Is it easier to define your social world using negatives or positives? In other words, is it more important to establish your group by what it ain't or what it is?
Defining the God of the Center
All groupings of humans have criteria by which they define their expectations of each other. As we discussed in part one, the centered set's main in-or-out criteria depend on one's orientation to a defined center formed by a short list of basic prerequisites. In a bounded set, criteria are pushed out to a perimeter, or "fence" which produces conformity within the regions enclosed by the perimeter.
Without any mutually understood criteria for belonging, you have a random crowd with no connection or purpose. If that same random crowd is suddenly threatened by an outside agent, they might quickly agree to form an alliance that can fend off the danger, and thereby become a temporarily functional community with criteria defining who's in or out.
The Church has historically proven adept at creating bounded sets, formed around various interpretations of varying versions of what is assumed to be God's word. It's rather simple to erect a series of doctrinal and behavioral expectations- fences around a social region that feels safe and predictable, clearly labeling insiders and outsiders by externals. Creating a social grouping around a center without an obvious perimeter is challenging for an institution that has preferred bounded set approaches from its very beginning.
Mark Baker, author of The Centered-Set Church, says: "It is not enough to say simply that God is at the center of a church. We must describe who God is, because our conceptions about God will influence whether we do church in a bounded, fuzzy or centered way." (Baker p. 61) Groups with a judgmental, disapproving, punishment-happy God inevitably become exclusionary and dehumanizing bounded sets. Centering on a therapeutic, undemanding, safe God who is a good listener without much to offer in the way of challenge to our bad habits will lead to a Fuzzy Set in which God is merely a nice grandpa in the sky.
Shifting our focus to Jesus gets us a bit closer to an appropriate and workable center. While it would be lovely to have an irrefutable and highly precise account of who Jesus is, we find ourselves instead starting at a deficit. While many believers in Jesus attribute some of most of their acquaintance with Him to personal direct experience, others depend on sources of truth that aren't quite as personal. Either way we must factor in the ultimate subjectivity of our data about Jesus. Any survey of church history will illustrate how our conceptions of Jesus have changed in many ways, and even original New Testament source material exhibits evidence of theological development in the decades between the actual events and the written record.
Understanding Jesus from ancient texts takes more than a little comprehension of the world of the first century. Unexplained social customs, how language translation worked from then until now, revealing literary analysis, consensus on dates and likely authors and their agendas, practices and common beliefs of the Hellenistic-Jewish background of the earliest followers of Jesus; all are important to narrowing down what we mean when we talk about the life and teaching of Jesus, and there's a high degree of disagreement about it.
Be that as it may, Christians in the West have traditionally operated within a zone of agreement that most would call "orthodoxy." In that zone, we find characterizations such as:
Depictions of Jesus as a healer and teacher support his reputation as one who embodied humility in refusing to seek status or enforce his own rights on behalf of others.
He willingly pursued and welcomed the marginalized and those who were relegated to outsider status. Authoritative movements like Pharisaism were concerned with repentance and living out a traditional identity as God's people, but used exclusion and bounded set principles to do it.
On a grander scale, Jesus stood against oppressive social systems including Temple practices and the use of shame to curb deviance. Jesus seems to create a social space that invites people into a new, less bounded community.
Jesus was known by his biographers as someone whose primary virtue was love. In first century terms, it signified a fierce loyalty between patron and client, and we recognize it in our terms when we interpret what happened at his arrest and crucifixion.
