Belonging Before Believing in the Scriptures

The Incredulity of St. Thomas by Caravaggio

"The Incredulity of St. Thomas" by Caravaggio

I have been working on a doctorate of ministry project on the distinguishing characteristics of Mosaic and the Mosaic Alliance.  One area of uniqueness has been the idea of creating a place for people to belong before they believe.  So many churches are fantastic at being inclusive, but I have been surprised to discover that so many other church leaders resist the concept.

With your help, here is a very small list sent to me via twitter and facebook responding to my request for examples in the Bible where people belonged before believing:

Prodigal Son, Moses, Zaccaheus, Levi, Ethiopian Eunuch, Woman caught in the act of adultery, Abram, Ruth, Esther, etc..

Here is an excerpt from my project:

“Jesus interacted often with people who had not yet followed Him. Even among those closest to Him, Thomas and Judas belonged to the group known as Jesus’ twelve disciples, yet Thomas doubted for a time before believing and Judas never believed and eventually betrayed Jesus. Two of the greatest messages in history include Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount” and Peter’s sermon at Pentecost. On both occasions the gatherings included hundreds if not thousands of people who did not have faith in Jesus.”

Who else belonged before they believed in the Scriptures?  Beyond a name, how did they belong and make the transition to believing?

For more from my project on this, send me an email to with “Biblical Belonging Before Believing” as the subject.

Showing 16 comments
  • Johnny Laird

    Great thoughts, Eric!

    Johnny Laird’s last blog post..Cuz

  • Lon

    I’ve been sharing about belonging before believing for quite a while (though I have no doubt Erwin may have helped plant the thought in me a number of years back)… I’m sold on the idea, and have seen the process play out in others around me

    but when I read your question, my first thought was of how I personally belonged before I believed… except, I came to faith online. I didn’t have anyone praying with me or friends guiding me, I just had a moment in full realization that I belonged to God.

    and with that, you could say we all belong before we believe. human friendship and community is just a tangible expression of that invisible reality.

    and maybe when that sense of belonging is so deep, you can’t separate it from belief… you can’t help it because you’re immersed in truth and love.

    Lon’s last blog post..One size fits all?

  • Josh

    Amazing! I would love to Go to a Church where I was One of Few Christians And had the Chance to openly Discuss The Wonders Of God with many non believers, why is this so foreign to us Christians, Are we truly Ashamed Of the Good News?

  • Wes Woodell

    Good stuff 🙂

  • callista

    what do you (or what does research) say about why a lot of churches (or other communities of faith) resist the concept? will you touch on that? i think a contrast is always interesting and brings out the “distinguishing characteristics” more.

    or, is it possible to believe and then belong? (yes, rahab) or to believe and not belong? (i dunno, but that’s got to be very lonely and hard).

  • Michael Cordich

    It would seem to me that your examples of the two crowds are a stretch to support your claim of belonging before believing. To what did they belong? Neither were invited to “join a conversation”, a gathering, or be involved in a cause. So how is it you can make the claim that they belonged before they believed?

  • Brad Russell

    I believe maybe no core value sets the dividing line for the future of the church as ‘allowing people to belong before they believe’ does. I don’t think we have to look beyond the examples of Jesus.

    I think Zacchaeus is one good example of many. Jesus offends “all the people” in this story (pretty sure it’s Luk 19) by first inviting himself to Zacchaeus’ house BEFORE Zacc has repented (or even recognized any sin for that matter), and BEFORE Jesus mentions any sin or corruption of his heart. The people are complaining that he’s gone to be the “guest of a sinner”. For a Rabbi to make this gesture to a well known (chief) tax collector BEFORE the man expresses his faith through repentance (a very practical and visible repentance, btw), is unthinkable and scandalous to the religious observers. I love that Jesus declares “salvation has come to this home” and that he “came to seek and save what was lost” AFTER befriending the man and becoming a guest in his home, NOT before. Especially to the people in this story, the scandal was essentially rooted in Jesus allowing Zacchaeus to belong before believing.

    And speaking of scandalous, (again, Jesus is a Rabbi who is expected to avoid the defilement of proximity to women) what about Jesus defending the prostitute who is about to be stoned, BEFORE addressing her sin and BEFORE knowing if she’ll ever express faith/believe in him. His dealing with her about repentance/righteousness (“now go and leave your life of sin”) comes AFTER his befriending her, identifying with her, defending her. The point is that it’s another example – Jesus is allowing her (a prostitute, no less) to belong before expecting or requiring her to believe.

