The Church as a Christian Tribe

How tribal behaviour undermines the message that Jesus gave his life to bring to the world.
In today’s world, we cannot help but be aware of a number of disturbing trends such as increasing inequality of wealth, threats to the stability of the earth’s eco-system, a rise in populism and fragmentation in politics, and a rising threat of violence from terrorism of one sort or another.  At a time when scientific and technological advances in many fields offer great power, with the possibility of both great benefits and also great dangers, these trends, taken together, represent a threat to the future well-being of both our planet and humanity itself.

At least three of these trends (wealth inequality, populism in politics, and terrorism) are closely linked with humanity’s essentially tribal nature, which permeates every aspect of our lives.  As a recent book by a US Academic states. “We need to belong to groups.  We crave bonds and attachments, which is why we love clubs, teams, fraternities, family.  Almost no one is a hermit.  Even monks and friars belong to orders.  But the tribal instinct is not just an instinct to belong.  It is also an instinct to exclude.”(Chua 2018)

Against this background, Christian churches in Europe are losing adherents (Pew Research Center 2018), with an increasing proportion of the population either claiming adherence to Christianity without regularly attending church, or acknowledging allegiance to no religion.  It is hard to avoid the conclusion that Christianity as presented by the majority of churches is increasingly seen as irrelevant to people’s everyday lives.

In seeking to fulfil their mission and simultaneously stem the loss of adherents, however, there are three dangerous misunderstandings to which churches are prone, and which tend to make them a part of humanity’s problem rather than a path towards the solution to which Jesus pointed.

  1. Many churches in their current form are responding to the loss of adherents by seeking to recruit new members to what could be called “the Christian Tribe”. Winning followers for Christ is interpreted as ‘gaining more members for our church’.

  3. For the majority of churches, faith is about ‘belief’ – either assenting to a series of creedal statements, or at least adhering to a set of paradigmatic values – and right belief is the price of being fully accepted as a member of the Christian Tribe.

  5. The actual message of Jesus is frequently preached to churchgoers as guidance about how individuals should conduct themselves. Both members of the Christian tribe and others tend to accept the spirit of the age, which assumes that whether or not people accept this teaching is a private matter – a matter of personal belief.

Each of these three misunderstandings has hindered Jesus’ mission to inaugurate what he called “the Kingdom” on earth.  Jesus’ mission was not only about calling people to repentance, it was also about transforming humanity and humanity’s relationship with the creator God, who he called “Father”. And there has never been a time of greater need to hear with clarity Jesus’ message as it applies to the challenges facing humanity today.

Palestine at the time of Jesus was, like our world today, a place of wealth inequality, social fragmentation, and terrorism.(Malina 1993)  His teaching and his actions reflect this.  What he had to say about social justice, about institutional violence and about the human instinct to exclude is highly relevant to the issues of today.  His talk about ‘sacrifice’, that sounds so archaic to us today, deals directly with the tendency of all societies to create outsiders, and to submit them to institutional, social and personal violence.  More significantly, the account he gives of the transformed life in both his words and his actions, is an account from the point of view of the victim – a victim who shows the way to transcend the violence that is so prevalent in human society.

That is why the three misunderstandings are so dangerous.  Each of them contributes to a perception by the majority of the population that what Jesus had to say was largely irrelevant to public life today.

  1. Non-churchgoers who do not recognise themselves as members of a Christian Tribe, do not imagine that the message of Jesus has any relevance for them or for their concerns. Indeed, many younger people have no knowledge of the Bible and only the haziest notions of who Jesus was and what he said or did.  It is also not uncommon to hear people rejecting all religions as contributing to the world’s violence, thus widening the gulf between Christians and those excluded by or from them.

  3. An emphasis on “faith” as “belief” leads many active and committed churchgoers to set a key foundation for their faith, the Bible, in opposition to the findings of science and technology. Since science and technology in turn form the basis for such Western social paradigms as capitalism and democracy, it is difficult for churchgoers and non-churchgoers to find a shared basis for everyday discussion with many Christians about the issues facing the world today.

  5. Many non-Christians and non-Churchgoers are put off by what they see as the church’s pre-occupation with sexual matters. As James Alison puts it, “Christianity gets reduced to morals. … It has become so exclusively linked to morals, and morals tied to a pre-existing theory, that it has been rendered boring.”(Alison 2013)
    If this assessment of the situation is correct, then the implications for churches extend beyond the message that is preached from the pulpit.  Good preachers may help the faithful to become more aware of the full extent of Jesus’ teaching, but so long as churches focus on recruiting members for their own tribe (misunderstanding #1), and extract from their members a price for belonging in terms of right belief (misunderstanding #2), their voice will be heard only by their own committed followers.

    Powerful preaching of Jesus’ message can certainly make an impact on those who hear it, as the media reaction to Bishop Michael Currie’s sermon at the marriage of Meghan Markle to Prince Harry demonstrated. But that impact will be greater if churches are willing to listen to Jesus’ social gospel, and take steps to lead the way in new social structures and forms of living that will lead to “life at the end of us versus them”(Rempel 2017)


    Terry Cooke-Davies
    August 2018

    Alison, J. (2013). Jesus the Forgiving Victim. Glenview, ILL, DOERS Publishing.
    Chua, A. (2018). Political Tribes:  Group Instinct and the fate of nations. London, UK, Bloomsbury Publishing.
    Malina, B. J. (1993). The New Testament World.  Insights from Cultural Anthropology. Louisville, Kentucky, Westminster/John Knox Press.
    Pew Research Center (2018). Being Christian in Western Europe. Washington, DC, Pew Research Center: 168.
    Rempel, M. P. (2017). Life at the End of Us vs Them:  Cross Culture Stories. Victoria, BC, Canada, Friesen Press.

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