Tribalism is human nature. We tend to gather with those who are most like us. Whether that’s people who love the same music, or the same sports team, or share the same values, or beliefs, or sense of humor.
Jesus understood this. He didn’t tell us to stop being tribal. But, he did try to show us another way to think of who was in, our outside, of our tribe.
When he told the Parable of the Good Samaritan, for example, Jesus re-framed the idea of neighbor, and brother, and showed us who we should love as we love ourselves: everyone we see.
In other words, it’s ok to be tribalistic, as long as you understand that there is only one tribe: The human tribe.
When Jesus asks us to follow him, he is not asking us to form a tribe where only those who follow him are welcome or loved or included. This is where we get it wrong.
No, when Jesus asks us to follow him, he is asking us to simply follow his example, which was to love and embrace and accept and welcome everyone: The poor, the rich, the sick, the blind, the leper, the lame, the Samaritan, the young, the old, the outcast, the woman, the man, the eunuch, etc.
In other words: Follow Jesus because he is the leader of a tribe that welcomes everyone and shuns no one.
But, we cannot truly follow Jesus in this way as long as we continue to hold tight to our tribalism.
For example: Imagine there were 100 people in a room. “We are all one people,” they might say. But then, over time, they start to divide into sub-groups by race, language, belief, etc. Now, if someone stands up and reminds them that they are all still one people, it is still true, but not as long as they continue to identify as members of that smaller tribe.
The only way they will truly ever realize that they are one people, is to renounce their allegiance to that sub-category and fully embrace their identity as members of the larger one.
Jesus wants us to understand that we are all one family.
“…for you have only one Master and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven.” [Matt. 23:8-12]
God is our Father [Abba]. We are all children of God. This means we need to love one another as Christ loved us.
Simply put, if we ever hope to love our neighbors, we have to be able to step outside of our tribe and see beyond our traditional group identity.
In the Body of Christ, there shouldn’t be any tribes at all.
This is why Paul did not allow the believers in Corinth to line up behind Peter, or Apollos, or even himself, to create little factions or tribes within their church.
“My brothers and sisters, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. What I mean is this: One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Peter”; still another, “I follow Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Paul?” [1 Cor. 11-13]
The point Paul wants them to understand is quite simple: Don’t align yourself with anyone but Christ.
So, if it was wrong for those Corinthian Christians to divide against one another over a preference of Apostle, how in the world would it be acceptable for Christians today to divide against one another over allegiances to this Political Party or the other? Or to divide over this Political Candidate or another one? Or to divide over doctrine? Or race?
Answer: It’s not acceptable.
“Is Christ divided?” Paul asks us. No, He is not.
Yet, today, Christians in America are especially divided over politics, and yes, over this Christian leader or that other one; over this doctrine or that denomination; and it ought not to be.
Now, just imagine what might happen if you could honestly strip away every label and scrap of tribal identity? What if you were not a Baptist, but simply someone who loved Jesus? What if you weren’t a Republican or a Democrat anymore, but simply a follower of Christ? What if you abandoned your identity as an American and saw yourself simply as a citizen in the Kingdom of God?
That is exactly what Paul wants us to grasp when he says:
“For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” [Gal. 3:27-28]
Casting off our former identities is essential to unity. It’s also essential to our mission, which is to love everyone – regardless of nationality, race, religion, sexual orientation, gender, or otherwise.
“But,” you might say, “isn’t being a Christian just another tribe to join?”
Answer: Not if you do it right.
For example, you can find your identity in Christ without resorting to tribalism. You can see yourself as a citizen of Christ’s Kingdom without standing against another nation or kingdom, or religion.
Here’s why: Because being a member of the Body of Christ – by definition – is to be someone who does not use violence, or dominate others, or seek to put down other people, or take joy when others fail.
Remember: Jesus told us to love our enemies. That means we don’t hate them, we don’t seek to dominate them, and we certainly don’t kill them. (Would you kill someone you loved? Of course not.)
We must also remember that Jesus’ greatest command was that we would love one another as He has loved us.
Because love is our highest command, we hold tight to these facts about love:
“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” [1 Cor. 13:4-7]
So, whenever you see people who claim to follow Christ standing up to boast, or to be unkind, or to dishonor someone from another tribe, or to read out loud a list of their sins and failures, then you’re seeing someone who is still entangled in tribalism and still very, very far away from what it means to be “in Christ” and full of love for everyone.
Only someone who identifies as a Republican can mock a Democrat. Only someone who sees themselves as a Liberal can dishonor a Conservative. Only someone who considers themselves a Lutheran can scapegoat a Methodist. Only someone who believes they are an American can insult a Mexican.
But a Christian – a person who is filled with the agape love of Jesus and transformed by His indwelling presence – cannot do any of those things.
Tribalism separates us. Denominationalism divides us. Politics split us into opposing factions. But Christ came to bring us together. He has given to us the Ministry of Reconciliation…which is about bringing everyone together, not dividing them into factions.
It’s time to renounce our Tribalism.
My only identity is in Christ. The rest of me died when I took up my cross to follow Him.
What about you?
Keith Giles is a former pastor who left the pulpit 11 years ago to start a church that gives away 100% of the offering to the poor in their community.