Tribalism, Church Politics, & The Christian's Calling

Text: Ephesians 4:1-6

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

There is no doubt about it that ‘tribalism’ has been like a new virus – infecting all aspects of our society. Many political commentators, as well as sociologists, have witnessed and written about it. Now, I am not talking about tribalism over such things as a sports team. You know what I am talking about, the way in which people can have strong affiliations for the Vikings or the Packers – the kind of devotion where fans gather around a team and then will do everything possible to trash-talk the other team. Again, we are not talking about tribalism over such things as football teams, the kind of car a person drives, or the brand of gun a person shoots. Instead, we are talking about the rise of different groups wanting to be in positions of control. That is to say, the tribalism that we are witnessing is where particular groups are formed around a person, mindset, or agenda, which then always seems to lead to strong opinions against another group. You see, with tribalism, you always need to have a villain – tribalism always needs a boogieman, someone to demonize. And so, once a group is formed, that group will then begin to attack the other evil group, which, in return, they will be attacked back by the other group. Lines will be drawn, rules will be set, and everyone will feel like they have to join a tribe. As a result, everyone will be walking on pins and needles, making sure to say certain words and not others, act in certain ways and not other ways, and so forth.

Now, tribalism really wouldn’t be that bad, except for the fact that once a person is in a tribe, they have to be completely loyal to their social group above all else. Furthermore, once in a group, the tribe can’t leave other tribes alone. They have to compete; they have to fight to get their own way and eliminate any competition. 

In our reading from the Epistle of Ephesians, the Apostle Paul confronts tribalism in the church of Ephesus. You see, there was tension in the church of Ephesus between the Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians. Obviously, the tension was such that it created a rivalry between the two groups. And so, right there in this early church in 60 AD – approximately 30 years after Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection - tribalism was at work. This early church was divided. 

And so, perhaps this tribalism is not so new after all. Perhaps this problem of tribalism has always existed in every generation, in every ethnicity, and on every continent. It is true that tribalism thoroughly permeates our sinful nature so that we not only see it in politics and culture, but we see it right in the church as well. It is everywhere.  

So, how can a church know if it has succumbed to tribalism? 

I can recall being a part of a church once upon a time where it had an extra $350,000 in the checking account. Not savings but the checking account. Long story short, several people in leadership developed a plan to use this money to make an addition to the church building. However, other people did not want an addition. And so, two groups were formed in the church. Each group began having their own private meetings to advance their agenda. In the pews and in the fellowship hall, you saw the division as well, as one group sat on the left side pews, and the other group sat on the right side pews. Talking points were developed. One group said,

“Those people don’t love the Lord because they don’t want to expand the church.”

In response, the other group said back,

“You guys are being wasteful and greedy with the Lord’s money in wanting to spend it on a material building.”

And around and around they went, seeking to get more and more people to join their little tribes while dividing people into tiny little groups and breaking the 8th Commandment against each other. By the time they were all done fighting, there was no longer one church but several tribalistic factions at war with each other. And Christ? He was no longer at the center of the people’s conversations. His forgiveness no longer overflowed into hearts. His love no longer granted humility and compassion. But instead, suspicion, anger, and petty faultfinding ruled. The only person that was happy in this church was Satan.

Now, it may surprise you to hear this: There was nothing wrong with taking one of those positions in that church. Please hear me clearly: we Christians should have a rigorous debate over many things. Here at St. Paul’s, we should debate things like the remodeling of the basement, what to do with church land, what kind of carpet to put in the sanctuary, what percentage of the budget to give to district missions, how to remodel the kitchen, how much money to give to seminarians, and so forth. It is good to debate these items, and it is completely and totally fine to disagree with one another on these issues. But what isn’t fine? It isn’t fine if you and I become tribalistic – if we allow these items to create a wedge between one another. It isn’t fine if we make those who disagree with us into villains. It isn’t fine if we only break bread with those who support our view on these things.

The reason why it is not fine is that these items, which, let’s call them “Carpet Issues,” are not what unify us as a church. They are secondary to true unity. In the end, these carpet issues are like grass and will wither away. They will be burned up with everything else at the great eschaton. 

Baptized Saints, the Apostle Paul tells the Christians in Ephesus that they were called into Christ’s Kingdom. And since they were called into Christ’s kingdom, they were called to travel on the same road and in the same direction. In other words, the Lord establishes unity in the church. Christians do not create unity because we are not the ones who started this Christian faith to begin with. And so, this supreme unity of the Christian church is not found in our agreement over carpet issues, but it is found in One Master, one faith, one baptism, and one God and Father of all, who rules over all.

But again, this does not mean that everyone should look, speak, and act the same. There will indeed be differences of opinion in the church. There should be because we have different vocations and different spiritual gifts. However, as previously stated, since we do not find our unity over ‘carpet color issues,’ out of the generosity of Christ, we get to be humble and gentle with one another when we have disagreements over remodeling projects, budget items, district giving, kitchen projects, and land resources. We get to be alert and notice differences and then be quick to mend broken fences. Perhaps we could say it this way: we can make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace by making sure that we do not let carpet issues lead us to tribalism – a tribalism that usurps our oneness in Christ. Remember, in the Christian church and in this church, there is only one tribe: sinners who have been purchased by the blood of Christ. 

And so, know this today: here at St. Paul’s, we could be completely and totally divided on a great number of things and yet at the same time be completely and totally unified. Baptized Saints, what is better: a church completely divided over carpet issues but united in Christ, or a church united in carpet issues and divided over Christ? Sure, it does not hurt to be united on carpet issues; however, it is not necessary for our unity - as Christians - is in the Lord’s Word and Sacraments. 

You and I are called into the Christian faith through baptism to hear the Lord’s Word and to sit at His table. The Lord has done this for you and me, which means that true unity can never be destroyed. Indeed, our unity is in Christ, and the rest… is just details. 

In the name of Jesus. Amen.  

CLICK HERE to 'Like' on Facebook
CLICK HERE to 'Follow' on Twitter
CLICK HERE to Subscribe on iTunes

CLICK HERE to Subscribe on Podbean