Bounded-set, center-set, Jesus and organized religion

Organized Religion

Recently a friend approached me looking for a donation for a friend of his who was robbed of some needed work tools. I suggested he approach the deacons of my church and ask for help. He did and was impressed and overwhelmed by the generosity of the gift. I was not surprised at all by it. Our deacons do this kind of thing all the time. It’s simply part of what we are about. He could have approached all kinds of people looking for some money (which he did too), but here was a group of people who maintain a community that has as a normal part of their communal life sharing resources with total strangers who present a credible need.

A few days later he confided in me that what our deacons did made him re-evaluate his assumptions about “organized religion”. Maybe it wasn’t all bad. This suspicion of organized religion is no secret and it is nothing new. One discussion that quickly enters in at this point is the distinction between bounded-set groups and center-set groups.

Institutions normally require bounded set groups, where there is a list of people who are “in” and therefore others who are “out”.

In center-set thinking people are either moving towards or away from that which is defining the group. You don’t really spend your time or energy on figuring out who is “in” or “out”; you work more on process of moving people towards or away.

What’s Good About Center-Set

There is a lot of attraction to the “center-set” theory in our cultural context for a number of reasons. It is easier to be “non-judgmental” if you don’t need to get specific about definitions and labels. That’s not a bad thing, we all realize that the process of defining or labeling says as much about the definer or the labeler as it does about the target of the definition or label. The “center-set” scheme also makes the individual and their choice the master of their own destiny. Other people can’t “define” them, or tell them who they are, what they can do or anything like that. They get to be what ever they say they are and anyone else’s opinion simply doesn’t matter. This is very much the way we want to be treated (golden-ruleishness) so “center-set” language makes everyone happy and avoids those awkward situations where people are saying “no” or people have to hear “no”spoken to them.

“Without Individuals, nothing happens. Without Institutions, nothing survives”

We do know, however, that institutions are very handy things that can do a lot of good in the world. Institutions give definition, clarity, and focus to a lot of vague good intentions. They also create continuity and endurance in a world where individual life is chaotic and haphazard. Institutions generally NEED some sort of bounded-set application. Institutions usually need some kind of leadership or decision which means that an individual or a group of people decide. Deciding means saying “yes” to some things and “no” to other things. This means that some people will have to hear “no” and they won’t like it.

For many people this is a turn off and it is used as an excuse to steer clear of “institutional religion”. Someone is going to say “no” about something and there is going to be an institution behind it which means that some power, some good, something will go one way and not another. If it’s going your way you’re pleased, if it isn’t, you’re not happy. When we are not happy, our expressive individualistic culture decrees that our unhappiness must be expressed and authentically embodied in some protest, and off we go.

Simon Peter and Bounded Sets

In my text for this week Peter (who must have been a character) in Luke wades in with a self-revealing quip: “Lord, are you telling this parable for us or for everyone? (Luke 12:41). Over the last number of passages Jesus has been handing out warnings and speaking some encouragements. He’s warned about the delusion of self-righteousness. At the expense of the Pharisees and teachers of the law he warned about the lure of attempting to manipulate God through religious observance and moral performance. He also warned his disciples about the lure of power achieved by manipulating the masses and seeking to control the world by public performance. He moved on to warn a younger brother unfairly treated by his older brother/will executor of the power of greed. He moved forward to encourage them to trust in God’s generosity rather than in their own worry induced scrambling after what they imagined would give them meaning, security and pleasure. He then told them a parable about willing and faithful servants and an audacious reward given to those who serve freely in acceptance of their master’s return.

One of the interesting things you can see if you apply the “bounded-set” vs. “center-set” approach to many of the disciples quips are that they were pretty focused on the “bounded-set” approach. They get upset when someone not of their group is casting out demons in Jesus’ name in Mark 9:38, Peter is preoccupied with “the disciple who Jesus loved” in John 20:21 and Jesus tells him “what is that to you.” There are lots of little instances of this kind of thing in the gospels. The disciples seem very preoccupied with the bounded-set approach as do many others.

The Pharisees and the teachers of the law constantly evaluate Jesus according to this standard. He eats with tax collectors and sinners. He lets a prostitute wash his feet with her tears. He isn’t engaging in our culture war like we want him to, etc.

When Jesus Gets all Bounded Set

Following Peter’s remark here in Luke 12 Jesus offers a very center-set analysis of God’s value system. God is going to evaluate people on the basis of where they stand towards him and there are gradients in it.

Those who want to cast Jesus strictly into the center-set side of things, however, have difficulty with other passages. Jesus selects 12 apostles as his official representatives. We know that the circle around him was larger because in Acts there are two candidates who qualify as replacements. We also know from the church tradition of others who were eye-witnesses and ear-witnesses to Jesus’ life whom Jesus did NOT select for his twelve. Jesus talks about the father deciding who would sit on his right and left hand side. Again, this is bounded-set. In the famous “sheep and goats” parable of Matthew 25 Jesus tells a very bounded-set story.


I don’t think we can pull Jesus in and make him take sides on the ‘bounded-set” and “center-set” debate with regard to existence. Jesus pushes back on his “bounded-set” disciples and Pharisees but also himself uses bounded-set analysis. I’d have to say he makes it clear that bounded-set things matter and center-set things matter and ultimately God sees things as they are.

What does this have to say about “organized religion”. It seems we can’t live with it, and we can’t live without it. Our lives will always be mixtures of bounded-set and center-set issues. It doesn’t seem we are incapable of understanding how and when institutions get in the way and how and when they are useful and important. It also seems that we will always to one degree or another get these things wrong and people will be hurt. It simply seems like part of the reality of the age of decay and a fact of life that we will always struggle to manage.

Institutions need both Bounded Set and Center Set dynamics. Bounded set dynamics help the institution or community self-define. Center set dynamics help the community or institution continue to reform, refocus and refresh. 

About PaulVK

Husband, Father of 5, Pastor
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