The International Church, the Over-zealous, and the Unity of the Cross.

They come from everywhere, bringing with them every variety of authentic Christian faith imaginable. From the exuberant to the solemn, from free-wheeling discipleship to the very prescriptive, our international churches embrace them all. Or do they?

Earlier, in an MICN newsletter, I wrote some strong words about evangelical tribalism and why it has no place at all in the IC. Some parts of that article were left quite brief and in need of expansion. In particular, the call for IC leadership to value centred-set thinking rather than bounded-set thinking.

“Centred-set thinking is absolutely essential for an IC. Here the focus is on Christ, Gospel and the Kingdom with plenty of room for all across the range of secondary matters: a high view of God rather than a strong stance in drawing lines in the sand. With focus on Christ rather than barriers between people of different opinions, the church far better relates to others across the spectrum of beliefs within and without the church. And relationships make or break everything.”

Over recent years, discussion has increased on these different perspectives on church life. Google search and I’m sure you’ll find some interesting material!

While described here as either one or the other, in fact there is quite a spectrum of possibilities between bounded-set and centred-set, with some ICs more expressing a bit of both while others are found more towards the extremities.

Typically, evangelical churches, IC or otherwise, have been zealous for Christ and the truth of the Scriptures. Consequently, churches define what is doctrinally essential in formal statements, define who belongs to the church and who does not through membership, and in addition, there is a range of unwritten and unspoken expectations about how Christians are supposed to behave. Included within each of these particular stances are what we usually refer to as secondary matters. This approach is a bounded-set. Boundaries are placed around the essentials: lines are drawn in the sand. The over-zealous for the truth of the Scriptures can easily gravitate towards protecting this truth with various written and unwritten rules.

The frequent outworking of this mind-set is a great concern to protect these essentials in teaching and in practice. Persons are easily categorized as within the set of doctrinal and practical requirements or placed outside. Of course, some ICs are far more rigid than others. But two consequences follow: (1) the emphasis in church life and ministry centres on maintaining these distinctives and urging people to function accordingly, and (2) many who struggle in their journey with Christ are left feeling judged because they routinely fail to measure up. For many, exclusion from or rejection by the church is the reality.

You may have noticed that often doctrinal statements tend to be minimal on the enthronement of Christ as Lord of Heaven and Earth who day by day rules the earth with that Kingdom agenda developed in great detail from Genesis to Malachi. This exaltation of Christ is the reference point by which all the rest is developed. His self-sacrificing devotion to the Missio Dei shaped everything and continues to do so as He rules the earth from heaven. Discipleship was less about getting the mess of our life sorted out (important as this might be) and more about walking in his footsteps with the cross on our back and the Kingdom agenda directing our everyday world. The freedom to take up such discipleship was in the confident certainty of the mercy, grace and determination of God to eventually put all to right within me no matter how long it takes.

A centred-set church gives far more weight and attention to this exalted Christ, His example of missional engagement, His cross and the grace that flows because He dies the death that should have been ours, His resurrection that signifies a bodily hope for all in Him, His ascension and subsequent enthronement to the right hand of God, and His return bringing New Jerusalem with him. This is the story of the creation project of God which culminates in new creation and in which all in Christ are privileged with new life and hope. This is the story of the glory of Christ. And in a centred-set IC, this story gets far more attention than the secondary issues and the exhortations to get our act together – or else. And much more than the now common trend to focus on how we can gain more of God’s blessing – which has little in common with the self-denial of true discipleship.

In a centred-set church, even the most flawed of us can belong because the issue is not how well am I doing but hope in the glorified Christ to finish the work that He has begun in me. Such a church can more readily be inclusive: accepting of all regardless of their quirks and failings, and their dodgy ideas.

