I’ve come across a number of articles that describe the process by which a person becomes part of a church in three words: BEHAVE, BELIEVE, and BELONG.1 These three “B”s can come in any order.
Maybe most common throughout Church history has been BELONG, BEHAVE, BELIEVE. This would be the model seen in Catholic, Orthodox, Episcopal and Lutheran churches, where babies are baptized into a faith, so they BELONG right from the start. As they grow, they are taught how to BEHAVE. When they reach an age of understanding, they go through a formal teaching of what to BELIEVE in the catechism, leading to their Confirmation in the faith.
In contrast, most Evangelical Protestant denominations, including Baptists, follow the pattern BELIEVE, BELONG, BEHAVE. A person hears the Gospel and responds to it in an act of acceptance; they BELIEVE. They are then welcomed into the church as a convert, and they BELONG. How they BEHAVE as a Christian is learned within the church and lived out in daily life. It’s not usually seen as a step toward becoming a Christian, but as the fruit of believing and belonging. 2
There are actually some groups that follow the order BEHAVE, BELONG, BELIEVE. They may BEHAVE uniquely by following a certain lifestyle (celibacy, monasticism, communal living) or emphasizing a particular practice (distinctive clothing, dietary restrictions, “separation” from other professing Christians). Their obvious differentness causes them to cluster and BELONG with people who share their behavior values. These behaviors overshadow in importance the doctrines they BELIEVE in; they affirm them, but they don’t emphasize them.
There is a current discussion among Christian leaders from various groups that in 2023 the church should follow the model BELONG, BELIEVE, BEHAVE, and I agree with this. The “belonging” being addressed here is not the traditional infant baptism model. Instead, it starts with the reality that there are many forces in modern life that tend to isolate individuals from relationships and associations that most people in past generations would have been able to count on: family, home town neighbors and environment, predictable seasonal patterns. In a sense, this is the down side of the unlimited freedoms and opportunities modern life seems to promise. The technological wonders available to us further complicate things. I can use my smart phone to interact with a stranger on the other side of the world, but in the process, I become increasingly isolated from the person next to me who is browsing on his cell phone through eHarmony pictures of strangers he may fantasize dating. Though they usually don’t acknowledge it, these people are aching for an embracing group where they can BELONG.
What if the church’s attitude toward these people were unconditional acceptance? Not “You’re welcome if you clean up a little.” Not “I’m not sure those are church clothes you’re wearing.” Not “We’re glad you girls are here, but maybe don’t hold hands?” Not even a raised eyebrow above a forced smile. A really honest warm welcome.
It wouldn’t compromise the Gospel. It wouldn’t imply that their behavior is okay with God. It would just reflect his love; the kind that Jesus showed to prostitutes, lepers, tax collectors, illegal aliens and even hypocritical Pharisees. First, Jesus would befriend them, showing that they BELONG in his circle. This disarmed them and made them curious, leading them to BELIEVE in him. Finally, he challenged them to a new life, to BEHAVE in a God-honoring way. BELONG, BELIEVE, BEHAVE.
Knowing how hungry people were to BELONG, Jesus seemed willing to err on the side of acceptance. He even included Judas to BELONG among his twelve most trusted disciples, even though he would never come to BELIEVE and would BEHAVE in an act of awful betrayal. In the two parables recorded in Matthew 13 (“The Sower,” verses 1-9, 18-23; and “The Weeds among the Wheat,” verses 24-30), Jesus emphasized that it’s up to God, not us, to sort between the true and the false followers.
That’s a relief. We’re not the filters on the church doors. It’s not up to us to keep impurities out of God’s church; he’ll do that. We can just bring them in, bring them all in. Give them the opportunity to experience the love of God through a loving church family. We can show them what true belonging is really like, and then they can decide for themselves whether they want to stay or go. My guess is that they’ll stay.
– – Pastor George Van Alstine
1 Here are some articles that discuss the three “B”s in various religious groups: https://www.patheos.com/blogs/rogereolson/2014/03/belong-believe-behave-or-believe-behave-belong/
2 Though this is the officially taught order, there’s no question that in the practice of many Fundamentalist churches, the order seems more like BELIEVE, BEHAVE, BELONG. In order to be fully accepted as “belonging,” a convert has to follow the church’s legalistic “dos and don’ts.”