4 steps toward unity (and away from evangelical tribalism)

November 11, 2019

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: 

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.

Daryl Crouch

Following 28 years in pastoral ministry, Daryl Crouch now leads Everyone’s Wilson, a community transformation initiative that helps churches bring the whole community around every school so that every student, educator, and family can live whole. He’s married to Deborah, and they have four children. Read More by this Author

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24