What do you think about the practice of churches who invite people to belong before believing?
The leaders in these churches prefer to see life with Christ as more of a journey or an ongoing conversation. They also tend to be reticent about viewing Christianity as a destination or a conclusion one reaches based on positive response to a set of propositional truths.
In some cases, their readiness to embrace a belonging before believing approach is reactionary to the many non-negotiable lines drawn by their spiritual predecessors. These lines were used to distinguished those who were in from those who were out. Separation from those on the outside was typically a major emphasis. Yet the separatist approach sadly came with the ugly hypocritical baggage of legalism – a major aversion for younger evangelicals.
Possible theological context
While we could raise a number of important concerns about this approach, it seems that a belonging before believing position is partly based on a theology of common grace and shared humanity rather than differences between believers and unbelievers. It’s a desire to seek commonality over separation from the world.
We are all (for example) made in God’s image (Genesis 1:26-27; 9:6; James 3:9) and, therefore, share much in common. ALthough the image of God is marred by the fall of humanity from God, it clearly remains a defining reality for all humans. We also all live under God’s common grace as recipients of blessings outside of the boundaries of salvation (see: Acts 14:15-17 below).
Think about it
“Every human being on the planet is known by God, considered and evaluated by God, called to account by God” “To be human is to be addressable by one’s Creator—with no regard for ethnicity or covenant status. God can speak to an Abimelech or a Balaam or a Nebuchadnezzer as easily as an Abraham, a Moses or a Daniel” (C. Wright, The Mission of God).
“¨To the Lord your God belong the heavens, even the highest heavens, the earth and everything in it.” (Deuteronomy 10:14). ¨The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it.” (Psalm 24:1). “Everything under heaven belongs to me” (Job 41:11).
Richard Mouw issued a worthy concern that, “The standard formulations of common grace teaching have often had an unfortunate feel of passivity for Christians. They have depicted a transaction between God and unbelievers with virtually no attention to the active role of the Christian community in ‘delivering the goods,’ so to speak, of common grace.” (“He shines in all that’s fair: Culture and Common Grace,” p.80).
By emphasizing belonging before believing, these churches are willing to enlisting those who have not yet come to faith to use their gifts in the Church. If you’re a gifted violinist or artist, your talents are encouraged and celebrated in the gatherings. Are work days at Church the only places for non-believers to get involved? Are we uncomfortable with an unbeliever being part of our worship team or in our choir (if we still have one)? I am not limiting my exploration of the questions below to these matters, but they provide a focus for discussion.
How would you answer the following three questions? And how would your answers to these questions be reflected in the ministries of local Churches?
- In what ways does God care about the actions and achievements of non-elect persons that are not linked directly to issues of individual salvation?
- Are salvific categories adequate to cover all of God’s dispositions toward human beings, both redeemed and unredeemed?
- How do we treat with utmost seriousness the lines between belief and unbelief, between those who live within the boundaries of saving grace and those who do not, while at the same time remaining open to (with active appreciation for) all that is good, beautiful and true outside of those boundaries?
Acts 14:15-17 – After a miraculous healing of a crippled man, the people rushed to Barnabas and Paul to worship them. Listen to their response: “Men, why are you doing this? We too are only men, human like you. We are bringing you good news, telling you to turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made heaven and earth and sea and everything in them. In the past, he let all nations go their own way. Yet he has not left himself without testimony: He has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; he provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy” (Acts 14:15-17).
These are descriptions of God’s activities — not toward those who believe — but toward unbelievers. “He has not left Himself without testimony” (Verse 17).
Acts 17:24-28 – “The apostle also addressed these matters to the philosophers of Athens: “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else. From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’ (Acts 17:24-28).
Extra credit question
Q. How does the truth in this Scripture effect the starting point for Christian witness?
“Even … those who do not have God’s written law, show that they know his law when they instinctively obey it, even without having heard it. They demonstrate that God’s law is written in their hearts, for their own conscience and thoughts either accuse them or tell them they are doing right” (Romans 2:14-15).
Helpful works on these themes
- The Mission of God, by Christopher Wright
- He Shines in All That’s Fair, by Richard Mouw
- Consider the Lilies, by T. M. Moore