In a recent post, I responded to Jonathan Leeman’s critique of centered-set churches. Yet I did so without ever explaining what a centered-set church is. Some commenters asked for further elucidation. So here goes.

There are two ways of thinking about social groupings: centered-set and bounded-set. These terms come to us from the field of mathematics (set theory). In recent years they’ve been applied more broadly by sociologists and missiologists. The fountainhead of most of this thinking in the Christian church was Paul Hiebert, a missiologist at Fuller Seminary.

Hiebert suggested that our minds categorize people according to either “bounded set” or “centered set” thinking:

Bounded Sets

  • are formed by defining the boundaries – the essential qualities which separate something inside the set from something outside. Heibert’s classic example is “apples.” Either a fruit is an apple, or it isn’t.
  • Maintaining the boundary is crucial to maintaining the category.
  • Bounded sets are static sets – they don’t change, they only add or lose members.
  • The important thing is to “cross the boundary” to be part of the set.

Centered Sets

  • are formed by defining a center. The set is made up of all objects moving toward that center. As an everyday example: “bald men.”
  • While a centered set does not focus on the boundary, a boundary does indeed exist. The boundary is clear so long as the center is clear.
  • The objects within a centered set are not categorically uniform. Some may be near the center and others far from it, even though all are moving towards the center.

Hiebert asserts that Americans tend to think almost exclusively in bounded-set categories. And this affects our understanding of Christian discipleship. We tend to “stress evangelism as the major task — getting people into the category. Moreover, we… see conversion as a single dramatic event — crossing the boundary between being a ‘non-Christian’ and being a ‘Christian'” (Hiebert, 1978).

Hiebert argues instead for a “centered-set” way of thinking about Christian conversion:

A Christian would be defined in terms of a center—in terms of who is God. The critical question is, to whom does the person offer his worship and allegiance? …Two important dynamics are recognized. First there is conversion, which in a centered set means that the person has turned around. He has left another center or god and has made Christ his center. This is a definite event—a change in the God in whom he places his faith. But, by definition, growth is an equally essential part of being a Christian. Having turned around, one must continue to move towards the center. There is no static state. Conversion is not the end, it is the beginning. We need evangelism to bring people to Christ, but we must also think about the rest of their lives. We must think in terms of bringing them to Christian maturity in terms of their knowledge of Christ and their growth in Christlikeness.

 Theologically, I find some aspects of Hiebert’s argument poorly nuanced. He would do well to differentiate regeneration (the invisible, immediate work of the Holy Spirit on the soul, which is in fact a decisive event) from conversion (our experience of that event, which often feels more like a “process” than like a decisive moment). Those who have applied Hiebert’s set theory to individual salvation (Brian McLaren, for instance) have tended to drift in fuzzy doctrinal directions – which is likely why Leeman is leery of a “centered-set approach to doctrine.”

But I find Hiebert’s insights immensely helpful when applied to ecclesiology. This is where I first encountered the set-theory rubric, as applied by Alan Hirsch and Michael Frost in their 2003 book The Shaping of Things to Come. Frost and Hirsch argued for viewing the church as a centered set rather than a bounded set. Why not build a church by defining the center rather than patrolling the boundaries? Why not place the gospel of Jesus Christ at the center of the church’s life and practice, inviting everyone to reorient their lives around Him? In this way, we continually invite Christians into deeper and deeper discipleship, while also inviting non-Christians to deal with the claims of Jesus on their lives. As Hiebert himself acknowledges, this does not mean there is no boundary; there is just “less need to play boundary games and to institutionally exclude those who are not truly Christian. Rather, the focus is on the center and pointing people to that center” (Hiebert, 1978).

It is my personal conviction that: a) this is what the New Testament church did (see, for example, Galatians 1:6-9; Colossians 1:6; Romans 1:13-15); b) this is what it truly means to be a “gospel-centered” church; and c) this is the only way to have a truly missional church, where non-Christians are treated with true Christian hospitality AND are regularly being converted to faith in Jesus.

I recently came across an article by Jonathan Leeman entitled “The Logical Fallacy of Centered-set Churches.” Since we often describe Coram Deo as a centered-set church, I was intrigued. And after reading the article, I am inclined to offer a rejoinder.

I apologize to Mr. Leeman – a very capable theologian and churchman, and one I highly respect – for making him revisit an article he wrote almost a year ago. But like GK Chesterton (yet without his genius), I am “a person only too ready to write upon the feeblest provocation.” To date, Mr. Leeman’s post has received no comments, which I take to mean either a) no one has read it, or b) no one has disagreed with it. I hope to remedy both problems.

