In a CT article published last year, the author invites churches to move from a “believe, become, belong” sequence to one where people can “belong, believe, become.” Churches ought to be a place where people can first belong, and in so doing, help them believe, and eventually become. While it is understandable that full membership in our churches is reserved to those who believe the foundational Christian beliefs and are committed to character formation, churches ought to be open for everyone to walk in, experience generous hospitality, warmth, and fellowship.
This approach shifts from seeing the church as the gatekeepers of true belief and guardians of good Christian character to it as being a place where those who eventually will have true beliefs and good Christian character can first belong. In short, the church ought to be less of an exclusive club that makes those still with wrong beliefs or wrong behavior unwelcome.
Yet, just as it is a problem on the conservative end of the spectrum where people find it hard to belong, we have on the liberal end, a problem where belief and discipleship are insignificant. As we rearrange the sequence to facilitate “easy belonging”, we ought to also see all the three– belong, believe & become– as equally important parts of the Christian faith and church practice. Let me illustrate the Trinitarian basis for these three facets that are so interconnected that to neglect any one facet would compromise the other facets as well.
The three facets– belong, believe & become– are functions that correspond to the three persons of the Trinity. Given that we are prone to prioritizing and arranging these functions into an order of importance, it is pivotal that we recognize the equality of those functions as evident from the equality of persons within the Trinity. After all, the tasks undertaken by each person of the Trinity are done together, and yet, they are– to use John McIntyre’s term– “terminatively” carried out by a specific member of the Trinity. Care ought to be taken to not collapse the function of one member to another as though we have an undifferentiated unity. Likewise, care ought to be taken to not make their functions separate so as to affirm only diversity. As McIntyre writes,
Thus the creation of the world is the work of the whole Trinity, with the fiat of the Father, the creation being ‘by the Word’ and the Spirit as a brooding presence, but it terminates or has its completion through the Father. In the case of the incarnation, it is a work common to the whole of the Trinity, having its source in the will of the Father, with the Holy Spirit appearing at the conception, and through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, but in its goal and ultimate issue it is the work of the Son. The presence of God in believers, in the Church, in history, and in the world is the work of the entire Trinity, but in its implementation, it is fulfilled by the Spirit. [The Shape of Pneumatology, 82].
The call to belong to the family of faith flows from the person and work of God the Father. By virtue of both his function (as the creator) and title (Father–paternitās), the entire creation belongs to Him. As the Psalmist illustrates it, “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it” (24:1), which includes the good, the bad, and the ugly. All things belong to Him and there is nothing in the world that is outside the purview of God’s sovereignty. Although the complete appropriation of our identity as God’s children is for the redeemed– “Behold what manner of love the Father has given unto us– that we should be called the children of God” (1 Jn 3:1), Romans 5:8 propels the church to love every sinner because “God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners.”
Similarly, the call to believe flows from the person and work of Jesus Christ. He is the one who invites us to believe and the One in whom we believe; He is the messenger and the message; He is the chief priest and the sacrifice. True belonging to the family of God in this new covenant rests on the redemptive work of Christ on the cross and is appropriated by grace through faith in Jesus Christ.
Finally, Christian becoming is by the enabling work of the Holy Spirit. As the indwelling Spirit, He is both the counselor and the advocate who sanctifies individuals caught within their distinct needs and oddities. In this sense, the Spirit’s “incarnation”, if you will, is not as a generic human teacher but as a personal trainer of individuals situated in unique conditions. As the Spirit of Truth, He forms our inner being, both as individuals and as communities, by leading us into truth and freedom.
To belong, believe, and become is a useful rearrangement of sequence– a corrective to the overprotective tendencies within the church that hinder the mission of God. Yet, it is pivotal to understand that the rearrangement is not an order that illustrates an “essential” priority or a hierarchy of importance. Rather, the sequence illustrates a “functional” priority in the Trinitarian order that begins with the love of the Father (to whom we belong), that issues the Son (in whom we believe), who together issue the Spirit (by whom we become).