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The Difficulties of Centered-Set Living

“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:36-40 NIV)

Christians have been making the news a lot lately, but sadly, it hasn’t been for how loving they are to their neighbors. It shouldn’t surprise us that even in Jesus’ day, an expert in the law asked him, “And who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29 NIV). Humans are always trying to get out of helping people they don’t like.

I think it’s obvious that we humans prefer to hang out with people who are like us. This tendency can cause our churches to become more like cliques than the open-armed, all-accepting family of God they were designed to be. We also, unfortunately, sometimes equate our social norms with important doctrine, which means we might require people to fix their behavior before they can “join our club.”

I recently finished reading Redeeming Sex: Naked Conversations About Sexuality and Spirituality, by Debra Hirsch. In it, she talks about this kind of behaviorally gated social club as a “bounded set” church: you are accepted as a member based on how much your beliefs and behavior conform to the group’s (p. 191). One problem with this kind of church is that many doctrinal issues are not black and white; we could be setting ourselves up for a very narrow club. Another obvious problem is that we could be keeping people away just because their behavior makes us uncomfortable, something Jesus didn’t do (e.g., Matthew 9:9-13). Moreover, even for behaviors that truly are a sin problem, not just a cultural expectation, knowing Jesus is the very thing that would give them the power to change – it is totally backward to expect them to change first.

Christians who came to Jesus later in life will probably tell you that they didn’t suddenly become sinless as soon as they believed. While the Holy Spirit does occasionally grant miraculous healing or relief from temptation, I’m sure most of us would describe our journey toward Christlikeness as one of many small steps. We are all somewhere in relation to Jesus, near or far. What matters in a “centered set” kind of church (p. 192) is your orientation toward or away from him. (Originally a math term, most of the hits for a search on “centered set” now return this theological metaphor.)

Embracing a truly Jesus-centered mission in our church would have significant ramifications. When I really considered what it might look like, I admit that I quailed a little bit. What if people come to church who smoke? Or swear? Or watch R-rated movies? Or live with their partner outside of marriage? Or are gay? I’m being tongue-in-cheek, but I am serious when I say that these might include people whom I would not want as examples for my kids, and yet we are called to love them. Everyone deserves to know the love and grace of Jesus.

It’s hard for us to love people whom we don’t even like, and it’s hard for us to like people who are different from us, especially if we view that difference as a moral one. Yet allow me to encourage you: Jesus has already done this for us (Romans 5:8), and we all have some practice doing this already!

There is someone I love, even though I don’t approve of what he does. There is someone I accept, though some of his thoughts and actions revolt me. There is someone I forgive, though he hurts the people I love the most. That person is me. – C.S. Lewis

Let’s all consider how we might make our church more welcoming by pointing ourselves and our guests toward the one who loves us all. If we really make Christ our center, he will help us love our neighbors.

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