When I lived in Maine, I once saw a man leaning off the side of a railroad trestle, ready to jump. It was winter time and I knew if he plunged into the frigid water he would die. I ran over and said, “Don’t do it!”
He looked at me plaintively and said, “Nobody loves me. My life is not worth living.”
I held on to him tightly and said, “Yes it is. God loves you. Do you believe in God?”
“Yes,” he said.
“Are you a Christian or a Jew?”
“Me, too!” I said. “Are you a Protestant or a Catholic?”
“Me, too! What denomination?”
“Me, too! Northern Baptist or Southern Baptist?”
“Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist or Northern Liberal Baptist?”
“Northern Conservative Baptist.”
“Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region, or Northern Conservative Baptist Eastern Region?”
“Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region.”
“Me, too!” I said. “Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1879, or Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912?”
“Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912.”
“Die, heretic!” I screamed, and pushed him off the bridge.*
Okay, so that didn’t really happen. But something more subtle did.
As a boy, when I read about the throne scene in Revelation 7, I got goose bumps. To think that every tongue, tribe, and nation would gather around the throne of God to worship and adore him made me ecstatic with joy. And despite all of their differences, that great multitude would have one overarching, transcendent, supernatural thing in common: they would all be Baptists.
You laugh. But that’s what I thought.
When my pastor cast aspersions on other Christian denominations, I soaked it up. It became clear to me that only Baptists—and more particularly, the 200,000 members of the Conservative Baptist Association—would make it to heaven. Our doctrine was so pure, so biblical, so New Testament and Apostolic, that all the other denominations were obviously following false teachers.
Before I went to college in Indiana, my pastor had me print off a list of churches within twenty miles of the school. We went through the list of 120 churches, crossing most of them off as undesirable based on name only. I never even visited them. Instead, I visited 20 specific churches in order to judge them and see why they were lost. I got a bulletin from each church—Methodist, Quaker, Presbyterian, Alliance, Brethren—and wrote down all the errors I observed or heard during the service. After two years of searching I ended up at a—you guessed it—Baptist church.
Can you relate?
This “tribal” mentality—to view my particular denomination as the only faithful remnant—helped groom my home church to drill down even further to the point that we finally believed that only the 75 members of our local church were truly following God. This made us a cult.
The Trouble with Christian Tribalism
Maybe you don’t limit the inhabitants of heaven to your particular denomination as I did. Maybe you enjoy your denominational liturgy and cultural distinctiveness without confusing those external trappings as salvific. Maybe you even appreciate aspects of other Christian denominations, engage in theological dialogue with other traditions, and have friends from other groups. Congratulations—you are very healthy.
But many Christians—like me—suffer an elitist mentality which believes that my group or denomination is more faithful, more pure, or more accurate than yours. This can cause us to impugn or mock other denominations.
Some scholars call this mentality “Christian tribalism,” where the culture, buzzwords, and particular liturgy of a denomination creates a subculture with tribal features. A “tribe” is a sociological term which refers to a culturally unique group of people outside of state affiliation and often knit together through corporate descent or kinship. These tribal groups also tend to view outsiders as either inferior or fear-inspiring. Representative of this outsider vs. insider mentality are the jokes.
Come on, now, we’ve all heard the jokes:
“My brother-in-law is an Episcopalian. They had a potluck dinner last Sunday. He said the caterer did a great job.”
“A Presbyterian is a person who is deathly afraid that someone, somewhere, is having a good time.”
“Catholics call evangelical Christians ‘happy-clappies,’ true. But everyone knows that Catholics don’t clap because they already have a drink in both hands.”
“You might be a Southern Baptist if you think that God’s presence is strongest in the back three pews.”
“How many Pentecostals does it take to change a light-bulb? Fifteen. One to unscrew it, four to catch it when it falls, and ten to pray against the spirit of darkness.”
“How many Calvinists does it take to change a light bulb? None. God has predestined whether it will be on or off.”
“Why don’t Independent Baptists believe in premarital sex? Because it might lead to dancing.”
“How many Plymouth Brethren does it take to change a light bulb? What do you mean, ‘change’?”
