Christian TraditionsSeekingTheology & Spirituality

Of Tribalism and Churches (Part II)

In my last post I outlined some of the contextual and doctrinal considerations surrounding my ongoing wrestling with tribalism and baptism. In today’s post, I attempt to apply these principles to my “on the ground” situation.

All Things to All People?

Saint Paul speaks of becoming all things to all people. Less helpful, at least for my purposes, is how far he expects us to go in order to meet people where they are. Building on the narrative of Paul’s life and teaching, however, it seems pretty clear that Paul was not advocating the demolition of Jewish or Christian values. That is, he wasn’t advocating a denial of the gospel of Christ for the sake of proclaiming the gospel of Christ. Rather, he was advocating a missional approach which would help people come to know Christ and the power of his resurrection. And therein lies my quandary. I believe that Hayley and I are called to be at the church that we are attending, not only for our own sake and personal growth, but in order to serve and love others as well. This plays right into the heart of the approach that I believe Paul is talking about. We are called not only to serve ourselves but to be serving others during our time at the church.

Might this be the appropriate moment at which to adopt the tribalism approach, where certain beliefs or practices become malleable in order to accord with the community for the sake of loving and reaching that community? At this juncture I must respond with a cautious and careful, “No.” First, I don’t think that Paul calls us to give up the central components of our faith in order to reach other people. I alluded to this above, but want to expand on it a bit here via analogy. As Christians, we are called to love atheists, those people who believe that there is no God. And we do that by, being their friends, having authentic conversations with them, and wrestling with the difficult questions that philosophy and science offer theistic worldviews. But what we are not called to do is join with atheists in their atheism. In this example, “becoming all things” means taking on the postures and concerns of others rather than wholly embracing their identities. Applied to my baptism situation, this means that I should adopt a posture of understanding and honesty about my Christian walk whilst simultaneously recognizing that my Christian faith remains distinctly different than the tribe of which I am now a part.

Second and relatedly, Paul (and Jesus for that matter) have plenty to say about Christian identity, rooted foremost in Christ and secondarily in the Church. Our identity should be rooted in Christ’s life, death, and resurrection even before we consider the implications of church practice (let alone divisive and contested church practice). Even though it differs from the practices of my current church, my baptism as an infant forms an integral part of who I am, as a Christian, as a person, and as member of other tribes (most notably, my family). To reject that identity—which is, as I noted in my last post, confirmed by ancient church practices and teaching—would be to reject my identity in Christ, putting my identification through church tradition (albeit important church tradition) ahead of my identification in the efficacious grace and love of Jesus Christ.

My Father’s Tribalism

To bring one more influence into the conversation—one that I think is entirely appropriate to bring up here when talking about identity—I want to briefly reflect on the example of my father. My dad was born and raised in the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, worshiped in that church for some fifteen-plus years after his marriage to my mother, and had all five of his children baptized into the LCMS as infants. Yet when my family moved to another state and was unable to find a Lutheran church that fit his family’s ministry needs, he was not beyond moving his family to an entirely different church context than that with which he was familiar or comfortable. These needs led our family to attend a non-denominational church for several years, a church where I would be blessed enough to meet my wife and make lifelong friends. But even though our family attended this church for many years, my dad always maintained his “Lutheran-ness”—not in a negative or snarky way, but as core of who he was as a Christian. He wasn’t (and isn’t) a dispensational Calvinist who believes in a memorialist interpretation of communion. Even though he “became” non-denominational for a time, serving wholeheartedly at that church wherever they needed help, he remained steadfastly committed to his relational faith in Christ.

This is closer to the model of tribalism that I am comfortable adopting. We are called to and belong to a church that preaches the gospel of Christ and equips the saints to love God and others, even though we disagree on some important theological distinctives. While we are at this church, we intend to work towards the oneness available only through Christ, loving and serving alongside this community wherever we are needed, all while holding on to my traditional baptism (and my understanding of that baptism). Because working and serving together does not mean that we must give up our own important theological beliefs. Rather, we should be honest about our differences and highlight our unified goals, working to bring the love of God more fully to the people of South Saint Louis County. Do I think this is a perfect solution? Far from it. But I do believe that this is the type of “mere Christianity tribalism” that I am able to embrace and work toward in the here and now. In the words of Reformer Philip Melanchthon, “In things necessary, unity. In things not necessary, liberty. In all things, charity.”

What about you: Have you ever experienced being an outsider at a church that you felt called to? How did you come to terms with that situation? Are there any resources that you would suggest for addressing these types of questions?


Image courtesy of Thomas.

Jacob Prahlow

Jacob Prahlow

Christian. Husband of Hayley. Father of Bree and Judah. Lead Pastor at Arise Church in Fenton, MO. Alumnus of various institutions. Cubs Fan. Co-Founder of Conciliar Post.

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