The Church’s Hospitality Mandate

Screen Shot 2015-09-17 at 7.28.53 PMThe church has two complexes: one says it is a fellowship for the saints while the other complex is that it a fellowship for the sames. To use terms that have been suggested by folks like Craig Vernall, Dawn Haglund and Robert Webber, the traditional church often says it works from behaving, believing to belonging. But Vernall, Haglund, Webber and now Brian Harris says the proper order — the one the 21st Century most needs — is

Belong
Believe
Behave

This might be called the Hospitality Mandate of the church. Brian Harris outlines this in his book The Big Picture: Building Blocks of a Christian World View. Harris sketches a theology of embrace and hospitality by touching on important themes in the Bible:

Initially the desirability question seems self-evident. Surely the church is nothing if not a community of welcome and embrace. Christ’s incarnation was not delayed until such time as the planet engaged in impeccable behaviour. Both Bethlehem’s cradle and Calvary’s cross speak of the divine ‘yes’ to humanity in spite of its indifference, cruelty and fallenness. Tax collector Zacchaeus, the five-times married and now co-habiting woman at the well and the Christ-denying Peter all had life narratives where the journey of faith was possible because of the divine welcome rather than a promising behavioural record. Add to this that the first divine ‘no’ was to human aloneness (‘It is not good for the man to be alone’, Gen. 2:18) and the case seems pretty compelling (185).

The church’s hospitality mandate of belonging, believing and behaving creates questions, each of which Brian addresses. Five of them:

1. Is the journey to faith really linear? Linked to this, isn’t the model too static? When, for example, does one get the tick of approval affirming that one is now behaving as a Christian?

A more holistic understanding of conversion is thus being called for. A problem with the shift from ‘behave, believe, belong’ to ‘belong, believe, behave’ is that it retains a sense of stages to be passed and ticked off the list. The more likely trajectory is one of simultaneously feeling a sense of identification with and acceptance by a Christian community while increasingly understanding and accepting traditional Christian teaching and, where required, making gradual ethical course corrections (189).

2. Is it possible to ‘belong’ to something that one does n0t yet believe in or whose ethics do not guide one’s behaviour?

It all depends on the meaning of belonging, and the belong first theme is not about technical membership but finding a place where one belongs, where the chemistry is right, where one can call it home. The answer is Yes because it is going on all the time. Many are on the front porch for a long time but they consider the house their home.

3. In both paradigms, ‘believe’ is placed in the middle. Is the role of belief really secondary?

 The implication that belief now flows from belonging rather than from behaving should probably be modified to acknowledge that belief is usually related to multiple factors. In reality, belief cannot often be divorced from one’s community of reference. Openness to a community of faith often leads to greater openness to its belief system (191).

4. Does the model imply that we are all really ‘anonymous Christians’ and that the invitation to belong is therefore appropriate regardless of personal belief or behaviour?

No, but all are welcome as Eikons of God on the porch as all are welcomed into the house upon entry. Harris: “Of course, if we never enter it…” (192).

5. By placing behaviour at the end of the trio, do we run the risk of endorsing what Bonhoeffer classifies as ‘cheap grace’?

This is a risk Jesus himself took as not all his disciples endured. Jesus went into Zacchaeus’ home and surely his table fellowship made embrace the first gesture.

One of Brian’s important conclusions:

Historically the church has felt that it holds the moral high ground, whilst those outside the church no longer consider the ethical superiority of the church to be self-evident. The current values of the Western world often reflect kinder and more charitable face than ‘the average face’ shown by the church in its 2,000 year history (195).

Its future will be known for the size of its front porch.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.