Join journalist Heather Tomlinson as she navigates the topic of tribalism within the Church, a topic brought into focus during past discussions on sexuality within the Church of England.

Unless you live in a happy place where there is no social media and TV news, you’ll be aware that our society has become bitterly divided. What truly splits us, rather than wealth, gender or other material characteristics, are our opinions. Today, there are many opinions, and they’re making us increasingly angry and condemning of those who do not agree with us. From Brexit to Trump, abortion to sexuality, sex to the environment, there are many different camps, and they really don’t like each other.

This situation is often summarised as ‘culture wars’ or ‘tribalism’, and these differing ideologies that we hold will have seismic effects upon the Church in the coming years.

The recent Church of England proposal to start to bless gay marriages, but not to conduct them, has pleased no-one on either side of the debate (this topic will be discussed further in this week’s General Synod) – but there’s an important reason why such a compromise was deemed necessary. The Archbishop of Canterbury is reported to have told MPs that if they had gone ahead and allowed gay marriages within CofE churches, it would split the worldwide Anglican Communion, and he prefers to hold it together. Yet the current stance of preventing gay marriage within CofE churches could lead to its disestablishment by politicians who are unhappy with its traditionalist stance. Unfortunately, politics shapes the Church, past and present.


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Historical division

There has always been division in the Church, from its earliest days, as New Testament letters such as 1 Corinthians tell us. Throughout Church history, huge splits have happened – the Orthodox/Catholic split in 1054, the Protestant reformation, umpteen smaller spats.

In the past century there has been the rise of liberal theology and the fundamentalist reaction, and ongoing disagreements between reformed and charismatic, catholic and protestant, and so on. Theologies have been debated, fought over, and ultimately, we haven’t come to an agreement. Hence the situation we have today, with an incredible number of Christian denominations.

What is different about the most recent Church arguments are that they are imported – the division between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, transgender rights activists and feminists, left-wing and right-wing, Brexit and Remain. Many churches have positions on such things, and criticise those who don’t agree.

Truth over tribe

Perhaps your church has been protected from such divides: but listen to pastors of churches in culture-war torn areas. People deciding whether to attend a church are asking very different questions to those they did 22 years ago, according to Keith Simon, pastor of The Crossing church in Missouri, US. In a recent discussion on Premier Unbelievable, he said: “In 2000 people would maybe decide if we’re the right church for them based on doctrinal or theological issues, but all of a sudden we started realising people were trying to decide if we were the right church for them because of our response to Black Lives Matter, or president Trump, or what we might think of as cultural issues.”

This change prompted him and fellow pastor Patrick Miller to launch the ‘Truth Over Tribe’ podcast, and a book of the same name. They warn of the tendency to “demonise the other side” in political debates, and advise instead to prioritise the Kingdom of God.

“Our concern is not so much that the Church is political, because I think fundamentally the gospel is a political message…the problem is that the Church has become partisan,” said Patrick when talking to Justin Brierley on Unbelievable?. “Jesus is political, he has a politic, but he’s not partisan. He doesn’t need to get a job in the Oval Office because he’s got a way better throne in heaven.”

They argue that we should challenge this tendency to divide along political lines, by seeking to build relationships with people who disagree with us, as well as exercise humility. As Patrick put it: “We often are more certain about what we know than we should be, and so if you’re across the Thanksgiving table or the Christmas table from someone who disagrees with you, there’s a good chance that you might actually have something wrong.”

No doubt such an approach would help defuse some of the acrimony around political discussions, which is sorely needed. But I found it interesting listening to them, because it struck me that they are a little bit tribal, at least theologically. For example, Patrick said: “Unfortunately in America there is a long history of Christians believing that they should take and have and hold power…the ‘let’s take back America for God’ approach.” He also writes for The Gospel Coalition, a group that is very sure of where it sits theologically and isn’t usually very forgiving of those who aren’t.


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Seek first God’s Kingdom

It might not get on the evening news, but our theological battles can be just as acrimonious and divisive as political ones. Don’t agree? Sit a John Piper-loving Reformed Christian down with a flag-waving charismatic, and see how they get on. Or, a middle class left-wing Bishop with a former drug addict fire-breathing Pentecostal. (Our churches are so divided, such meetings don’t happen very often.) 

It strikes me that we can’t really lecture the outside world on tribalism and political hate when we aren’t able to get our own house in order. Can the Church unite despite our many differing theological positions? I agree with Patrick that it’s about humility and building relationships, yet there are few inter-denominational efforts to breach the divides. Even if we can’t agree with what is true – and we believe truth is vitally important – we can, at the very least, learn to love each other despite our theologies. I’m pretty sure that’s what Jesus wanted when he prayed that his followers “will all be one” in John 17:21.

Perhaps we all need to look within when we pray, and ask ourselves what really drives our theological and political positions. Are we really seeking Jesus to be the Lord of our life? Are we truly seeking to love our neighbour? Or do we want to be right? Deep down, do we want to be better than others and put them down? Where is our love? I believe that when we truly prioritise Jesus and his Kingdom, we will see the walls come tumbling down.


Heather Tomlinson is a freelance journalist. You can find her on twitter @HeatherTomli or through her blog