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The Trouble With Tribes

By Greg Iverson

On January 20, 1993, in his last hours as president, George H. W. Bush saw a notepad and pen laying on the otherwise bare desk of the oval office. In that moment, he was inspired to pick up the pen and start a tradition that would carry on for years. He wrote a short note to Bill Clinton, the incoming president. In the note, Bush described the joy and honor of serving, and he finished with this line: “Your success is our country’s success. I am rooting hard for you.”

Since then, each outgoing president has followed this tradition with an elegant welcome to the new president. After tough campaigns filled with attacks and animosity, these letters are a reminder that we’re all still part of a shared humanity.

Those flashes of humanity seem all too rare sometimes. But partisanship isn’t a new thing. As far back as records show, people have divided themselves into tribes, and then have fought the other tribes.

Religion doesn’t even seem to help.

John’s disciples came to John worried, because everyone had started going to Jesus to be baptized instead of them. The Jews and Samaritans clashed over worship, despite the scriptures they shared. Even within Judaism, the Pharisees, Sadducees and Essenes argued over their differing ideas of what God wanted.

Modern Christianity is no different. While the Reformation was vitally necessary, it came at a terrible cost. Protestant Christianity is now made up of thousands of denominations, and significant pulpit time is spent arguing how all the other denominations don’t believe the right things. Some issue of interpretation will come up and a denomination will fight and then divide, and the whole process will begin again.

Commonly, tribes will develop a list of beliefs and behaviors that are expected of all tribal members, whether formally or informally. Tribe members that dare step outside of this tribal orthodoxy in idea or action are subject to an aggressive reaction from the tribe. This is the fundamentalism that can develop within tribes. Frequently, fundamentalism is associated with very conservative elements of religions, but it can be experienced in progressive religions, political parties and even families.

Facing Tribal Conflict Head-On

Paul faced the issue of tribal conflict head-on. He struggled against Judaizers who argued that Gentile Christians must become Jews and be circumcised to follow Christ. In the letters to the Romans and Galatians, Paul argues in aggressive terms that Gentiles also belong to God.

In Acts 15, this debate goes clear to Jerusalem, where the early Christian church concluded that Gentiles should not be burdened with the Jewish law.

Where the story gets strange is in the next chapter when, according to Jewish law, Paul circumcises Timothy. After all his words and stance against circumcision, Paul performs one himself.


Because Paul’s issue wasn’t circumcision or the Jewish law. His issue was people putting up barriers to Christ. Timothy, a Greek, was going to minister to Jews, and without circumcision, his witness would be ignored. For Paul, tribe membership didn’t matter. Only Jesus mattered.

In 1 Corinthians 9:19–23, Paul explains that he is a Jew when he tries to reach Jews and a Gentile when he tries to reach Gentiles. He says, “I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some” (NIV).

Tribes are not inherently a bad thing. Each of us is a member of multiple tribes: our families, our churches, our schools and our workplaces. Tribes give us support and relationships. Our tribes help us grow and become better people. But our tribes can also become idols. We insist that people need to join our tribe and conform to our requirements. Those that refuse must be defeated.

Paul shows us the nonsense of this idea. Our tribes can be a wonderful blessing, but they cannot save us. Only God can do that. In trying times, when tribe battles tribe, remember that the people on the other side share the same Creator and Savior as you, whether they realize it or not. What we have in common is infinitely greater than our differences.

Greg Iverson is the associate director of the Office of Information Technology at the Columbia Union Conference.


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