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4 steps toward unity (and away from evangelical tribalism)

When my brother and I would fight as kids, I remember my Mom saying, “Can’t we all just get along?” In this era of evangelical tribalism, I find myself asking the same question. But the real issue runs deeper than why we won’t hold hands and sing Kumbaya at camps, conventions, and conferences.

Is it possible that in our efforts to be true to the foundations of our faith, evangelicals have actually become unfaithful Christians? Unity around theological liberalism creates tragic consequences, but perhaps Bible-believing evangelicals have underestimated the overwhelming opportunity costs of our fractured orthodoxy. 

When the apostle Paul confronted the Christian factions in Corinth, his simple question was, “Is Christ divided?” Nothing in the text suggests that Apollos, Cephas, or Paul were engaged in heresy or that they were encouraging division. Instead, believers who identified with the particular personality, gifts, and calling of these men were segregating into tribes in a way that distracted both believers and unbelievers from the central message of the Cross.

Personal loyalties to certain brands of Christian orthodoxy distracted first-century onlookers from following Jesus. While the people inside those factions viewed themselves as being faithful to “The Word,” Paul chided them as missing the point of the gospel message altogether. 

Ironically, but not so encouragingly, the tribalism in the hallways of our conferences and conventions, the social media voices that decry one faction while building their own; the influencers who use theological language, yet struggle to share Jesus with lost people; and those who expect civility without modeling it do more to oppose Christ and the message of his bloody, sufficient work on the Cross than they do to promote it.

When we genuinely love one another, we can vigorously and constructively debate substantive issues with one another in ways that do not divide us.

The cost of our factions to legitimate gospel work is revealed in at least seven ways: 

  • Factions reveal a yet unformed character among people who should be mature in Christ 
  • Factions steal from us the joys of Christian fellowship
  • Factions make it more difficult for lost people to receive salvation in Christ and for new believers to grow in Christ 
  • Factions falsely elevate ourselves above “less faithful” brothers and sisters in Christ
  • Factions drain our energy and blur our focus for effectively sharing and showing the gospel in the public square 
  • Factions discourage eager Christians from joining the mission of Jesus at a higher level
  • Factions hinder our ability to debate and more thoroughly clarify important secondary issues 

Assuming we can agree on the destructive costs of evangelical tribalism, what can we do to honor one another as we bear witness of God’s redeeming work in Christ Jesus? Consider these four steps as first steps in that direction: 

1. Determine the doctrinal essentials necessary for Christian fellowship and gospel partnership.

For my tribe of Southern Baptists, our statement of faith is the Baptist, Faith, and Message (2000). It’s the core convictions stated in this document that serve as the foundation of our fellowship and missional partnership.

If your church or network of churches has a statement of faith, determine if it indeed reflects your essential convictions. If it does, hold to it firmly. If it does not, then study to show yourself approved, settle what you believe and why, and then build ministry partnerships with others who share those essentials.

As we identify and agree on our essentials, we avoid insisting on an orthopraxy that is not shaped by our orthodoxy. In other words, we hold fast to our core beliefs, which then frees us to build larger spaces in our lives for fellowship with people with whom we disagree on second- and third-tier issues.  

2. Focus personal influence and energy on the centrality of the gospel.

Jesus called a motley crew of disciples to draw near to him. Among those 12 men were a nationalistic zealot and a compromising tax collector. Some of them were evangelistic men of the people; others became theology wonks more comfortable with a pen and papyrus. 

The Bible records no occasion that Jesus addressed those differences in any way. There is no evidence that Jesus thought the differences among his closest followers were issues worth correcting or that they were a basis for division. When the disciples moved toward drawing those distinctions in an attempt to elevate one over the others, Jesus called them to the back of the line to serve one another. He then showed them the way of the Cross. 

And then in the early days of the New Testament church, the apostle Paul’s unobstructed focus was on Jesus Christ and him crucified. The “foolishness of the cross” was his antidote for Christian tribalism, and thus is not only the basis for our Christian fellowship, but also the fuel for our shared Great Commission ministry.

3. Build and encourage meaningful friendships with people with whom you disagree.

Jesus prayed in John 17 that believers would be one just as he and the Father are one. It honors Jesus for us to make unity among the saints a priority, which then compels us to seek out and honor people who hold alternative views on secondary issues. 

The Kingdom is bigger than we might think. The outsider rarely knows another person’s motives. Humility calls us to acknowledge that as much as we think we are right, we could be wrong. And Christian love insists that we avoid reckless or ill-informed speech that impugns another person’s character or Christian sincerity. Paul’s warning against pugnacity prescribes an expectation for pastors and leaders to model Christian friendship by building relational bridges with one another, championing one another publicly, and demonstrating what it means to overlook an offense.

4. Engage in vigorous debate on the secondary issues in ways that promote love.

Although secondary issues are not primary, they are still important to building a culture of theological fidelity and greater faithfulness in our churches, church networks, and mission agencies. When we genuinely love one another, we can vigorously and constructively debate substantive issues with one another in ways that do not divide us.

The world-at-large, and evangelicals in particular, should see seasoned ministry veterans engaging one another as statesmen who walk with both kindness and conviction. We should give one another the benefit of the doubt, challenge positions when necessary, and yet still refuse to cast a shadow on one another’s Christian fidelity. Even with our clearly articulated differences, we can celebrate one another’s faithfulness to gospel ministry. In doing so, experienced pastors and well-respected leaders model for younger pastors and a watching world how to navigate these same challenges in the local church and in personal relationships.

It could be that beyond our simple failure to share Jesus with lost people, the greatest explanation for evangelicals’ anemic efforts in seeing more people saved and baptized is a contrived, holier-than-thou tribalism cloaked as biblical orthodoxy. Rather than rallying around the Cross, we have dug tribal motes with the shovels of secondary issues at the expense of the primary doctrines of our faith.

What then could happen if we viewed sin, Satan, and death as the great enemy that moved us into Christian friendship? What would happen if we moved to the back of the line and served those who had a slightly different perspective? What would happen if we became students committed to learn from one another and to grow in grace together rather than straining out gnats as we publicly nuance every difference?  

And what would happen if we held the essentials of our faith tighter than the nonessentials so that the essentials rather than the nonessentials fundamentally shaped our attitudes and actions toward fellow and future believers? 

Perhaps when evangelicals become known for our resilient unity around the essentials of the faith and for our gracious disposition around the nonessentials, we will gain a new and measurable gospel influence in the public square. Maybe as we treat people with the dignity they deserve, refuse to vilify dissenters, and learn to weld a thesaurus of civility as we discuss difficult issues, our neighbors will more clearly see the wonder and sufficiency of the gospel to rescue sinners from our greatest enemy.

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