The main logical fallacy of Mr. Leeman’s article about logical fallacy is the fallacy of equivocation. He uses the term “centered-set” in an ambiguous way to refer to at least two different ideas. He speaks of a “centered-set approach to doctrine” (which I, like him, spurn) and a “centered-set approach to ministry” (which I, unlike him, commend). Then he conflates these two ideas into one polemic against “centered-set churches.”

Leeman states plainly: “The centered-set metaphor doesn’t work for truth or belief in truth.” I couldn’t agree more. The question is: does the centered-set metaphor work for community? Within a church committed to Christ and His truth, is there space for people who have not yet embraced that truth?

I assume Mr. Leeman would answer this question, “Yes,” since he shares my passion to see people converted to faith in Christ. And if he would answer this question “Yes,” then I would submit that our debate is over. After all, Jesus clearly taught that the church will always be a mixed community – wheat and tares (Matt. 13:24-30), sheep and goats (Matt. 25:31-46).

I think Leeman and I are both passionate about the members of a church being a bounded set (converted Christians). But the church community as a whole should be a centered set. I expect, pray for, and delight in the presence of non-Christians in the church’s worship gatherings. I fully expect the Holy Spirit to challenge and convert them as they sit under the preaching of the word and come to understand the message of the gospel.

Leeman is concerned that centered-set language risks “erasing the clear bright line God places between those who are his people and those who are not.” But this is only true if we apply the centered-set metaphor ham-handedly. Admittedly, this is the mistake some evangellyfish types make. But had Leeman consulted missiologist Paul Hiebert (the fountainhead of all this centered-set thinking), he would have encountered a more careful and nuanced explanation. A recent academic monograph summarizes: “While centered sets are not created by drawing boundaries, they do have well-formed boundaries that separate things inside the set from those outside it. [So] centered sets have two types of change inherent in their structure: entry or exit from the set (based on their relationship to the center), and movement toward or away from the center” (Yoder, Lee, Ro, & Priest: TrinJ 30NS 2009, 180). In other words: a centered set does have a boundary.

I maintain that it is possible to employ the centered-set concept in a way that remains faithful to Scripture, to truth, and to sound doctrine. To say it another way: it is possible to have a centered-set approach to ministry without a centered-set approach to doctrine. In my humble estimation, it’s the failure to distinguish between these two that makes Leeman’s case less than compelling.

Achtemeier, Mark. The Bible's YES to Same-Sex Marriage (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014).
Achtemeier, Mark. The Bible’s YES to Same-Sex Marriage (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014).

The title of Mark Achtemeier’s 2014 book leaves no doubt as to his conclusion. Achtemeier wants to lead his readers toward the same “change of heart” that caused him to embrace same-sex marriage. He writes graciously and gently. But his book will be persuasive only to those who already agree with him. Though he purports to make a biblical and logical case for same-sex marriage, his book fails on both counts.

Like many revisionist treatments of this subject, Achtemeier is anxious to get to the proof texts. He wants to show that the seven classic Bible passages used to condemn homosexuality have been misunderstood, misapplied, etc. etc. In his haste to do so, he completely misses the most important step of the argument: a coherent definition of marriage. For if we are going to argue about who should be married, we should first establish what marriage is.

Achtemeier purports to establish this in chapter four, subtitled “God’s Plan for Love, Marriage, and Sexuality.” His biblical-theological conclusion is that “God gives human beings the gifts of love, marriage, and sexuality in order to help us grow into the image of Christ’s self-giving love.”

Yes… And… ??? Thoughtful students of the Bible and of Christian history will wait in vain for a more thorough development of this conclusion. Achtemeier restates it repeatedly throughout the book, blithely assuming that his readers agree with its potency and logical force. He seems unaware of how thin and reductionistic his definition is. He does not engage the massive theological/philosophical body of work on the subject; in fact, he does not even seem to be aware of its existence.

