Bounded and Centered Sets

by Gary Corwin

Dr. Paul Hiebert’s concept of bounded sets and centered sets are often misapplied in mission circles today.

Dr. Paul Hiebert is a former professor of mine, and one of my heroes. His concept of bounded sets and centered sets dates at least from “Conversion, Culture and Cognitive Categories,” his article in the 1978 volume Gospel in Context. It may have existed in his teaching long before that, but its published debut can be safely dated from about this time. It is interesting, therefore, given its longevity, that its implications are so often misapplied in mission circles today.

Misapplied how? you ask. Primarily by associating bounded sets almost exclusively with legalistic tendencies and “old mission,” and centered sets almost exclusively with “pure and undefiled religion” of the heart, and “new mission.” The reality is that each approach to categorization has significant merit and significant limitations, and the key factor in determining which will dominate depends in large measure upon the purpose for which it is being used.

For those to whom these concepts may be new, bounded sets are defined by intrinsic characteristics of the items in the set, while centered sets are characterized by the relationship of items in the set to the center of the set. Both types of sets actually have “boundaries.” The debates that arise relate most often to the types of lines being used to determine “in” or “out,” and whether something can be partially in.

As I reflected on this matter, I concluded that I probably could not do better than to examine carefully the words and categories employed by Jesus. The Gospels seem to record far more examples of his use of bounded-set than centered-set thinking (though his calls to “follow him” is certainly a striking example of the latter). He spoke of narrow and broad ways, wheat and tares, sheep and goats, salt and savorless salt, light and darkness, good fruit and bad fruit, blessings and woes, born again and not born again, not condemned and condemned already, those with life and those who shall not see life.  

Now it is also true that his discussion of bounded sets is sometimes found in a broader centered-set kind of context. This can be seen in the work of Jim Engel several decades ago in what came to be known as the Engel scale. It provided a hierarchy of steps or stages related to understanding of and commitment to Christ that people often pass through on their way to saving faith and beyond. But there is a point in Engel’s scale (as in any discussion of saving faith) in which new birth takes place, justification by faith is accomplished, and the individual becomes a redeemed member of the family of God. This concept is as central to what it means to be centered in Christ as it is to being numbered among the sheep instead of the goats.

I heard from a friend recently who is very favorable toward what has become known as insider movements (IMs). He suggested that Jesus’ bounded-set type statements are the result of his unique divine perspective, and should not mislead us as mere humans into thinking that we should follow his lead. I believe such an argument requires quite a burden of proof.

There would be no reason for Jesus to share the parables and sermons that addressed these subjects unless there was a response he wanted his disciples to make. That response is clearly not to duplicate the prerogatives of God alone (e.g., determining all the outcomes of Judgment Day), but it would include using sound biblical judgment in discerning our own spiritual state, as well as the likely state of those with whom we relate (to guide us in our relating). Many passages speak to this, but 1 John is perhaps most clear in providing three practical markers of saving faith: sound doctrine (particularly regarding Jesus as the Son of God), love for the brethren, and obedience to God’s commands. Again and again these criteria are a refrain throughout John’s letter and should guide our thoughts, whether we are inclined toward bounded-set or centered-set thinking.

My friend also commented to the effect that much of the criticism of the IM phenomenon is the result of people stuck in bounded-set thinking. I believe he is at least partially right in this. IM critics have at times misapplied bounded-set thinking that is too strict to the process whereby Muslims or others move from non-faith to faith in Christ alone for salvation, or from immaturity to greater maturity in Christ. To be fair, though, many pro-IM advocates have also misapplied centered-set thinking to issues such as those Jesus articulated, leaving the impression that there really are no boundaries.

The fact is that boundaries exist in both kinds of sets. The challenge is to function in light of them without being either too rigid or too fuzzy. Recognizing both kinds of sets, including their distinctive purposes, is where we need to land. It does no one any good to misapply the categories in order to demagogue the issues involved.

Gary Corwin  is associate editor of EMQ and staff missiologist with the international office of Serving in Mission (SIM).

EMQ, Vol. 47, No. 4, pp. 390-391. Copyright  © 2011 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS).  All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.


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