The Logical Fallacy of Centered-set Churches


Everyone puts up boundaries. The inclusivist mindset of our day likes to think it doesn’t, but it does. It just excludes those who hold a little too strongly to something the inclusivist doesn’t believe.

The so-called centered-set approach to doctrine and the local church likes to think it does not put up boundaries either, but it does. In my opinion, the centered-set approach to ministry is a bit of a ruse (I don’t mean intentionally so). It’s using a logical fallacy in order to affect a certain appearance, namely, the appearance of inclusiveness.

Truth, in fact, is binary. Either something is true or not true. That’s not to say that truth cannot be perspectival (from my perspective, John is good; from yours, he’s bad) or relative (relative to me, John is good; relative to God, bad). But even perspectival and relative truth are “yes or no” propositions; the “yes or no” is simply being measured from a given perspective or relative to a particular standard.

So, too, with an individual’s belief in truth. Either someone believes or doesn’t believe. Now, you might say, so-and-so “half believes” or “is uncertain” or “is beginning to believe.” But the point is, the individual is choosing between two options.

The centered-set metaphor, however, is a spatial metaphor that depends on the ideas of “far and near,” which is a different kind of thing than “yes or no.” Farness or nearness refers to a spectrum with no intrinsic point of breaking between “yes-ness” or “no-ness.” Something can be infinitely far from a center point, but it never breaks into the realm of “no.” It’s just really far away. And just because something is right next to the center doesn’t make it “yes” rather than “no.” It’s just close. That’s different from someone who is “beginning to believe.” Such a person will eventually experience (or has experienced) a breaking point between belief and unbelief.

In short, to import the centered-set spatial metaphor into the binary realms of truth or of belief in truth is to commit a category mistake between yes/no and far/near. It might feel more palatable to our inclusivistic sensibilities and so win friends and followers, but it’s an exercise in disingenuousness (I don’t mean intentionally so). That’s why you hear centered-set advocates say things like, “When something is far enough from the center, it’s excluded.” Not even they can help but resort to boundaries.  So why not just be up front about where those boundaries are?

If the centered-set metaphor doesn’t work for truth or belief in truth, does it work for relationships, like a relationship with Jesus? It seems like it, since I can be relationally “close” (near) to someone or “distant” (far) to the person, right? Sort of, but don’t be confused by the metaphors “close” and “distant” when used in the relational domain. They are just metaphors. To be “close” to Jesus means that I have a right knowledge of him, that I love the things that I know about him, and that I’m obedient to this knowledge. I grant that our affections can be more/less, which is generally comparable to far/near. But we should not fall into Schleiermachian and Romantic fallacy of measuring our relationships entirely by emotion and zeal (which no one really does, not even the Romantic) in a way that’s divorced from knowledge. When we recognize that a relationship to Jesus (or anyone) involves knowledge, we’re right back into the binary domain of truth.

Even more significant, however, is the concept of Lordship. Christ has not called us into a relationship, so much as a particular kind of asymmetrical relationship, namely, one in which we submit to his Lordship. Sure, someone can be “half-submitted” or “beginning to submit.” But in the end, the concept of submitting to Christ’s Lordship is utterly binary, which is precisely why the Bible gives us all a choice between two ways to live:  submit or no; repent or no.  

Should our churches do otherwise?

Now, if all this talk about centered-set churches is really just about being sensitive, warm, and even sacrificially loving to outsiders, great! But let’s talk about that rather than introduce logically problematic concepts that risk erasing the clear bright line God places between those who are his people and those who are not throughout the entire Bible. If there are any doubts about whether the New Testament intends for there to be a super-bright boundary between the church and world, I would refer the reader to 2 Corinthians 6:14-7:1.  (Another problem is that “boundary” is also a spatial metaphor; a more biblical category to use for church membership, I believe, is “identification.” But that’s another story.)

Jonathan Leeman

Jonathan (@JonathanLeeman) edits the 9Marks series of books as well as the 9Marks Journal. He is also the author of several books on the church. Since his call to ministry, Jonathan has earned a master of divinity from Southern Seminary and a Ph.D. in Ecclesiology from the University of Wales. He lives with his wife and four daughters in Cheverly, Maryland, where he is an elder at Cheverly Baptist Church.

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