Beyond these, some other later-developed and commonly accepted conclusions about Jesus that inform a center for the centered set as follows:
Jesus underwent a physical resurrection and ascended into heaven
Jesus is invested with fully divine status as a member of a trinitarian Godhead
He meets the criteria for the title "Christ" or "Messiah," accomplishing the ancient Jewish hope of redemption and vindication
His death and resurrection makes it possible for all humankind to experience forgiveness and enter eternal life as a righteous person by way of grace and faith
He will someday appear again to judge and banish evil, restoring creation to its original perfect state
In chapter seven of Baker's book, he discusses what he calls "Centered Character," a link between some salient characteristics of Jesus as described in the gospels and what a centered set church might be known for. He discusses six qualities that a centered set can aspire to in their behavior and attitude, modeled after what he sees reflected in the Jesus of the New Testament. They are:
Compassion- that breaks established social, political and religious boundaries
Curiosity- a desire to know more, to probe deeper, to keep asking questions
Creativity- acting and speaking in ways that allow people to comprehend truth in new ways, much like what artists do
Safety- Authenticity and vulnerability that sets aside status-seeking and fear-based tactics. Supporting people who are on their own journey
Trust- Matching words to actions, with real repentance when there's failure
Humility- rejecting our natural defensiveness because we no longer derive our worth from others
For Paul and the gospel writers, ethical persuasions grew out of a mixture of Jewish propriety, the need for social cohesion in the experimental Jesus movements, apocalyptic expectations and Hellenistic understandings of the world, and of course the impact of the "Jesus event" that sparked a new way of seeing our place in the cosmos. Readers of Paul find him treading a fine line between respect for the political power of Rome and the demands of the kingdom of God. Jesus was executed because he was perceived as a threat to the power structures of Judea. What does this mean for a centered set church? Paul captures the "reorientation" of outsiders toward the center with the phrase in 1 Thessalonians, "They [Macedonians and Achaeans] tell how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead—Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath." In Paul's world, turning from Idol worship meant a drastic change in how individuals and families related to their home culture. It meant extensive modifications to relationships and social standing.
What we're looking for in a center is truth in the form of agreed-upon propositions that align most closely with reality as we understand it. Included in that is an ethic that flows from those assumptions about reality. What do we believe together? How deeply are these beliefs and values held? Are some of them unassailable or are they all up for debate? Our conception of final truth is continually under construction, and rightly so. As we take our notion of truth into everyday life, applying our center's principles to novel situations and questions will challenge our certainty about it. New data that demands assimilation into our body of experience will need to be absorbed, integrated or rejected.
This allows for a wide variety of centers that develop spiritual communities around them. For most groups, it comes down to preferred ways to make sense of the world as reflected in doctrine and ethics. While the Church has extracted a great number of doctrinal positions from the Bible (with no small amount of disagreement), the ethical standards have proven a bit more stable, if not always carried out well. A Reformed-style church can claim to pursue loving neighbors and enemies as much as a Charismatic church.
How does a church carry out a life of discipleship in a centered set? In Part Three of The Centered Set Church, the author discusses some general principles for applying a centered set approach in the mission of the church, that is, to school our culture in the ways of following Jesus. Helping others conform to a better ethic without resorting to bounded set strategies, Baker suggests talking about intervention instead of confrontation (speaking truth into the lives of people who want to progress toward the center).
Among other principles Baker highlights is the idea of using indicatives to support imperatives. To indicate is to illustrate, signify or point toward something. An imperative is a command or demand that something be done. Before suggesting that a person change a behavior or a belief, point out the reasons behind it or focus on the loyalty or mercy of God as preliminary to an imperative. For example, a command to love one another does not appear in scripture without its companion statement: As God first loved you, or forgave you… The imperatives in Matthew 5 are preceded by a set of indicatives we call the beatitudes, assuring the hearer that they need not depend on their own devices to gain favor with God.
Framing interventions in terms of a journey toward an imagined future avoids the indicting and demoralizing judgement of a bounded set. Instead of insisting that the person in front of you stop complaining all the time, ask them to imagine a future in which they are settled, content and life-giving- with no need to complain at all. Instead of measuring progress by meeting levels of ethical standards, depict progress as a trajectory that produces different behaviors along the way.
There's much more in Baker's book, including how a centered set church imagines leadership structures and church membership. See the note below for bibliographical details.
Baker, Mark D. Centered-Set Church: Discipleship and Community Without Judgmentalism IVP Academic 2022