Centered Set: A Response to Jonathan Leeman

I recently came across an article by Jonathan Leeman entitled “The Logical Fallacy of Centered-set Churches.” Since we often describe Coram Deo as a centered-set church, I was intrigued. And after reading the article, I am inclined to offer a rejoinder.

I apologize to Mr. Leeman – a very capable theologian and churchman, and one I highly respect – for making him revisit an article he wrote almost a year ago. But like GK Chesterton (yet without his genius), I am “a person only too ready to write upon the feeblest provocation.” To date, Mr. Leeman’s post has received no comments, which I take to mean either a) no one has read it, or b) no one has disagreed with it. I hope to remedy both problems.

The main logical fallacy of Mr. Leeman’s article about logical fallacy is the fallacy of equivocation. He uses the term “centered-set” in an ambiguous way to refer to at least two different ideas. He speaks of a “centered-set approach to doctrine” (which I, like him, spurn) and a “centered-set approach to ministry” (which I, unlike him, commend). Then he conflates these two ideas into one polemic against “centered-set churches.”

Leeman states plainly: “The centered-set metaphor doesn’t work for truth or belief in truth.” I couldn’t agree more. The question is: does the centered-set metaphor work for community? Within a church committed to Christ and His truth, is there space for people who have not yet embraced that truth?

I assume Mr. Leeman would answer this question, “Yes,” since he shares my passion to see people converted to faith in Christ. And if he would answer this question “Yes,” then I would submit that our debate is over. After all, Jesus clearly taught that the church will always be a mixed community – wheat and tares (Matt. 13:24-30), sheep and goats (Matt. 25:31-46).

I think Leeman and I are both passionate about the members of a church being a bounded set (converted Christians). But the church community as a whole should be a centered set. I expect, pray for, and delight in the presence of non-Christians in the church’s worship gatherings. I fully expect the Holy Spirit to challenge and convert them as they sit under the preaching of the word and come to understand the message of the gospel.

Leeman is concerned that centered-set language risks “erasing the clear bright line God places between those who are his people and those who are not.” But this is only true if we apply the centered-set metaphor ham-handedly. Admittedly, this is the mistake some evangellyfish types make. But had Leeman consulted missiologist Paul Hiebert (the fountainhead of all this centered-set thinking), he would have encountered a more careful and nuanced explanation. A recent academic monograph summarizes: “While centered sets are not created by drawing boundaries, they do have well-formed boundaries that separate things inside the set from those outside it. [So] centered sets have two types of change inherent in their structure: entry or exit from the set (based on their relationship to the center), and movement toward or away from the center” (Yoder, Lee, Ro, & Priest: TrinJ 30NS 2009, 180). In other words: a centered set does have a boundary.

I maintain that it is possible to employ the centered-set concept in a way that remains faithful to Scripture, to truth, and to sound doctrine. To say it another way: it is possible to have a centered-set approach to ministry without a centered-set approach to doctrine. In my humble estimation, it’s the failure to distinguish between these two that makes Leeman’s case less than compelling.

3 Comments

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  1. Interesting take Pastor Bob…I can see the distinction you are making. I’d like to understand this philosophy of ministry better. Do you have a suggested article or website that provides more clarity on what exactly a centered-set church believes?

  2. Bob,
    Thanks for the friendly conversation. If you are going to define “centered-set” in a way that involves boundaries with members on the inside and non-members on the outside, as the Trinity Journal article quotation seems to do, I’m happy to accept this. It takes what is good out of each side. And if you are willing to say that those on the “inside” are those who have been baptized and received the Lord’s Supper and whom we call “Christians,” I’m happy to accept all the good points about centered-set thinking.

    Thanks again,
    Jonathan Leeman

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