“Belong, Believe, Behave?” Or “Believe, Behave, Belong?”

“Belong, Believe, Behave?” Or “Believe, Behave, Belong?” March 24, 2014

“Belong, Believe, Behave?” Or “Believe, Behave, Belong?”

I’m not sure who first suggested the idea, but some years ago someone associated with the “emerging church” movement said that churches need to move from a policy of requiring right belief and right living for belonging to offering belonging followed by believing and behaving. For some postevangelical Christians this has become a hallmark of the difference between emerging (or emergent) churches and traditional evangelical churches.

While I sympathize with the impulse behind “belong, believe, behave,” which is, I assume, inclusion over exclusion, I also have some qualms about the policy. I fear it can and often does lead to one of two problems. First, the church may drop belief altogether and permit doctrinal pluralism so that everyone believes differently and there is no real cognitive content to the church’s Christianity. In that case, the church would seem to be little more than a cozy club of people who like each other or, at the most, together look fondly upon a cross without any agreement about what it stands for. Second, insofar as the church holds onto some semblance of orthodox doctrine (however defined), it may relegate full belonging to a small coterie of leaders who must believe and behave first and then belong.

Important to deciding about this is defining “belong,” “believe,” and “behave.” What does it mean to belong? What does believe include? What does it mean to behave?

In most “traditional” evangelical churches (setting aside fundamentalist ones), “belonging” means membership. And not everyone who wishes can join in that sense—of possessing the status of full member. Many traditional evangelical churches have some category like “associate membership”—whether called that or not—for people who do not fit the criteria for full membership but are considered to belong to the community anyway. But only full members can vote on church business and serve as officers of the church. Full membership, in such churches, usually requires some belief and some behavior.

Is it possible to “belong” to such a church without conforming fully to the criteria of belief and behavior? Yes, in most cases. I know a man, for example, who honestly expressed some doubts about his new church’s doctrinal and ethical standards for membership. He attended and participated long enough for the church to recognize him as belonging without membership. The church came to see the depth of his Christian faith and commitment and embraced him with the exception that he cannot vote on church business or serve as an officer of the church.

I’m not sure what “belong, believe, behave” means if not that or something like that. And yet it seems to me that is a very common practical policy (as opposed to written down policy) among traditional evangelical churches.

On the other hand, if the man mentioned above openly declared that he did not believe in the church’s core doctrines and would speak against them, the church would be well within its rights to exclude him (in all matters other than allowing him to attend public worship services).

Sometimes I think that “belong, believe, behave” is an overreaction to sectarian fundamentalism—churches that really do exclude people who don’t conform to a long list of criteria for membership. I don’t think that’s typical traditional evangelical church life, though.

Unfortunately, in my experience, some emerging/emergent churches have dropped any doctrinal standards or criteria for membership other than (perhaps) church pastoral staff. And some have dropped them even for pastoral staff.

Now let’s turn to the words “believing” and “behaving.” Does any Christian church really practice belonging in the full sense without any expectations of believing and behaving? I would ask churches that say they do to tell me what they would do if an openly racist person (e.g., a white supremacist) started attending and wanted to belong (in whatever way that church defines “belonging”). Would they embrace the person as truly and fully belonging without conditions—such as changing his or her beliefs and behavior about minorities? Or does “believing” and “behaving” just mean persons who wish to belong do not have to have a full understanding beyond doubt or question about orthodox doctrines and struggle with some temptation into which they occasionally fall? If the latter, then, in my experience, most traditional evangelical churches accept people like that.

Again (as I’ve said about many things here before), it seems to me that the “belong, believe, behave” approach is largely an overreaction to sectarian fundamentalism in which people have to at least pretend to believe in a long list of doctrines without mental reservations and live a perfect life in terms of traditional (especially sexual) morality. If the idea that we are all flawed people is what “belong, believe, behave” means, then I am fully on board the policy. But if it means dropping all expectations and criteria for full membership, then I doubt any church actually does that (even if they claim to), and I would oppose it.

So, to get more specific and practical: What should a Christian church require for “belonging” in the full sense of church membership (including holding office and/or teaching)? At minimum a Christian church should require members to believe in (if not fully understand) the doctrines of the incarnation (deity and humanity of Christ) and Trinity. I would add also belief that all people stand in need of salvation which is by grace alone by faith and cannot be earned. In addition, members should affirm that Jesus is the risen Lord who left the tomb empty, lives forever more and will return in glory.

What should a church require for “behaving?” At minimum, a Christian church should require members to affirm repentance for sin and desire to live a Christ like life with the help of the Holy Spirit and the community of God’s people. The person should be baptized in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit or in the name of Jesus Christ.

Anyone who cannot affirm those beliefs (even with mental reservations) and desire to live that kind of life should not be given full membership in any Christian church. However, that is not to say they cannot belong in some sense of the word, depending on whether they are perceived to be moving in the right direction. A person who flagrantly denies those beliefs and rejects repentance and living a Christ like life should not even be allowed to think he or she “belongs” (even as they are allowed to attend).

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