The antinomian tendency of Centred Set Missiology

'Thou art my portion, O LORD: I have said that I would keep thy words.' Ps. 119.57

‘Remove not the ancient landmark, which thy fathers have set.’  Proverbs 22.28




Paul Hiebert has popularised the use of a mathematical term to frame a model for cross-cultural mission work (1). He distinguishes between boundary defined sets, in which a discrete property or properties, like a doctrinal belief or a Christian practice, define membership and centre defined sets in which membership is determined by motion toward or excluded by movement away from a central focus, usually considered as our relationship with Christ (2). This definition of centred sets is often framed less sharply by later interpreters. Professor Hiebert was not given to view missions from one single perspective, or through one conceptual filter (3), however his idea has become so celebrated and so pervasive, that its strong dangers have been ignored. The model introduces an unbiblical dichotomy, since it is a perspective founded on precise mathematical distinction. The result is an emphasis that shallowly mischaracterises Biblical discipleship, caricatures traditional missiology, for example in Carey or Judson's practice, and lends itself to antinomianism. His subsequent introduction of another class of mathematical set, the 'fuzzy set', after Zadeh (4), characterised by elements with variable degrees of membership, softens the starkness of this dichotomy, but many admiring followers seem to dispense with this subtlety, and conflate fuzzy sets with centred sets, as though crisp (non-fuzzy, bivalent) centred sets had no 'excluded middle' - when Hiebert acknowledges they do. This blurring of clarity by Hiebert or by his vaguer proponents does nothing however to weaken the antinomian danger in centred set missiology or its hollow caricature of orthodox cross cultural mission. The emergent church too thrives under the shadow of this banner of its 'new reformation'.

It is easy to appreciate Hiebert’s concern about the harmful spiritual consequences of formalism on evangelism and Christian growth, for example the perception of a denominational distinctive as an essential ground for fellowship, a compelling of young Christians to rapidly assimilate doctrine without deeply appreciating or valuing its vitality, the contentiousness arising from jealous guarding of superficial and incidental forms, and most importantly the failure of such teachers and their disciples to grow in their walk and devotion to the Master. Yet to exalt the criterion of relationship with Christ, as though discipleship were a pure cult of personality, divorce it from scriptural context, and thus ignore Messiah's own explicit and repeated teachings about boundaries and fences is equally perilous.

Hiebert acknowledges, unlike some of his enthusiastic proponents, that the distinction between the regenerate and the unregenerate is razor sharp (1). However recognising that event, he claims, is arduous and often impossible. He suggests that two standard tests, practice and doctrinal belief are inapplicable to a young convert. For the former, he writes
it is not at all clear what changes are definitive characteristics of conversion’, but a short survey of scripture should have convinced him otherwise (Acts.2.41-47, 1 Jn.2.3-4,9-11, 1 Jn.3.10,14-15, inter alia). It is extraordinary and noteworthy that he claims Simon Magus to be a believer because he was baptised, when the Holy Spirit explicitly informs us otherwise (Acts 8.21-3) and the same applies to the three other examples he cites. Only the most superficial acceptance of discipleship would credit the ‘faith’ of the listeners at Lystra, the sons of Sceva, or the people of Malta – nor is there any evidence that any of these were baptised or in any sense had crossed ‘a boundary’. This suggests just how weak a view the Professor has of the church boundaries he seeks to downplay. Even allowing for stronger boundaries, what about historic practice? Is practice consistent with what Hiebert's description of boundary thinking usually misguided? Was Carey wrong to insist on a cessation in widow burnings or 'break the chain of caste'? Was he imposing a Western hermeneutic, when he should only have been stressing relationship with the true Brahma?!

For his latter test, doctrinal belief (1), his hypothetical Indian believer would not be able to answer some basic spiritual questions – was Jesus Christ virgin born, did He die, was He raised? On what grounds then is he assured that the young man has indeed been born again and not just a fickle but curious enquirer? Philip must be satisfied of the eunuch’s spiritual understanding before he would baptise (Acts 8.37), was he then an adherent of outmoded colonial missiology? Was the evangelist a bounded set thinker? True saving faith requires a doctrinal kernel (Rom. 6.17, Jas.1.18, 1 Pet. 1.3, 23, 1 Jn.5.10-12) without which the soul lingers in death. Was Judson misguided in questioning Maung Nau, the first Burman Christian, on the transcendence and personality of God, the Divine Sonship of Christ, his own undeserving sinfulness, the necessity of penal substitution, and the renunciation of the 'disposition' of his former Buddhism, before administering baptism on the 27th of June, 1819*? Of have the celestial standards since fallen to the ground in a curious Divine concession to convenience?

