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tribalism and the spirit of antichrist

One frequent charge against Christians in general and Protestants in particular is the existence of denominations. The implication is that if we were truly united we would all believe exactly the same stuff and think exactly the same way and even approach ministry in exactly the same form. The problem with this is this has never been true. There is a core set of beliefs that has been believed everywhere, always, and by all Christians. We describe these core beliefs as “orthodoxy”. Christian orthodoxy is proclaimed in the earliest creeds such as the Apostles’ Creed and even more, the Nicene Creed. These creeds emphasize our Trinitarian faith and expound the essential beliefs that mark one out as a true Christian.

From the beginning, however, there have been things that Christians have also believed, that are not part of that core of orthodoxy. These are the beliefs that tend to distinguish Christian denominations from one another. They are not denials of the core of orthodoxy. Rather, they are differences in our understanding of secondary issues. The real problem with differences of opinion on secondary matters is when we display the spirit of antichrist with them. It isn’t a problem that we have denominations. The real problem is when we descend into tribalism and display the spirit of antichrist. Let me explain.

About 30 years after the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus the apostle Paul was in prison in Rome. He wrote a letter to the church at Philippi from prison. Before arriving in Rome Paul had written a letter to the Christians in Rome, in large part to exhort them to be united. They had formed local congregations along ethnic lines. Paul reminded them that the “gospel is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Romans 1:16). While the Jews had the advantage of having received the law, this did not make them any better off, for all have sinned and are in need of God’s saving grace (Romans 3:1–10). God’s righteousness is manifested apart from the law, for through faith a person is justified by God’s grace as a gift since God is the God of the nations and is not an ethnic God (Romans 3:21–30). The outcome of this reality is seen in Paul’s exhortation to embrace diversity in their local congregations:

May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.

Romans 15:5–7 ESV

One of the difficulties of people of diverse cultures worshiping together and living in community together is the varied practices. In Romans 14 Paul had to spend a great deal of time on the issue of meat. Jewish believers would avoid meat altogether since in the city of Rome most meat markets were connected to temples. That delicious ribeye you saw in the market one afternoon was probably offered in sacrifice to a Roman god that morning. Paul told them that false gods are nothing and so the meat was offered to nothing, so eat it. Some would struggle with this, as expected. When our cultural assumptions and practices are challenged, it is easy to get a bit riled up. This is why Paul wrote his letter. This brings us to his letter to the church at Philippi.

Paul is under house arrest in Rome. He tells the Philippian church that the gospel has been proclaimed “throughout the whole imperial guard” and many have become bold to proclaim the gospel because of Paul’s imprisonment (Philippians 1:13–14). Some, however, have used the occasion of Paul’s imprisonment to advance their own ideas and preferences. He writes,

Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will. The latter do it out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. The former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment. What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice.

Philippians 1:15–18 ESV

The law of Moses was the covenant given at Mount Sinai. Moses referred to the stone tablets with the Ten Commandments on them as “the tablets of the covenant” (Deuteronomy 9:8). This covenant was replaced by the new covenant in Jesus’ blood (Hebrews 8:13). This means that Jews were free to continue to observe the law as a cultural expression, but followers of Jesus were not bound by this law. This is why Paul could declare in his letter to the Galatians that neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; the only thing that matters if faith in Jesus Christ (Galatians 5:6; 6:15). Circumcision was seen as a central marker of the law of Moses. Paul essentially declares it is now a cultural marker, not a marker of who is in the covenant.

New Testament scholar Gordon Fee argues that there were some in Rome who were preaching the true gospel of Jesus, but out of a partisan spirit. They weren’t the Judaizers Paul battled in Galatians. They weren’t saying that circumcision was a necessary step for salvation. However, they were emboldened by Paul’s imprisonment to preach the gospel so that they could bring their new converts into their congregations and increase the numbers of their tribe—their denomination, if you will. Paul knows this is why they were preaching, yet he was thrilled that Christ was still being preached. He wasn’t being preached for his sake, yet his gospel was being proclaimed.

He says they were preaching Christ “from envy and rivalry”. In chapter 2 of Philippians Paul gives that great exposition of the humility of Christ and his exaltation.

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Philippians 2:3–11 ESV

Jesus is God in every way. When the Son of God came to earth as a human, he took on the form of a human and a servant and became obedient to the point of death. Paul tells the Philippian church to be like Jesus, to embrace the spirit of Christ by not looking out for their own interests. Jesus did not. He gave up his rights that he might bring blessing—salvation—to others. To live contrary to this is to embrace a spirit of anti-Christ. To live for one’s own interests is to live in a contrary spirit to that of Jesus. He says to do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit—even preach the gospel so as to merely increase your tribe.

When we see this sort of tribalism in our world today we can rejoice if Christ is being preached, but we must also lament the envy and rivalry that motivates the preaching of Christ. We can do little about others who preach out of selfish ambition but we can be sure that we resist the urge to preach Christ in this way. Here at New City we hold to the body of orthodoxy that has been handed down from the apostles themselves. In addition to these core beliefs we also believe some other things that not all Christians believe. We can disagree on these secondary matters and still acknowledge our shared faith in Christ.

The truth is unity is not seen in sameness. If every Christian believed exactly the same things and practiced our faith in exactly the same way and approached ministry in exactly the same form, we would not be demonstrating unity. That’s just sameness. Unity is seen in diversity. Unity is seen in holding to the Nicene Creed and recognizing that “We acknowledge one Baptism for the forgiveness of sins” may be understood somewhat differently by different groups of Christians. Do I think we have it right at New City? Yes, of course I do! I also recognize that we’re probably wrong on some points. To think anything else would be the height of arrogance!

What we must never do is preach the gospel of Jesus Christ in such a way that merely serves our end, that of growing our “tribe”. Of course we want our church to grow, but if we preach and teach with church growth as our main aim, we’re doing it wrong. If our aim is merely—or even primarily—growth in numbers our strategies will begin to change so as to bring about more of what we’re really aiming for. If growth is our main goal, we’re doing it out of envy and rivalry. The rivalry may not even be other churches! A pursuit of church growth may not be a rivalry with other churches. We may view our own church as the rival to be beaten! If growth in numbers is the goal, then our current size is the problem, a rival to be beaten! Are there churches that approach ministry with church growth as a main aim? Yes. Are they wrong in doing so? Yes. Should we rejoice that God is using them to proclaim the gospel of Jesus? Yes! We should also remember Paul’s warning to do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but to have the mind of Jesus. In our desire to grow as a church, what our true motivation must be is the glory of God in the face of Christ. If our proclamation of the gospel of Jesus results in growth in numbers, great! If it results in the growth in numbers of other churches, then great! It is not our tribe that matters, but Jesus Christ.

Because the church of Jesus is bigger than New City we seek ways to demonstrate this. We pray for our sister churches on Sunday mornings. On Good Friday this year we will be joined by the people of Fourth Reformed Church and Coit Community Church and Gracehill Church as we worship God together. We will share in communion together. What do an RCA church, a CRC church, and a PCA church have in common with New City? Jesus. We proclaim Jesus is Lord, and so do they. For this reason we will worship our Lord together.