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Christian tribalism and the need for a rich theological mosaic

I once knew a person whose sole source of biblical exegesis was from the teaching of a popular American Calvinist pastor. I was fascinated with this person’s rather rigid approach to different interpretations of the Bible and theology — especially my own.

It doesn’t help that my theology tends to be all over the map.

I relate personally (and deeply) with Luther’s Christology (study of Christ); I am convicted that Arminian soteriology (study of salvation) is most reflective of God’s character; the gospel hope in Wesley’s eschatology (study of the last things) continues to sweep me off my feet; Presbyterian doxology (study of worship) befits my need for a deep and sound Christology in worship; and the biblical integrity of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s ethics grounds me in reality.

And I guess that’s the problem — or so it seems. I try not to subscribe to a single theological “tribe” when it comes to reflecting on God and reality.

The benefits of theological diversity

One of the many valuable insights I gained in seminary is that theological diversity — within the boundaries of Christian orthodoxy — is healthy and important. Theological diversity is a divine gift; a vibrant mosaic of theological treasure waiting to be mined, explored and enjoyed by God’s people and the world.

Theological diversity is a divine gift; a vibrant mosaic of theological treasure waiting to be mined. Click To Tweet

The purpose of theological diversity, I think, is to bring a certain colour, variety, meaning, liveliness, and context to the Christian faith for people who find themselves colliding with the reality of our broken world. Put another way, theological diversity allows God to speak to a wide range of people ‘here and now’ — as Bonhoeffer would affirm.

But don’t give me an empty diversity that’s an end in itself. Let it be a means to reveal Jesus Christ — “the image of the invisible God” (Col 1:15), “the concrete executor of God’s love,” as Bonhoeffer put so eloquently.

Of course, the danger of theological diversity is that it would be so diverse as to forfeit Christian orthodoxy and set as its higher goal secular harmony. Here we could run into the problem of creating a God in the image of liberal culture.

But what about the alternative — a rigid tribalism that adheres to a limited view of God and reality? Is this any better? I don’t think so. I actually think it’s worse and more dangerous to Christianity. Paul affirms this in his letter to the church at Corinth.

The Corinthian problem

Being a culture steeped in the traditions of Hellenistic philosophy, many people in Corinth placed a high premium on the philosophical knowledge and rhetoric of the Sophists (a teacher of philosophy in ancient Greece). This created fertile ground for competition to break out between leaders who were seeking popularity among the masses.

Naturally, people began to divide into various camps; each one favoring a particular leader. Loyalty to their leader and criticism of others defined the Corinthian culture war. Most importantly, “Attachment to an eminent sophist could enhance one’s own status, so the choice of teacher had social significance,” says biblical commentator Scott Nash.

What becomes apparent fast, is that this same tribal competitiveness began to invade the church at Corinth as believers applied the same criteria to Christian leaders as they did the Sophists. This rigidity towards other views and strict adherence to one’s own was creating division in the church, the same way it creates division and hostility in the church in North America today.

Paul’s response to this invasion of tribalism is friendly, yet direct:

I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you […]. My brothers and sisters, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. What I mean is this: One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas”; still another, “I follow Christ” (1 Cor. 1:10-12).

Finding a healthy balance through the cross

It’s interesting to note at this point the inverse parallels between the dangers of theological diversity and tribalism when they become an end in themselves, and not the means of revealing Christ and the cross.

On one hand, theological diversity, when left free to evolve without the guiding arm of Christian orthodoxy, runs the risk of elevating secular harmony over sound theology.

On the other hand, Christian tribalism, when it is not confronted for its rigid and hostile treatment of Christian brothers and sisters, creates the total opposite of harmony — and this within the Church!

Paul gently reminds the Corinthians — and we who call ourselves Christians today — that “If you want to boast, boast only about the Lord” (1 Cor. 1:31 NLT).

Ultimately, it’s the “message of the cross” (1 Cor. 1: 18, 20, 23) — the theology of the cross as Luther and Bonhoeffer would put it — that Christians should adhere to in their everyday lives, not the interpretation, eloquence or opinion of religious leaders.

Returning to where we began

This brings us back full circle. Theological diversity, when embraced for its ability to create a vibrant and meaningful variety in the Church within the boundaries of Christian orthodoxy, can be helpful in the church’s mission to reveal God to the world through the message of the cross.

I like the words of Philip G. Zieglar:

“The most decisive thing Bonhoeffer took over from Luther was… [his] insistence on the solus Christus: the Christian thinks and speaks of God…only as she thinks and speaks of Jesus Christ….come low in humility to save.”

I think Luther and Bonhoeffer got it right—no tribalism intended.

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About the author

Josh Valley is a long-term care Chaplain and an award-winning writer who lives in Thunder Bay, ON.