Resisting Tribal Theology and Going Deeper Together

(published as a chapter in Crossover City – Resources for Urban Mission and Transformation [Continuum, 2009])

The new ecumenism

Despite the high profile disagreements between Christians in recent years, there has been a real growth in local initiatives which bring different congregations together. This ‘new ecumenism’ has been primarily driven by mission initiatives which have sought to serve the needs of the local community in practical and tangible ways. Through this community mission varied congregations across the UK have discovered a unity in action: a common cause as one Church that is seeking to serve the local community.

One example is in Deptford, South London where Livability have worked with many different congregations to help them come together and sign a covenant to work together for the benefit of the area. The congregations involved include Pentecostal, Salvation Army, independent charismatic, Methodist, Catholic and two very different Anglican congregations. Theologically and culturally there are many differences – but a shared desire to see Jesus have an impact in their community has drawn them together.

The impetus for congregations to work together is now coming from some unlikely sources. Over the last ten years there has been a significant shift in many Pentecostal and charismatic congregations who are now emphasising God’s saving purposes for their whole area rather than simply individuals. Initiatives such as Redeeming our Communities, Soul in the City (2004), Eden and Street Pastors epitomise this theological and missional shift in evangelical thinking and practice.

There is also a change in many ‘Churches Together’ groups who have developed a far more dynamic and outward focus that moves far beyond organising joint services. One of the best examples is Transform Newham in East London but there are also a growing number of initiatives such as Love Southend and, local to me, Love Streatham. These initiatives are bringing churches together with a purpose – to increase the impact they are having in the community. And again, more often than not, it is charismatic and Pentecostal churches that are at the forefront of this new form of ecumenism. No longer can it be said that these churches are simply interested in gathering people for praise and worship on a Sunday. The landscape is changing.

This shift is encouraging because often there is a generosity that lies behind the growing unity – a willingness to acknowledge that the Church is the Body of Christ and that other traditions have strengths that we lack. This kind of ‘unity in action’ is not based on a theological reductionism which purely focuses on ‘activism’. But it does mean passionately emphasising first those things on which we agree: that our communities are in desperate need for love, grace and an encounter with Jesus.

It seems that the growing community focus of the charismatic and Pentecostal congregations, as well as their passion and urgency, is having a galvanising effect on the wider church. These churches have become the powerhouse of a new unity that is breaking out around the country – a mission shaped movement which is in deep contrast to the tired, inward looking ecumenism of the past.

Tribal theology

However, whilst there are encouraging shifts for mission and unity on a local level, there remains a theological tribalism within the institutional structures of the traditional denominations. Strongholds of disunity are more entrenched within the ecclesiastical structures than they are on the ground in communities. Despite their relative strengths, both the Church of England reports Faith in the City (1986) and Faithful Cities (2006) illustrate the failure to overcome the tribal theology that undermines the church’s mission.

Faith in the City

Back in the 1980s the Church of England’s Faith in the City report famously irked the Thatcher government of the day. The description of it as ‘pure Marxist theology’ by one Cabinet member secured for it something of a legendary status within the church. Perhaps too many in the Church of England have lived off the memory of these halcyon days when the established church offered a more effective opposition than the Labour Party did!

But from within the Church there was some thoughtful critique of the report. John Root wrote:

‘There is no greater enemy of wholesome moral debate in our society than polarisation into strongly personal, socially conservative responses; and impersonal, strongly political ones. By contrast scripture constantly interweaves personal holiness and political responsibility. Faith in the City is rightly strong on the collective injustice that creates the misery of UPAs; but it seriously neglects the effect of personal sins, such as dishonesty, laziness and sexual immorality. If the Church of England is to speak more prophetically to our society, it must learn to unite the voices of collective responsibility and personal transformation. Whilst the report is to be commended for saying unpopular things about the former it has been too bound by ground rules of secular debate to also speak the New Testament’s words of personal rebuke, repentance and re-birth’ [1]

John Root’s words are powerful because twenty years because they are still relevant. There remains today a real need to ‘unite the voices of collective responsibility and personal transformation’ in the church’s role in urban mission. Our continued tendencies towards tribal theology continue to disable the prophetic voice that the Church could have in this country.

