To understand this fragmentation and balkanization, tribalism must be defined. Webster summarizes thusly: “exaltation of the tribe above other groups” [or “strong in-group loyalty,” Webster, 11ed.]. In its more extreme forms, tribalism results in not only practical isolationism, but formal separation from the larger body. Now separation is a natural characteristic; many sub-groups, cultures, clubs and the like exist in America and have always existed.
Naturally, the church exercises a type of separation, but in a biblical manner. The church exalts Christ above all. It should have “strong in-group loyalty”—loyalty to Christ and to each other. Thus, in this sense the church is tribal with respect to the world, the flesh and the devil. The church is to be theologically isolated and cultural different (but not isolated completely). It draws its membership from the tribes of the world to be one (Rev. 5:9).
Tribalism in a negative sense means that prideful adulation of the sub-group over and against the larger group in which it exists. It thinks “we are better”; it says “we have a better approach”; it does its own thing in spite of the concern of the larger group. It is collective self-centeredness. It is rude and unkind to the very body which gave birth to it. It thinks of itself first and foremost and may consider others, if convenient.
Since the church-militant struggles with sin this side of eternity, there are many tribes within her—differing denominations. This is to be expected. And mature members and churches will handle such differences in love and rectitude. Such differences cannot be avoided, but they are aggravated when those groups or churches within a denomination begin to unduly exalt their groups interests, goals or ideals. Shibboleths arise; idiosyncrasies predominate; ecclesiastical isolationism ensues.
From this definition, the extent of tribalism may be more appreciated; it infects the political realm, the churches and even families. Clearly, any bible-believing Christian knows that pride—whether individual or collective—is wrong. Pride is more obvious in group situations because the number of prideful individuals is multiplied, creating a greater negative impact on others. However, it is harder to extinguish as well. The old saying that “birds of a feather flock together” has much merit and such a fact reinforces the group-mentality of tribalism: isn’t everyone else in my group on the same page? But the real question becomes instead: is this same page biblical? Should I or my family or my church make such a stand as to virtually place this page above the larger book of commonality found with other belivers?
[next: What it looks like]