“I am of Albo” / “I am of Scomo” – Political Tribalism and the Church

Some election-season advice from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians.

1 Cor 1:10 I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought.

Although Paul wrote these words nearly two millennia ago to the house churches he’d founded in Corinth, they remain a word-on-target for our churches in the West today, as we fight and fracture along political lines. Particularly around election time. And the similarities between our situations are stronger than we might first realise. Because this is how Paul describes the divisions in the Corinthian churches:

1 Cor 1:11 What I mean is this: One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas”; still another, “I follow Christ.”

These could be more literally translated I am of Paul,” “I am of Apollos,” etc., which Larry Welborn has shown to be in the form of political slogans in the first century.[1] In the absence of party names, political tribes were named after their leaders.

This was part of a wider culture of political division and tribalism which was particularly acute in Corinth. One ancient writer described the scene thus, with obvious disdain:

That was the time, too, when one could hear crowds of wretched Sophists [eloquent speakers] around Poseidon’s temple shouting and reviling one another, their disciples, as they were called, fighting with one another, many writers reading aloud their stupid works, many poets reciting while others applauded them… (Dio Chrysostom, Or. 8.9).

The truism of the past decade is that our world has become increasingly tribal, amplified by social media in at least two ways. Firstly, the algorithms that govern our feeds increasingly show us what they know we want to hear, creating feedback loops that leave us unable to comprehend why intelligent people might think differently, and leading to a greater fragility when we encounter opposing viewpoints. Secondly, it’s allowed us to hide behind the relative anonymity of our screens, making it easier to dehumanise the other tribe. We demonise anyone from it, while blindly supporting everyone from our own tribe, no matter what; a black and white world where we are always right, and they are always wrong.

How often do we, like the Corinthians, bring that hyper-partisanship into the church? Where we can be incredulous that someone who calls themselves a Christian could think differently, or vote differently? Or where we excuse the moral failings of our tribal leaders by pointing more loudly to those of their rival? If we’re honest, a lot of the time we’ve grafted our version of the gospel onto one or other of the political tribes, and then uncritically aligned ourselves with its people and its policies.

Yet for us (to paraphrase Paul in Galatians), there should be neither right nor left, conservative nor progressive, green nor teal, for we all are of the one civic body in Christ Jesus. More than that, we need to come to terms with the fact that the message of Jesus’ kingdom is both conservative and progressive, while being truly neither. It seeks to conserve that in human society which is in line with God’s plan for humanity as his image-bearers; but it refuses to conserve oppressive, abusive, and self-serving sources of power. It also seeks to progress the values of the kingdom which are about freedom from oppression, the valuing of all people and people groups, and meeting the needs of the marginalised and disadvantaged; but it doesn’t confuse progress with a humanist, secularist agenda that sees God (and his lack of tolerance for sinful behaviour) as being part of the problem. Yet the kingdom also operates outside the power structures of the majority culture; it seeks not to legislate its agenda, but to embody its attractive difference in the individual and collective lives of its members. 

If we continue to show greater allegiance to political (and social and ethnic) groupings than we do to God and his people, our witness will be increasingly imperilled. But if, in an increasingly partisan age, we can follow the lead of the New Testament in making those differences subordinate to our oneness in Christ—that may well prove refreshingly attractive.[2]

How can we do that? Here are a few suggestions:

Firstly, seek out voices that aren’t in your natural tribal bubble, whether in person or online. (And a big hello to my left-leaning Christian friends, whose presence in my news feed challenges me to think from different perspectives.) Humanise those who disagree with you, and listen to their perspective with openness and respect. You might find that your own views are challenged, or at the very least discover the issue is not quite as black-and-white as you thought.

Secondly, our primary responsibility ought to be to hold those in our own tribe to account in light of kingdom values, before daring to critique others (cf. Luke 6:42). And trust our fellow believers “across the aisle” to do likewise. (This was a point made to me by an African-American friend, Dr Galen Jones, Assistant Professor of Christian Ministry, Samford University, in the context of racial tensions in the USA.)

Thirdly, “leave” your tribe. And by that, I don’t mean disengage with politics. Nor do I mean stop weighing up the various party platforms and voting for the one you think best embodies the values of the kingdom—although newsflash: none of them does, entirely. And I don’t even mean you should necessarily give up party membership, if you think you can best act for good by being on the inside. But what I mean is this: hold your political association loosely; keep your allegiance to Jesus primary; and embrace those in the church who think differently as your brothers and sisters in Christ.

1 Cor 3:21-23 So then, no more boasting about human leaders! All things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or [ScoMo or Albo or] the world or life or death or the present or the future —all are yours, and you are of Christ, and Christ is of God.

[1] Larry Welborn, Politics and Rhetoric in the Corinthian Epistles (Macon: Mercer University Press, 1997), 16.

[2] The last two paragraphs are from my book, To Aliens and Exiles: Preaching the New Testament as Minority Group Rhetoric in a Post-Christendom World (Eugene: Cascade, 2020), 226. Morling bookstore and Kindle.