There’s a human allure to finding your tribe, to finding that place “where everybody knows your name,” as the Cheers theme described it. Whether it’s finding your “crew” in middle school, pledging a fraternity or sorority in college, joining a CrossFit gym, or amassing political cronies, having a tribe is a longing in all our hearts.
We’re not immune to this reality in the church. Many evangelicals seek tribal affiliation that’s associated with key leaders like Piper, Keller, Dever, MacArthur, or DeYoung. Our theological tribes also come with confessional labels like gospel-centered or Reformed. At times, we use monikers like conservative or progressive that overlap with political sentiments.
Is our longing to find a tribe with clear boundaries healthy or sinful? And if the desire for a tribe isn’t wrong, why is it so often corrupted into an entrenched us-versus-them tribalistic mentality? Scripture speaks into our healthy longings for a tribe yet also gives us warnings of the inherent danger that resides within us. Let’s explore both.
Our Longing for Home
I believe our desire to have a tribe comes from a longing for home—a desire for a healthy community lived out in the place God made for us. God created a perfect place for the man and woman in the garden, but this home was quickly fractured when our first parents ate from the forbidden tree. Sin immediately entered the world, and humanity hasn’t been the same since. We experience brokenness and division in our relationships with God, with one another, and even with the earth (Gen. 3:14–16).
Our desire to have a tribe comes from a longing for home—a desire for a healthy community lived out in the place God made for us.
Though our sinless Savior lived in perfect harmony with the Father and often retreated to a solitary place to commune with him (Mark 1:35), even Jesus experienced the effects of sin on human relationships and our broken world. He didn’t dwell in a beautifully cultivated garden but instead told his disciples, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” (Matt. 8:20). He also wisely recognized that a prophet isn’t welcome in his hometown (Matt. 13:57; Mark 6:4; Luke 4:24; John 4:44).
I believe it’s this common human experience that makes Jesus’s promise to go and prepare a place for us resonate so deeply (John 14:1–3). In this life, the church is a foretaste of what we’ll experience in the new heavens and new earth. For now, it’s to be a believer’s primary tribe. But until we’re face-to-face with Christ, we recognize we haven’t experienced the promise of home in full.
Tribalism Warning Signs
Our longing for a tribe is right and good, but we must also acknowledge the reality that sin corrupts all our desires. What marks a descent from a longing for a tribe into tribalism? Here are three warning signs.
1. Only Seeing Wrong ‘Out There’
We gravitate toward people who think and act like us, who value what we value. This can be good when we’re seeking confessional and practical unity in a local church, network, or denomination. But our desire for a united tribe is corrupted when we’re quick to caricature and exaggerate the wrongs of others while minimizing our own failures. When this happens, we’ve forgotten the costly lesson of Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn:
The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either—but right through every human heart. . . . And even in the best of all hearts, there remains . . . an un-uprooted small corner of evil.
Do you tend to think your group can do no wrong and other groups can do no right? Idolizing one group and villainizing another reflects a poor doctrine of sin and a lack of awareness about our own hearts. As with the factious Corinthians (1 Cor. 3), it’s also a mark of immaturity.
2. Lack of Grace and Patience
Do you tend to internally dismiss or externally cancel others before personally and patiently engaging with them? In Acts 18, Priscilla and Aquila model patient, gracious, and relational engagement with Apollos even though they disagreed with him on some key theological points. The modern Christian world would look different had they gone the cancel-culture route. Thankfully, they chose the longer path of hospitality and forbearance; they “invited him to their home and explained to him the way of God more adequately” (Acts 18:26, NIV). Let’s learn the way of Priscilla and Aquila.
3. Making Good Things into Ultimate Things
There are many good and godly causes out there—from racial and ethnic harmony to a biblical understanding of gender and sexuality. But it can be easy to center our lives around good things and fall into making them the ultimate thing. One way we do this is by making heavenly realities such as perfect justice, obedience, freedom, and comfort into earthly demands. In this life, it’s right to pray and work toward God’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven, but it’s wrong to demand the kingdom now with an entitled spirit or to seek heavenly realities through mere earthly means.
Are we helping people find salvation in Christ, or are we turning the benefits and implications of the gospel into our ultimate cause?
Ask yourself, “Does my tribe’s good cause ultimately lead people to vertical or horizontal solutions? Are we helping people find salvation in Christ, or are we turning the benefits and implications of the gospel into our ultimate cause? Is there a oneness and a gospel unity in your heart with brothers and sisters regardless of different redemptive passions and pursuits (Rom. 12:18)?” If not, why?
We’re on our way to our ultimate, lasting home. Soon we’ll be in the eternal city with brothers and sisters from “every tribe and language and people and nation (Rev. 5:9).” Until we’re home, let’s fight our tendency toward tribalism by fixing our gaze on Christ and finding our deepest identity in him.