Faithful Cities

Twenty years later the Church of England established a Commission for Urban Life and Faith which produced the report Faithful Cities published in 2006. Through the make up of the Commission panel, its modus operandi and its final report failed to engage with the changing face ofBritain and especially the Church. It failed to effectively engage with the evangelical perspective and experiences in urban mission. It was dominated by a liberal agenda which while it succeeded in challenging structural inequality and giving interesting sociological analysis, was unable to understand the commitments driving the growing evangelical agenda for an integrated approach to social action, evangelism and church growth and unity.

During 2004 I attended many of the Commission’s events and at the same time I was heavily involved in the predominantly evangelical Soul in the City initiative that summer. It was almost as if the two initiatives were happening in a parallel universe from each other such was the lack of connectivity between the two.[2] The Commission for Urban Life and Faith events seemed to be operating within a culture dominated by the left hand silo on the diagram below. Whilst its report acknowledged some of the new initiatives and projects emerging from evangelical and charismatic churches it failed to give any theological analysis of why these initiatives were flourishing. No sustained or effective attempt was made to cross the cultural and theological divide.

Across the Church most people agree that the report Faithful Cities had very little impact either on society or even within the Church. Part of the reason is the far less polarised political context that it was published into compared to Faith in the City – but this is only half the story. The other important reason is because it failed to articulate or represent what a large part of the church feel passionate about. It simply failed to speak for their work.

On the ground Soul in the City was a great example of a growing missional unity but the ecclesiastical structures of the Church of England were unable to capture a similar unity in diversity. The Commission and its report reflected the divisions within the Church rather than helping to overcome them.

The effect of tribal theology

These are simply examples of the effect of tribal theology. I believe the tribalism which drives us into cultural and theological silos deeply undermining the Church’s witness in the world.

Firstly, it leads to brittle beliefs. If we just spend time within the silo of our tradition, only talk with those who agree with us, our beliefs are not tested, toughened or deepened by honest debate with those with different perspectives. Too often we can express ourselves confidently within the silo of our particular Christian culture but are rarely tested in robust debate. This lack of assertiveness and true confidence is not just a problem for internal well-being of the Church – it leaves us ill-equipped to articulate our faith in the public square. Too often, tribalism means we appear shrill and out of touch when speaking to those beyond the Church.

Secondly it turns the Church inward. So much energy in the Church is expended on criticising fellow Christians. The silos of disunity create safe havens from which prominent leaders can criticise ‘the other’, winning applause at conferences and selling books. Instead of resources, time and energy being used to send people out in mission, they are expended in deconstructing the beliefs of other Christians.

Thirdly, we simply mirror the political divisions in the world. Rather than bearing witness to the unity of transformation in Christ, the Church breaks readily into political camps with points to score and positions of influence to fight over. Too often our disunity is simply a thin religious veneer on existing social and political divisions. Instead of meaningful relationships with a focus on mission, labels such as ‘liberal’ or ‘fundamentalist’ are used, not for self-identification, but as expressions of contempt in order to write off the perspectives of fellow Christians.

Fourthly and most damagingly, it leads to the church conforming to secular orthodoxy rather than Biblical orthodoxy. Instead of ‘uniting the voices of collective responsibility and personal responsibility’ (Root) in a prophetic synthesis, we follow the basic division between conservative and liberal emphasises. This secular orthodoxy shapes religion and faith in its own image, rather than God’s. It is a faith that takes it cues from the ‘spirit of the age’ (the zeitgeist) rather than God’s eternal Holy Spirit. God save us from a church that is fluent in sociological and economic analysis but cannot speak confidently of how the Holy Spirit transforms lives.

A dialectical appreciation of Christian theology

In order to overcome this tribal theology we need to appreciate the dialectical nature of Christian truth. Instead of seeing the range of emphasises on key theological issues as opposing each other we need to understand them as a dialectic that is in-built into the Christian faith – that truth always involves holding contrasting factors in tension.

