Here, I’m thinking of tribalism in the sense of defining your “tribe” over and against other possible “tribes.” It’s Us versus Them, so we need to be vigilant about who is Us and who is Them.
This may come as a surprise or a disappointment to some of my more progressive friends, but I actually think a certain degree or variety of tribalism can potentially be healthy for the church.
When God calls Abraham (or Abram initially – Genesis 12), He calls him out of the rest of the world. He selects Abraham to be His specific representative and progenitor of a people in the world who are going to be different from their neighbors.
These people are going to be a priestly people – a new creation people – an advance guard of what God would reveal was His desire for the whole world in the midst of a world that was not very much like that.
This would be a people who had a special agreement with God: they would be His people, and He would be their God. Their destinies in the world would be intertwined. It was the family of Abraham’s job to live in faithful service to God, and in return, God would not only preserve them in the world, but increase their number until they filled it.
And what would the outcome of all this be? That all the families in the world would be blessed through what God would do through Abraham’s family. Their job was not to destroy the other families until only they remained or oppress the other families of the world or rule them with an iron fist or even think badly of them. Their job was to be God’s people in the world with an eye toward blessing everyone.
So, you do have a tribe. You have a people who are defined against the canvas of a broken world to be a community of light. And what characterizes this community? Love of God and love of neighbor.
It is this kind of tribalism that I think is beneficial. It’s the kind that looks at the principles at work in the world to hate God and hate our neighbors (and hate ourselves) and, instead, decides to run off of different principles. Pro-God and pro-human principles. Love, justice, mercy, healing, fidelity, wisdom, joy, restoration, peace.
We are a people who is meant to embody a certain thing in the world for the benefit of the world, and in that sense, it is helpful to focus on what kind of people we ought to be in the world and trying consistently to help each other be that thing. Oh, if we spent half the energy on blessing the nations that we spent on critiquing them.
It is perhaps this principle of tribalism Jesus articulated in Matthew 12:30, when he talked to the Pharisees accusing him of being in league with Satan about his mission to deliver Israel from the evil that oppressed them: “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.” In other words, “Pharisees, you’re supposed to be helping in this project, and if you aren’t using your position to help get this done, then you’re just making the oppression worse.”
And this leads us into the kind of tribalism that is endemic to evangelicalism, and that is the desire to vilify Them and constantly make sure that anyone in the Us is “truly” Us and not secretly or partially Them, because Them are just the worst.
This principle is all over John MacArthur’s labors. The man has spent so much time and money fighting against what he (and by extension all True Christians) is against that you sort of have to dig a little to find out what he’s for.
His “Strange Fire” conference was not about a biblical theology of the Holy Spirit; it was about how wrong Charismatics are. His statement on social justice wasn’t about comprehensively defining the good news of Jesus Christ for the world, but rather about how people pursuing social justice are wrong to do so (the “greatest threat to the gospel” as he said at the time – sorry, Satan). He hasn’t carefully combed exegetical, historical, and scientific data and arrived at the position that the Earth must be 6000 years old; he’s against non-literal readings of the Bible. This latest “Truth Matters” fiasco wasn’t about bold, vibrant definitions of ministry that could change the world; it was about how wrong everyone was that thinks women should be able to participate – especially the women, themselves.
One wonders how many of MacArthur’s positions are not the product of careful thought, prayer, and searching the Scriptures and are more just the end result of opposing things he thinks are terrible. He has to take those positions, because if he doesn’t, the Evil will get in.
This describes an awful lot of evangelicalism.
Because the way we tend to see the world is that we are beacons of light surrounded by a night that is dark and full of terrors. But worse than that, the ally at your side could, at any time, become seduced by that darkness and stab you in the back. Every friend is a potential foe waiting to happen.
We all know this trope; it happens in every zombie movie, right? You have the rag tag band of warriors fighting off the zombie hordes and, inevitably, someone gets bit. And then it’s just a matter of time before the zombie plague is now inside the perimeter, destroying mankind’s last hope for salvation.
And this is why evangelicalism is not only at war with the world (and we might discuss whether or not that’s the best disposition to have toward the world) but at war with itself. Have the wrong belief, and you’re out. Show tolerance for the wrong group of people, and you’re out. Vote for the wrong candidate, and you’re out. Claim that something we think is a sin isn’t so black and white, and you’re out. Any of that reeks of the little compromises that will turn you into a zombie that will kill us all. Or, you know, at least turn you into someone who might write a book about it.
We are like this, and when we are like this, the people who are our heroes are the people walking among us, culling out the diseased so the rest will be safe. They are the ones ferreting out the double agents and the heretics and the weak-minded who, if allowed to live inside the compound with the rest of us, will end up with the whole camp slaughtered by the evil outsiders.
John MacArthur incarnates this. He has defined his ministry by it, and that’s why people love him.