Anthropologist Paul Hiebert wrote an article in 1979 titled “Sets and Structures: A Study in Church Patterns.” Catchy title, isn’t it? Fortunately, his essay is far more interesting and informative than its name. Hiebert explains two ways of forming and understanding group belonging, specifically as it pertains to being a Christian. That is, two ways that a group – in this case the church – structures itself to determine who belongs to it. He uses the phrases bounded sets and centered sets to explain these two approaches to belonging.
Bounded sets are those that are defined in terms of the boundaries – rules, laws, or positional statements, for example – that determine who is in and who is out. In a bounded set, the focus is on the fences that keep us in and them out. This approach leads people to focus on their differences, and, often, to perceive differences that are not necessarily present. Bounded sets create distance. Membership in a bounded set is static. You are either in or you are out. This paradigm is attractive to many because it provides a sense of safety for those who are in. It reassures them that they are correct about their conclusions and provides an affirmation of their special status. Being right is more important than being in relationship in the context of a bounded set.
In a bounded set, the focus is on the fences that keep us in and them out.
Centered sets, on the other hand, focus on the center. In Christianity, that center is Jesus Christ. His character, teachings, actions, power and relationship with the Father and with the world around him are held at the center. In a centered set, belonging is thought of in terms of near and far. The most important metric is movement, either toward or away from the center. Centered sets inherently allow for differences and leave determination of in and out to God, where that judgment ultimately belongs.
The question, Does Reformed matter? can be examined through the lenses of either of these frameworks – the bounded-set approach or the centered-set approach. If we are inclined to use the bounded set, then my answer to that question is an emphatic no. If Reformed can be reduced to a list of rules or theological conclusions that must be affirmed in order for a person to belong, then it couldn’t matter less today. In this framework, Reformed is a pronoun or an adjective. Frankly, that kind of dysfunctional application of the term was the luxury of those who occupied a Christendom culture. As Christendom has slowly died, Reformed as a title has stopped being helpful, especially in terms of conducting fruitful dialogue with Christians and non-Christians alike.
In fact, the death of Christendom is the best thing that could have happened to the word “Reformed” and to all people who call themselves Christians. The crisis that Christians face as our culture becomes more obviously secular creates a winnowing effect. Much of what our culture used to label as Christian turns out not to be like Christ at all. As the myth of a Christian society is slowly being laid to rest, Christians can gradually resume their place as prophets and priests who engage culture with a different ethos. We can again be the community that opposes the culture of death that has become so pervasive in the global West. We can provide a robust counteroffer to the politics of fear and scarcity that produce election cycles like the one we have just experienced in the United States. We can strive for beloved community, instead of settling for civic society.
REFORM: SOMETHING WE DO
If we do this, we will be reforming. Reform is something we do, not something we call ourselves. In its healthiest, most life-giving application, “reform” is a verb. If we embrace reform as a verb, then, at this cultural moment, “Reformed” couldn’t matter more.
We must embrace a centered-set perspective, however, for this to happen. Instead of focusing on the fences that help us to determine who is in and who is out, we must focus on the center, who is the crucified and risen Jesus Christ. The center is the character and competency of the risen and ruling Christ, who will come again and will bring the reign of God with him. The center is love: God’s love for the whole world, without exceptions (1 John 4) and our love for God and neighbor as a reflection of that love. If love is the center, then the reforming question we ask is, “Are we moving toward love or away from love?” We can reform our homes, our churches, our schools, our workplaces and our communities around this central reforming question, which finds its source in Jesus Christ, the true center.
The bounded-set version of “Reformed” exaggerates differences and gives permission for the creation of litmus tests to determine who is in and who is out. These tests typically revolve around how a person thinks or feels about a single social issue or whether one agrees with whichever historical creeds or confessions a particular denomination has adopted. Let me be clear: The creeds and confessions are not irrelevant. I affirm their historical import and the light they can shine on the journey toward union with God through Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit. However, focusing on the fences – as the bounded-set approach does – is not helpful in today’s cultural landscape.
Certainly there is need for distinction. Acknowledging the very real differences in belief and behavior that exist in this world is important for a number of reasons both celebratory and critical. A broader conversation is necessary to determine what, when, where and how those boundaries need to be set in place and what effect those boundaries have on belonging. My point is not to dispose of the fences altogether but to put them in their proper place. Treating the historic creeds and confessions like fences demeans them and renders them virtually useless in everyday life.
Instead, Christianity embraces the notion that people need an ethic shaped not by the Belgic Confession – which I happen to think is a beautiful document – but by the living, breathing Jesus Christ who we meet in the Gospels and by the Holy Spirit, who has counseled the body of Christ since Pentecost. While the Belgic Confession can help to articulate the way of life that Jesus of Nazareth presented to his followers, and the role of God’s Holy Spirit who animates that way, it does not resound today as it once did. This is largely because the historical creeds and confessions were a necessary answer to questions that were alive when those documents were written. Our cultural and historical moment is asking different questions. These contemporary questions require contemporary answers in contemporary language through the voices of contemporary thinkers who live with the life of Christ at the center during this confounding historical moment. Christ is the universal way, truth and life for all generations, while the expression of his way, truth and life is always culturally embedded. Perhaps this means that every generation in every culture is in some way “status confessionis.”
The world does not need more Reformed people. The world needs more people reforming! Many people create their definition of Reformed based on a 16th-century church schism. At the core of that historical movement was the desire to re-center the faith around Jesus and the Word. We need more Christians doing the hard work of articulating what it means to move toward the center, Jesus Christ, today. We need more people painting a beautiful picture of what it means to be animated by God’s Holy Spirit and to live according to the sometimes-dangerous leadership of the Divine Breath within us. The Breath of God beckons us to vulnerable availability, not fence-keeping.
For this to happen today, we will need the voices of other thinkers who do not identify as Reformed but who are already doing the work of reforming. We will need the wisdom of Guatemalan Charismatics, Irish Catholics, Ethiopian Anglicans, Minnesotan Methodists and many others whose voices would be habitually ignored in a bounded-set framework. The ethnic enclaves that used to prop up denominational institutions are crumbling, and the luxury of ignoring other voices of faith has evaporated. I see these developments as positive and exciting opportunities for progress and growth. Yet, this cultural moment is frightening for many who have put their hope in what used to be – a faith based on a bounded-set understanding of belonging.
So, let me restate my original question. Why are we asking if Reformed matters? Are we asking because we want to determine who is in and who is out? Or are we asking because we want to help a lost and broken world loved by God to move toward Jesus Christ, the light and life at the center of all creation? How we answer this question of motive will determine whether or not “Reformed” matters.
Tanner Smith pastors Harbor Life Church, Grandville, Michigan.