Belonging Before Believing: Responding to the Christian Establishment on polity


This morning I was surprised to find the following story in my Facebook feed:

Jonathan Leeman on why authoritarianism is uniquely evil, Christian freeloaders, the problem with “belonging before believing,” and more.

Posted by The Gospel Coalition on Monday, August 31, 2015

What’s that?!

Belonging before believing? Someone on The Gospel Coalition is talking about SOMETHING THAT I’VE BEEN TALKING ABOUT FOR THE LAST 5 YEARS?

I was discouraged by the opinions expressed by Jonathan Leeman, director of 9Marks. 9Marks is a good, decent organization that helps a lot of churches pursue healthiness. Mark Dever’s book, The Nine Marks of a Healthy Church, now in its third edition, which started the whole 9Marks story years ago, is a good book for anyone who is concerned about the health of their local church. I respect Dever and Leeman, but I believe I must disagree with their opinions.

My view isn’t merely pragmatic, just because it looks like I want to make things easier for people

If Leeman ever were to read this, he would likely object to my objections by saying that my argument is merely only pragmatic, and not based on Scripture. And that’s the problem with this debate — once someone promotes more belonging, they can be dismissed as pragmatists who overstep the bounds of God’s Word. However, I believe that God’s Word supports the idea of belonging before believing, and I also think the opposite approach is potentially harmful to the progress and longevity of local churches everywhere.

The clear, bright line

Leeman’s most problematic comment is this one:

In the Bible, God always draws a clear and bright line between the inside of his people and the outside. There’s a clear line between the inside of Eden and the outside, inside Noah’s ark and the outside, inside the people in the wilderness and the outside, inside of the land and the outside. So it is with the church.

The simplest answer is sometimes best: No he didn’t, and no it isn’t. There are other ways of looking at things, and Leeman’s chosen Scriptural examples all have alternative, legitimate interpretations that don’t support his claim.

For example, Adam and Eve were always meant to leave the Garden, because God had commanded them to multiply and subdue the world. The Garden would not have remained clearly separate from the rest of the world — it would have grown, as the surrounding land was cultivated, and people would have moved in and out freely.

But I believe the clearest objection comes from the life and work of Jesus Christ and his work with the community he created, the twelve disciples. Now, one might say, “see — there were just 12 of them! They were in and everyone else was out!”

Except, that’s not the answer. Leeman is talking about who is a Christian and who isn’t — who has a saving faith and who doesn’t. And if you dissect the community of the disciples a little bit, you see that it is impossible to determine who actually is and isn’t in. 

See, for almost the entire time Jesus was with the disciples, it was obvious that few of them — if any at all — had a saving faith. The obvious example is Judas, who betrayed Jesus, but look also at James and John, Phillip, and Thomas.

James and John thought they could bargain with Jesus for preferred seats in heaven. If someone said that today, we’d say they didn’t understand the gospel at all.

Phillip said, “show us the Father and it will be enough for us,” at which point Jesus let out a big sigh and said, “How long have you been with me? And yet you still don’t understand?” The claim that Jesus and the Father are not one is clearly gnostic, and yet Jesus had no qualms about having Phillip inside his community.

Thomas adamantly refused to believe in the resurrection until he saw Jesus in person. 

And yet Jesus graciously included all of these questionable men in his most priviledged, most intimate community, and gave them the tools they needed to one day come to understand and believe. Throughout the gospel story, it is nearly impossible to distinguish just which disciples had a saving faith and which didn’t. And really, that’s not the point of the story anyway. The point is that Jesus established a community that changed the world.

And as if this weren’t enough ambiguity, the twelve was not the only community that Jesus established during his ministry. What about the seventy-two? Even when it seems like there was a “clear, bright line”, in reality the situation was much more complex, whether we like to admit it or not.

There are many implications of the opinion I have outlined here, but I will emphasize this one in conclusion: if we do not give everyone — everyone who comes and demonstrates a desire to get involved — a chance to belong to the community of Jesus in a meaningful way, then we are robbing them. By being exclusive and requiring that people fulfill our expectations before we accept them as our own, we can withhold from people the experiences they need to come to a saving understanding of the gospel message that Jesus taught.

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