my centered-bounded set

I ran into it again last week, and I’m hearing it often enough now that I think it deserves a response.  Many leaders are claiming that we who believe in the importance of the inerrancy of Scripture, the virgin birth, and the need to believe in Jesus are suffering from bounded set thinking.  Our problem is that we are overly preoccupied with erecting boundaries that determine who is out and who is in. 


They say that we would be better off if we switched to a centered set paradigm, with Jesus as the center.  What matters in this model is not who is out and who is in, but in which direction people are moving.  It is more important that people are moving toward Jesus than that they are inside some perceived orthodox fence.  According to one author, “if someone is moving toward Jesus, the values he represents, and his followers, those factors more clearly define someone as a Christian than do boundaries established around a prescribed set of doctrines or behaviors.” [So is it better to be Christopher Hitchens giving money to the poor than Tim Keller on a bad day?]


When I finished Don’t Stop Believing, I wondered what tactic people might use to discredit its arguments.  I think I’ve found it.  It seems that some will dismiss the entire book as the writings of a bounded set person who just doesn’t get it.  Because this is a presuppositional claim, they are able to dismiss the entire book without engaging any of its arguments.  This is extremely unfortunate, and merits a response from me.


1. Like The Gospel Coalition Network, I would describe my position as a “centered-bounded set.”  Doctrines such as inerrancy, the virgin birth, and the exclusivity of Christ are important not because I am guarding a boundary, waiting to exclude anyone who disagrees, but because I value Jesus, the center of my faith.  Those who don’t believe the Bible is telling the truth about Jesus’ virgin birth or the need to believe in and follow him are detracting from the glory of Christ.  Because I care about Jesus, the center of my centered-set, I will continue to defend him against statements that dishonor him.


And contra some, who claim that “You rarely defend the things you love,” I say that while this is true about my favorite ice cream or sports team, it is not true about the people that really matter.  I pity the wife and children of the person who rarely defends the things he loves.


2. It is true that my centered-set has a boundary, but so does everybody’s.  In fact, boundaries are necessary to know where the center lies.  Every group, concept, or organization that lacks a boundary also lacks meaning.  My seminary includes its faculty, staff, students, and alumni.  If it included everyone, if there was no boundary distinguishing those who are and those who are not GRTS members, then the idea of GRTS would be meaningless.  My immediate family includes my wife and children and excludes those who are not my wife and children.  My marriage includes my wife and me and excludes all others.  (In an important sense, Bill Clinton’s problem was a lack of boundaries.  He did not properly distinguish between those who were and those who were not Hillary).


Even Brian McLaren, the über-inclusivist, has a boundary.  In The Secret Message of Jesus, Brian defines the kingdom as “purposeful inclusion,” and then concludes that this inclusive kingdom must naturally exclude exclusive people (by which he means people like me).  So Brian is as exclusive as me, we just disagree about the grounds for exclusion.


It is unfair and naïve to suggest that theological conservatives are the only ones who have boundaries.  We do have them, but only because we love the center of our centered-set, Jesus Christ.  And because we love Jesus, we will oppose any effort, regardless how well-intentioned, that blurs the boundary between Jesus and the gods of false religions. Boundaries matter, because the center matters more.



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40 responses to “my centered-bounded set”

  1. Brian McLaughlin

    Good words. I just can’t read the New Testament without seeing some boundaries. This week Andrew is preaching on Matt. 13:24-43 and the parable of Weeds. The fact that some will be thrown out indicates that Jesus has some boundary!

    I agree with many in the Emergent crowd who react against the fundamentalists and claim that they had too many unbiblical boundaries. This is Pharisaical and we have a right to react against it. But to swing the pendulum to the other side strikes me as equally unbiblical.

    This is why I like your chart on p. 43. Of course, it does lead to a question: your post includes “inerrancy” as a boundary but the chart on p. 43 has “Bible is God’s Word” only in the “should believe” category. “Should” indicates some wiggle room. How solid is that boundary?

  2. I no longer castrate animals in my ritual demonic sacrifice, because the Bible teaches that we should be kind to animals.

    It’s good to know that I can be considered a Christian because I am moving toward Jesus. It feels good not to be excluded by the “haves.”

  3. mikewittmer


    Good comment and question. My chart on p. 43 is an attempt to categorize what beliefs are essential for salvation, while this post addressed beliefs that are important to the Christian faith. I think that someone can be saved without knowing all of the important doctrines of the Christian faith.