These creative tensions abound in Christianity. At heart of our faith is the belief that an eternal, omnipresent God incarnated Himself into a specific space and time within human history. We believe that God is both transcendent, wholly other from creation – but also immanent, a God who we can know as a Father. We believe in both experience of God’s grace working in our lives and in a revealed truth in the Bible. We believe in both a personal encounter of Christ and the social witness that the Church is called to live out. We believe in both the truth of the incarnation of God in Christ and the atonement that he brought about through his death. To all of these aspects of theological truth, the orthodox Christian can say ‘I believe’.

It is this dialectical nature of truth that is Christianity’s strength in being able to engage with the real world. It is rooted in the rabbinic tradition in which Jesus ministry was birthed – where dialectical instructions, e.g. to be ‘wise as serpents and innocent as doves’ were common.

Grappling with the dialectics such as these is central to what it means to be part of the Body of Christ. Because in every community, whether urban or not, there are Christians whose personal beliefs or tradition of church will have different emphasises than their fellow Christians. This is both the way it has always been and surely also the way it is meant to be, as the Church displays the rich diversity of those called to follow Jesus. As Paul wrote to the divided Church inCorinth, ‘though all its parts are many, they form one body’ (I Corinthians 12:12).

The diagram sets out some of the dialectics within orthodox Christianity. Many people have travelled a journey between these emphasises. In my church home group which meets weekly for Bible study and discussion the topic of social justice is continually grappled with. Some have journeyed from a conservative emphasis on personal salvation towards a more social understanding of faith. However there are also others who have travelled in the other direction – who have questioned the more liberal emphasis they grew up in and embraced an urgency around personal faith and a conviction on truth that they found lacking previously.

The point of this model is to help us recognise the legitimacy of the range of belief within orthodox Christianity. We need to recognise the emphasis of others and commit to informed dialogue whilst we keep the focus outward on our mission in the world. It will be this dual commitment to unity and mission that allows us to go deeper into Christ together.

Robust and open discussion across these silos can be energising and exciting – if it is the context of mission. It can become a dynamic exploration which appreciates the strengths of the other position even if each group continues to disagree. I saw this kind of unity emerge during the Soul in the City initiative in 2004 in Leytonstone where joint work between an Anglo-Catholic congregation and the neighbouring Pentecostal church really produced fruit. After two weeks of working with the local kids they had deepened their relationship and found a unity in mission, despite the wide difference in their theology and culture. And this is the continuing experiences we see in the ‘new ecumenism’ discussed above.

Going deeper together

If the Church is to be effective and to make an impact in urban issues we urgently need Christian social thinking that is prepared to break the silos between liberal and conservative. William Temple, who as much as anyone worked for Christianity’s social impact said ‘If we have to choose between making men Christian, and the social order more Christian, we have to choose the former, but there is no such antithesis.’ Temple was right – these two emphasises are deeply interrelated – but he was also right in recognising their order of dependence on each other. The gospel must transform individuals if it is to transform society.

As we consider the Church’s role in the urban context we cannot live in the past – we have to look at what God is saying to his Church in this time. And as the high tide of Christendom recedes, it exposes a harsh reality. For there are too many large, impressive religious buildings which stand as empty relics of yesteryear, like spiritual museums of a different age. They may have served well in an age of cultural Christianity but that age is now long gone.

We have to face the reality that without purposeful evangelistic efforts many urban congregations will continue to die. And for those denominations their ability to provide social analysis, let alone any potential political impact, will die with it. For the Church’s social and political impact is derivative – ultimately it relies on people’s encounter with the risen Lord Jesus and being willing to participate in communities that in some way express this belief. In order to avoid being parasitic, the institutional social endeavours within denominations need to recognise their dependence on vibrant and healthy congregations and church growth.

The dialectics set out in the diagram are rich resources for Christian thinking and engagement with the world – they are our strength – but too often they become silos of tribal entrenchment that simply mirror the conflicts in the world. The centralised and institutional elements of the traditional denominations will not survive if they continues to be enslaved into secular divisions between liberal and conservative perspectives.

If the Church is to be effective, indeed if the Church is to survive, we must go deeper. Going deeper means venturing out into the risky places, the radical places where we speak the Word of God to both institutions and individuals; where we are unashamed to both proclaim Jesus as Lord and work in His name for restoration and justice for all.

