Are We a Tribe? by Gary Jewell

As I thought about this morning’s sermon and the Scripture I might use, I chose this text because it focuses our minds on a relevant word that is often heard today in our current culturally anxious times…. “tribalism.”  Paul, in writing to the church in Corinth, is talking to the force of tribalism that is tearing the church apart.

Tribalism….the natural human tendency (indeed, the vital evolutionary human need) is how we break into distinct, identifiable human clusters which share a common set of values, rituals, rules, history and, in some cases, genetics. Along with this group identification come definitions of “who is in, and who is out.” We humans have evolved this way as a means of survival.  By belonging to an inside group which cares for us and protects us, our individual survival is greatly enhanced.  And so we identify ourselves with specific nations, or schools, or sports teams, or political parties, or clubs, or…. yes, even churchesWe, as the church, see ourselves as a Christian tribe.  More specifically, you are the tribe none as “Friends”.  And even more specifically you are the “Friends of Spokane” tribe.  (And please hear me… no judgment here….all churches are tribal to various degrees.)

Within this tribe you have certain rules (some written down, but often unwritten and unspoken); you have a specific history (some of which is written down, and much which is not ….it fact it may be quite private); and you have certain expectations (oftentimes unarticulated). And, as with all tribes, if you are to be a member in good standing, you are expected to conform.  This may be OK.- – provided you know what those expectations and stories are.  But without that knowledge, entry into the tribe is daunting to someone from outside the tribe.  And this is where entry becomes difficult.  (It’s really important, especially for a family- connected, small community-oriented church like Menno Mennonite to be keenly aware of this reality.  Why? Because new people will find it hard to easily integrate if you aren’t aware of this dynamic and seek to address it).

Now let us consider what Paul is dealing with in the Corinthian church.  It seems that in the case of the Corinthian church the tribal mentality is causing a bit of an issue amongst the gathered saints.  The church in Corinth, among its many other problems and dysfunctions, is struggling with “factionalism” (i.e. tribalism).

“I belong to the tribe of Cephas.  I belong to the party of Paul.  Well, I belong to the faction of Apollos.

“Oh yeah (someone says)….Well, I belong to Christ!”  (By the way, I think that guy or gal got it right!)

Now remember, Paul is a church planter and he had spent a year and a half living in Corinth and getting this church off the ground.  And it is sometime later, after he had left to establish churches in places like Philippi and Ephesus, that he got wind that things weren’t going so well back with the fledgling church in Corinth.   And so he sends this letter back to the community.  And in typical fashion, Paul’s letter is filled with a mix of praise, encouragement, admonition, practical advice, and even a bit of sarcasm….(Imagine that?….Sarcastic!?  Paul?)

In chapter one Paul asks in rhetorical, and sarcastic, tones, “Is Christ divided?  Was Paul crucified for you?  Were you baptized into the (air quotes) “name of Paul”?  I’m just thankful I didn’t baptize any of you least you claim that you were baptized into my name!”

Now, I have to admit…honestly, as I have read Paul’s letters over the years I have actually come to appreciate more of the complexity of the man….especially his sarcastic wit.  I hear it hear in this section of 1 Cor. And I encourage you to read 2 Cor. with this tone in mind.  His humorous…albeit sarcastic humor…. Is, in my opinion, brilliant!

Now in light of what we know about our own human nature, and in light of the tribal conflicts within the church in Corinth, and especially in light of our current cultural and church conflicts, “How should we deal with this human, tribal impulse?”

Certainly we would all agree that the church is a wonderful and legitimate place where humans can, and should, flourish and find safety, acceptance, belonging, and identity centered around a very particular sacred narrative…..something we call “the gospel of redemptive love known in Christ Jesus.”  And entry into this tribe shouldn’t be difficult.  This tribe should be a place where people are accepted for who they are? And along with that, this tribe should be a place where folks “can be real?”

There’s an interesting book entitled, “Church Refugees” by Christian sociologist, Josh Pachard.  In this book he asks a timely question “Why are people leaving the church?”  Through his interviews with people who have left the church, he comes up with basically four reasons why people leave.  Interestingly enough, it’s not because they stopped loving and believing in Jesus, and it’s not even that they stopped loving the people in the church.

Based on extensive interviews with people who have given up on church, there are the four basic reasons ….

  • They hungered for a loving, accepting community, and instead experienced judgment.
  • They longed to apply their energy toward meaningful, socially transformative action for healing in a broken world, and instead had to fight through cumbersome church bureaucracy / committees. (In short, their enthusiasm to enact exciting ideas for ministry were smothered by the institution’s need to control.)
  • They desired authentic and honest conversations about real questions and real issues that applied directly to their lives, and instead got one-sided, dogmatic “answers.”
  • They wanted personal growth for where they were at, and instead found shallow moral prescriptions.

These are things for any church to consider if it wants to be relevant and growing and meeting people’s needs in our complicated, yet spiritually shallow, world.

As a pastor, I think one of the most important traits of people looking for a “place in the Christian tribe” is… “People WANT A PLACE WHERE THEY CAN BE REAL’.  I.e., they want a place where they can ask real question about real issues without the worry of being shamed into silence.