    I understand that many would not put inerrancy in the important category (and I agree that many are saved who do not believe in inerrancy), but I included it here because many are saying that inerrancy is one of those beliefs that are only found in bounded sets. My point is that I believe in inerrancy because I want to honor and know about Jesus, the center of my centered set.

  4. Dr. Wittmer,
    EXCELLENT post. Anyone who thinks they can discard your whole book because you supposedly fall on the “wrong side” of this false disjunction had better start putting together an effective rebuttal of this post. And this post is pretty stinkin’ tight…

    I don’t know you, but we seem to share the exact same sense of humor. Keep it up, please.


  5. I am going to exercise my patience once more.

    I looked at the ‘centered-bounded set’ description of the gospel coalition network and I feel that it missed the point entirely. When I looked at the council it seems abundantly clear that some of the members (Piper, Driscoll) would exclude other believers based on their tight convictions of ‘what is true or orthodox’.

    ‘Centered-bounded’ may satisfy some who are asking questions but in my opinion it is really more of a play on words so that ‘we can all just get along’. The group has rightly discerned that the divisions that have sprung up in Christianity since the ‘protest’ movement… is more and more becoming an ‘issue’ for the times we now live in. ‘Kudos’ for that.

    But we can do better.

    When I speak of centered set I am actually referring to a ‘centered person’. We center on a person not a ‘set’. I am discovering that even the language of ‘set’ is inappropriate.

    The centered person, the one we fix our eyes on, is Jesus. We begin to ask what was Jesus for, what did He love, what was and is His vision for the future? From there we begin to value that which He valued. Will my interpretation of what He valued differ from yours? Probably, maybe, but that isn’t the measuring stick of whether we are ‘one’ or can break bread at the table together.

    At this juncture our values dictate our priorities which is to say we begin to ‘invest’ ourselves in causes or concerns that we feel or determine to be His causes or concerns. These priorities dictate our practices–i.e. we do something.

    We do this because we ‘believe’ or more accurately ‘belove’ Him.

    The way in which you love Him, honor Him, interpret Him, does not need to match my way at all.

    And that is ok…in fact, that is good.

  6. Layman Speaks


    Which Jesus are you centering upon?

  7. Yooper

    In an era when the Bible is viewed as a human product, rather than divine fiat, the cross is seen as precivilized barbarity, false advertising for God, a slaughterhouse religion… I’m going through R.A. Torrey’s 1897 book, “How to Obtain Fullness of Power” for our Wednesday evening Bible study. It is rich with Scripture, and the titles of the chapters are: 1) The Power of the Word of God 2) The Power of the Blood of Christ 3) The Power of the Holy Spirit 4) The Power of Prayer 5) The Power of a Surrendered Life

    History repeats itself in emerging ways!

  8. mikewittmer


    Thanks for exercising your patience with me. Of course, it would be more impressive if you didn’t verbalize that you were doing this, but it’s a start.

    Jesus has to be more than a symbol for whatever we want to fill in the blank. If he is a real person, then there are true facts that we can know about him. One interpretation is not as good as any other. Hence the need for doctrine. Without it, the Jesus you are worshipping may not be Jesus at all.

  9. “The centered person, the one we fix our eyes on, is Jesus. We begin to ask what was Jesus for, what did He love, what was and is His vision for the future? From there we begin to value that which He valued. Will my interpretation of what He valued differ from yours? Probably, maybe, but that isn’t the measuring stick of whether we are ‘one’ or can break bread at the table together.”

    I would ask this question of anyone who sets centered over against bounded…In centering upon a person (whether Jesus, Muhammad, Buddah, etc..) don’t boundaries inevitably emerge? In the case of your questions…Won’t our investigation of what Jesus is for and loved turn up things he was NOT for and things he did NOT love? Aren’t those said for/loved things and not for/not loved things BOUNDARIES?