This is a place where we will lose friends and cause offence, just as Jesus said we would (Luke 21:12-19). But it is here that we are really following Jesus and taking up the cross he calls us to. It is a place where we truly need depend on the Holy Spirit rather than the spirit of the age. But it is in this place, at the foot of the cross, where the Church will rediscover its role, its calling and its power to transform our broken world in Jesus’ name.

[1] John Root ‘What sort of Nation?’ Taking on Faith in the City, p.6, Grove booklets, 1987

[2] Shaftesbury (now Livability) undertook the official evaluation of the Soul in the City initiative in 2004 in conjunction with the Evangelical Alliance.

23 thoughts on “Resisting Tribal Theology and Going Deeper Together”

  1. I found your blog through your facebook initiative against that advertisement, but what a wonderful find here. This article is really great. Succinct and enlighting. It describes clearly things I’ve been feeling at a gut level for the past five years or so about the state of the church. I’m going to have to address this through sermons and in conversation in my parish. Thanks.


    1. thanks Karen – glad you found that helpful. I have used the silo diagram quite a lot in presentations and discussions so if you want me to send you it on powerpoint then let me know. All the best with your ministry.


  2. Jon, I really enjoyed this article. Thanks for bringing your very thoughtful wisdom to what can be an angry and divided ‘mission’.

    I’m particularly interested in the idea of dialectic, which is a concept I’ve studied in a small way from a philosophical perspective. The kind of rabbinic dialectic – the ‘wise as serpents, innocent as doves’ you quote – is very different from the 18th century European philosophical idea of dialectic, in which a thesis and antithesis resolve themselves, or are ‘sublated’ by a third concept.

    I wonder, do you think that we need the Jewish tension of unity amid mutual contradiction, where we live together without feeling any great need to find a theological path through our differences? Or do we need to seek the ‘Third Way’, as a well-loved magazine seeks to do? Or something else?


  3. Thanks Matt for that response. I find myself using the dialectical approach a lot – see the piece under homelessness titled ‘Grace and Truth with homeless people’ where basically I used the same technique. I think care needs to be taken in the approach of setting up false polarities and then arguing a middle way – it can be used cynically like Tony Blair was criticised for. His most famous use of it was ‘tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime’ which captured this tension brilliantly. Obviously paradox is a big theme in scripture and I think it is rooted in a rabbinic approach where truth involves holding factors in tension.

    Sometimes we clearly do need to find a path through things for unity – so some of the classic church debates on the divinity of Christ for example have clearly been necessary and important. But on lesser matters I find that being comfortable with people with different views is very liberating and can help focus on the main thing in hand. It is also just reflects reality where there is always a wide range of views. Even in the most dogmatically conservative churches you still find a massive range of opinion when you actually talk to people – often the leaders are reluctant to acknowledge but is always the case. So I think with some things we need to battle to find a third way – e.g. for a decision or for an approach to a certain activity or initiative – but often we can be comfortable with difference. As John Wesley (I think) said ‘In the essentials, Unity; in the non-essentials, Liberty; and in all things, Charity.’

    Incidently with Third Way magazine I think the sad thing is that it is in danger of not holding to a third way in the direction its editorial has taken – I think it is becoming too ‘post evangelical’ and a bit too embarrassed about personal conversion and is thus losing its radical edge


  4. Jon, I really enjoyed your article and I was having a very similar conversation with a friend, as to whether or not a theological shift is necessary for a deeper unity within the church. We focused on the tension which exists between reformed and non-reformed denominations, and whether or not free will is an essential component of Christology. I believe many people think it is and that is why there is such a deep and long lasting division. I also lean towards the belief that a theological shift is necessary. I pray constantly for a deeper unity (John 17) and I also pray for a shift. I personally believe Molinism provides the third way that unites God’s sovereignty and man’s free will.

    I also recently attended a debate between William Lane Craig and Alex Rosenberg, and although Craig won the debate handily according to the judges, the live audience, and the online audience, Rosenberg brought up a really good point. He expressed what seemed like a really sincere desire for more public forums of debate and discourse. I personally agree that the church, myself included, needs to get out of our “silos” and defend our beliefs so that we not only know what we believe but why we believe it.