While these jokes seem harmless, they can represent a greater problem, which is to look down on anyone not affiliated with your own denomination.
The trouble with Christian tribalism is that it makes us susceptible to an elitist mentality which eschews Christian charity, focuses on externals rather than internals, and grooms us to follow cults of personality.
It is also unbiblical.
Paul excoriated the Corinthian Christians because they promoted divisions in the church based on cults of personality (1 Cor. 3:1-9). He also said that race is not a reason to create divisions (Ephesians 2:11-22), and James prohibited socioeconomic status as a distinguishing factor in the church (James 2:1-13).
Okay, you might say, I grant that the New Testament forbids elitism based on cults of personality, race, or wealth. But my tribal elitism is fine, because my denomination really does do church in the most biblical manner. We’re talking about doctrine here, not personality! And the [insert name of your denomination] interprets the Bible most accurately, otherwise I wouldn’t be a member of it.
That’s wonderful. Thanks for leading into my final point:
Mutually Exclusive Exclusiveness
We’ve talked about this before. Christian Tribalism commits a logical fallacy. When each denomination (or individual church) believes that it has the best handle on the truth of God, and all other denominations or churches have an inferior understanding of the Bible, this creates a climate of mutually exclusive exclusiveness. After all, if I think my denomination is most biblical, and you think that your denomination is most biblical, we can’t both be most biblical, right?
The trouble with this is that when someone gets badly burned by spiritual abuse at their particular church in their particular denomination, they may feel tempted to abandon the Christian faith altogether. They view their denomination as the only viable expression of Christianity in the first place, and when it hurts them, they abandon the faith.
Five Suggestions to Cure Christian Tribalism
- Ask yourself the questions: “According to the New Testament, what is the most basic level of understanding someone must have in order to be saved? Could someone outside of my own denomination meet this criteria?”
- Make friends with people from other denominations within the Christian tradition. Visit another church with the goal to observe and learn, not to critique and judge. Make an effort to participate in the worship, teaching, and outreach of that denomination before dismissing it. You can tell as much–or more–about a church by its ministry to the needy as by its Sunday service.
- Celebrate your denominational distinctiveness and have the charity to let other Christians celebrate theirs. Beneath the clutter, you still worship the same Jesus.
- Remember that the mission of the church is to joyfully glorify God by making him known among the nations and by making disciples who look like Jesus Christ. The mission of the church is not to parse itself into irrelevance.
- Ask yourself: What does Jesus mean when he asks the Father to make his followers “one”? Does this refer to external appearance (uniformity) or to the indwelling Spirit of God (unity)?
Christians will always evidence cultural differences—this is part of the beauty of the church universal. Hear me: I am not discouraging believers from preferring the doctrine or practices of a particular denomination. But if we let our differences stratify us into supposedly different levels of acceptability to God, those differences become divisive rather than beautiful. And in some extreme cases this divisiveness can lead to cultic behavior. I, for one, lived for 25 years in a Baptist Bible cult which mocked every other denomination and believed that almost every other professing believer was going to hell.
Remember the throne scene in Revelation 7? It is the very diversity of tribes, tongues, and nations which help to create the marvelous beauty of the kingdom of God. God is not building his kingdom only through your denomination. He’s not. Instead, he is creating his kingdom with individuals who have put their faith in Jesus Christ, have been saved by grace, and who are learning to love God and their neighbor with all their heart. This is the unity of which Jesus speaks in John 17 when he prays to the Father, “May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”
I once sat in a history class as the professor talked about the American denominational “family tree.” After a long discussion about the bewildering array of churches and doctrinal beliefs, the professor held up a piece of paper and tore it straight down the middle. It got our attention.
“The Kingdom of God is like torn paper,” he said. “It never tears evenly. See how ragged the torn edges are? There will be people missing from heaven who you would have thought would surely be there. And there will be plenty of people in heaven who might surprise you.”
Even the Baptists.
*I originally heard a story similar to this on Erwin Lutzer’s radio program. But it appears in so many forms on the Internet, I don’t know who to cite as the original creator. Anyone know?