Bounded vs. Centered Sets

Last week, Leadership Journal ran an article by John Ortberg where he discussed a concept made popular by Paul Hiebert: bounded vs. centered sets. Hiebert was sort of the Yoda of missionary anthropology, so I’ve read lots of his writings, included his discussion of this concept. But I hadn’t really thought of it in the way that Ortberg applied it.

The idea is that instead of looking at our salvation as a bounded set (saved, not saved), we should look at it as a centered set, the center being Christ. What happens is that we start with salvation by grace, then begin to act as if we were saved by works. In Ortberg’s words:

If we treat Christianity as a bounded set, there will always be a disconnect between the gospel and discipleship. The gospel will be presented as something to get you “inside the circle.” Once you’re inside, we don’t want to say you have to do anything to stay in (that would be salvation by works). But we don’t want to say you don’t have to do anything (the triumph of entropy, or, to use a biblical word, being lukewarm, or to use a theological word, antinomianism). So we don’t know what to say.

However, if we treat Christianity as a centered set, the relationship between the gospel and discipleship becomes much clearer. The gospel is the proclamation that life with and through Jesus is now available to ordinary people. It is a free gift of forgiveness and grace that cannot be earned. If I want it, the way that I enter into it is by becoming a follower of Jesus and orienting our lives with him at the center.

There have been times on this blog where I’ve presented an idea and someone says, “So if we don’t do that, we’re lost?” That’s bounded-set thinking. We need to understand that sanctification is a continual process, the process of becoming like Christ. We should ever be working to be more like Jesus.

Now before someone points it out, yes, I do believe there is a difference between saved and not saved, that there is a boundary. The idea of the bounded set is not totally wrong. But it’s less than helpful as we examine the concept of sanctification.

I found Ortberg’s article to be thought-provoking. I hope you’ll read it.

5 thoughts on “Bounded vs. Centered Sets

  1. I first learned of this kind of idea from Mark Moore at Ozark Christian College. He lectured on the Pharisees’ “morality of the box” and how Christ’s ethics of compassion tore down those walls and established a center towards which we draw people.

    He wrote this about Mark 7:1-15

    “Why on earth would the biblical authors choose to tell us about Jesus’ table manners? So he didn’t wash before he ate, big deal! Apparently it was. The religious teacher at the time were meticulous about ritual washing before meals. Understand that this was not for good hygiene. Germs hadn’t even been invented yet. No, this had nothing to do with science. It was all about religion. You see, they believed that some kind of spiritual defilement could be purified with ritual water. So they drew up specific rules as to how one should go about this ceremonial washing. In essence, they were not purging germs, they were building fences. These religious fences defined who was in and who was out. Jesus is assailing the whole fence, not just breaking a board of it.

    Morality for the Jews [of Jesus' day] was all about the fence. It made a box. At the center of the box was pure and undefiled religion. It was a kind of contest to see who could get closest to the center of the box. The more rules you kept, the closer to dead center you were. Jesus came along and proposed a new kind of morality. Instead of fences, he suggested compassion. Here’s the problem: the fences effectively kept people out (Mt 23). Compassion, however, required that the fences be dismantled. The truly religious person then left the compound and purposely sought out the very scalawags the fences once kept out. Thus, Jesus is not tweaking their ethical system, he is demolishing it!

    Formerly, one was religious by abstaining from food. Now one is religious by what comes from the heart. Before, religion was external. Now it is internal. Within the fence, one is constrained by rules. Outside the fence, one is compelled by love. The difference is colossal. This new mode of ethics is both liberating and frightening. And frankly, it is dangerous. It is dangerous because it has fewer controls. Who can know what sort of people might be welcomed into the fellowship? Who can control their illicit behaviors without clear rules? Why, they might smoke in the bathroom at church or pierce body parts that only show up in the baptistery. Furthermore, you never know where compassion might take you. Simply put, compassion is not prudent.

    Our own list of rules, strikingly similar to that of the Jews, is a good list. After all, smoking is bad for you. Body piercing is a bit macabre. Drinking is dangerous, and church attendance is good. So what’s so bad about a few good rules?! Why is Jesus so violently opposed to morality by lists? Because bad men keep good rules and it makes them feel good about their evil hearts. We freely commit these sins Jesus lists because we artificially keep a moral list of our own making. Thus bad men appear good because their external morality shrouds their inner iniquity.

    There’s something more. When Jesus declares all foods clean, the topic turns out the be ethnic groups, not food groups. By the time Acts rolls around, this passage surfaces again. It is interpreted apostolically (cf. Acts 10:9-15). Guess what: the context is not about table manners, but table fellowship. Had it been merely food, it wouldn’t be worth the bother. Since it is about people, it is embedded in Scripture. Listen to Jesus’ conclusion: “From within, out of men’s hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance, and folly. All these evils come from inside and make a man ‘unclean.’” The bottom line is this: Our moral lists wind up separating us from the very people who need compassion. Then, as if it weren’t bad enough, we justify sinning against these very people in the ways Jesus just mentioned. Why are we so blind to our own attitudes and sins? Because it’s hard to see much from inside a box.
    Ponderable questions: Can you think of a time that your behavior was “kosher” but your heart was not right? Describe the moral boxes of your church that artificially define what is good and what is bad. How do these boxes keep outsiders away from God? How do they fool us into thinking we are good when, in fact, we are being offensive to God?
    Considerations for Prayer: Ask God to grant you prophetic insight into his priorities for his people without being obnoxious, cynical, or critical of the church which is his bride.

  2. What happens is that we start with salvation by grace, then begin to act as if we were saved by works. In Ortberg’s words:

    1Pe 1:17 And if ye call on the Father, who without respect of persons judgeth according to every man’s work, pass the time of your sojourning [here] in fear:
    Rev 22:12 And, behold, I come quickly; and my reward [is] with me, to give every man according as his work shall be.

    Seems it is not only Ortberg’s words.

  3. I came accross the idea of bounded and Centered sets in my undergraduate missions. It might be helpful to know that I have heard both Monte Cox and Evertt Huffard speak of “fuzzy-centered sets” by which they keep the focus on discipleship moving towards the center but do recognize some basic boundaries (e.g., confession of Jesus Christ) that mark that journey toward the center. Of course, while I think their ‘fuzzy center’ is helpful it still leaves us with the age old question of which boundary markers are necessary (what one deems as necessary or absolute another will deem as unnecessary, such as baptism).

    Grace and peace,

    K. Rex Butts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.