We are relational creatures, and most of us will identify with groups throughout life. It is lonely to be a loner, and it is eventually unpleasant to be a hermit. Thomas Merton chose the monastic and hermit life, but the desire to make human connections prevailed in his own spiritual growth.
We each want to know who we are in reference to others, and we want to be part of something larger and more significant than ourselves. We want authority without having to create it entirely for ourselves. We crave answers that have been, somehow, proven by the larger group. Of course, we want mentors, models and encouragement along the way.
The groups we identify with help us in this journey. There are pragmatic reasons for our identification as well. Groups allow us a path upon which to “progress.” Identifying with a group makes it more likely we can advance and achieve in some way. They allow us to be “winners,” to claim characteristics and qualities that belong to the group and to have the group’s history as somehow our own.
The groups we belong to are usually part of God’s good and gracious world. From families to soccer teams to theological movements, groups are part of how God shapes each one of us.
But groups are also fallen. They partake of our depravity and the depravity of the world. We must acknowledge that for all the good gifts of group participation, group loyalty is also a dangerous thing. We must realize the inevitably ambivalent and corrosive power of group loyalty.
We are, as humans, very likely to take our group loyalty too far, to identify with the group when we should step aside from it, to partake of sins that the group approves. It was group loyalty that killed Jesus and that abandoned Jesus. It was group loyalty that produced the Judaizers and other false teachers. It was group loyalty that made Luther a wanted man, justified slavery and killed Jews. it is group loyalty that bullies kids on the playground and starts wars.
There are a catalog of sins that seem to occur most often in the context of group loyalty. Proving our loyalty to the group, and seeking the approval of the group are both slippery slopes that can take us to terrible places. We should be skeptical, not only of every group and its dynamics, but of the particular sins that occur within and because of the group- no matter how noble that group’s aims and rhetoric might be.
I work at a school. Group loyalty is part of what I seek to create in order for our school to prosper in its mission and work. I want it for students, employees and supporters. It is a good thing to support a group that, like ours, seeks to minister to the least of these in the name and methods of Jesus.
At the same time, I see a daily catalog of group depravity. In the cause of promoting the good of the group, I frequently see lies told, justice perverted and people hurt. I see what is genuinely wrong forced into existence by well-meaning members of teams, classes, races, geographic regions, political parties, and yes, theological preferences.
Why am I saying this? Because it concerns me when someone tells me that the group to which they belong spends most of its time engaging in self-justification and ongoing theological war as the daily bread of its existence. That group does not deserve your uncritical loyalty, and may not deserve your continued presence.
When group loyalty says, “Don’t think for yourself or trust your independent conclusions. Listen to the group’s versions of reality and official line,” something is wrong. When a group cannot tell you its history of being wrong, something is amiss. When leaders are venerated as authoritative interpreters of texts, and criticism of the leader/group is seen as mockery and betrayal of the Gospel, something is not healthy. When the group criticizes you for criticizing it, stop and think: What is going on?
Young believers: my experiences in the Christian world tell me that if you simply rationally and reasonably consider the various groups within the world of Christianity, you will conclude that there are many good, healthy, tolerant and positively self-critical groups with which you can identify. Sadly, you will also conclude that there are some places within Christianity that you should avoid.
At this point, “loyalty” has become another issue. Loyalty is a good thing, but loyalty should be submissive to reason, ethics and love. God does not expect us to equate loyalty to him with loyalty to a particular church or movement. That is irrational. If you are thinking this way, you need to realize God isn’t asking you to be uncritically loyal to any human relationship.
Find groups where your loyalty is rewarded with an interest in your personal growth, patience with your flaws, and the freedom to be different from the “norm.” When I hear someone say, “This is where I was saved, and I feel I should be loyal,” I want to remind the writer that many of us were saved in churches and ministries that we will always love, but which we have found it necessary to leave behind.
One of the many criticisms I have received has been specific and painful criticism for saying and writing things negatively critical of the movement in which I was brought up. The unspoken assertion of that criticism was that true conservative Christians don’t criticize their roots, their churches or their leaders.
None of us who value the Bible, or what is right, should nod at that kind of thinking. Your loyalty is not to be given to any human institution at the price of integrity, truth, humanity or the love of Christ.
Misplaced loyalty sometimes results in a code of silence.