Tribalism is a strong feeling of loyalty to a group, ideology, or tribe. In its most basic forms, tribalism is the glue that holds ethnic groups together, such as Native American tribes, Jews, or African-Americans. Tribalism is also found in other groups that have lasting cohesion, such as religions, sports teams, families, or small towns. On the positive side, tribalism creates loyalty, provides security for members of the tribe, and fosters a sense of community and belonging. However, tribalism gone rogue can destroy the very institutions it ought to strengthen.
The United States is experiencing pockets of unhealthy tribalism that are tearing unity apart. American patriotism is disintegrating into many factions, each championing its own form of tribalism. This new form of American tribalism is often based on shared offenses. All those offended by the same thing rally together to shout at everyone else who is deemed “part of the problem.” The result is that the flag is disrespected, American history is reinterpreted, and national cohesion is all but lost. When every opinion demands support and gathers a tribe of its own, there can be no healthy community. Tribalism encouraged for the greater good of people is a positive force that defends the weaker members and protects the sanctity of the nation or group. But tribalism based on emotion, offense, or personal opinion can be destructive. In many cases, it is tribalism that keeps people from accepting the gospel because to do so would mean leaving their “tribe” (see John 12:43).
Tribalism could be seen as an institution of God, based on the incident at the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1–8). Once God had confused their languages, people gravitated toward those of their own language and formed tribes. Those tribes became nations and developed their own customs, laws, and religions. God later selected one man (Abraham) from whom He created a nation of His own choosing: Israel (Genesis 17:5; Deuteronomy 7:6–8). God called the Israelites to remain set apart from all other nations and gave them a unique set of laws that would bind them to each other and to Him (Deuteronomy 4:7–9; 2 Kings 17:13). God wanted Israel to be “tribal” in that they shared a common holiness, served the One True God, and recognized the great honor that had been entrusted to them. Through Israel would come God’s salvation for the world, His Messiah, Jesus Christ (Isaiah 11:1; 42:1; Romans 9:4–5). Anyone was welcome to join Israel as long as the newcomers assimilated themselves into Israelite culture and worshiped the Lord alone (Deuteronomy 26:11).
Tribalism goes awry when it is used as an excuse to exclude rather than include or when it feeds a sense of superiority. Churches and Christian denominations are sometimes accused of tribalism, and Christian cliques can be a problem. There is nothing wrong with being loyal to one’s group, but our higher loyalty should be to Christ and the written Word. Doctrinal and methodological differences are to be expected among various Christian groups, but none of those differences should lead to spiritual pride. All those who have trusted in Christ alone for salvation are part of the body of Christ. Christ is not divided (1 Corinthians 1:13), and any tribalism in His Body must be kept in perspective and not be allowed to erode Christian unity (Romans 12:5; 1 Corinthians 12:12–14, 27).
First Corinthians 12:20–26 says, “As it is, there are many parts, but one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I don’t need you!’ And the head cannot say to the feet, ‘I don’t need you!’ On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.” If we make it our goal to function as a healthy body, with all its various organs and systems, then tribalism won’t get in the way of all God wants to do in and through us.