Humans are tribal.
This is not a new insight. We’ve been splitting ourselves into groups based on any and every available characteristic for millennia.
In her important new work, Political Tribes, Yale’s Amy Chua writes:
We crave bonds and attachments which is why we love clubs, teams, fraternities, family.
But though this inbuilt tribalism pushes us toward positive engagement and creation of community, it has its dark side, too. Chua notes:
[T]he tribal instinct is not just an instinct to belong. It is also an instinct to exclude.
Christianity does not erase our tribalism. But it should transform it—recreate it into something useful in service to God and others. At its best, our tribal instinct can help motivate us to love our neighbors well, to put down roots and serve our communities in love.
Following Jesus means expanding our natural concept of tribe, as Paul writes in the soaring language of Ephesians 2, for we were all once “separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world.” Yet now, we “who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.”
God in Jesus has brought reconciliation to those both near and far, killing our hostility and “creat[ing] in himself one new humanity.”
Should We Alert the Heresy Police?
Yet our tribal instinct is not always at its best. Even inside the church, it is often at its worst.
Instead of seeing ourselves as one body of Christ—varying in theology, culture and giftings, but united by our focus on Jesus—we default to that instinct to divide and exclude.
We like to police the margins, and we can all too easily escalate any disagreement into a declaration of heresy.
But heresy “is not located in one’s beliefs about baptism, the continuation of certain spiritual gifts, women in ministry or political issues,” explains Justin S. Holcomb, author of Know the Heretics, a history of the major heresies encountered by the early church. Rather,
[Heresy] is a specific and direct denial of any of the central beliefs of the Christian church about the deity and identity of the triune God and about the person and work of Jesus Christ.
“There are those who think that heresy is anything that does not agree with their own interpretation of Holy Scripture,” Holcomb continues. And though “such impulses can be well-intentioned, the church of the New Testament walked the line between holding fast to some convictions and being flexible about others.”
A Way Forward: Concentric Circles of Theology
Learning to distinguish between those categories is vital if we are to disagree without hostility, without letting our differences get in the way of serving a hurting world and sharing the good news.
In pursuit of that perspective, I’ve found useful a system introduced to me by Greg Boyd, a pastor and theologian where I live in Minnesota. This model has restructured my own thinking about theology, forcing me to examine the weight I place on any given debate and to check my impulse to imagine the church in my own image. It demands a balance of humility and trust, pairing a defining allegiance to Christ with an irenic approach to intra-church debates.