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Friday, April 25, 2014

When Tribalism Becomes A Victim Of Collateral Damage

Back in March, a blogpost (click here) was published here asking for a partial peace and synthesis between the two predominant Reformed views of how the Church should interact with culture. In the one corner stood the Transformation Theology team with its insistence that, due to a low level of common grace in society, the Church needs to try to change culture to make it more amenable to life, God's Kingdom, and hearing the Gospel. In the other corner was the 2 Kingdom Theology (2KT) team which believed that, for the most part, Christians should push for equality for all in society rather for than a privileged position for Christian values in maintenance of society. One reason for the difference in their beliefs was due to different perceptions of the level of God's common grace that is present in society.


Though some handled the conflict in a civil manner, others were so loyal to their theological camps that wars of words often broke out with committed Reformed Christian accusing fellow committed Reformed Christian of compromising the Scriptures. Such was inexcusable. 

Reformed theologians do not have a monopoly over the conflict of how Christians should interact with culture. And thus, Tim Keller answered my request 2 years before it was made (click here). An important part of both listening to Keller's talk and following what is written here involves becoming familiar with the chart that gives a picture of Keller's model of thought (click here). The chart and model of thought comes from Tim Keller's book, Center Church, a book that was wrongly marketed almost exclusively to church leaders and seminary students. This book should have been marketed to the whole church because of its invaluable reference material as well as Keller's analysis of how today's churches are interacting with culture.

You might think from what has been written thus far that I am a big fan of Keller's work here. The answer would be yes and no. The answer would be yes because of his intent, skill, and wisdom at presenting a model that builds bridges across church divides. But the answer is also no because, as with all models of thought, there are more than enough errors--we should note that his model never promised us a rose garden anyway. Still, what Keller's model offers is a way for some Christians to reconcile over their differences. His model provides a way to build bridges and overcome schisms. 

How does Keller's model apply to the title of this blogpost? Divisiveness often results from tribalism. And since the tribalism being exhibited is occurring within the Christian Church, we could call it intramural and thus count it as totally unnecessary, though not unexpected. Tribalism is an extreme loyalty to a group regardless of the focus of that group. In tribalism, we see people being more loyal to a group than they are committed to principles and morals. Thus, in tribalism what is right and wrong depends more on who does what to whom rather than what is being done or said.

What part of Keller's model is battling tribalism? It is the part of the chart called "Blended Insights." With these insights, Keller is telling us that each church group has both something to offer to the other church groups as well as has less to offer than it can learn from rest of the groups combined. So nothing undoes the kind of loyalty that builds tribalism like realizing the deficiencies of one's own group in addition to learning about what other groups have to offer. And as it turns out, each group is strong in an area that the other groups are deficient.

We should also note with Keller's Blended Insights is that his approach was taken before by Martin Luther King Jr. as he tried to reconcile the different philosophies and theologies he encountered in life. King described this process of reconciling different schools of thought as synthesis. Here, King would both filter out what was objectionable in each school of thought and highlight what was positive and thus he showed how different schools of thought could learn from each other. An classic example of such a synthesis can be found when King compares Marxism with Capitalism (click here and start on page 92).

By this time, you should be looking at the chart linked to above which shows Keller's model of thought. His chart consists of 4 quadrants, each representing a different group or set of church approaches to interacting with culture. The x axis measures the degrees of involvement different schools of thought and churches show in interacting with culture with least involvement to the left and the most to the right. The y axis measures the level of common grace each school of though and set of churches perceive to exist in today's society. Those that see a lot of common grace at work in society are placed at the top of the axis and those who see a little to no common grace are located at the bottom of the axis.

Thus, in quadrant one, you have the schools of thought and churches that are both highly involved in working with culture and they already see a significant degree of common grace at work in society. Thus they tend to work more hand in hand with society. The group in quadrant 1 is called the Relevance group. In quadrant 2, you have the schools of thought and churches that are highly involved in changing culture and believe there is less than a sufficient amount of common grace at work in society. The group in quadrant 2 are called Transformationists (I guess the name Transformers was already taken). In quadrant 3, you have those who withdraw from culture because they see very little, if anything at all, that is redeemable in our society and they believe God is calling them to be separate and not involved. And in quadrant 4, you have 2 flavors 2KT followers, the already described reformed group and those who follow Martin Luther's version of 2KT.

And though his model is certainly not perfect, it also needs to be supplemented by additional models to guide the Church in how it should interact with culture. However, Keller does deserve the Universal Church's Nobel Peace Prize for developing a model that enables even Christians to at least partially reconcile with their brothers and sisters of different stripes over the issue of cultural engagement.

Now, even if Keller's model had neither flaw nor inconsistency, it would be inadequate to provide the Church with guidance as to how to engage in culture. Why? It is because Keller's model offers an inside-out view of Christianity's involvement with culture. What is also needed is an outside-in perspective. Why? Because as Christianity has engaged in culture in the past, it has developed a track record. This track record consists of both commendations for the faith as well as stumbling blocks to those who would listen to us preach the Gospel. 

