Leigh MarieAnn Klett of the Christian Post just reported some sobering words spoken Tuesday by Pastor Ed Litton, the president of the Southern Baptist Convention. Litton described the current state of our denomination as plagued by “tribal hostility, ungraciousness, and suspicion,” and he described his own heart – after only four months in his new role – as “heavy.” Pastor Litton went on to observe: “The mood of our times is to attack, demonize, make allegations, and threaten. We are seldom slow to speak and slow to anger.”
Wow. Just wow.
I don’t have to tell you that tribalism has no place in the church. The Bible describes us as brothers and sisters. We are brothers and sisters in Christ. It seems that, whenever we get away from that fundamental sense of our identity, all hell breaks loose. And yet, we’re seeing more and more disunity in churches across our nation. It’s as if we’re refusing to learn from the past, including the examples of all of the church schisms recorded in Scripture, and running headlong into another season of disunity – and this time it’s a disunity so profound that it threatens to completely derail the public evangelical witness for Christ in America. Remember: because of the power of social media, the unbelieving and already suspicious world is able to monitor the church’s every move (and tweet).
Lord, help us!
This climate of suspicion is not new, but it seems to be mounting in intensity. When we survey the New Testament, we find multiple tensions among people who claimed to be God’s people: Samaritans vs. Jews, Pharisees vs. Sadducees, Jews vs. Romans, Jews vs. Greeks, Greek Jews vs. Hebrew Jews, Clean Jews vs. Unclean Jews, Sinful Jews vs. Pure Jews, Rich vs. Poor, and Men vs. Women. I’m sure you get my point. The infighting isn’t new, but the fact that in 2021 the church is operating more and more like the world is more than alarming.
I’ll remind you that Jesus was a tribe-buster. He purposefully went after the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:1-42). In that case, we might call Him a double-tribe-buster. With extreme intentionality, Christ showed anyone with eyes to see that all of our prejudices are rooted in sin and self. They’re all anti-gospel.
Tribalism destroys peace because it’s anti-relational. It cuts off dialogue. It refuses genuine conversation. It sees every issue under the sun as black or white – “my way or the highway!” Spiritual maturity allows for some gray in life. Tribalism sees every hill as a hill to die on; it’s inherently ungracious, whereas you and I are called to embody self-sacrificing love.
Cliques within the church are a subtle form of tribalism. Church cliques inflict a lot of damage on the body, leaving people feeling deeply excluded – and leaving them questioning God because of the hurtful ways in which they’ve felt personally rejected by the church family. In stark contrast, Christ calls every local assembly of believers to be welcoming both without and within.
The Hall of Fame coach at UCLA, John Wooden, was the gold standard in collegiate basketball coaching for twenty years. Wooden often claimed that a successful team requires three realities: proper conditioning, a clear understanding of the fundamentals, and a willingness to play together as a team. That formula translated into ten national championships in twelve years. And, when you really think about it, that formula fits the church like a hand in a glove. If we’re unprepared to face the real-world challenges of the Christian life, or if we’re uncertain about the new identity to which we’ve been called – and how to live that out – or if we’re unwilling to pursue vital church unity at all costs, then we’ve been set up for a losing season.
Living in a culture that is increasingly angry and polarizing can make us numb to the dangers of disunity. When we get numb, we don’t recognize the dangers of gossip in the church, and – next thing you know – we’re part of the problem. Perhaps unintentionally, our voice becomes part of the cacophony of chaos. Don’t let that happen, friends! Stay vigilant, and do your part to stop church fires while they’re still sparks. Unity sanctifies and strengthens. Since church unity translates into church strength, we can understand why Satan works overtime to divide us.
And here’s something else that I want you to think about: if you and I are going to change the trajectory of our little corner of the church, then you and I have to recover the art of majoring in the majors. That means that we also choose to minor in the minors. Please let that sink in. This change of mindset will not be easy, because we have strayed so far from the ideal. But it’s our high calling in Christ, and by God’s grace, we can do it.
Imagine an army on the move. But, instead of marching together as one unit, the soldiers have allowed unresolved issues among them to drive them apart. They’re so focused on getting their own way that they’re no longer listening to the appropriate voices of authority, but they’re all trying to achieve what they want – so each soldier moves in their own self-guided direction. What do you think of such an army? They are sitting ducks. They will be easily routed and scattered by enemy troops. They are a disaster waiting to happen. They’re not even a legitimate army.
By His blood and for His glory, Christ has called us to live as ONE. But we don’t have to become one. We’re already one. We just have to start acting like it. Strange as it may sound: we’re the army of peace.
Ray Ortlund says it like this: “The gospel being what it is and always will be – ‘the message of reconciliation’ – our churches should be the most reconciling, peaceable, relaxed, happy places in town … so meek in the face of insults and injuries, so forgiving toward the undeserving. If we do make people angry, let this be the reason: we refuse to join in their selfish battles. We’re following a higher call. We are the peacemakers, the true children of God.” I like that thought. I really like that.
Defy the trends. Defy the odds. Defy the devil.
Happy it up, y’all!