We’re more divided than ever. Maybe it’s time to move beyond the myth of “us vs. them” and admit that Christian tribalism embarrasses Christ and harms the Church.

What’s Your Tribe?

Something strange happens when you put clergy from mixed denominations in a room. They start their conversations with the same two questions:

  1. What’s your denomination?
  2. How big is your church?

Sound superficial? It is. But the answers to these questions set the tone for their relationships.

Denominational affiliation identifies the pastor’s theological, political and ideological beliefs. Church size indicates where the pastor falls in the ecclesiastical pecking order. (Because size apparently matters when it comes to pastoral ability.)

Just two questions create a religious shorthand that repeats itself wherever clergy congregate. It’s quick. It’s simple. It’s efficient.

And it completely misses the point of the Gospel.

Tribalism Forces Us Into an “Us vs. Them” Mentality

Unfortunately, the phenomenon isn’t limited to clergy or even to Christians.  We all size each other up based on tribal identities related to religion, politics, class, race, ideology, etc.

On a primal level, our tribal identities satisfy our need to belong. There’s comfort in knowing that we’re part of a group of people who are just like us — and the more like us they are, the better.

But by defining an “us,” we also define a “them.” Whether we intend for it happen or not, tribal labels force us into an us vs. them mentality. We make snap judgments about other people based on the tribal buckets we put them in.

Us vs. Them and the Decline of Christianity in the U.S.

Christians should be leading the charge to break down tribal barriers. Instead, we’re obsessed with defining our own tribal boundaries and evangelizing the us vs. them mentality.

A few weeks ago, the Pew Research Center released its U.S. Religious Landscape Study. Reactions from the Christian community were predictably tribal.

According to the study, every major Christian group in the U.S. — from mainline Protestants to Catholics to evangelicals — experienced decline over the past eight years. The only categories that experienced growth were “unaffiliated” and “non-Christian faiths.”

Although Christianity saw an overall decline of 8 percent in 8 years, representatives from all branches of the faith rushed to defend their tribes.

  • Some bragged that their tribes declined less than other tribes.
  • Some doubled down on the tribal behaviors that caused declines in church attendance.
  • Some said the way forward is to become more tribal by cementing the marriage between politics and religion.

And in some forgotten corner of the universe, Jesus wept over the pettiness and the stupidity of it all.

Moving Beyond Us vs. Them

Christian tribalism isn’t new. It’s been around since the earliest days of Christianity.

In 1 Corinthians 1, Paul says:

 .. it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. What I mean is that each of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.” Has Christ been divided?

The need to belong is a powerful force. But when applied to religion, us vs. them thinking is dangerous and divisive.

Christian tribalism eliminates the need for us to deal with each other as actual human beings. 

Instead of allowing us to listen to each other, Christian tribalism requires us to fall back on the tired, entrenched positions that define our respective groups.

Paul reminds us that the Church is supposed to be different from the rest of society. While economics and politics revel in entrenched positions, competing interests, and us vs. them mindsets, the Church is supposed to revel in its unity.

Through baptism and Christ crucified, we are one.

And in our oneness, we model an alternative vision for the world. Christian tribalism limits our ability to model that vision.

We all belong to tribes. But our tribal allegiances need to be secondary to our willingness to relate to people as people.

More importantly, our tribal allegiances need to be secondary to our allegiance to Christ.