A Case of Misplaced Identity
Dietary tribalism has no place in the body of Christ
We have a way of identifying ourselves by what we eat.
On some level, it makes sense. Food is the foundation of many of our cultural and family traditions. It's often connected with pleasant memories of childhood or used as an expression of loving care. Preparing family meals encourages group participation. We're drawn to experiences where food, as the central theme, brings us together.
But what we eat can also divide us.
Looking around the internet makes it clear: What was historically a source of comradery and community has become a battleground of warring tribes. Be it vegan, paleo, keto, plant-based, high protein, high fat, low fat, low carb or the latest TikTok trend, the tribe we choose elicits a fierce loyalty from us and our fellow members. It's like a twisted, bizarre form of religion in which we all hole up in tiny cults, worshipping the tribe's leader and clinging to a dogmatic eating pattern that gives us a sense of identity.
This identity is shaky at best, and yet we're all so desperate to know for sure who and what we are—who and what we believe in—that we'll cling to anything that promises to give us an anchor. Even if we know, deep down, we're not standing on solid ground.
When we seek our identity in food, we forfeit the unshakeable foundation of being that God has provided for us in Christ. We succumb to the very human tendency to look to everything except God for meaning and validation, and we find ourselves caught in the crossfire of warring factions, arguing over the trivialities that divide us—instead of uniting around commonalities that can bring us together.
Diet Tribe Diatribe
What draws us in this damaging, discordant direction?
We feel lost. We're not sure who we are, and we need someone to tell us.
It's a deeper problem of the human condition, a tendency to feel like we're floating without purpose or true meaning. We all deal with it in different ways. For some of us, it manifests in the way we approach diet and health, leading us to scour every platform from YouTube to Reddit as we try to find a place to belong.
The avalanche of nutrition information we're blasted with every day only serves to make us more confused. We being to question our confidence in what we thought was the "right" way to eat—and, by extension, our sense of self. Those positive food values—culture, tradition, comfort, love—suddenly seem inadequate, or even threatening, as we're faced with headlines declaring the fat we once feared is now a dietary superhero or our staple morning bacon could actually give us cancer.
We're looking for someone or something to help us navigate the endless maze. When we find a way of eating that appears to have credible backing—and isn't too difficult, extreme or overwhelming—we cling to it. We look to the leaders of the movement for guidance, trusting that they know the path that points to the clarity we seek.
And, when we're sufficiently entrenched in the tribe, it becomes part of our identity.
Stepping Inside the Bubble
We literally are what we eat, and anyone who tries to question the veracity of our assertions is the enemy. Food still draws us together, but the groups we form are tightly knit, exclusive and subject to schism. Instead of begetting feelings of connectedness and comfort, food becomes a point of pride that breeds malice toward those who don't embrace our dietary dogma. This leads us to seek out echo chambers that reinforce the identity to which we so desperately cling.
If none exist, the tribe builds its own, and we follow.
The longer we spend in these tiny communal bubbles, the more suspicious we become of anything that contradicts our tribe's reigning narrative. We take a defensive stance that drives us to be discourteous to, disrespectful toward and distrustful of others. Sometimes we turn on our own, raging over invented transgressions they've committed against the “way “of the tribe. Our disputes spill over into social media, blossoming into hateful Instagram comment threads and vicious debates in tribe-centered Clubhouse rooms.
We spend our time and energy defending manufactured identities to people we don’t even know. And we look everywhere for confirmation, cherry picking ruthlessly to shore up any cracks in the tribe's foundation.
Author and speaker Jack Bobo pegs this behavior as a very public display of confirmation bias:
"We seek out information that confirms our beliefs and we ignore or discount information inconsistent with our beliefs because it's easier to entrench more deeply than it is to change our minds." (Why Smart People Make Bad Food Choices, p.33)
This tendency to justify external identities is a form of heuristic, a shortcut we use to make assumptions and draw conclusions based on experiences we’ve had with similar situations or problems. And, when we get together with others who share the same biases, we find ourselves in ever-tighter "circles" that parrot repetitive information handed down from tribal founders. We neglect to check sources and avoid anything that might send us down another path.
This gives us the perceived freedom to treat others as ignorant outsiders, declaring them blind to the truth when we ourselves are the ones who have been blinded. As we draw more closely together under the umbrella of our tribe’s rules, we shut ourselves off to any conflicting information that may force us to re-examine our food identities.
Our behavior bears an uncanny resemblance to that which Jesus called out in the religious leaders of His day. Years of being entrenched in law and tradition gave them pointed opinions, critical attitudes and a sense of self-entitlement that led to sharp criticism of anyone who deviated from their ways (Mark 2:23-28, 7:3-9).
It’s an attitude that can infect every area of our lives, including our connections with others whom we’re meant to support and love. By clinging to a tribal label as the source of our identity, we turn away from put God-given sense of self and shut out the support system He provides to help us grow into who He desires us to be in Christ.