Here, we will focus on how to recognize the stumbling blocks in the Church's track record in dealing with society. A vintage example of why we should study the Church's track record can be found in the context of the French Revolution. Before the Revolution, the Church too often sided with those who had wealth and status in France's Parliament. The result was that the peasants suffered while the church was more than taken care of. Thus, the Revolutionaries perceived the Church as not just a threat but as a mortal enemy. And the behavior of France's Church merited this analysis. At the same time, the Revolution suffered because there was no moderating influence of a true church in their movement. The bloody results are history and testimony to the Church's track record.

Before identifying stumbling blocks we should note that there are at least 3 kinds. The first kind of stumbling block is one we can't do anything about. The offense is found in the message regardless of how it is stated or lived out. The second kind of stumbling is when what the Christian has said or done is fine but we need to be more careful in how we communicate. The third kind of stumbling block is the fault of the Christian. This is where the Christian has preached something that is untrue or has preached truth in an unloving way or has lived in sin.

The model I am proposing to help identify stumbling blocks will be at least as error-proned and incomplete as Keller's model. And my model is not intended to take the place of Keller's model; rather, it is being proposed to supplement Keller's model. Plus, the model I am proposing is a work in progress. With what I am proposing, we will modify Keller's model only in ways that reflect how nonChristians perceive us and add to it in order to include another dimension. 

To represent another dimension, we will add a second grid . Both grids will consist of the same elements and axes.  But one will help show the stumbling blocks that can occur when Christians engage in culture over personal morality issues while the second will help show the stumbling blocks that can occur when Christians engage in Social Gospel issues (click here for Social Gospel Issues).

In addition to adding another grid, I changed the axes labels for the grids according to how what is measured might appear to the nonChristian. So instead of measuring the degree of involvement on the x-axis, my model will measure the degree of control of society sought by Christians as perceived by nonChristians. And instead of measuring the degree of common grace at work which is perceived by the Christian, my y-axis will measure the degree to which the amount of perceived common grace causes the Christian to approach the nonChristian as either a fellow sinner or as a moral inferior. Thus, the model being proposed here is represented by the grids below.

Social Gospel Grid






Personal Morals Grid



Before commenting on the stumbling blocks which this model can help us identify, we should note the change in the chart position for both the Relevance and Two Kingdoms groups. Note that the Social Gospel Grid places the groups in the same quadrants as Keller's model does. But things change in the Personal Morality Grid as the Relevance group shows a libertarian bend with regard to pushing for Christian personal morals in society. In addition, the Two Kingdoms group straddles the y-axis here indicating that how libertarian or authoritarian they are depends on the moral issue involved. For example, the same-sex marriage issue saw at least some 2KT proponents act as authoritarians in prohibiting such marriages.


Now for the stumbling blocks. If nonChristians detect any degree of moral superiority in our attitudes, then we will be viewed as being arrogant and feeling superior to them (check these attitudes with Romans 3: 9, 27). Their reaction to that perception will intensify if they see us come across as authoritarians in pushing our personal morals and views of justice on society. In addition, conservative authoritarianism is often, and sometimes with good reason, associated with anti-intellectualism. But if we are libertarian in approaching our Social Gospel and personal morals, then our apparent air of moral superiority will be less offensive and thus we might be relegated to being irrelevant. In addition, leaning away from the anti-intellectualism of conservative authoritarianism buys some tolerance from non-conservative nonbelievers. Such preferential treatment shows favoritism by non-conservative unbelievers. 

At the same time, those who are libertarian in advancing Social Gospel morals might also be seen as uncaring for those in need. But that depends on the political-social values of the nonChristian. Those nonChristians who lean to the Left will be offended by a lack of concern in advancing Social Gospel morals while those nonChristians leaning to the Right will not. The opposite is true with regard to personal moral issues. As to which group of nonChristians will be offended by depends on to which side of the political spectrum a Church group leans. This is why the political-economic leanings of the Relevance and Transformationists groups are stated as they are.

Another possible stumbling block can occur when Conservative nonChristians observe what could appear as hypocrisy by those in the Relevance group as they come across as fellow sinners while proceeding to act in an authoritarian manner in advancing their Social Gospel values. 

Certainly not all stumbling blocks were identified and this model is a work in progress. But by identifying stumbling blocks, we have more information to work with when combined with what we can gain from Keller's model to determine how we should engage in culture. And we should note that more and/or better models could be created to inform us of the tradeoffs involved in how we relate to culture.

Finally, understanding the stumbling blocks that our groups create can help prevent us from developing the kind of group loyalty that lends itself to tribalism. For the more Christians exhibit tribalism whether it be intramural or in our relationships with nonChristians, the more unnecessary stumbling blocks we create and the less faithful we are to our knowledge of ourselves as sinners and our faith in Christ. Also, since even if the model presented here was a completed and well-thought out work, feedback and corrections are warmly welcomed.




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