Is Christianity a Tribalistic Religion? Sort of looks that way.

At GospelFutures, Neil Williams continues his posts on the gospel and relational transformation by asking Does Christianity promote tribalism?

Note Williams doesn’t ask whether Jesus or the New Testament promote tribalism. They don’t. He is asking whether Christianity does.

The answer seems to be “yes”

Note, too, what Williams means by “tribalism”:  not any claim to exclusivism, but

an exclusive mentality that leads to indignation, shunning, meanness, oppression, violence, and even murder.

The great irony of the history of Christianity is its own history of tribalism, given that Jesus and Paul both worked to break down “walls of hostility” (Ephesians 2:14) between groups in their time. We have the obvious, egregious, examples with the Crusades, Inquisition, and witch-hunts, but Williams wants us to think about more common examples that play off of insider-outsider thinking.

Philip Jenkins in “Jesus Wars” mentions an even greater bloodshed that occurred between Christians in the 5th and 6th centuries as they fought over doctrinal differences. Even today, many of us know pastors and professors who were fired because they came to accept modern science, or happened to disagree with some archaic point of doctrine formulated 400 years ago, or decided that women could become pastors.

We exclude others to control them. We control because we are afraid. And we have many reasons to exclude others, but it is all a big fantasy.

The only way people can do this is through pretense—a form of self-deception. Pretend that men are superior to women, Serbs to Croats, Whites to Blacks, rich to poor, CEOs to workers, Americans to Iranians, Calvinists to . . . everyone else.

There is probably some spiritual law that the more exclusive the group, the more pretense is needed to establish and maintain the group, and thus the more self-righteous and immoral it becomes.

The question is how the gospel (not Christianity) can speak to tribalism even among its own.

[Neil Williams (D.Th., University of South Africa and author of The Maleness of Jesus: Is It Good News for Women?) has begun a new book project Chasing the Wind: The Quest for Relational Transformation that develops the theme of this and other posts at Gospel Futures.]


  • Greg D

    In America, I see this tribalism most prevalent in the never ending culture wars. Last month, there was a campaign to push Christians to go to Chick-fil-A to support the CEO, Cathey Truett’s stand on traditional marriage. Christians came out in droves as they shoved food in their mouths to support the “us vs. them” mentality by taking a stand against gay marriage. Instead of engaging gay people in civil discussion, maybe offering to buy them a meal, they instead engaged in a tribal battle causing an even further divide between those who are in, and those who need Jesus. I was ashamed to be an American Christian. Epic fail by the American church. So yes, civil Christianity a la Constantine breeds tribalism, sadly on issues that really don’t matter. But, the Christianity of Jesus, the Apostles, and the early church, breeds inclusiveness, grace and truth, but never at the expense of love.

    • Loretta Jean

      What an insightful comment. Never occurred to me. Now wouldn’t it have been great to see the Christians announce that they would like to buy a Chic-fa-la sandwich for a guy or lesbian friend—or stranger. “Meet me there. I’d like to meet you and buy you a snack!. No preaching–just meeting. :)” Hum.

  • Rebecca Trotter

    Wow. I’m impressed. Perfect love casts out fear. I repeat that to myself over and over and over. Everytime an angel appears, the first words out of their mouths are “don’t be afraid.” Jesus said not to be afraid in various ways over and over and over. Tribalism is all about fear. Fear of the world.Fear of those who think and look and act and believe different. Fear of being wrong. And most of all fear of God. Fear may well be the beginning of wisdom, but it’s just the beginning. Stay there and you’ve missed the whole point.

    But if fear of the Lord is the beginning of all wisdom, then end is most certainly this:
    “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” ~ Romans 8:38-39

    The end of wisdom is knowing that this is a perfectly safe universe for us to exist in. Perfect love casts out fear.

  • Norman

    The first murder was tribal induced. The injunction in Gen 9 against shedding blood was in response to tribalism gone wild. Christ 7 woes in Matt 23 is a reaffirmation and reminder against the shedding of blood that was ignored and brought on Cains curse. See 1john 3.
    We do well to not become angry and murder our brother in our hearts.
    Murderous tribalism doesn’t appear to be tolerated in any form by God.

  • Matteo Masiello

    Perhaps this is why if Christianity were a room in which a convention is taking place, I like what some of the speakers are saying (though the person they are speaking about isn’t around) and am enticed by the pretty banner and even wander through the different groups of delegates, I hang out mostly near the exit door. I’m thoroughly embarrassed by the history of Christianity (as I am embarrassed at being an American) by the behavior of some fellow citizens or adherents. It’s like being embarrassed by a drunk cousin or uncle at a family gathering but they’re still your family.

  • Josh T.

    If we separate “Christianity” out from Jesus and the New Testament, isn’t this just another way of saying “does sinful humanity promote tribalism?” The author also mentions gender, nationality, economics, and race, so that makes me think tribalism is a problem regardless of the issue at hand; take, for example, the current state of American politics.

    But yes, religion is something that seems particularly vulnerable to this, but that seems to go for any sort of group with strongly held beliefs.

  • gingoro

    Even worse is when we are not only tribal but misrepresent those that take different positions on various secondary matters, for example many Calvinists equate Arminians with semi Pelagians or Arminians think that all Calvinists are determinists.

  • James

    Jesus and Paul broke down walls of hostility but they were also exclusive of the hypocrite, self-righteous, and false teacher. Isn’t there a sense Christians too need to be exclusive of evil even as they embrace the evildoer? I hope the book explains how inclusivity and exclusivity work together with respect to the transformational message of the gospel.

    • Rebecca Trotter

      To James: what I am learning is that when one’s heart is given to God alone, then the need for inclusion and exclusion disappear. Inclusive and exclusive become about what you allow into your heart – “guard your heart with vigilance for from it comes sources of life.” Do you allow the evil of the evil-doer to touch your heart? Do you allow the yeast of the Pharissees to infect your heart? The truth is that along the way we will inevitably do both, but continually turning back to God and offering yourself up for correction will keep your heart safe. Some of this just has to be learned the old-fashioned way – by trial and error. Faith in Jesus is the anchor that keeps any of our trials and errors from carrying us away. The goal in the end is to “be perfect as God is perfect” – loving the good and the evil alike without harming yourself or them. It seems to me that an ability to deal intimately with both good and evil is part of this process. Which means that exclusion could be very counter-productive to the whole process.

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