, the danger of being poisoned at its root, the danger of confusing Christian brotherhood with some wishful idea of religious fellowship, of confounding the natural desire of the devout heart for community with the spiritual reality of Christian brotherhood.
Because God has already laid the only foundation of our fellowship, because God has bound us together in one body with other Christians in Jesus Christ, long before we entered into common life with them, we enter into that common life not as demanders but as thankful recipients. We thank God for giving us brethren who live by his call, by his forgiveness, and his promise. We do not complain of what God does not give us; we rather thank God for what he does give us daily. And is not what has been given us enough: brothers, who will go on living with us through sin and need under the blessing of his grace? Is the divine gift of Christian fellowship anything less than this, any day, even the most difficult and distressing day? Even when sin and misunderstanding burden the communal life, is not the sinning brother still a brother, with whom I, too, stand under the Word of Christ? Will not his sin be a constant occasion for me to give thanks that both of us may live in the forgiving love of God in Christ Jesus? Thus, the very hour of disillusionment with my brother becomes incomparably salutary, because it so thoroughly teaches me that neither of us can ever live by our own words and deeds, but only by the one Word and Deed which really binds us together–the forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ. When the morning mists of dreams vanish, then dawns the bright day of Christian fellowship.
Because Christ stands between me and others, I dare not desire direct fellowship with them. As only Christ can speak to me in such a way that I may be saved, so others, too, can be saved only by Christ himself. This means that I must release the other person from every attempt of mine to regulate, coerce, and dominate him with my love. The other person needs to retain his independence of me; to be loved for what he is, as one for whom Christ became man died, and rose again, for whom Christ bought forgiveness of sins and eternal life.
Every principle of selection and every separation connected with it that is not necessitated quite objectively by common work, local conditions, or family connections is of the greatest danger to a Christian community.
Church by grace gloriously kills tribalism. It does so because tribalism is built precisely on what a person is in him/her-self. And tribalism in church culture is equally built on “what a man [sic] is in himself as a Christian, his spirituality and piety” – and we might add theology – as though those things constitute the basis of our community. This is why a church culture that operates tribally is a tragic denial of the gospel of grace that it seeks to proclaim, and that brought it into being in the first place.
By the way – this body also gathers.
I say that to highlight the fact that the gathering of the body is not the definition of the body, but one of its functions. In other words, an understanding of church built around the notion of ekklesia / gathering, will always be deficient. It will have failed to ask the prior crucial question (as Rob Doyle put it in his MTC lectures years ago) – what is it that gathers? And by placing gathering – which ends up being a decision I make on a Sunday morning / evening – the basis of a doctrine of church, we will tend towards a ‘resource’ view of church. The reason is that for busy people in a society hostile to the church, the question will always be close at hand, ‘why gather?’ And an answer which runs along the lines of ‘because it helps me to live my Christian life’ will not be sufficient, either theologically or practically. But without a better-grounded doctrine of the church, that kind of resource / functional answer is the only answer available.
Saved by grace, church by grace, bound together in Christ in grace. I love it!
PS. See here for a post by Andrew Errington (Moore college student) which critically examines the notion of assembly as the basic notion of church