According to the Apostle Paul, petty tribalism keeps us from growing in our faith and achieving our full potential as followers of Jesus Christ:
“But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. 2 I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not yet ready, 3 for you are still of the flesh. For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way?” (1 Corinthians 3:1–3 ESV)
But how can I know if I am a “petty tribalist”?
Most of the petty tribalists I’ve encountered think they are right and everyone else is wrong. They think of themselves as “reformers” not tribalists. So what are the marks of a pretty tribalist? Four come immediately to mind:
1. A petty tribalist over identifies with human teachers and leaders
He reads and forwards and likes all the tweets of a particular person with whom he identifies and does not hold them up to the same scrutiny he would do with the tweets/posts/articles/blogs of other people. He uses a lot of adjectives to describe himself and refers to famous Christian leaders by way of shorthand: “I’m a 1689 Reformed guy in the Strachan camp” or “I’m a reformed evangelical in the Carson mold” or “I’m a post evangelical in the Rachel Held Evans sense.” Or perhaps he identifies in terms of the conference ministry he prefers: “I’m a T4G kind of reformed guy”. “I’m a C3 guy all the way”. Maybe he puts them all together into a Twitter handle: “MacArthur style Dispy reformed, premil cessationist loving me some Shepherd’s Conference. Go Cowboys!”
If that sounds anything like you, go back and read 1 Corinthians 3:1-3.
2. A petty tribalist refuses to read or learn outside the tribe
She won’t read certain authors because her tribe has designated them as “heterodox”. Her tribe defines her range of interests and the extent of her inquiry making it difficult for her to encounter and engage with outside ideas. This tends to result in a very myopic perspective with several significant and entirely predictable blind spots.
She doesn’t know what she doesn’t know – how could she?
And she isn’t sure why she believes what she does – she just knows that she heard it from a reliable source. She has not learned to think critically because she has instead decided to adopt positions merely on the basis of authority.
If you’ve never read a book “from the other side”; if you’ve never read a book arguing the case for egalitarianism (as a committed complementarian) or a book arguing the case for complementarianism (as a committed egalitarian), you might be a petty tribalist. Go back and read 1 Corinthians 3:1-3.
3. A petty tribalist doesn’t do the hard work of thinking for him or herself
He doesn’t read the Bible – he listens to podcasts of other people from his team who have read the Bible. He doesn’t go to primary sources; he reads books written by people from his team who have read those primary sources. He is an expert in what his team thinks of these other people and their writings, without ever having interacted with any of them for himself.
Over time he becomes hardened in his positions without really understanding the essence of the principles that he is committed to. He knows the answers, but he can’t quite articulate the questions that gave rise to those answers in the first place. But he swears up and down that he knows error and unfaithfulness when he sees it – or is told about it.
If you aren’t reading the Bible through every year, but you are listening to lots of sermons and podcasts from “your guy”, then you are a petty tribalist, or at least on your way to becoming one and you need to go back and read 1 Corinthians 3:1-3.
4. A petty tribalist thinks in terms of wins and losses
She loves it when one of her guys “owns the libs” or “destroys so-and-so on Twitter”. She loves it when her group swarms a post and creates the impression of defeat and humiliation through mass attack and concentrated mockery. She didn’t read the initial post or article in any kind of open minded sense, rather she skimmed it briefly looking for trigger words and pounce points. She is waging war, not seeking first to understand. She considers it a victory when “an opponent” decides to modify a post or refine a statement, rather than seeing this as a mark of humility on the part of the author. She isn’t seeking “progress in the conversation”; she is seeking vindication, domination and control.
If anyone raises concerns about the tone of her online reactions, she is quick to label them as whiners or to call them weak and to point to the example of Jesus who made a whip to drive the money changers out of the temple. If that doesn’t work, she reminds her critics that Bonhoeffer attempted to assassinate Hitler. How these issues relate in nature or scale to the theological debates she is engaged in is not explained.
If you aren’t truly seeking to understand and if harmony, concord and love are not the primary goals of your theological conversations and debates, then you might be a petty tribalist. You might be the exact sort of person Paul was dealing with in 1 Corinthians. If the Holy Spirit is prompting you today, do yourself a favour and go back and prayerfully read 1 Corinthians 3:1-3.
I just did it myself.
I felt convicted.
There is no shame in admitting that.
Twitter and Facebook – and Fox and CNN – have been used by the devil to make all of us petty tribalists; at least to some extent. We’re all on teams now and we need to acknowledge that tendency and repent of it.
It gets in the way of our growth and development, it spoils our witness to friends and neighbours and it diffuses our energy and resources in mission.
Knock it off!
All of us!
Let’s all commit to doing better.
Let’s read widely.
Let’s prioritize Scripture.
Let’s give each other the benefit of the doubt.
Let’s follow our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
And may God alone be glorified.
Pastor Paul Carter
To listen to the most recent episodes of Pastor Paul’s Into The Word devotional podcast on the TGC Canada website see here. To access the entire library of available episodes see here. You can also download the Into The Word app on iTunes or on Google Play.