Over the last 10 years, through both my work with homeless people and in community development, I have worked with a wide range of different churches and with Christians who hold very different theological perspectives.
Despite some encouraging signs around Christian unity, there remains a significant tribalism at work in the Church between conservative and liberal emphases. We see the effect of this tribalism in many of the misunderstandings and conflict that regularly break out within the Church.
A couple of years ago I developed this model (below) to map out the divide theologically. I have used this a lot in informal conversations, talks and workshops as a way of highlighting this divide so that we can understand each other better and work for greater unity.I grew up within a church tradition that emphasised the blue side of this chart. What I heard at church, sunday school and on youth camps was an emphasis on ‘knowing God personally’ and having my sin forgiven. Preaching, conversion, believing the right things about the atonement and being distinctively Christian were emphasised. Along with this came a clear commitment to the family and personal morality.
However, as a teenager I decided to study social work and made a commitment to work with people affected by poverty. I found that this commitment was not particularly affirmed by the Christian culture I was within, or what I was to find later at the University Christian Union. It was common for people to talk about ‘the dangers of the social gospel’ and issues of social justice simply did not fit comfortably within the theological framework. This lack of connection was a big problem for me – I got more and more involved in social activism but my faith withered.
It was only after University when I started working with homeless people and I moved onto an inner city estate (for more see How an urban holiday club changed my life) and I discovered a Christian tradition that I had bearly even knew existed. I read books by radicals from the catholic tradition such as Dorothy Day and Kenneth Leech and radical evangelicals like Jim Wallis and Ron Sider. Basically I discovered the red side of the chart – about Christian concern for social justice rooted in the incarnation and the kingdom of God. It was like a whole new world which opened up to me. I realised how much richness and depth there was within the Christian tradition and Biblical theology and how much of it affirmed and nourished the kind of work I knew God was calling me to.
The thing is though that as I have journeyed on from those years I have continued to feel sad about the disconnection between these worlds. I have met many people who are refugees from the ‘other tribe’. Some of the most hard-bitten liberals are people scarred by a narrowly conservative upbringing which was hot on personal conduct but said little about social justice. Equally, many of the most reactionary conservatives cite the dangers they have seen in a completely socialised gospel which has lost its personal vitality. Too often these people are defining themselves negatively; by what they are against or what they have left, rather than what they actually believe now.
This is also a reason why leaders such as Tom Wright, Steve Chalke and Rob Bell have received such fierce criticism – because their work does not conform to traditional tribal patterns. There is nothing tribes react more strongly to than those who transgress the key tribal markers of belief or behaviour. Some Christians have seemed to relish the opportunity, particularly with Chalke and Bell, to drag them outside the evangelical city wall and stone them.
The thing is that I don’t want to reject the tradition I grew up in but I don’t want to be limited by it either. The Christianity I grew up with has given me so much – I don’t want to lose what is important from the blue side of the chart or adopt a label like ‘post evangelical’. I believe that true Christian radicalism involves holding these two sides of this chart together. The gospel of Jesus cannot be divided up: it is inherently personal and social, truth is found in both the atonement and the incarnation, faith involves beliefs and actions, we need to care about both personal morality and social justice and we need to be both tolerant and distinctive.
Of course this is easy to write and very hard to live out.
But it is when we hold these truths together that we begin to leave the shallow waters of tribalism and enter the choppier waters that authentic faith leads us into. It can be scary, we will feel out of our depth and in danger, we may be misunderstood and cause offence. But it is a place where we really do need to depend on Jesus, to have a deeper faith, that we ‘may gain Christ and be found in him’ (Philippians 3:8).
(for more on this theme see Resisting Tribal Theology and Going Deeper Together)