    And what about Jesus accepting the invitation to the tax collector’s party (I’m thinking this was Matthew)? And somewhere, in Luke I think, Jesus is criticized for being the guest or friend of “notorious sinners”. In thinking about my own personal friends, many of whom have come to faith long after my acceptance to their invitations or vice versa, I read these cases as Jesus definitely allowing sinners to belong to him as friends well BEFORE believing.

    This is a deep passion of mine, a holy discontent about wanting badly to see the church be so effective again in engaging and changing culture. Eric, I’m so grateful that you and Mosaic are making this characteristic of God’s people clear!

  • Eric Bryant

    Yes, Brad’s described it best when he wrote: “I read these cases as Jesus definitely allowing sinners to belong to him as friends well BEFORE believing.”

    The instances of the Sermon on the Mount and the message at Pentecost both showed that Jesus and Peter did not create barriers for those not yet following Jesus to even hear the message.

    Thanks for the interaction!

  • Michael Cordich

    Eric, if I’m understanding you correctly, you are defining belonging as having no barriers to hear the message of the gospel. Assuming I am correct, can you give me an example where a church or a Christian has required someone to believe in Jesus before they hear the message of Jesus? Who is putting up a barrier of “belief” before they allow someone to hear the message they are supposed to believe? It seems to me that your definition of belonging does not quite fit the statement of “belonging before believing.” Am I missing something?

    Since you seem to affirm Brad’s examples it would appear that “belonging” is to be understood in an all together different sense than that of a standard definition. Therefore, using Brad’s examples, if I speak to someone about Christ in the grocery store we are “belonging,” or if I am sharing with someone in a park we are “belonging,” or if I am sharing with a Mormon who comes to my door we are “belonging.” If this is what you mean by belonging, although not a dictionary definition, than when do people not belong?

  • Eric Bryant


    Too many churches (often unintentionally) create LOTS of barriers for those who do not have a relationship with Jesus. We use words they don’t understand. We sing songs they don’t know. We look down on them when they don’t dress quite right. We communicate messages that only believers understand on Sunday mornings. Most people without a relationship with Jesus feel judged and unwelcome even before they get to the door of our buildings.

    These key questions remain:

    Do we personally have relationships with others who may not look, believe, or act like I do?

    Do the people in my church have relationships with others who may not look, believe, or act as they do?

    Do the events, services, small groups, Bible studies, etc. communicate only to people who have a relationship with Jesus or do we help to explain the ancient text in the present context?

    I will email you the notes I offered.

  • Michael Cordich

    Eric, you seem to be equating the gathering of believers as the church to a crowd that gathered and heard Jesus preach the sermon on the mount or who listed to Peter declare the gospel. Brad extends the argument to include any encounter Jesus had with anyone. But none of these examples are equivalent to the gathering of believers for the purpose of following the pattern established in Acts 2:42. I understand what you are saying about “barriers”, however I would be surprised if Mosaic didn’t have similar barriers, but your philosophy of “belonging before believing” is not supportable by the scriptures you quote because none of them represent a “church” gathering.

  • Eric Bryant


    Did you receive the email with more from the Scriptures on this topic? I think this will explain better and more in depth the biblical idea of expanding our sphere of relationships beyond just friendships with those who agree with us and creating a community that is inclusive and outreach-oriented rather than exclusive.

    Hope that helps!

