When Two Tribes Go To War

Over the last 10 years, through both my work with homeless people and in community development, I have worked with a wide range of different churches and with Christians who hold very different theological perspectives.

Despite some encouraging signs around Christian unity, there remains a significant tribalism at work in the Church between conservative and liberal emphases.  We see the effect of this tribalism in many of the misunderstandings and conflict that regularly break out within the Church.

A couple of years ago I developed this model (below) to map out the divide theologically.  I have used this a lot in informal conversations, talks and workshops as a way of highlighting this divide so that we can understand each other better and work for greater unity.I grew up within a church tradition that emphasised the blue side of this chart.  What I heard at church, sunday school and on youth camps was an emphasis on ‘knowing God personally’ and having my sin forgiven.  Preaching, conversion, believing the right things about the atonement and being distinctively Christian were emphasised.  Along with this came a clear commitment to the family and personal morality.

However, as a teenager I decided to study social work and made a commitment to work with people affected by poverty.  I found that this commitment was not particularly affirmed by the Christian culture I was within, or what I was to find later at the University Christian Union.  It was common for people to talk about ‘the dangers of the social gospel’ and issues of social justice simply did not fit comfortably within the theological framework.  This lack of connection was a big problem for me – I got more and more involved in social activism but my faith withered.

It was only after University when I started working with homeless people and I moved onto an inner city estate (for more see How an urban holiday club changed my life) and I discovered a Christian tradition that I had bearly even knew existed.  I read books by radicals from the catholic tradition such as Dorothy Day and Kenneth Leech  and radical evangelicals like Jim Wallis and Ron Sider.  Basically I discovered the red side of the chart – about Christian concern for social justice rooted in the incarnation and the kingdom of God.  It was like a whole new world which opened up to me.  I realised how much richness and depth there was within the Christian tradition and Biblical theology and how much of it affirmed and nourished the kind of work I knew God was calling me to.

The thing is though that as I have journeyed on from those years I have continued to feel sad about the disconnection between these worlds. I have met many people who are refugees from the ‘other tribe’.  Some of the most hard-bitten liberals are people scarred by a narrowly conservative upbringing which was hot on personal conduct but said little about social justice.  Equally, many of the most reactionary conservatives cite the dangers they have seen in a completely socialised gospel which has lost its personal vitality.  Too often these people are defining themselves negatively; by what they are against or what they have left, rather than what they actually believe now.

This is also a reason why leaders such as Tom Wright, Steve Chalke and Rob Bell have received such fierce criticism – because their work does not conform to traditional tribal patterns.  There is nothing tribes react more strongly to than those who transgress the key tribal markers of belief or behaviour.  Some Christians have seemed to relish the opportunity, particularly with Chalke and Bell, to drag them outside the evangelical city wall and stone them.

The thing is that I don’t want to reject the tradition I grew up in but I don’t want to be limited by it either.  The Christianity I grew up with has given me so much – I don’t want to lose what is important from the blue side of the chart or adopt a label like ‘post evangelical’.    I believe that true Christian radicalism involves holding these two sides of this chart together.  The gospel of Jesus cannot be divided up: it is inherently personal and social, truth is found in both the atonement and the incarnation, faith involves beliefs and actions, we need to care about both personal morality and social justice and we need to be both tolerant and distinctive.

Of course this is easy to write and very hard to live out.

But it is when we hold these truths together that we begin to leave the shallow waters of tribalism and enter the choppier waters that authentic faith leads us into. It can be scary, we will feel out of our depth and in danger, we may be misunderstood and cause offence.  But it is a place where we really do need to depend on Jesus, to have a deeper faith, that we ‘may gain Christ and be found in him’ (Philippians 3:8).

(for more on this theme see Resisting Tribal Theology and Going Deeper Together)

15 thoughts on “When Two Tribes Go To War”

  1. John… you express the tragedy of the divide.. the great divorce very well..
    I think in a seminal book I read in the 1970s Moberg called it the great reversal

    .I identify with your struggle. I’m in it myself in our local church and in the urban mission development we are trying to do in preston.. I’ve got a few evangelicals who won’t hardly talk to me because I’m not sound spiritually (somtimes they talk more about grace than exhibit it hence the exclusion of heretics that keeps flaring up) and a few radicals who still suspect my evangelical agendas (though to be honest most of them are easily brought round when they see the social action is real). Thank God I’ve got a lot of evangelicals (especially among the Free methodists and charismatics) who get the holistic social bit and a lot of lovely practically involved radical (Methodists Catholics and Baptists) who really do want more people to get to know Jesus.

    There’s that song which has a line “i will serve no foreign god” which I find so difficult in a global and multicultural world as it seems to say the True God is British. I now sing “I will serve no tribal God” which I think is more faithful to the OT meaning of the sentence anyway.

    Nitpicking a bit with the things you have put in the two columns of your model.. After NT wright and his work on Paul.. the epistles should definitely be moved over to the orange column… the future hope is the thread that stretches between them.. and for me a proper understanding of the atonement moves there as well….. I fear that some sections of the blue column without a focus on the incarnation are in danger of drifting away from Trinitarian Christian orthodoxy into a gnostic superspiritual neverland…

    But lets hang on to the message of Colossians.. it is the messiah who holds all things together.. and lets pray that he can do this for the tribalised church.


  2. Jon,

    Great article. Picked it up on Fulcrum.

    I think that you are so right about the divide and how thank God its starting to be challenged in places. I must admit to loving the work of NT Wright & Rob Bell and I think you’re right as to why they are getting so much flack.