    Agreed we should pursue Christ, but as someone said above…what Christ are we pursing and centering upon? Answering that question will inevitable lead to boundaries me thinks…


  10. Justin

    This is a topic that has interested me greatly of late. I have grown to appreciate a distinction that develops out of some thoughts by Sinclair Ferguson. So often, boundaries/fences (or brick walls as a certain Grand Rapids pastor pictures it) are viewed as those things that keep others out. But this entirely misses the point. The point of doctrine is not to exclude people, but to define the area in which Christians may safely think and roam. Take for instance Chalcedon. When it is written that our Lord is to be acknowledged in two natures “inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably” the intent is not to erect a fortress wall that people must climb over to get into the Christian faith, but to provide a fence that defines and guards for Christians and non-Christians alike how we are to rightly think of and understand the union of Jesus divine and human natures. When we move to considering Jesus in ways outside of these boundaries, we cease to be thinking of the same same Jesus as the Church.

    Daryl: I too want to see people centered on Jesus…but which Jesus? Self-help Jesus as he is typically pictured by people like Joel Osteen? The healing Jesus as he is understood by the 700 Club? The wrathful Jesus who sends hurricanes to wipe out sinful cities like New Orleans, or the loving Jesus who delays the levies breaking so thousands can get out? The prophet Jesus of Islam…the legalistic Jesus of Mormonism? What about the sage Jesus of contemporary American syncretism? Marcus Borg’s historical Jesus who I can see again for the very first time, or the often misunderstood and misquoted Jesus of Bart Ehrman? Which Jesus do you want people to center on?

  11. Mike:

    The patience remark was about feeling misunderstood time and time again in these conversations. It was not intended towards you.


    Read the post again, think about our conversations. When I say ‘centered on’ or ‘beloved’ you might dial up Melinda. You don’t reduce her to propositions when you consider ‘who she is’. You would never speak of her in terms of boundaries would you? When you love her and ‘think’ about how you love her it is far deeper. It is in fact mystical. Love is like that. ‘Loving Jesus’ is like that. Centering on Jesus means He is a part of you ‘all the time’.

    In relation to this: Won’t our investigation of what Jesus is for and loved turn up things he was NOT for and things he did NOT love? Aren’t those said for/loved things and not for/not loved things BOUNDARIES?…I feel a better more fitting term is values rather than boundaries. The reason this is a preferred term is because actions spring out of values…whereas reactions flow from boundary setting…at least in my thinking.

    And to those who inquire ‘which Jesus’ the answer is clearly…the One spoke of in the New Testament. These writings are the most informed source to ‘know Him’. However people interpret these writings will, naturally, be varied.

    In these times this is an important conversation. It will only become more important as time unfolds. We are in ‘a shift’ right now. Thanks Mike for pursuing it.

  12. Layman Speaks


    “And to those who inquire ‘which Jesus’ the answer is clearly…the One spoke of in the New Testament. These writings are the most informed source to ‘know Him’.”

    Probably we are agreed that the New Testament is not exhaustive in it’s treatment of Jesus but in as far as the information it does give about Jesus, how authoritative is it? If it is only a sugestion about who Jesus is, have you not then created an open boundry that is established by the individual?

    “…you cannot go on explaining away forever for soon will have explained away explanation itself.” – paraphrasing C.S. Lewis commenting on those who would explain away first principles.

  13. Thanks for exercising your patience with me. Of course, it would be more impressive if you didn’t verbalize that you were doing this, but it’s a start.

    They don’t call him WIT-mer for nothin’.

  14. BTW, I think the whole, “You’re bounded, so I don’t need to take your arguments seriously or actually answer them” nonsense is about as legitimate and about as intelligent as “You’re a right winger, so I don’t care what you say,” or “You’re a liberal, so your whole worldview is pointless; why would I bother actually interacting with you?”

    WELCOME, all, to…. the “CONVERSATION.”


  15. […] Mike Wittmer on being “centered-bounded” […]

  16. I hope you don’t mind my comment since you don’t know me.

    First, Mr. Wittmer I appreciate your very interesting blog. It has been very good for me to read.

    My only comment would be when I pursued my wife there came a moment when we were married. We became bound. While our relationship wasn’t simply about that fact it also couldn’t be what it is without that fact. I understand the concern for some legalistic check list but I also see the obvious need for boundaries.

    I think what is missed is that those away from God need a boundary line more than anyone. Am I in or out. What do I need to do or confess. It seems like this discussion takes place from people who are already in trying to figure out some way to be nice or kind to those who are out.

    It’s okay to date Jesus but commitment takes something more. I can see that at times we may not allow people their space to develop that relationship but I can also see that they need that line to cross. It isn’t okay to say to Jesus I will just live with you, it just doesn’t work.

