Bounded Sets vs. Centered Sets

by Glenn on March 6, 2016

The pastor in his sermon last Sunday got a little philosophical about the Church and its many denominations and divisions, which he thought was probably confusing to unbelievers. There is only one Church, which is the Lord’s, but we all talk about “our” church and we make all sorts of distinctions from “other” representations.

In the context of talking about the Church and all the ways we divide ourselves from each other with the many emphases of our different denominations, he talked about how the older he has gotten, how fewer things matter to him, but how those few things matter to him more than ever. He said something like, “The longer I live, the narrower my list of absolutes becomes, but the deeper those absolutes are.”

He had a couple of great lines. One I thought was gutsy and the other insightful.

The gutsy comment was related to baptism. He is a Baptist minister, so I thought it was significant that he talked about how people like to argue about baptism. “Some want to sprinkle, some want to put you all the way under. I personally think you should be dunked. I think that’s Biblical, but I’m not going to argue about it. My question is, Do you have faith in God? That’s essential.” He quoted Romans 10:9: “If you declare with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.’”

The insightful line was something like, “Some people seem like they are a mile wide and an inch deep. I want to be an inch wide and a mile deep on the things that matter.” He is interested in distinctions that actually make a difference.

It seemed like in both his words and tone he was echoing the quote: “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity.”
His sermon got me thinking about a favorite, and for me helpful, metaphor that I heard from Richard Mouw in a chapel message titled, “Our Denominational Diversity: United in Mind and Purpose,” given when he was President of Fuller Seminary in Pasadena, California.

The challenge of Fuller Seminary is that they don’t represent any one particular theological perspective but want to remain faithful to the gospel. This address was his way of answering the question How do we have unity in the midst of theological and denominational diversity?

He notes that divisions have been a part of the Church from the beginning. There were “Paulines,” who were part of a “missional” and “apostolic” movement trying to take the gospel to Gentiles. There were the followers of Apollos who were “intellectual elites.” The “Petrines” who were following Peter offered a reformed Judaism. And then there were those who were “of Christ” who weren’t following any particular tradition.

He said, much like the pastor last week, that divisions “hurt the cause of the Gospel” and “weaken the power of the witness.”

He told the old story of how divisions happen—all the people who were healed by Jesus found themselves together talking about what happened. One guy said, “He spoke and I was healed.” Another guy said, “Well that’s not how it happens. You need to spit and make mud and rub it in your eyes to be healed.” Another guy said, “No, he just has to touch you and your healed.” And on it goes so that these guys created denominations based on how you get healed.

This is not to make light of theological differences. There are some tough things I know between Catholics and others over the Communion elements, for example.

The Metaphor

Mouw offers this metaphor which he got from Rob Johnston based on Paul Hiebert’s work.

He says there are a couple of ways to find unity in diversity: “Bounded Sets” and “Centered Sets.”

People who are obsessed with Bounded Sets like to draw boundaries to establish who’s “in” and who we need to keep out.

Mouw says it’s more helpful to think in terms of a Centered Set. Of course there are boundaries but they are related to the center. And for him, and I think he was saying by extension for Fuller Seminary and the wider “Evangelical” world as well, the center is the cross of Jesus Christ. The scripture reading was not included in the message, but I think Mouw referenced 1 Corinthians 2 early on in his message:

“For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” (1 Corinthians 2:2 | NIV)

I like this idea of being “centered” rather than trying to decide who’s in and who’s out.
Mouw’s talk ended with a discussion of four features of Evangelicalism as summarized by David Bebbington:
1. Personal relationship with Jesus Christ
2. Supreme authority of the Bible
3. Activism whether working for social justice, peace-making, or furthering the gospel
4. Cross-centered theology

The cross unites. Yet Mouw is not interested in “a generic, no brand Evangelicalism.” But whatever tradition we are in, the question is, does the third verse of “It Is Well With My Soul” make sense?

My sin, oh, the bliss of this glorious thought!
My sin, not in part but the whole,
is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more,
praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!