(Let me give one example….I had a brief glimpse of “being real” when I convened some summer time evening men’s groups.  One time the topic was “sexuality and how we understood it as we grew up and how that understanding had changed over the years”.  In the course of our sharing someone in that group had the guts to talk about a certain older male issue of  dysfunction in the bedroom and how it effected his marital relationship…..O.K….this was a moment of “getting real.”  Even though not all the men there had that issue, it was a radical, transformative moment.  Finally, we were talking, and listening, and sharing about something that was a real, relational issue.  Now that might not be an appropriate topic for a sermon, but it certainly is valid topic for those men in the church. It was an opportunity for them to become vulnerable and caring!

I share this as just one simple example of “getting real”.  I.e. sharing of things that we struggle with (without fear of being shamed).

Another time we met and had an honest conversation about salvation and what we had been taught about “hell” and what salvation really meant to people.  Many had been spiritually damaged by deeply negative fear-based teaching and we found healing in talking about it.

The chances are, if there is an issue you struggle with or a question you wonder about, most likely someone else in the church is dealing with that also.  And just knowing that you are not alone makes all the difference in the world.  The Christian tribe/congregation ought to be a safe place where honest expressions of real struggles and real questions (be they theological or personal, heretical or orthodox, ethical or practical) are not deal breakers for belonging.  If anything, the church should be the one place where we can be honest about our lives, and find positive outlets for action!

Another way of saying this is perhaps to say that the church needs to be a community (again, tribe, if you will) of hospitality.  One of the big problems with the church in Corinth was that it wasn’t a hospitable or safe place.  Not only were people dividing into cult-like following and factions (I belong to Paul!  I belong to Apollos! etc.), but it was also becoming a place where rich and poor were being distinguished and separated from one another.  Power differences were played out over who sat where, and who decided what.  Communion had degenerated into more of a gorging and drinking fest rather than a beautiful, symbolic enactment of sharing, provision, invitation, caring, and fellowship.  Sexual boundaries were disregarded – in some cases to such a degree that even the “pagans” were scandalized.  People were judging others for what they ate or didn’t eat, depending on how kosher one was or wasn’t.  Some people were behaving without sensitivity to where others were in their spiritual understanding and development.  In short, the church was fracturing from within.  And rather than being a beautiful tribe centered around the teachings of Christ, it was morphing into a cultic tribe of pain and strife.  That’s not the church!  That’s hell.   And there’s plenty of that these days.

I don’t have to tell any of you that we live in dangerously divided times.  We have allowed ourselves to be divided into ridiculous tribes of conservative vs. liberal, and rural vs. urban.   And we have been “played” by those with the largest “microphones.”  Worst amongst us are AM talk show hosts, TV preachers, and politicians at all levels… chief amongst them, the man at the top.  (That itself, I admit, might be a divisive, “tribal” statement.  And I will refrain from saying any more.)

But the church, of all places, should be a place of sanctuary from our divisive “tribalism.”

In Shakespeare’s great play, The Merchant of Venice, the ostracized “villain” Shylock, the Jewish money lender, makes a great speech were in response to the prejudice of his tormentors. Shylock says,

“I am a Jew!  Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions?  Fed with the same food, hurt by the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is?  If you prick us, do we not bleed?  If you tickle us, do we not laugh?  If you poison us, do we not die?  And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?  If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that?”

When it comes down to it, you see, whether we’re talking about religious tribes, or political tribes, or national tribes, or denominational tribes, or really any tribe, the fictional Shylock, as well as the real apostle Paul, and most assuredly Jesus, reminds us that there is really only one tribe for us…. that is the tribe of humanity.  And for me, here’s the kicker, I don’t care so much about small tribal identification any more.  (Oh sure. I may consider myself an urban person, or a liberal, or whatever…. But that’s not really who I am.  And I certainly value my identity as a Christian).  But over and above anything else, I belong to the same “tribe” of God we all belong to: “The Child of God Tribe” to which all created beings belong.

And I have come to believe that the tribe of Christ (what we call the church)…. Is really just the call to become the best and most honest human beings we can be.  As those words from Shakespeare remind us, we all have the same basic human desires, hopes, vulnerabilities, dreams, flaws, struggles, nobility.  We all want to live fulfilled lives.  We all need to find love and discover the joy of our unique gifts and to do the unique work we were called into this life to do.  We all crave kindness.  We all need to know we belong.  We all need to feel safe.  We all need to be encouraged.  And we all need to be held when we have our hearts broken. The tribe we call the church is where we can safely hold all that for our membership….and carry that same desire for the world at large. 

Wherever we see division being fostered, wherever we see “us vs. them,” I can never forget that the “them” (regardless of nation, or sexuality, or skin color, or world view or whatever other “tribe” someone may hail from), all are precious children from the same infinitely loving Creator who desires that no one perish but that all be saved.

Jesus, the fully human one, the one who referred to himself repeatedly as “the Son of Man” summed it up (and it’s ridiculously simple really) …“Love God with everything you’ve got.  And love your brothers and sisters as you must come to love yourself.”  (Think about…. at its core, it’s not that hard, yet paradoxically it is!  (As I sometimes say to folks, “God is found in the details!”)  We have a hard time with this, but for me the gospel is this….the only tribe, the only “church,” that matters is the one that calls people to fulfill Jesus’ great commandment:  Love.

In these tribally divided times, that’s a “church” that people are truly hungry for.  That’s the nation we all belong to and many have not yet found!

May that be the vision that invites people in…. be a follower of Jesus, and to more fully discover, with the help and guidance of the Holy Spirit,  what it is to be the human being that God has called us to be!  May the church fulfill this mission.



This message was given by Gary Jewell at Spokane Friends Church on February 17, 2019





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