Given their unique congregational structures, Baptists have easily adopted tribal patterns for their ongoing solidarity. These can be based upon linguistic, cultural, regional or theological factors.
For instance, we know of Hispanic Baptists, black Baptists, Southern Baptists, conservative Baptists, welcoming and affirming Baptists and seventh day Baptists, to name a few. These are examples of Baptist tribes. It is a genuine struggle to achieve an overall sense of Baptist identity, given the relatively long duration of tribal experiences and deeply felt traditions. Experience shows we automatically filter everything through our tribal lenses. We listen to our chieftains and our interpreters and line up in solidarity. A recent book even purports to map Baptist tribes.
Among us, tribalism gives an opportunity for inter-tribal games and rituals. Our annual councils produce statements of strength, might and influence. As representatives of one Baptist tribe visit other Baptist tribes, we can subject outsiders to harsh gauntlets and contests to ascertain their fitness and worth to run with our tribes. I recall hearing of a Baptist from one region of the United States going to work in another and encountering some severe difficulties with the local “chieftains.” The newcomer overheard one of the tribal interpreters say, “he might be Baptist, but no kind of Baptist I’ve ever heard of!” Crossing old tribal boundaries can be dangerous to one’s health.
The Baptist experience in Canada exhibits tribal characteristics as well. What most Americans do not know about Canadian culture is that there are three original “nations” or linguistic groups, and four clear regions in the country: the Maritimes, Quebec, Central Canada (Ontario) and the West. Politics, culture, the economy and even hockey are categorized this way.
Baptist history in Canada is interpreted according to tribal narratives: the Maritimes, central Canada, the West and French-speaking missions. The Baptist tribes in Canada each have their own sagas, codes, chieftains and lines of descent. Attempts to unite all the tribes in Canada have met with historic resistance.
Even more telling among North American Baptists is the differentiation according to presumed theological traditions. Schools where people were trained can be especially definitive of tribes. Among Southern Baptists of the past half century, it was important to identify with certain seminaries. Their alumni circulated among networks of churches and were defined according to distinct theological and historical traits, like evangelism and ritual – or, as one has put it, “ardor versus order.”
Newer Southern Baptist tribal configurations have cropped up around major chieftain personalities. American Baptist tribes originally emerged among the newer “evangelical” schools on the one hand and graduates of the six older institutions on the other hand. More recently, American Baptist tribes have coalesced around matters of sexuality and Biblicism. Contests between the tribes for denominational leadership have often been vigorous.
Among black Baptists, those associated with an “Atlanta tradition” have been seen in sharp contrast to those trained at schools in the Carolinas and Virginia or associated with the Hampton Pastors’ Conference. Large urban “mother” congregations have established hegemonies, as in Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Atlanta and New York. The history of black Baptist leadership for generations has been written along such tribal lines.
The changing post-Christian landscapes of North America have become a real challenge to Baptist tribes. Geographical Baptist tribal boundaries have come to be of little to no import. Southern Baptists are found in New England and Alberta, Cooperative Baptists in Ontario, and American Baptists in Texas and Florida. Several groups of black Baptists are in search of unifying visions while a new black Baptist charismatic conference is sweeping across North America, moving within traditional African American and Afri-Canadian Baptist boundaries.
American Baptists are no longer a racial majority tribe, and many of their theological graduates attend non-ABC schools in their neighborhoods. Ironically, among Baptists in Canada, the loss of the former Canadian Baptist Federation assemblies has led to a greater sense of interiority and theological isolationism, as overall numbers among the tribes decline.
In virtually every category, North America is emerging as a seamless continent. The Christian community needs to awaken to that reality. Baptists of various tribes in particular need to locate anew and embrace each other and then give serious attention as Baptists to relating to the other Christian communities around us.
We need a strong regular assemblage of North American Baptists. We need to urge our cooperative bodies like the Baptist World Alliance and the North American Baptist Fellowship to open more and sustained channels of dialogue and affinity with other non-Baptist groups. And we need to find effective vehicles and places to speak into our North American cultures with responsible critique and constructive transformation. Above all, we need to change our objectives from building more effective tribes to a greater participation in the Kingdom of God in our midst.
Tribalism is usually associated with primitive societies, moving from hunter-gatherers to settled agricultures. For most thinking people, it would be a step backward to return to primitive ways. Those who favor sharp boundaries, rigid belief systems, mythic narratives of identity, and regional or institutional elitism in defining Baptist identity should think about the downside of Baptist tribalism.
In this world, it doesn’t serve God’s people well.
William H. Brackney is the Millard R. Cherry Distinguished Professor of Christian Theology and Ethics at Acadia University and Acadia Divinity College in Nova Scotia.