Many things about faith cause me to struggle. I’m not a guy who claims to have all of it figured out: while there are a few beliefs I think are important enough that I’ve put my stake in the ground regarding them, there’s a lot, even things that are very important to me, that I hold in fairly open hands. One of my bigger challenges are those Christian churches with a wildly different set of beliefs from my own. What do I do? Do I embrace them even though I think some of their beliefs are dangerous (and they no doubt think the same of mine) or put them on the “outside”, labeling them a “bridge to far”? Or what about when I disagree with something taught at my own church? It can be challenging to both be open mind while having a passion for pursuing the truth.
I was introduced to a concept recently believe has a lot of promise: it’s called a “Centered Set”. The idea is to differentiate between “bounded” and “centered” sets. The first kind of set is fairly familiar: you draw boundaries, and everything that is outside of them does does not belong to the set. Think of a farmer with cattle. He puts a fence around them to identify which cattle belong to him. But say that farmer has too much land to build a fence, so instead he builds wells that attract the cattle. The cattle aren’t bounded, but rather they are grouped by the points that attract them. Centered sets are identified by movement in relation to a point rather than movement within a boundary, and that is a very different way of looking at groups of individuals.
The visible church (made up of those who are externally identified as Christians) operates a lot like a bounded set: members confess doctrines/creeds that identify them as believers and they are defined by these professions of faith. The problem with this is that we can’t agree on the boundaries, and even if we could, we don’t really know the true state of a person’s heart, whatever he or she confesses. Because of this Christianity has long held the notion of the invisible church: real Christian who truly have faith and belief. The visible and invisible churches may line up a great deal (one would hope), but they will not always coincide: there are those who fall within a bounded set by profession that are not true believers, and those who are outside the bounded set yet truly do have real faith. This is where I think the concept of the centered set becomes compelling.
I believe the real key to someone’s faith is answering this question: is he or she moving toward Jesus? Not distance, but direction. If someone seems close to Jesus but is moving away, that person is not part of the centered set, unlike someone far away who is moving closer (note: when I say “moving away”, I mean permanently; not someone who is going through a season of struggle- often those kinds of struggles may look like walking away, but are really about drawing closer to Jesus than ever before). I would say it is reasonable to identify Christians as those moving in the direction of Jesus and pursuing him.
I was reminded of this today as my personal study and the Sunday morning preaching collided. I’ve been reading through Judges, and the awful behavior exhibited by many of these leaders has caused me great pause. For example, Samson neglected his wife, broke his nazarite vows, and slept with a prostitute. There’s no record of repentance for these actions, though God used him in mighty ways. It is true God that can use sinners and unbelievers, but Samson found his way into the great hall of faith in Hebrews 11 (the verse we studied this morning), so he is the real deal.
But this morning’s text had one verse in particular stood out to me:
And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him. (Hebrews 11:6, ESV)
The emphasis here is just what I’ve been thinking about with centered sets. The measure isn’t the righteous acts a person has accomplished or the ability to abstain from evil, but rather the overall direction. Did Samson believe in God? Absolutely he did. But believing in God is not enough, we must seek him, even through our sin. No matter how far or close we are to him, we need to turn and walk toward him. Samson did a lot of terrible things, but he also ultimately sought to do the Lord’s will, sacrificing himself in the end.
I’ve begun challenging myself to think in terms of a centered set, not bounded one, when it comes to Christianity. Certainly I have my own set of bounded beliefs, and I don’t think that’s wrong. That is the fruit of study, prayer, and experience. I would be foolish to not try to make sense of my own faith and place limits on what I think is good and true. However, I think the takeaway is that I should not be quick to assume someone within my same bounded set is a brother or sister in Christ, and someone without is not. I probably can’t see the true trajectory of the heart, and that means I should be humble, speaking the truth as I know it, but not quick to judgement of others.
The personal challenge for me is not to measure my distance from Jesus, but whether I am drawing nearer to him. Am I going a direction that centers him in my path, or somewhere else? It can be easy to rest comfortably within a bounded set of beliefs and behaviors others deem acceptable, but such does nothing to protect me or give me hope. The only real hope is my destination and center. And when it comes to other believers, I can accept when we don’t agree, even on big doctrines, if it seems we are ultimately headed after Jesus. And those who do agree but behave in ways that concern me, that should send up red flags. How all of this works out in practical terms is still a challenge for me, but I think I’m drawing closer to the kind of unity and discernment God calls me to in scripture.