A centred-set church trusts Christ to do the necessary work for each of us to change to be increasingly like Him. With the focus on Christ and less on my long list of flaws, we are much less likely to be prescriptive as to how people should change and within what time frame. Ever notice that the Holy Spirit often takes longer than our timetables to bring real change into a person’s life! Shaped by our culture we are far more impatient, driven by presumptions that if it is a good thing it must happen NOW.

Frost and Hirsh describe the difference in farming terms. Contain the livestock with miles of fences (bounded-set) or keep the livestock reasonably close by providing water at a well (centred-set). Belonging, a most fundamental human value, is then a matter of journeying towards the centre (Christ) rather than which side of the fence one stands (determined by membership rules and judgements on various secondary issues). With emphasis on Christ and His Kingdom, and less on measuring up, the IC is far better able to be inclusive and to give people time and space to sort through the issues of their lives. In such an IC, belonging is the norm for all not belonging only for those who have passed the tests. The issues of discipleship and Christ-likeness are not ignored but addressed within a climate of acceptance and belonging. “No one is considered unworthy of belonging because they happen to be ……”

Bounded-set ICs draw attention away from Christ and our call to be His cadres / disciples in the Mission Dei. With considerably greater emphasis on Christ and His Kingdom, the centred-set IC has a greater freedom to stay focussed on mission and discipleship as Jesus defined it (very different to much current teaching which is more about Western culture).

Centred-set churches focus more on vision, values, mission, objectives (all of which are Christ and Kingdom centred) whereas bounded-set churches focus more on doctrinal statements, membership systems, procedural norms, and behavioural expectations. Of course, centred-set churches are just as faithful in addressing Biblical doctrine but it is within a different dynamic which gives space for people to process so that there is much less pressure to conform when one is still figuring stuff out. A centred-set church is missionally oriented (because Christ is) whereas a bounded-set church tends more towards pastoral care and discipline.

Centred-set churches are more fluid and less predictable, less prescriptive. They rely far more on the sovereign work of the Spirit. They know full-well that it is impossible to control the church and its people. As such they are much more suitable to the world of the IC in which everything changes so frequently. Organizational procedures tend to be approached in a quite different way. Many ICs function quite well without formal membership. The key is in the routine and strong emphasis on the centre. The stronger the emphasis on Christ and the Kingdom, the more everything else gains a far healthier perspective.

The unity of the cross matters enormously. When real in the church, unity proclaims the power of the cross. If the IC is to avoid the offensiveness of tribalism, a centred-set culture and focus is absolutely essential. If the IC is to take discipleship and mission seriously, a centred-set dynamic will facilitate this far more. No two ICs will be the same no matter where they sit on the spectrum of possibilities. Each needs to creatively and theologically dig deep in figuring out where the emphasis will be. But don’t imagine you can do both. This never works. Sooner or later the drift will be towards a bounded-set.

Norman Kraus asked this question many years ago: What is the authentic witness to the Gospel? What most effectively testifies to the power of the cross and the reign of Christ? His argument is simple, the Christian community, the church, living out the Kingdom in the body of Christ. And the church can only fulfil this role if the church’s life is visible to all and open to all. Or to express this as we noted above, the witness of the church is best able to be seen and experienced when people can belong and be part of the church even before they have figured out what faith is all about.

Graham Chipps

December 2015


[1] For example: inerrancy, baptism, gender, mission, eschatology, sexuality, culture, current social and political issues, as well as denominational loyalties and traditions, political loyalties, nationalism, and attitudes to various substances and practices.
[2] There are corrupt forms of both kinds. For example, churches that are centred on personality (churches can be personality cults), or on a particular political perspective. Bounded-set churches have been known to become perpetrators of routine spiritual abuse.
[3] Michael Frost & Alan Hirsch, 2003: The Shaping of Things to Come: Innovation and Mission for the 21st Century Church, Hendrickson Publishers, pp. 47-51.
[4] Frost and Hirsch, p. 49.
[5] C Norman Kraus, 1979: The Authentic Witness: Credibility and Authority, Eerdmans.

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