Jeremy Sarber

Tribalism in the church today

A friend once shared an article written by a Reformed charismatic and asked for my opinion.

First of all, I know what some of you are thinking when you hear Reformed charismatic.” You probably hear an oxymoron. How can a person grounded enough in Scripture to believe in Reformed theology also be a charismatic who believes in some of the same doctrines as false teachers? It doesn’t make sense.

The author of the article describes himself this way:

I’m a Reformed charismatic. With one foot I’m firmly planted in the historic Reformed world. A graduate of Reformed Theological Seminary, I sat under the feet of world-class professors like John Frame. Yet my other foot is planted elsewhere—in the world of the modern, global, charismatic movement. I admire the missionary zeal of the global south and east along with the spiritual power and miracle-producing faith they embody. Yes, it’s an odd space in the church world to occupy. (Why Charismatics and Calvinists Need Each Other by Adam Mabry)

What is it that makes us think it’s contradictory to be Reformed and charismatic? These doctrinal positions are not mutually exclusive. One can certainly believe in God’s sovereignty and salvation by grace while also believing in the continuation of miraculous gifts. Frankly, the Bible does not tell us that extraordinary spiritual gifts would cease. It merely warns us that Satan will use false signs and wonders to deceive people (2Th 2:9). But let’s not forget that he uses the Bible, too.

If substantial differences do not separate Reformed Christians from charismatic Christians, especially Reformed charismatics, then why does there seem to be such a vast gulf between us? Why is our first thought, You can’t be a Reformed charismatic?

The short answer is tribalism.

Back in the day when I cared about politics, I noticed how tribal people tend to be with their political ideologies. They can be so tribal that individuals cease to have distinct opinions. If you are a conservative, you must believe in lower taxes for the rich, a strong military presence around the world, and every other viewpoint on the conservative checklist. If you’re a liberal, you need to check every box on their list. There’s not much room for the people who defy the categories. There’s not much room for the guy who believes in taxing the rich and a strong military presence.

The same is true in Christianity. Two-thousand years of church history have produced well-defined tribes among believers. If someone scoffs at the notion of a Reformed charismatic, it is the result of two things.

First, they know very little about the charismatic movement. It was never part of their Sunday school curriculum. They have no personal experience with it.

Second, they’ve learned to make caricatures out of charismatics. We may very well have exaggerated perspectives. When we hear charismatic,” we may instantly think of the charlatans on TV selling magical prayer cloths or the Pentecostals rolling around on the floor. Let me ask you this: As Reformed Baptists, do you want to be judged by the outliers such as the Hyper-Calvinists? Do you want people to assume that all Calvinists are Hyper-Calvinists? Of course not. Maybe we shouldn’t do the same to charismatics.