The criterion of a relationship with Christ is vital, it embodies all of our discipleship (Jn.17.3), yet is it for nothing that the Lord warns us severely, ‘And why call ye me, Lord, Lord, and do not the things which I say?’ (Lk.6.46) There is a very real danger of forcing an unscriptural dichotomy between relationship and commandment-keeping from the heart in such an approach. Is it not precisely because we readily deceive ourselves with mystical and sentimental notions of His person and our standing, that He lays down markers? These are markers we need and we most unwisely dispense with. ‘He that hath my commandments, and keepeth them, he it is that loveth me: and he that loveth me shall be loved of my Father, and I will love him, and will manifest myself to him.’ Jn.14.21. The Lord Himself uses our delight in law keeping as His chief criterion of intimacy, ‘If ye keep my commandments, ye shall abide in my love; even as I have kept my Father’s commandments, and abide in his love.’ Jn. 15.10. This love of law for the Lawgiver’s sake is the vindication of the New Testament (Heb.8.10). 

If movement in the direction of or away from Christ is the only defining character of the set, what are we to make of the rich young ruler, the questioner about his inheritance, or other would be disciples whom as they approach Him, Christ turned away by establishing ‘boundaries’ of practice or confession? If the Lord disdains this model, should not we also be suspicious of those who promote it?

The model appears to concede ground to postmodernist relativism, and there are hints of this in Hiebert’s statements, ‘Today missions are emphasizing the need for each new church to do theology and answer the unique questions it faces’, as though fundamental theological tenets need reworking in each local field, and ‘There is not enough space here to debate whether there is or is not a “biblical worldview”.’ (1).

The gravest danger is antinomianism. Perhaps it is no surprise to find one advocate of centred-sets hinting at homosexual Christians (5), as though it were ever possible for a habitual homosexual, thief, adulterer, drunkard or extortioner to have entered the Kingdom (1 Cor.6.9-10, Rev.22.15), when glorious pardon and liberation awaits those who have sincerely broken with such vileness (1 Cor.6.11). Yet inviolable boundaries are unwelcome to antinomians who run far too fast with Hiebert’s careless construction, these stillborn believers abound, who by nature retain their hatred of God’s law and seek to turn Christ’s grace into licence (Rom. 8.7, Jude 4). The model also plays into the hands of those who wish to downplay essential doctrines for the sake of outward ecumenical unity (6,7).

There is danger here too for believers who turn the model of centred sets to serve as a foundation for Christian fellowship, especially when relationship with Christ is viewed not as willing and full orbed  submission to His word, but around opposition to one particular error, however vital, like the denial of penal substitution. Then we have a curious example of what could be condemned as boundary set thinking being advocated in the name of centred sets (8)! Upon this justification, a blinker is laid to other defiling teachings and practices, and loving, Biblical reproof in grave danger of being stifled (9

Whole hearted devotion to Christ requires whole hearted keeping of His commands, and sometimes that will necessitate laying down scriptural barriers to communion and sometimes separating from the determinedly disobedient, always remembering that we too are lost sheep in constant need of His gracious reproof (Ps.119.176).

A personal testimony of the harm done by the Insider movement - evil fruit of this missiological approach.



‘Cursed be he that removeth his neighbour’s landmark. And all the people shall say, Amen.’   Deut. 27.17



* Or consider this other vital renunciation by Judson of centred set thinking, '
One of the early disciples was U Shwe Ngong, a teacher and leader of a group of intellectuals dissatisfied with Buddhism who were attracted to the new faith. He was a Deist skeptic to whose mind the preaching of Judson, once a college skeptic himself, was singularly challenging. After consideration, he assured Judson that he was ready to believe in God, Jesus Christ, and the atonement. Judson, instead of welcoming him to the faith, pressed him further asking if he believed what he had read in the gospel of Matthew that Jesus the son of God died on the cross. U Shwe Ngong shook his head and said, "Ah, you have caught me now. I believe that he suffered death, but I cannot believe he suffered the shameful death on the cross." [What a missed opportunity for centred set evangelism!]
Not long after, he came back to tell Judson, "I have been trusting in my own reason, not the word of God…. I now believe the crucifixion of Christ because it is contained in scripture." '

Recounted at (accessed 05/11/2010)
One fears wood, hay and stubble are being admitted
by Hiebert's disciples,when gold, silver and precious stones should have been insisted on.


2  acessed 5/11/2010

3 (see section under missiological theology) accessed 05/11/2010

4   accessed 05/11/2010
Note that marginalised people are included not because they are marginalised (a 'Hispanic church' or a 'gay church'), but because they are actively seeking Jesus Christ.  Churches that define themselves by a cause make the cause their 'god' and become bounded again.' A copy of the Google cache is given since the original page is no longer present.

6  accessed 05/11/2010

7  accessed 05/11/2010

8  (Cached copy, now removed from NWA site)

9  (Cached copy)


Ministry of God's Word
Rome  EU
Islam/ The Satanic verses
The land of Israel
Christian anti-Semitism