    I do think that there are good reasons to hope though. There are more people who have real experience of both sides and haven’t gone to the extremes of rejecting everything that they learnt. Certainly for us as a church we see that the Church is called for the sake of the world and not just for individual piety but that doesn’t exclude individual piety.

    Its interesting that on our journey as a church we want to bring different strands together. So we do want people to come to know Jesus but we also want to bless our community and we also want to make space to meet with God etc.


    1. thanks Will. Absolutely – I am actually really excited about the synthesis that is emerging with the help of people like Wright and Bell – and I like your summary of ‘people coming to know Jesus and bless the community’ – I guess its summed up with Micah 6:8 ‘acting justly, loving mercy and walking humbly with God’. Thanks for your response.


  3. I work for an organisation that seeks to draw the two sides together, not by becoming liberal but by acknowledging the existence of the other perspectives that I believe should belong in the conservative evangelical tradition. Thus I seek not a synthesis but in a(n arrogant?) way a recovery of true evangelicalism by stealing back the clothes lost to the liberals.
    Just a quick question.
    You cite NTW Steve Chalke and Rob Bell as examples of people vilified because they move outside their tribal position. The vilification that I have read of these is all from the evangelical side. Are there examples of those vilified from the liberal side? The nearest that I can think of is Rowan Williams but this may be either because I simply do not know what goes on in the liberal world or it might be that liberals do not go for vilification quite as much as evangelicals.
    Another group of people that might be worth thinking about is that group who seem to have huge appeal outside their tribe. The high church CS Lewis is lionised by evangelicals. Barth and Bonheiffer are similarly praised by evangelicals in ways inconceivable when I first became a Christian. What makes them so attractive? Is it just that they are dead? But now even Stanley Fish is quite accepted in evangelical circles.
    Lastly is there a group of people who do not belong to a tribe? Perhaps Stanley Hauerwas but a group of one is not much of a group. Surely there are others who might be so categorised.


    1. thanks Tim. I would not know enough to know who is vilified from the other direction – but one example of someone who moved towards conservatism is Lesslie Newbigin and I have heard a lot of people from a more liberal position raise their bemusement about this move. For more about this see the article ‘proper confidence in the gospel’ which is about him and this move under the theology tab above.

      I think there are loads of people who don’t fit within the categories – in fact most people would not accept being pigeonholed – I think that this tribalism is more manifested within group behaviour – such as within conferences and networks rather than individuals. Reinhold Neihbuhr wrote about how sin is more manifested in group behaviour than individuals – what he described as ‘group egoism’ is what I see at work here. I think people like Hauerwas and the ana-baptist / mennonite people like J.H Yoder are respected across the boundaries.


    2. Timothy, people like Tom Wright are vilified by liberals constantly. For a general example of liberal disdain, see anything by Giles Fraser, particular his Loose Canon about Cheesus. Ignorant, vicious and patronising.


  4. It’s interesting and I note my old mate Greg giving his insightful wisdom!!! I don’t really recognise these two columns and think there are far more cross overs than you suggest. I am also surprised that Steve Chalke is being described as a Liberal. He’s hardly a Liberal by any stretch of the imagination. There are of course Liberals and then there are Liberals. I do not see that those who are involved in Social Justice as being necessarily Liberal either. I find the two columns unhelpful. Sorry. What if you see yourself as in both camps for all different reasons than those you have described? I think for the reasons you have given and the two camp divide you have set out shows all the reasons why we are in such a mess. And a reason why I do not see myself as an evangelical and haven’t for years now. It is all just too restrictive. If I were in either camp I’d go mad. There can be a fusion between the two. It doesn’t have to be one or tother. I know many people that would fit in your Liberal camp but then they would also subscribe to the Conservative camp in some respects. I believe in a person relationship with the living God but I also see that relationship having to be worked out in the world. I see a lot of right wing evangelicals – now there’s a group for you to ponder – who will say anything from reading and living by the word of God as they see it. It comes across as judgemental, harsh, cruel, and very little love and women don’t stand a chance – a woman Bishop? A bishop of the Kitchen is about as far as one might get in such a group. Some will love you very much as long as you tow their line. Liberals can be anything from non believing the word of God at all to those who only believe in a bit of it and others who may believe it but have a more social action understanding. And many, many more.

    For myself I got so fed up with being crushed by the evangelical right and embraced the works of Ken Leech, Jim Punton, John Vincent, Guttierez, Boff Brothers, and now more and more the wonderful Brueggeman. I also read Nouwen, Celtic spirituality and the Bible – which I have read again and again.

    It seems to me that all things biblical need to be held in tension. It is both vertical and horizontal for me. In practice I am probably considered a Liberal in your divide.


    1. Annie – thanks for the reply but the key drive of my post is to make the point you are making. The model is a critique – the division, especially the tribalism that goes with it is the problem. I also cannot put myself in either camp and many individuals are the same -the key problem is the networks and gatherings often do conform to the tribal divisions. I would never label Steve Chalke ‘a liberal’ and this is not what I wrote – the point is that it is his perceived transgression of the tribal markers of evangelicalism which has caused all the fuss. He and Rob Bell I think are expressing theology which crosses the divide.


  5. Jon, this is a really helpful taxonomy. I think the use of the word ‘conservative’ is interesting; ‘conservative’ evangelicals use the term to mean ‘Bible-believing’, but of course (as you hint), it would be hard to support the blue box *over against* the red box based on Scripture, with perhaps the exception of the line on ‘means of atonement.’ So I am with Tom Wright in wanting to reclaim the term ‘conservative evangelical’ if only to say that it is having our understanding constantly re-formed by Scripture that matters…


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