At least four weaknesses are immediately apparent in Achtemeier’s definition of marriage:

  1. It’s self-refuting. Marriage is not required in order for humans to grow into the image of Christ’s self-giving love. Achtemeier himself admits as much. Later in the chapter, under the subheading “What About Single People,” he writes: “However great a potential help marriage might be in forming people in the image of God, the married state is not an essential requirement for it to happen.” Which is tantamount to saying, “The married state is not an essential requirement for the purpose of marriage to be realized.” Or, to state it more plainly: “My definition of marriage doesn’t require marriage.”
  2. It fails to take into account procreation. A definition of marriage that doesn’t talk about procreation is like a definition of banking that doesn’t talk about money. Achtemeier’s dull treatment of the connection between procreation and marriage reveals a failure of research at the very least. After spending one-and-a-half pages discussing (or dismissing?) the subject, Achtemeier concludes: “Nowhere is there even a hint suggesting that procreation is an essential requirement for a marriage to be considered legitimate in the eyes of God.” One can almost hear the collective gasp of Roman Catholic and Aristotelian scholars worldwide. Achtemeier’s point seems to be that since infertile or childless couples are still “legitimately married” in God’s eyes, procreation is not essential to marriage. Which is sort of like saying that since batters sometimes strike out, hitting the ball is not essential to batting. Achtemeier’s failure to engage the whole natural-law tradition on this point (Girgis, Anderson, and George’s What Is Marriage would have been a good starting point) is a glaring weakness in his work.
  3. It’s not God-centered. A properly Christian definition of marriage must revolve around –or at the very least, include – the glory of God. Achtemeier’s definition does not. If indeed “God’s highest purpose… is to help people grow in their ability to give themselves completely to another person” (p. 58), then God exists for us, rather than us existing for God. We are left with a “genie-in-a-bottle” God whose job is to make us happy. And how could He deny the happiness of marriage to same-sex couples?
  4. It leads to the fallacy of begging the question. Achtemeier assumes his definition of marriage in order to sidestep some of the strongest natural-law arguments against homosexual practice. For instance, consider this passage from chapter 5:

Male and female bodies clearly do complement each other. And as a consequence, the union of male and female is clearly established as the majority pattern for love and marriage across the whole span of human history… [But] does God’s creation of male and female bodies in biological correspondence to each other mean that God’s condemnation automatically falls on alternative patterns of life like same-sex unions? This conclusion seems especially doubtful in light of our finding that same-sex unions are equally as capable as their heterosexual counterparts in fulfilling the highest revealed purposes God has in mind for love and marriage.

Achtemeier never answers, either logically or biblically, the question that biology raises. He merely refers back to his definition and concludes, on the basis of that definition, that the question is moot.

Perhaps some readers will uncritically accept Achtemeier’s definition of marriage. And that’s really the only way they could possibly be persuaded by the rest of his argument. For indeed, if marriage is just about “helping people grow in their ability to give themselves completely to another person,” why should marriage not be open to same-sex couples?

Advocating for same-sex marriage is not unique. But asserting that the Bible does is. In order to effectively counter 2000 years of interpretive history, such an assertion demands cogent logical and theological reasoning. If this is the best argument revisionists can marshall for “the Bible’s yes to same-sex marriage,” then the traditional view of marriage has nothing to be concerned about. Or, to say it another way: if same-sex marriage wins the day, it won’t be due to arguments like this.

I like writers that make me slow down and THINK. Dallas Willard is one of those writers. He’s a philosopher at heart – one who cares about a good definition. Here’s his definition of character, from his most important written work (in my opinion): The Renovation of the Heart (NavPress, 2002).

Our character is that internal, overall structure of the self that is revealed by our long-run patterns of behavior and from which our actions more or less automatically arise. It is character that explains why we use credit reports and resumes and letters of reference to make decisions about people. They do not just tell what someone did, but they reveal what kinds of thoughts, feelings, and tendencies of will that person habitually acts from, and therefore how he or she will act in the future.

But character can be changed. And that, of course, is what spiritual formation in Christlikeness is about.

It may be, for example, that in a certain situation I have injured someone by speaking or acting in anger… But in a reflective moment I may also be remorseful and ask myself if I really want to be the kind of person (have the character of one) who does such things. If I do not want that, it will be necessary to change my thoughts and feelings… [which] can result in my becoming the kind of person who just doesn’t do that kind of thing anymore.

In preparation for preaching, I read a lot. Sometimes the stuff I read gets quoted in the sermon. Sometimes it stays in the background as context. Sometimes it just serves to inform and educate me. Regardless of how it gets used (or doesn’t), I enjoy sharing it with others when I can.

So, here are some links to articles, books, and resources used in today’s sermon on biblical womanhood, from Titus 2:1-10.

How Sheryl Sandberg is Turning Feminism into a Tech Brand – Bloomberg News feature article

Recline, Don’t Lean In (Why I Hate Sheryl Sandberg) – Rosa Brooks in the WaPo

Facebook Feminism, Like It or Not – Susan Faludi on – a website started by Suzanne Venker tracking the “war on men” in American society

Andrew Wilson on “A Theology of Femaleness” – teaching video from Think Theology UK

Made for More – Hannah Anderson’s excellent book on biblical womanhood