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by Greg Henson, CEO Kairos University; President of Sioux Falls Seminary and David Williams, Kairos Executive Partner; President of Taylor Seminary

Over the past several weeks, in various ways, we have noted that we are called, in community, to follow Jesus into the world by the power of the Spirit and to the Glory of God the Father.

Last week, in particular, we noted that:

“We need a way to understand, imagine, and gather with that community. In order to be the “hands and feet” of Jesus, the Body of Christ needs to be a body. We might argue that the Body of Christ is pretty adept at “cutting off its nose to spite its face,” especially in today’s culture. It is important, therefore, to have the conversation about how the Body of Christ might envision itself and the means by which it makes those determinations.”

Back in 1978, Paul Hiebert borrowed language from the world of mathematics to describe different ways Christians could accomplish this task. In his early writing on the topic, the mathematical phrases he borrowed were “bounded sets” and “centered sets.” Over course of the following 40 years, as he and several others continued to discuss these concepts and their anthropological, missiological, and ecclesiological dimensions, those phrases took on a life of their own. As a result, the mathematical definition or meaning of “bounded sets” and “centered sets” is not the same as it is within conversations about theology, missiology, theology, and social set theory. For example, in mathematics, a bounded set is a particular type of centered set just like a square is a particular type of rectangle. We share this only to call attention to the fact that, in our opinion, a conversation about social set theory should no longer begin with a reference to mathematics.

Today, we are going to begin our review of this 40-year conversation by looking at what Hiebert eventually described as “well-formed intrinsic sets.” They are more widely known as “bounded sets” which was his earliest name for such a group. Hiebert noted this could be one way of categorizing social sets – one way of categorizing a Christian community.

A bounded set has very clearly defined boundaries. This is why Hiebert later began to use the phrase “well-formed” for categories (i.e., sets) for which there are strong demarcations for what is and is not included in the category. Alan Hirsch and Michael Frost illustrated the concept of a bounded set by referring to how livestock might be raised in the United States. One way to keep cattle in a field, they suggested, was to put a fence around them. This would make it clear which cattle were in the set and which were not.

One of the best and most succinct summaries of Hiebert’s bounded set theory is in a paper titled, “Understanding Christian Identity in Terms of Bounded and Centered Set Theory in the Writings of Paul G. Hiebert.” It was co-authored by Michael Yoder, Michael Lee, Jonathan Ro, and Robert Priest. In that essay, they offered the following summary:

Bounded sets

  • The category is created by listing the essential, inherent characteristics belonging to the set – these are used to define the boundary
  • Bounded set objects are thought of as uniform (and static) in their essential characteristics – they constitute a homogeneous group
  • Bounded sets are often ontological sets
  • For a non-member of a set to become a member would require immediate change in all essential characteristics

Hiebert offered this concept as one way of organizing or defining the Christian community. To be clear, it was not his preferred way, but it was one he felt could be (and often was) used. Others who have interacted with his writing have argued that it is the best way to go about the work of categorization.

Perhaps most helpful in Hiebert’s descriptions of bounded sets is the way in which he highlighted the tendency for certain cultures to prefer bounded sets. Every culture may use different types of categories but, as Hiebert noted in his book Anthropological Reflections on Missiological Issues, American (we might say Western) culture, “places a premium on clear well-bounded sets.”

In such an approach, the category of “Christian” has clearly articulated boundaries which include certain intellectual assents (i.e., a statement of beliefs), behaviors, language, etc. Given our propensity for multiplying denominations, these boundaries might vary from one Christian group to another. In a bounded set approach, therefore, the answer to “Who is with me?” is “The people who share the same ideas, say the same words, and act the same as you.” The group is “uniform and static.”

Many scholars would say the Constantinian church worked within a bounded set framework. Constantine was quite determined to help the church establish and clear and commonly accepted articulation of the Christian faith. He felt the theological conflict could divide his empire. He needed peace, so, he called the Council of Nicaea and forced the bishops he hosted to make a decision which in effect created a “bounded set” notion of orthodoxy.

The key point we wish to make here, however, is that bounded set approaches to envisioning or categorizing the community of those who call Jesus Lord is fundamentally one in which beliefs, ideas, behaviors, etc. are clearly defined and stagnant. Inclusion in such a community means one must hold fast to those beliefs and ideas while holding fast to the behaviors and other markers of inclusion. If each aspect is not present, then one is not to be included in the group.

While the Reformation era brought with it an appetite for renewing the theology and practices of the church, it did not challenge the bounded set categorical structures of the time. Instead, it birthed an ever-growing number of differently bounded sets. This approach was spurred on by rationalism, the Enlightenment, and modernity. We would suggest most Christian communities today, at least those that have been heavily influenced by Western approaches to Christianity, tend to operate within a bounded set framework. Some, however, have raised up “centered sets” as a better means by which to approach this task. Hiebert agreed that centered sets seemed to be a better way of thinking about Christian community. Let’s jump into that next week.

This post originally appeared on the Kairos University blog.

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