Dangers of Tribal Identities
The apostle Paul often describes this support system through the metaphor of a human body. Christians are portrayed as one connected unit in which no part can operate effectively without the others (Romans 12:3-5; 1 Corinthians 12:14-21).
Paul was passionate about maintaining unity within this body. In his first letter to the Corinthian church, he warned against allowing doctrinal disputes to create divisions. They had fallen into the same trap as the religious leaders whom Jesus rebuked and separated themselves into factions that threatened the unity the early church meant to embody (1 Corinthians 1:11-13, 3:3-7).
Paul urged them to turn away from their tribalism and embrace a unified identity as followers of Christ:
Now I beseech you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you; but that ye be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment. (1 Corinthians 1:10 , KJV)
This principle can be extrapolated to anything that may drive a wedge between us, including dietary tribalism. Identifying ourselves with something outside of Christ is a surefire way to destroy Christian fellowship and damage the health of the larger body of believers. The more elitist we become about the way we eat, the more we stray from biblical principle and undermine the connectedness God intends for us (see James 2:1-9).
Though His sacrificial death on the cross, Jesus demonstrated that God’s deep love for the world extends beyond the borders we create for ourselves. In His eyes, there’s no difference between us and the people in the "opposing" food tribes with whom we so vociferously fight (Galatians 3:28; Romans 10:12).
Becoming ensconced in these tribes cripples the health of the body of believers. Rather than acting as part of a collective whole with our brothers and sisters in Christ, we become slaves to our food-centric identities and undermine our ability to form real, supportive connections with each other.
Schism Within and Without
Paul reminded the Corinthians that "God hath tempered the body together...That there should be no schism in the body..." (1 Corinthians 12:24-25, KJV). Other New Testament writers like James echo his sentiment, calling out behaviors that cause us to compartmentalize ourselves into divisive factions and squirrel ourselves away in self-affirming cliques.
Society at large has already invented enough artificial reasons to ignore, debase and distrust each other; we don't need to introduce more. Divisiveness over minor considerations, backed up by confirmation bias and gleeful cherry picking, causes unrest and hatred among those inside and outside the Church. We see it all around us every time we log onto social media or read the news.
Diet tribes are just one more excuse to shut the door to those outside our special "inner circles." We feel safe surrounded by those who affirm our dietary identity—and threatened by anyone who doesn't. We give ourselves permission to avoid the deeper thinking and discussion that form the foundation of true relationships, including those between members of the body of Christ.
In the process of constructing our dietary identities, we lose sight of the higher calling to which we're called and rejected the fellowship God Himself desires between His people. We reject the firm foundation of a Christ-centered identity in favor of building our perception of ourselves on the ever-shifting sands of modern dietary trends (Matthew 7:24-27).
True Identity is in Christ
Outside of Christ, identity is nebulous. God created us to walk in step with Him; we are made in His image. Christ not only shows us Who God is (Colossians 1:15; Hebrews 1:3) but also makes it possible for us to have an intimate relationship with Him, the One Who created us (John 14:6).
Only through that relationship can we discover who we are.
When we turn our attention away from this truth, we inevitably look for something else to anchor and validate ourselves. We become desperate to be something, hence the pervasive desire to go viral, be "Twitter famous," build perfect Instagram lives, amass millions of YouTube followers...
Or immerse ourselves in diet tribes.
God has a different design for us, which Paul makes clear in his second letter to the Corinthians:
And that [Jesus] died for all, that they which live should not henceforth live unto themselves, but unto him which died for them, and rose again. ... Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new. (2 Corinthians 5:15,17, KJV)
In writing to the Colossians, he adds:
If ye then be risen with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ sitteth on the right hand of God. Set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth. For ye are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God. (Colossians 3:1-3)
In coming to Christ, we receive a new identity. What we once were passes away, including all the shaky foundations on which we attempted to build our own definition of self. We become members of that larger body of other Christians, each with a unique function that contributes to the wellbeing and fruitfulness of the whole (1 Corinthians 12:27).
We are, in every sense, renewed (Romans 12:2, 8:5). When our identity flows from who we are in Christ—free, forgiven and at peace with God—we don't need diet tribes and their resident gurus. We can step out of our echo chambers, drop our defensiveness and gather together with our brothers and sisters in Christ, unhindered by manufactured divisions.
Walking in Newness of Identity
In Christ, we belong to God.
Recognizing this allows us to relate to each other with compassion rather than pegging everyone outside our circle as the enemy (Colossians 3:12). It breaks the tribal walls between warring dietary factions and reminds us we're all just people to whom Jesus desires to extend compassion—and with it, the only identity that can’t be destroyed.
By fixing our eyes, minds and hearts where they really belong, we can move forward as a body united and equipped to live in communion with each other in a way that shines the light of Christ to the world around us.
So, let's step back from finger pointing, disengage from arguments in our Instagram feeds and recalibrate our identities around Jesus.
The body of Christ will be better for it.