    A moment has to come when you cross a line. A boundary must exist just as one existed with my wife and I. Both sides need it.

  17. Darin, your post made me think. I especially liked your observation that some people would rather ‘live with’ Jesus than ‘get married’ to him.

    I sympathize with such people. It seems like they want to protect some of their freedom…freedom to relate to Jesus in their own, personally-defined way. For a long time I didn’t want to be considered a Christian because I was so embarrassed by the Church’s public mistakes.

    People who like to speak of faith in Jesus as a ‘centered set’ paradigm (or ‘centered person’, see D. Underwood above) … I wonder how much of this is not wanting to get married to Christianity? Maybe people would marry Jesus, but they don’t like His in-laws? [Daryl, I don’t mean to talk like you’re not in the room. I’m curious about your thoughts on this.]

    Would we all agree that the Church carries a lot of baggage? I believe there have been faithful Christians ever since the first century, and since they’re not causing disasters, they’re unfortunately not getting into the history books. (What does Hebrews say about the unnamed faithful?) Many of the Christians that do tend to get into history books (and on TV) do things like: try to support slavery and anti-Semitism with prooftexts; suppress scientific discovery (i.e. Copernicus, Galileo); fail to remove child molesters from privileged ministry positions. Some particularly powerful Christians have even executed thousands of pagans that refused to be baptized (i.e. Charlemagne).

    In summary, I can understand a person’s desire to ‘just live with’ Jesus if their motivation is to avoid his rowdy relatives, the Church.

    It’s been difficult for me to accept that the Church, for all it’s flaws, is actually Christ’s body on earth. I believe it though.

    I am confronted by this: if someone’s following Jesus, but doesn’t want to be identified with Orthodoxy or the Church (which is a bounded, flawed, trying-to-be-faithful group)…WHY? I mean REALLY why? Are their scriptural interpretations influenced by their embarrassment with the Church?

    I don’t want to put words in the emergents’ mouths, so… thoughts?

  18. I am confronted by this: if someone’s following Jesus, but doesn’t want to be identified with Orthodoxy or the Church (which is a bounded, flawed, trying-to-be-faithful group)…WHY? I mean REALLY why? Are their scriptural interpretations influenced by their embarrassment with the Church?

    I’ll go one further… There is no salvation outside of the Church. Jesus died for the elect, not any individual, no matter how “centered” on him they may feel. Therefore, without entering into the boundaries of sound doctrine and the Called Out ones (i.e. the church–ἐκκλησία), salvation is still far from a “seeker.” After all, apart from God’s grace drawing/dragging (John 6:44, see BDAG on ἕλκω), we all remain outside of the boundaries of salvation and are moving always AWAY from God.

    “THERE IS NONE WHO SEEKS GOD” (Rom 3:11), no seekers “journeying together in the direction of Jesus.” Zero. Removing the boundaries and the miracle of the cross fizzles away.

  19. Oops. That should say, “Remove the boundaries and the miracle of the cross fizzles away.”

  20. Yooper

    Exodus 34:14 You must worship no other gods, for the Lord, whose very name is Jealous, is a God who is jealous about his relationship with you.

  21. Mike,

    EXCELLENT post.

    If I can pull a Rollins here and offer a parable:

    A man went home over Christmas break and spoke with his grandmother. His grandmother was, sad to say, suffering from dementia. She began to talk to her grandson, telling him how proud she was of it and how much she loved him. Then she began to tell stories about her grandson that never happened. She then spoke of accomplishments he never did, attributes about him that weren’t true, and so on. When the others in the room tried to correct her, she denied it and said she knew her own grandson. Due to this blockage, she still had a relationship with her grandson, but it wasn’t a fulfilling one – he couldn’t open up to her and she couldn’t see him for who he really was.

    Why is it when we see a woman like that, we feel sorry for her, pity her, or call her crazy, but when we see someone claiming things about Jesus that aren’t true we call that person “seeking,” “spiritual,” or “Christ-centered”?

    Jesus is the center of our focus, but we have to keep in mind that there are certain facts about Jesus was must believe (and certain facts about those facts that must also be believed). There are some facts – such as inerrancy or the virgin birth – that if false, would shake the foundation of our relationship with Christ because we don’t really know Him.

    All relationships are based on facts. We believe the fact that the other person exists. We believe other facts – where the person is from, what his name is, what he is like, what he likes to do, etc. Facts don’t rule the relationship or define it, but they are the foundation.

