Christian Living

Is Christianity a tribe?

What’s a tribe? 

Well, whenever a woman tells me she studied Science, Engineering or Maths at university, and I reply that I too studied Engineering, there’s a moment of “aha…!”. Suddenly the relationship becomes more open as there’s a bunch of stuff we don’t have to explain—perhaps especially: why a woman would ever go into such a field. To some this may seem like a trivial example, but it’s definitely a thing—my fellow STEM girl just gets it. Of course she does, she’s in my tribe!

Tribes come in all shapes and sizes. Whether it’s a subculture you choose or a group you land in by happenstance, when you’re with your tribe you feel there are shared experiences and values that you don’t have to explain. They just get it. They just get you. Perhaps this even feels like a relief! And  And, whether by the way you dress, the tattoos you show, or the way you speak on certain topics, you represent your tribe the rest of the world. You have your signs and tokens to identify yourself to those inside and those outside, to stand out and be counted. Perhaps even a bumper sticker.

So, is Christianity a tribe? Is joining Jesus’ family another instance of having a shared story with someone? Is the world wide church another tribe, so that once you join it, you can expect to automatically ‘get’ everyone else in it, and represent to everyone else outside it? If heaven will be full of people from “every tribe…”, does that make Jesus’ tribe a ‘super-tribe’, the best tribe, the tribe that swallows up all the other tribes into itself?

Let me tell you another story.

When I was a teenager I was a regular at the ISCF group (a Christian group for highschoolers). I was also a regular at my local church. When the ISCF leaders realised I was basically the only teenager at my church, they suggested I join a church wth more teenagers—people like me. Since they were offering a lift, I said, “sure”—there was no time clash, and more church couldn’t be bad, right?

In fact, ‘more church’ was brilliant! But if my ISCF leaders were hoping to let me hang out with Christians “like me” well… I felt like I was on another planet. The girls in my youth group mostly liked make-up, dresses, watching The OC, noticing heartthrobs and teasing the boys. None of these things interested me in the least. What I loved about this church (and youth group)—apart from being clearly taught the Bible—was the way these “alien” girls went to such lengths to welcome me. They must’ve thought I was weird, but they included me in conversations, sat with me, made sure I physically got to church each week, and worked through my ‘how-to-be-a-Christian’ questions with me (which were so different to their ‘how-to-be-a-Christian’ questions). They probably didn’t ‘get’ me, and I definitely wasn’t in their tribe, but they definitely loved me and I always felt safe with them.

So, I would say: no. Bumper stickers aside, Jesus’ family is different to, and way better than, a tribe. To be sure, it can certainly look like a tribe at times: we have special words that make sense only to us (holy, atonement, etc); we may feel relieved that we don’t have to explain ourselves and our wacky values; we read a special book and sing special songs. We are ‘like-minded’. And we are supposed to represent to the outside world.

However, as I experienced in high school, while tribesmen get each other, Christians love each other—even when they don’t get each other! Nerdy Christians don’t need a makeover before they are welcomed by cool Christians.

The reason that Christianity is different to, and way better than, a tribe is this: a tribe is based on same-ness, but Christianity is based on one-ness. When we get pulled out of the wreckage, the tangle and the darkness of the old kingdom, we are not all painted in the same colour but “given the one Spirit to drink” (1 Cor 12:13). When life-giving water flows through a garden, all sorts of different flowers bloom. The ‘shared experience’ we have is that we were all rescued from ourselves and from evil, and joined to the Lord, but even that plays out in a myriad different ways (which is why we are always curious to ask a fellow believer how they came to faith). What we share is Jesus himself, the head of the body; and how we are to treat each other is not so much to understand each other as to be understanding towards each other; to welcome, rather than to naturally like. Think how hard it must have been for the Jews and the Gentiles when they first started sharing meals!

Yes, this is a lot more effort, and a lot more clumsy, and takes a lot more time than instantly clicking with someone. This is why, as we start to get to know each other—actually doing church together, actually interacting over time—it is easy to fall back on the shared experiences and ways of speaking that naturally develop when the same group of people spend time together. It is not so much that this is wrong in itself, as that we have to be super careful that we do not turn our Christianity into ‘Christ-and-ianity’: Christ and pink Bibles, Christ and denomination X, Christ and (our) correct doctrine. It’s not that these things don’t matter (well, maybe not the pink Bibles), but if we rely on them as markers of genuineness then we are in real danger of drifting away from Christ and even losing connection with him! Rather, if we want to know if someone is the real deal as a Christian, don’t ask them what colour Bible they have or even about their correct doctrine. Ask them what they most love about Jesus. See whether their eyes light up at his name, and how many favourite stories they have of him. Watch how they treat those in church, and out of church—especially those who are awkward or unpleasant or who can’t pay them back. Focussing on externals, or even important secondary things, will slowly draw us away from Christ, in whom we are one, and toward people who get us, with whom we are merely the same.

Yes, Engineering girls often helped me over the years—but not just any Engineering girls, they were Christians; not just my tribe, but my family.