David Robertson: Why Evangelical Tribalism Harms the Gospel

The reaction to my analysis of the God TV debacle has been interesting, to say the least. 

Many people were appreciative and thankful that someone articulated what they were thinking. Others were horrified at what they perceived as an attack on Christian brothers and sisters. While I expected that, what intrigued me most was the extent to which Christians tend to be caught up in what can only be described as tribalistic reactions. 

A classic example of this concerns Bart Campolo, son of Tony, who announced his deconversion to atheism. What intrigued me most of all was Bart's report of Tony's reaction: his father was not concerned about hell or the consequences of unbelief, but rather he was saddened that his son no longer belonged to his 'tribe'. Is this really what being a Christian has been reduced to? You belong to a particular tribe? I had thought that Christ came to break down the walls of partition and to unite us in Christ. The only thing that matters is whether or not we are 'in' Christ

One attempted defence of the indefensible in my article on GodTV was the accusation that I was anti-charismatic and didn't believe in the work of the Holy Spirit. This was an attempt to appeal to one tribe and play it off against the other. But it doesn't wash. Because it isn't true. Of course I believe in the Holy Spirit and in spiritual gifts – what I don't accept is one particular group appropriating the Holy Spirit, Jesus or any particular theological teaching as their own – especially when they are using it to accumulate power and money. I have spoken at CLAN, the largest charismatic conference in Scotland, a couple of times, an experience I found both disturbing and enjoyable. While there a well-known charismatic preacher asked me the really interesting question "what network do you belong to?" When I told him none – he smiled and said that explained a lot! He said he belonged to both a charismatic and a reformed network and that this had enormous advantages (guaranteed book sales, conference invites and influence) but also that my position of belonging to none (other than my own small denomination) meant that I was beholden to none and could say what I wanted!

Some people wrote me and said that they struggled with my 'advocating' CLAN (which I was not actually doing – I was just speaking at it) because they belonged to a different tribe. Are you Word Alive or Spring Harvest? Evangelical Times, Evangelicals Now or Premier? Banner or Hodder? NewFrontiers or New Wine? Baptist or Anglican? Charismatic or Reformed? Anti-Catholic or Ecumenical? Lloyd Jones or Driscoll? Basically, you can choose your shibboleth issue or your favourite personality and find your tribe.

You'll be familiar with the old joke of the man spotting another on the edge preparing to jump off a bridge.

"Don't jump," he said, "I'm a Christian, let me help you".

"Really, I'm a Christian too"

"What kind?"


"Me too – what kind of Protestant?"


"Mme too, which branch?"


"So am I, what type?"

"Confessing Reformed Baptist"

'Wow so am I...which section?"

"New light Confessing Reformed Baptist"

"I'm Old light – die heretic," cries the first man as he pushes his 'brother' off the bridge.

Of course nowadays we pride ourselves that such denominationalism has gone – but that's not much use if denominational tribalism has been replaced by network/personality tribalism.

Such tribalism manifests itself in so many ways. Don't upset that particular person or you won't be invited to those conferences. Don't mention that issue or word will get round that you are not 'safe'. Don't critique that person or that particular shibboleth belief or your books will not be published or reviewed. All it takes in the peculiar world that is the evangelical subculture is a word that 'X is not sound' or 'Y is a legalist', and the damage is done. 

Often it appears to me that particular books are written or statements made by leaders, not to reach the wider world, but rather to reinforce their position as chief within their own small tribe. Much to my disgust I have discovered that it is not just in Scotland that we are clannish!

My fear is that the decline of denominations, and the commercialisation of Christianity and the emergence of celebrity personality culture, have resulted in an increased atomisation of the evangelical world. As the Bible is marginalised in many sectors, its authority is being replaced by the authority of the charismatic (with a small c) leader who has the contacts and success that gather followers and money – at least in the short term. That's why so many American tele-evangelists appear on Christian TV in the UK – they can afford it. That's why some books are 'successful' – they have a large advertising and marketing budget. Follow the money, the image and the personality is a recipe for abuse, disillusionment and disaster.

Dare I suggest an alternative? It's called the church. We need a return to local churches governed according to biblical principles, with Christ as the Head, under the authority of His Word. Such churches should work in co-operation with other like-minded churches (whether in official denominational or inter-denominational structures). Inter-denominational Christian ministries and media should be run for the churches and not the other way round.

We need to take more seriously the fact that "there is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; One God and father of all, who is over all and through all and in all" (Ephesians 4:4-6). Once we have that attitude I suspect that we will have a different set of priorities.

I look forward to the day when I won't be condemned for preaching the Gospel at a charismatic conference, or mocked as a 'frozen chosen' legalist because I belong to an evangelical Presbyterian church; or threatened with 'handbagging' by Joyce Meyer groupies who consider criticism of Joyce's health and wealth moralistic therapeutic deism as akin to blasphemy against the Holy Spirit; or Steve Chalke fans who regard any critique of his unbiblical teachings as evidence of traditionalist ignorance, or have a Twitter campaign seeking to ban me from speaking at a conference because I quote from Pope Benedict's books about Jesus. In that latter respect I recall the words of that evangelical hero Robert Murray McCheyne who stated "I would rather have pastor Martin Boos, preacher of the Church of Rome, though he was, preach in my own pulpit, than some frigid evangelical from my own church"!

May the Lord deliver us from frigid evangelicals, woolly 'emergent' liberals, and money grabbing, power seeking charlatans. May we instead have our eyes, minds, ears and hearts turned to Jesus. May we love Him, his Word and His Church.... and then we will be free to speak, critique, give, share and love...without fear of man, looking forward to the promised day of Revelation 7:9. "After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb."