Believing v Belonging: what comes first?

Archie Poulos
October 29th, 2010

How do we get engaged in the faith?

During the last generation there has been ever increasing discussion of the relationship between believing, behaving and belonging in the Christian community.

This discussion is important as we think about what we expect of people joining church and how we organise our church life together.

It has traditionally been held that people begin by believing. This changes their attitudes and that is seen in changes in behaviour that enables them to belong to the people of God gathered. This is certainly the thinking of the early church as they structured how church life functioned.

In recent days sociological studies have declared that the actual way people change and grow is by belonging to a group that has a particular ethos, which almost by osmosis leads to a change in behaviour and that provides the fertile ground for a change in belief.

Some churches structure their meetings along these lines. The meeting’s main activity is to be accessible so that the newcomer immediately feels as though they belong to this group, and so that through continued relationship they change their behaviour and their belief.

Concerns

I have a fundamental concerns with both options.

It does not seem Biblical or realistic to break a person’s pathway to maturity into these discrete categories. The Bible deliberately links life and doctrine. The apostle Paul commands Timothy to watch his life and doctrine closely (1 Timothy 4:16), and Peter in condemning false teachers identifies their failure in what they teach and how they live (2 Peter 2).

Additionally I cannot see how it is possible to rightly belong to the people of God without being committed to the Lord and His people, so true belonging must involve both true belief and amended behaviour.

Way forward

So where does this leave us? Here are some thoughts.

Belonging is a slippery category. It is true that people are affected and changed by those with whom they relate. One of God’s gifts in leading people to Christian maturity is each other.

However, I think a better category is not “belonging” (as this rightly requires faith), but “welcoming and engaging”. Our meetings must be open and accessible to newcomers, who will feel at ease being with “these people”. But the church should be different to life outside the church.

Believing and behaving then go hand in hand. To not understand this is to under-estimate the work of the Spirit in the life of a Christian. In trusting God by faith, He gives his Spirit who both strengthens faith and enables behaviour change.

So our meetings must be welcoming. Our meetings must also be unafraid to call forth faith in the Lord, and in our meetings we must demonstrate, live and demand behaviour fitting of those united to Christ.

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