Bounded sets or Centred Sets?

Stuart Murray Williams

Communities of all kinds establish boundaries, to include some people and exclude others. Churches are no different. A model many have found helpful in understanding community boundaries was developed by Anabaptist anthropologist, Paul Hiebert. There are four basic approaches:

  • The first is ‘the bounded set’, where there is a clear line drawn between the church and the world outside the church, where church members are required to subscribe to agreed positions on theological and ethical issues, and where dissent or failure leads to exclusion.
  • The second is ‘the fuzzy set’, where there is more room for ambivalence, where doctrinal and ethical issues are fudged rather than being resolved, where there are still boundaries that can be violated, but it is less clear where these are.
  • The third is ‘the open set’, where there are effectively no boundaries except those that are self-imposed, where belief and lifestyle are not matters of community concern.
  • The fourth is ‘the centred set’, a dynamic rather than static model, where the direction in which a person is facing is more important than their distance from the centre. It may be that someone who appears to be close to the centre in terms of lifestyle is actually far from Christ because he or she is moving in a direction opposed to Christ. And some whose beliefs or behaviour do not conform to community norms, either because they are still finding their way into the community or because they are questioning their previous convictions, may actually be moving towards Christ.

Congregations belonging to the Free Church tradition, especially those that are evangelical, frequently operate with a ‘bounded set’ mentality, so that new members are inducted into the doctrinal beliefs and ethical behaviour expected of them. Teaching, preaching, pastoral care and encouragement help church members delve more deeply into these beliefs and conform more closely to a lifestyle that is consistent with these beliefs. For many, this process is very beneficial, and those who later withdraw from such churches often look back with gratitude to this period, when important foundations were laid in their lives. In healthy ‘bounded set’ churches, members are encouraged to develop at their own pace, grow in their relationship with God, and participate in a community where there is mutual accountability.

But not all ‘bounded set’ churches are so healthy. They can be marred by authoritarianism, legalism, judgmentalism and sectarianism. Two basic issues need to be addressed: where the boundaries should be drawn, and how the boundaries are perceived. If the boundaries are drawn so as to include a vast array of doctrinal, ethical, experiential and cultural expectations, there is a danger that members will be excluded, or will exclude themselves, unnecessarily. Inability to differentiate between essentials and non-essentials can make bounded sets oppressive. Even if less extensive boundaries are drawn, this kind of community may still operate oppressively in the way it perceives its boundaries. Discouraging honest questions and doubts, exalting conformity over integrity, standardising spiritual experiences, and many other practices, can result in the marginalisation and eventual loss from the community of its less compliant members – to the detriment of the individuals and of the community.

One response to these problems is transition to a ‘fuzzy set’ mentality, where there is much greater flexibility with regard to belief and behaviour. Although some have advocated this, it is unlikely to appeal to most ‘bounded set’ churches. The dangers of relativism, compromise and confusion seem to loom large. Attempts to define such transition in ways that do not produce such results have not been persuasive. The progressive decline in churches that have operated in this way does not offer much encouragement.

Might the ‘centred set’ approach offer an alternative strategy? This is a community that has a core or centre, rather than boundary lines. That centre may be identified as ‘Christ’, or defined in terms of doctrinal, experiential or ethical norms, and it is this core that gives shape and focus to the church. Those who become part of the church community are free to move in and out, they can approach the core from different directions, they can explore freely the many dimensions of belief and practice that do not constitute the core, and the community does not reject them if they question elements of the core itself. Formal membership of the church may be limited to those who identify with the core convictions (in which case there is a ‘bounded set’ within the ‘centred set’), but this is an open-edged community where doubts, questions, non-conformity and reservations do not preclude involvement.

Models and terminology are inevitably limited, and ‘centred set’ communities may in time become as exclusive and inflexible as ‘bounded set’ communities. But this model does at least emphasise two important aspects of the question of ethos: first, that discipleship can be viewed dynamically, rather than in static terms; and second, that it may be possible to chart a course that avoids both the Scylla of narrow and inflexible absolutism and the Charybdis of slippery relativism.

The ‘centred set’ concept relates well to the ‘journey’ imagery and ‘process’ model that have become increasingly popular in thinking about evangelism and discipleship. ‘Bounded set’ churches have traditionally been more comfortable with crisis experiences of conversion, rather than seeing conversion as a process and spiritual growth as a journey into faith (with the Damascus Road rather than Emmaus Road model, as John Finney helpfully characterises these approaches). But research suggests that, even in ‘bounded set’ churches in which the expectation of crisis conversion is strong, nearly two-thirds come to faith gradually. This has important implications for evangelistic methodology and expectations, but also for the way in which the church community is defined. Those who are searching for faith and those who are growing in faith can walk together towards the centre, without worrying unduly about fixed boundary lines. The journey has a destination – there is a centre to the community – and the process may involve periods of crisis, but there is freedom for people to walk or run, choose alternative paths and consider various routes.

In a postmodern and post-Christendom context, churches that operate as ‘centred sets’ may be contextually most appropriate. This may not be immediately obvious. In a changing and complex culture, ‘bounded sets’ with their comfortable certainties appear to offer a refuge, as the rapid growth of ideological, political and religious fundamentalism demonstrates. Those who find such an environment stifling may be drawn towards the apparently liberating ‘fuzzy set’ and ‘open set’ options. But in a relativistic culture, a community that has nowhere to stand, and no way of identifying the destination of the journey, may be found to have little to offer.

The ‘centred set’ approach, when presented in seminars, generally receives considerable support from church planters and mission-oriented church leaders, although some regard it as problematic in various ways. It certainly appears to be a messier approach to church membership than systems that establish clear boundaries. Denominations in general and many local churches prefer such things to be tidy. But perhaps untidiness is a price worth paying if this more dynamic model is more suited to a post-modern and post-Christendom environment?

Questions to consider:

  • To which of these models are you drawn?
  • What are the disadvantages of your preferred model, and how might you deal with these?
  • The early Anabaptist communities were ‘bounded set’ churches. To what extent was this a necessity in a context of persecution? Or is this intrinsic to Anabaptist ecclesiology?

Some additional resources:

https://transformedblog.westernseminary.edu/2014/01/17/whos-in-and-whos-out-christianity-and-bounded-sets-vs-centered-set

https://redeeminggod.com/bounded-sets-centered-set

http://www.discipleshipandethics.com/centered-or-bounded

https://veritas.community/veritas-community/2013/03/13/bounded-set-vs-centered-set-thinking