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Protect Doctrinal Borders, or Shepherd People toward God?

On Sunday, we'll hear the story of Jesus teaching in the synagogue, and - just after being told that "many spoke well of him" and marveled at his words, as he continues to teach, the crowd turns on him.

And I mean turns: based on what Jesus teaches, this adoring crowd is suddenly "filled with rage" and tries to throw him off a cliff!

What would turn an adoring congregation into a murderous mob?

Well, Jesus reminded them (or told them for the first time?) that God was bigger than their doctrine or teaching made him out to be.  

But because this question of "doctrinal purity verses the expansiveness and mystery of God" is such an important and current issue, I'd like to share the meat of a fascinating essay I read about ten years ago.   

The esssayist asks us to think for a moment about mathematical set theory. Bear with it, I think it's worth the longish read.  

Because geometry is not exactly my strong suit and I can't really do the essay justice in my own words, the bulk of what follows are either paraphrases (with my additions in parenthesis or brackets) or direct quotations from that essay.

You remember in geometry what sets were - sets are groups of things that belong together.

A closed set is defined by a border, a line.

Everything that is inside the line, border, or boundary belongs to the set, all that is outside the line, border or boundary does not.

An "open set" however, does not have a boundary - it is not defined by a line or a border.

Rather, an open set is defined by a relationship with a center.

All that is moving toward the center belongs; all that is moving away from the center does not.

You can still determine what belongs in the set and what does not belong to the set, but not by looking to see what side of a line they are on: you must instead determine overall direction.

Apply this to the church:

"Closed set believers have a 'territorial' concept of God's kingdom," Collins writes. It is enclosed within a boundary. "You become a member by crossing the boundary in an act of conversion. Once you are inside the territory, you had better be careful not to cross the boundary again."

Open set believers, on the other hand, define membership by movement toward or away from Jesus Christ as the center. "There are still those who belong and those who do not belong, but you can't separate them easily, let alone state who is in and who is out once and for all. Those who appear to be close to Christ may be moving away from him, and those that seem far away may be heading toward him."

Instead of putting so much emphasis on a dramatic conversion process, or upholding doctrinal purity, what matters is what C.S. Lewis describes in Mere Christianity -- that choosing God is an ongoing process, and that all of our choices add up to a direction towards from or away from God.

Consider the implications: "for closed set believers, how one defines the boundary is crucial." Where one draws the line determines, for them, the nature of the territory within. "A boundary-defining issue need not be central to the faith, but as 'the border-crossing,' it is taken as the litmus test of whether one accepts the central matters of the faith or not."

(By the way: my point here, not the essayist's: It has long struck me that based on what we read of him in the Gospels, how infrequently Jesus talked about and therefore how little Jesus seemed to care about "false teaching," "historic roots," "orthodox theology" or "Biblical authority" - and when he did talk about such things, he was usually saying that the "false teaching" was (ironically) coming from those who were clinging to "the tradition of the elders" - in other words, Jesus more often stood against what the Pharisees of his day called tradition, biblical authority, orthodox theology, and historic roots.)

"And so it is that [an issue like homosexuality and other] marginal element[s] of Christian belief, matter[s] less-remarked on in other times become contested with such hysteria and venom. From the point of view of closed-set believers, the integrity of the [border, line] boundary is crucial. If it is breached, the entire territory within is under threat. [What's next?!? Anything goes!]

"And so any concession on the boundary issue is seen as threatening the integrity and even the existence of the whole Church."

"Borders require policing, and policemen. In [the world we live in] fixed borders will always appear to be under siege because people will always be bumping against them. So the closed-set model will [sees] a changing world as a threat - because it is a threat, to...borders.

Open-set believers, on the other hand, are not as concerned with defense of borders as they are with discernment - they scan the crowd to see what direction people are moving, as individuals [as a community.]

Having no borders to police, they intervene, not as policemen, but as shepherds - seeking to direct the flow, towards Christ. Their kingdom map is [not static, but dynamic], a matter of hunches and possibilities rather than certainties. For open-set believers, no single issue is enough to determine the fate of a person or the Church."

Pay close attention here:

"Which set theory one adheres to has nothing to do with whether one's positions on specific doctrines are liberal or conservative. Liberals can defend single-issue boundaries with militant certainty, expelling those who disagree. Conservatives can have strong opinions on direction without making rigid judgments or picking battles."

But what's so problematic is each of these mindsets offends the other: "Closed set people think open set people are unprincipled or weak because they will not stand and fight.  Open-set people think closed-set people are intolerant and controlling." 

(Here ends the quotes and paraphrases - thanks again to the "Policemen and shepherds" essay.)

Me again:

Doesn't that help make sense of so much that is going on, not only in our church, but in our culture in general?

The good news, is, this is not a new problem. These two mindsets have clashed for centuries:

Closed set believers see Eldad and Medad prophesying in the camp, and tell Moses "they're outside the boundary! Make them stop!"

Closed set believers see someone casting out demons in Jesus name, and they try to stop him - why? - because he was not following us. He was not inside the circle.

Open-set-minded Moses says, "why are you trying to put limits on God's activity? Why do you feel threatened? "don't be jealous for my sake! Would that all the Lord's people were prophets! Would that God's spirit be on everyone!"

Open-set-minded Jesus says, "don't stop this man - whoever is doing a deed of power in my name will not turn around and cut me down. Whoever is not against us is for us."

Remember, this exorcist was confronting and defeating Satan! He was using Jesus' name - the formula would have been "In the name of Jesus, I command you to come out!" so he was showing an awareness that his power came from Jesus, and that his success was due to calling on the name of Jesus.

Jesus' earliest followers see someone else whose ministry is successful, someone else who is doing good work, and doing it competently -

but because he was not following US,
because he was not "one of us,"
because he does not follow our teaching, 
because he was not one of our members,
because he does not agree to our covenant,
because he does not support our resolution,

they judged. And tried to stop him.

What does Jesus do when he faces this narrow-minded exclusivism? He responds with an open and generous spirit. "Don't stop him. No one who does a deed of power in my name will soon be able to speak evil of me. ...

Put no barriers in the way of those who seek to be close to me, Jesus said.

Bringing it home: the spirtual lesson for all of us?

Pay attention to the direction you are moving, and if something makes you stumble, get rid of it. Repent, turn around, turn back toward God.

Because even the best, most deeply-believing, faithful people need to watch their direction, lest they be drifting away from God...

...and even the worst of us can be far away, but heading with all the speed we can muster toward God.


  1. John, I love the spirit of this post and I agree with your conclusions. It seems to open up the possibility that one could be in a contemplative positive believing relationship to Jesus' reality(open set) and at the same time not actually be a Christian(closed set). The first being mostly internal and the second largely external. Question: To achieve some kind of unitive consciousness with God, are both required or can the latter christian identity be avoided entirely?


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