The Difficulty of Faithfulness: Beyond Tribalism

Being theologically faithful is difficult. Yes, we want to be faithful to what the scriptures teach us, but so often either we disagree on how to understand the scriptures or the issues we’re dealing with are not quite directly addressed by the scriptures. But this does not mean that these are not important issues. So, what do we do?

Well, we do what usually happens with complex social questions: we divide ourselves. We label ourselves with a never ending proliferation of labels: Complementarian, Egalitarian, Amillenial, Pre-Millennial, Post-Millennial, Pan-Millennial Paedobaptist, Credobaptist, Cessationist, Continuationist, Confessional, Missional, Liturgical, Contemporary etc. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with these labels. They address issues that we need to answer. Choosing not to address the issues (e.g. Pan-Millennial in this list) is still an answer of sorts.

And so we gather labels for ourselves in an effort to be faithful to the testimony that God has given us in his word. We collect positions on issues like a stamp-collector collecting stamps. At a certain point we may find ourselves making decisions about things not in the pursuit of faithfulness, but in the pursuit of allegiance to our group identify, our tribe.

In my own experience I often see people who seem to be more interested in being conservative theologically than in being faithful. Now, as someone who is theologically conservative, I agree with these people that liberal/progressive theology is not faithful to the testimony of the scriptures. But that does not at all mean that anything said by a liberal is categorically bad or that anything said by someone who is a conservative is good. Furthermore, it does not mean that if someone says something I disagree with that they are therefore a liberal. That would be an easy way to navigate issues, but it is not the faithful way. It makes our theological commitments into nothing more than the result of tribalism: we believe what we believe and do what we do because that is what our group believes and does. But we ought to believe and do what is true and right, regardless of what our own group necessarily believes and does.

For example, in the early twentieth century, liberal Protestants took up what they called the Social Gospel, believing that the gospel was not really about sin and forgiveness, but about what Christians can do to make the Kingdom of God a reality here on earth. They sought social reform and service for the sake of the marginalized. In the spirit of the Old Testament prophets, they sought justice for the widow, the orphan, and the sojourner. You can see the spirit of this in many liberal churches today. They might not have a lot to say about doctrine, but they have a lot to say about social issues. Conservative Christians are certainly right to reject the idea that the gospel is nothing more than serving the poor and marginalized. There is so much more to it than that. But that does not mean that the call of the gospel does not also call us to care for the least among us (Matthew 25:40). Too often, conservative Christians have equated concern for the poor and marginalized with liberalism. But it does not need to be this way. Simply reading the prophets and the Gospels, especially Luke, should convince us that it is truly the task of Christians to care for the marginalized. To be sure, it was the liberals who have picked this up with a significant fervor, but that does not mean that caring for the marginalized makes one a liberal any more than happening to live in California or Portland automatically makes one a liberal.

But this is about much more than just conservatism and liberalism. Unhealthy tribalism happens whenever our label or group identity guides our thinking more than the scriptures themselves. For example, we would be right to reject Church Growth practices because of the theology behind the movement. However, I have unfortunately seen otherwise faithful pastors and theologians downplay mission and evangelism in a reaction against anything that seems to be too Church Growth. They become more interested in demonstrating that they are not “one of them,” but in the process, they throw the baby out with the bathwater. Likewise, I have seen people who are particularly interested in evangelism and reaching the lost reject what they consider “intellectual” or “academic” theology, because they associate these things with people who do not prioritize mission and evangelism. This is also throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

The examples are endless, but this way of thinking forces us to be far more critical and discerning in what we reject and what we accept. We cannot just use our cheat sheet of trusted and distrusted groups and individuals as a litmus test for all truth. We are required to actually engage ideas with the scriptures before we accept or reject them. Our standard for the truth must be the scriptures, not membership or lack thereof in particular groups or organizations. This is going to be more difficult because it requires us to be nuanced and careful. It does not allow us to paint with a broad brush. It does not allow us to have quick and easy answers to difficult and complicated questions. But nobody ever said faithfulness would be easy.

Of course, this is not to say that group membership or an individual’s track record is meaningless. I’m going to feel pretty safe in saying that Joel Osteen’s next book will most likely be utter garbage. It might not be, but it probably will. Furthermore, as individuals we should really think about what groups and individuals we associate ourselves with, because that is an implicit testimony about where we stand on certain issues.

In essence, my point is this: Reject an idea because it is wrong and disagrees with the scriptures, not because of who it comes from. Likewise, accept an idea because it is right, not because of who said it. If we can do this, then we can avoid the worst of party politics and keep our focus on the only thing that matters: the scriptures which testify of the one who is himself truth and makes us all one in his death. In him we know truth and in him we have life. That is what faithfulness looks like.

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