  • Brad Russell

    Hey guys, this really has been a great discussion. I wasn’t sure if I should jump back in here, because I really think Eric is making so much sense, and his examples are excellent. But it’s a fun discussion, and I do have a couple examples to throw out that I think are relevant. In response to Michael’s question about barriers churches put up that require people to believe in Jesus before they can belong: one small, simple example is that many churches just expect that the people who attend their gatherings all believe the Bible is God’s written Word to mankind (not to mention that many churches expect most people at the gathering to own a Bible or have one with them at the gathering, or that they know how to use a Bible). That is a requirement to believe in Jesus before belonging. It may not be intentional or conscious on the church’s part, and it may not be thought of as a “requirement”, but for my friends and neighbors and many who attend our church (in the VA suburbs of DC, btw) we cannot assume that people have an innate confidence in the Bible, beyond it being a religious book of wisdom. I want everyone in the room to be one of us, to be engaged in the conversation, feeling that the discussion includes them – where they are, viewing the Bible the way they do. It’s important to point out that this doesn’t mean they aren’t ever challenged to view Scripture differently, as a book with authority from God. It also doesn’t mean we include them simply by putting the Scripture texts up on the screen. It’s all about the conversation and delivery, being intentional to make sure the unbelievers feel that it’s ok to not know what others know, or see the Bible the same way others do. This is how Jesus approached people, where they were. It’s so often in that belonging and inclusion that people can truly hear the truth of God’s word, and can receive the challenge to obey God’s word as truth.

    I’ll say quickly that another example is how we openly, genuinely allow couples who live together, who are not married, to be a part of our church. And I don’t mean to be attendees, but actually to be a part. They don’t lead or teach or speak on behalf of our church as decision-makers, but they are genuinely welcomed in as part of our church. We laugh with them, go to movies with them, have dinners with them, watch Lost with them, they hang out at my house, they serve in various ways around the church, and they even volunteer in our office during the week (again, not as a leader)… they are actually, genuinely a part of our church community. Many churches will allow these couples to attend, but not really belong. I can’t tell you how many couples I’ve married whose story is that because our church allowed them to really belong, they were able to see God’s truth and plan, and instruction for marriage. Those weddings are the most precious to me.

    Ok guys, again, this has been a challenging, fun discussion to be a part of!

  • Daniel Decker

    Specifically on the belonging before believing. I just have one example. My church is doing a big community event this coming Sunday. It’s called “Gathering on the Grounds.” Outdoor concert playing mix of music plus a fireworks show at dark. We partnered with local radio stations (non Christian) to promote it (they promoted as sponsor – no fee to us). We partnered with a printer and mail house to send 26,000 postcards to area residents within a radius of the church (again, cost us very little because of the partnership). We connected with church business owners who donated $ to help underwrite the rest of the costs so that we were offsetting the event. Goal is to reach out into the community in a big way with something people feel open to come to.

    We’ve had several emails / phone calls come in area pastors and other churched people asking how a concert and fireworks have anything to do with telling people about Jesus. They were questioning our intentions and some, you could hear it in their voice, were very cynical and challenging in their tone. They already made up their decision in their head before they contacted us and there wasn’t much we could say to change it.

    But here’s the deal… they are totally missing the point. This event has EVERYTHING to do about telling people in our community about Jesus. Why? Because we’re trying to establish a RELATIONSHIP with them first. We want to get to know them, hang out with them, and eventually earn the trust to share Jesus with them in their lives. A free community event that is centered around “hanging out and socializing with each other” is just one way to do that in a large scale.

    I think too many churches create the barriers Eric was referring to by way of trying to force the relationship in a backwards way or having an agenda that is way too immediate. Relationships take time. While someone accepting Christ is the ultimate goal, that is often just realistically not the starting point for many nonbelievers. For most nonbelievers they are skeptical of the church and need a relationship to ease them in and show them who Jesus really is by us being an example of Him to someone else, at the very least building the trust to genuinely speak into their lives.

    Sorry for such a long comment 🙂

    Daniel Decker’s last blog post..Going First – Starting a Movement

  • Daniel Decker

    Had an intro part to my comment above…

    Great conversation on this. I fully understand where Eric is coming from and agree. I also think Michael and others make great points to be considered. All in all, it’s perspective. God equips each of us with a unique perspective to accomplish His plan. We don’t have to see eye-to-eye on every detail of that plan, we just have to trust Him and follow Him. We also have to trust that He is working in and through others in the same way He may be working through us. Just because it looks different, doesn’t make it any less important or wrong.

    Daniel Decker’s last blog post..Going First – Starting a Movement

  • Phil

    Hi Eric

    Catching up with blogs, you can probably tell how far behind I am.

    Just thinking about belonging without believing… Has anyone mentioned Judas? I’m not quite sure what to do with him in this context. He belonged, he probably believed, but even though his failure was known he was still included at that final meal.

    Maybe not what you were thinking about, but I’ll throw it out there and leave it for you to come up with an answer.

    Phil’s last blog post..June 2009 Newsletter now published

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