    1. thanks Matt for reading the article and your comments. I do think that the best place for getting out of your silos is mission – focussing on the outward expressions of faith – whether that be in word or deed. Our divisions are exposed for the shallow differences they are when so many people beyond the church have not heard or seen much evidence of the good news. Thanks for your interest.


  5. To be honest that answer sounds like it is coming from the liberal silo. I am coming from a place of true sorrow on this topic. I have seen our city attempt both strategies (serving together and worshiping together), and from all outward appearances it has failed and I honestly do not think it was from a lack of trying or sincerity. I have a strong desire to see a theological shift because I lean towards a molinistic theology myself, but I hope it is not my own bias that sees it as necessary for a deeper unity within the church.


    1. Hi Matt – no worries and maybe its a fair criticism if that comment sounded too liberal. Sorrow is a good place to start – better than empire building!

      I am not familiar with molinistic theology – can you point me towards a definition? I would be interested in what went wrong in tour city in terms of unity – how did ‘serving together’ fail?


  6. I will look for a good link describing Molinism. As far as what went wrong in our city I think it went like this. There was a strong push for unity through combined acts of service. Then many pastors became aware of their theological differences with the pastors they were working with (i.e. stances on homosexuality) and many dropped out. Then many who were willing to work with pastors despite their differences were upset that some pastors would not and they withdrew. It has been a similar story with praying / worshiping together.


    1. Thanks – be good to see the link.

      Your little story though highlights for me one of the key sadnesses of our current situation where we allow one issue to become a dividing block between us. My experience of unity work has been a lot more positive – whereby even on an issue as hotly contested and sensitive as the gay issue, churches who hold different perspectives can work together if they are willing to focus on the key areas where they agree e.g. the community needs to see and feel more of God’s love. I have seen congregations from a hugely wide spread of traditions and beliefs come together and learn and grow together. It does not mean the differences are not important but it does acknowledge that we are one church – a body with different parts. We do not uniformity but we do need unity – and the night shelters run by 7 different congregations within a local area, the Street Pastors who patrol high streets in the evenings, initiatives like Love Streatham (who my wife works for) all bring together churches of a spectrum of beliefs – but with a joint determination that theological tribalism will not win over commitment to working together to incarnate something of God’s love.


  7. Instead of a link I will just tell you my story, and how it lead me to Molinism. I am currently attending Moody Bible Institute and I had been wrestling with the relationship between God’s sovereignty and man’s free will. I couldn’t let go of the fact that it is a persons conscious decision to accept the gospel which secures their salvation. But then it hit me that the two biggest factors which control our decisions (environment and personality) are both controlled by God. So God controls when and where a person is born often leading to whether or not they hear the gospel and he controls a persons personality because he has created the world in which you were born with your particular genetic makeup and the environmental conditions which shape your character. Through a lot of prayer and study I came to the conclusion that if God is all powerful then he could have created any possible world and if he is all loving then he would have chosen to create the best possible world (i.e. the one in which the most beings freely choose to love him). For a long time I wondered why no one had seen how this concept shows that through God’s sovereignty he has allowed for man’s free will in order that love might exist (this also is a strong answer for the problem of evil). So I did a google search of “best possible world” and found out I was not the first or the only. The concept was originally formulated by a 16th century Jesuit named Luis de Molina. It was strongly defended by Gottfried Leibniz in his work “Theodicy.” It was also held although not explicitly stated by C.S. Lewis, “The Problem of Pain,” and is currently defended by Christian Apologists William Lane Craig, Alvin Plantinga, and many more. Most posts you read about Molinism will be complex philosophical descriptions of God’s middle knowledge or Calvinist rants about how it is heretical and just a warmed over version of Arminianism, that is why I didn’t include a link. I will keep searching and let you know if I find a good one. Please be in prayer that our community might overcome their differences and find a way to work together. You may have heard about the controversy in Sullivan, IN recently about churches creating a traditional prom because the school was allowing gay couples to attend. I live in Terre Haute and we are just a few miles north and this debate has really divided our community.


Leave a Reply to Matt Larimer Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s