Six Varieties of Christians and Their Churches: From Tribal to Integral
Christians and their communities of faith exist in rich diversity today. Why are there so many different kinds of Christians and churches? There are historical aspects, political factors, matter of taste, and personality types. However, from an integral perspective of evolutionary stages we can see a quite remarkable tendency for churches to fall into one of perhaps six different altitudes of understanding. I and others often call these six stages tribal, warrior, traditional, modern, postmodern, and integral. In the next few posts I want to outline how understanding stages of faith and church can help us understand one another and act in more loving ways toward each other in the midst of all of our differences.
The Tribal Church
The tribal era of human evolution began about 50,000 years ago. Fear-based fantasy was a major part of life in these early tribes as the world was filled with demons, spirits, and ghosts who needed to be bargained with and defended against. Today’s superstitions and magical thinking are remnants of this stage. The very word superstition comes from supersisto, meaning “to stand in terror of the deity.”
Tribal consciousness is also found today in isolated tribes of the world, in every child magical worldview that sees the world through the lens of imagination unrestrained by reason, in vampire and exorcism movies, and astrology column advice. Tribal spirituality is filled with fearful fantasies and focused on the closely knit group with its magical, paranoidbeliefs and a charismatic leader. An estimated 5 percent of the world’s population lives this way.
Biblically, the tribal stages found at the beginning of the Old Testament included the Israelite and Canaanite cultures. In Western industrialized societies today there are only a few kinds of ultraconservative churches whose dominant center is tribal. There are more churches that have some elements of this stage in their mixture.
These tribal stage churches are today commonly referred to as “cults.” Well-known extreme examples in the recent past are the People’s Temple led by Jim Jones with its mass suicide of 913 Temple members in Jonestown, Guyana, and the Branch Davidians led by David Koresh near Waco. Current examples are polygamist FLDS church led by Warren Jeffs and the few remaining small churches that practice snake handling.
Every stage has limitations to be transcended and strengths to be included in the next stages. The limitations of this level of religion include slavish devotion to a leader, living in the isolation of believing that the only truly spiritual group is your own, mistaking superstition for spirituality, and the worry that an angry God will punish you. The strength of this stage is the value of belonging to a group with strong ties to one another. Whatever stage a church or individual is at, it is important to function as a tribe in some ways. A small church is like a tribe itself. A larger church will have tribes that may be called Sunday School Classes, small groups, or mission groups. When Jesus wanted to change the world, the first thing he did was to gather a few others around him to form into a new spiritual family, saying that its mission took precedence over one’s birth family. The house churches of the book of Acts served as tribal groups where genuine connections and care could be experienced.
The Warrior Church
The warrior stage began to develop around 10,000 years ago when tribes grew in wealth and power, and conflicts erupted between neighboring tribes. The warrior stage is about aggression, impulsive behavior, and violence. The world is like a jungle where the tough win and the weak lose. Beliefs at this stage are less magical and more literal. There is an absolute authority outside of the individual such as a parent, teacher, boss, minister, or a God who makes the rules that people follow without question.
Today we find warrior consciousness in the terrible two’s, high school bullying, street gangs, comic book heroes, sword and sorcery stories, and prison life. We see it in countries such as Afghanistan, athletic teams, aggressive unethical corporations, and the rise of terrorism around the world. Perhaps 20% of the world lives at the warrior altitude.
Warrior churches can be seen historically in the holy wars, the Crusades, and the Inquisition. Today the warrior level church is commonly referred to as a fundamentalist church. While the word may have a pejorative meaning, these churches use it proudly in the sense of holding to five “fundamentals” of a belief system that arose in the early 19th century. They are (1) The Bible contains the literal words of God without error, (2) the virgin birth and deity of Jesus, (3) the doctrine of substitutionary atonement, (4) the bodily resurrection of Jesus,(5) the authenticity of Jesus’ miracles or, sometimes, the pre-millennial second coming. Fundamentalism also refers to a certain mindset that warns others who do not agree with them of the danger of their wrong beliefs.
They believe God lives up in heaven but comes down to earth as an avenging warrior mixed with elements of justice and compassion. Jesus is the mighty agent of the wrath of God, making war on sin and death, and accepting his death on the cross is the only way to appease an angry God for one’s sins. Hell is the place of eternal punishment for those who did not believe in the right doctrines or act in the right way. Many evangelical Christians at the next stage, the traditional one, hold these same beliefs, but they tend to not be as angry at those who do not share their beliefs as the fundamentalists are.
Perhaps the most well-known warrior church today is the Westboro Baptist Church with its “God Hates Fags” posters picketing funerals. My church has been picketed a number of times by this group. They fax us ahead of time, warning of a protest outside our building the coming Sunday morning, and we warn the faint of heart or the easily angered of our congregation to enter the church by the back entrance. Other than that, we simply ignore them. Our fervent support of all sexual orientations as gifts from God stands as our own affirmation of gays and we have done our own picketing of groups that abuse gays. Inadvertently, this fundamentalist group has in some ways advanced the cause of human rights by revealing the dark heart of gay oppression to the nation.
The limitations of the warrior church include its narrow worldview and its fear-based, fighting mentality leading to always being at war with someone or something. Karen Armstrong says, “Every single fundamentalist movement that I have studied in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam is rooted in profound fear.” This then manifests in various forms of discrimination and oppression.
The strength of this worldview is fervor—the ability to be passionate about what matters to you. Other strengths are the value of belonging and taking fervent action to advance the mission of the group.
From an integral perspective any culture, group, church, or individual has a right to be at any level and deserves our understanding and respect. Integral is the first stage that is not angry with all the other stages but rather understands them and sees their place in the evolutionary path. The tribal and warrior stages only become problematic when they use hatred, manipulation, or force to impose their beliefs on others. The warrior stage can be challenging to respect because of its militancy and oppression of others. Integral people do whatever is necessary to ardently protect others from abuse while taking care to not to abuse the abusers. The task for those moving into the integral stage is learning to not get angry about people who are angry. It is how to avoid having a warrior consciousness about warrior consciousness, to be passionate without persecuting.
Any part of us that personally remains in the fear, fantasies, and magicalthinking of the tribal stage or the angry militancy of the warrior worldview also deserves our understanding, respect, and nurture. It is not necessary to be judgmental about these parts of us, even those that we may eventually decide to change. Every stage is valuable in itself. Age twelve is not better than age five—it is just a different place in life. We value age five because it is important in itself and necessary to reach age twelve. The same is true with each evolving level of growth in consciousness. Sometimes we find ourselves becoming angry about the stage we are in. That can be a signal that it is time in our life to make a change. The anger can give us the energyto move on to the next level. However, whatever our religious tradition or spiritual path, we eventually need to get over our anger and honor every stage we have passed through. We can then reconcile ourselves to the truth that each of the past stations in our life and in the history of humankind has been the launching pad for our moving to the next stage and where we are now.
Paul Smith is an author, teacher, and recently retired after serving 49 years as minister at Broadway Church in Kansas City, Missouri. While in high school he founded a series of spiritually transforming youth camps and college retreats that were attended by thousands of young people annually over a period of ten years. After his undergraduate degree from Washington University and Master’s degree in theology and biblical studies from Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, he came to Broadway Baptist Church in midtown Kansas City, Missouri in 1963.
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