  22. In response to the comments about “Melinda”: The relationship of love I have with my wife is based on two fundamental things;

    First, the objective propositions I know about her. She is Nancy, not Karen or Lucy or Martha. And she is a very specific Nancy. not any of the other Nancys I’ve had aquaintince with through my life time. There are very specific objective propositioins that define who she is and which set her apart for all other individuals.

    Second is the experiential (existential) relation that I have with her in the marital state that over our years together has resulted in the accumulation of a life time of shared intimate experiances together which are not shared with anyone else; and which unite us together in way that was never imagined when we first spoke our vows to one another.

    Take away either of these two fundamental things, and my marriage to her becomes meaningless and empty. (In fact I will make so bold to say as an aisde that in my observation many a divorce in our culture is a result of a break down at one or both of these points.)

    It is no small thing that Paul compares the relationship of marriage between a man and a woman to the relationship Christ His people as constituted in the church.

    I can only begin to know Jesus when I have both objective propositional truth about who He is AND a personal intimate (existential) relationship to Him.

    If either one of these two things are taken away, then it becomes impossible to really know Jesus in any meaningful way. There is a specific Jesus to intimately know. That specificity in itself creates definition and definition sets a boundary. The Bible talks about false christs so it is not just any “Jesus” I need to get to know or “move towards”.

  23. Mike,

    A few thoughts on this post…
    (1) you wrote the following:
    ~In The Secret Message of Jesus, Brian defines the kingdom as “purposeful inclusion,” and then concludes that this inclusive kingdom must naturally exclude exclusive people (by which he means people like me). ~

    Brian does not suggest that Mike Wittmer fits into that group who are excluded. Rather, you put yourself into that group. I’m not sure why.

    If you are attempting to point out that we all have boundaries, you are correct. It may not be so much an issue of ‘who has boundaries’ as much as an issue of how we hold those boundaries.

    (2) In connection with the above, you also wrote:
    ~Because I care about Jesus, the center of my centered-set, I will continue to defend him against statements that dishonor him. ~

    If we are to be people of reconciliation who are reconciled by God and also call others into reconcilation with God and one another, we are not simply called to defend the boundaries at all costs. Defending the boundaries is not the primary goal of the theologian. Rather, the theologian is called to help people understand how to live with this God who has chosen to reside among his people.

    Leviticus was primarily about how a particular people are to live among a holy God. But the point of being God’s people was never about the boundaries. Rather, the boundaries were the means by which people learned how to live among a holy God.

    I believe reconcilation is one of those boundaries. (i.e. How do we learn to speak about Jesus in ways that lead to reconciliation and not the opposite?) Because if we want to defend Jesus but don’t speak up about reconciliation, we also dishonor the Jesus whom we love and perhaps miss most of his message.


  24. Darrell

    As I’m reading/skimming the comments on this post, I’m wondering if the language and distinction between “center” and “boundary” is simply not helpful.

    Justin wrote above about Chalcedon, “…the intent is not to erect a fortress wall that people must climb over to get into the Christian faith, but to provide a fence that defines and guards for Christians and non-Christians alike how we are to rightly think of and understand the union of Jesus divine and human natures. When we move to considering Jesus in ways outside of these boundaries, we cease to be thinking of the same same Jesus as the Church.”

    It seems better to say that Chalcedon didn’t even erect a fence. What Chalcedon (and all creeds/doctrines that are biblical) did was provide some very needed clarity about who Jesus is. How can we all move toward Jesus when we’re not clear about who he is? How can we know that we’re moving toward Jesus at all without some clarity about his nature, teachings, will, etc.?

    So, doctrines are necessary not to determine who is in or out but to make sure we are focused on the true, historical, biblical Jesus Christ who actually died and resurrected for us. As we focus on Jesus, the center of our faith, doctrines provide clarity about what we’re focusing on, not boundaries.

    If we choose not to believe what the Bible teaches (i.e., reject basic doctrines), we are no longer focusing on the Jesus of the Bible. It’s not that we have become victim of some unnecessary boundary; it’s that we are no longer moving toward Jesus. We’re moving toward something we wish was Jesus.

  25. Darrell.
    Your point may be correct. Ironically though, giving a substantial amount of our income to the poor never seems to make the list of ‘basic doctrine’ when it comes to evangelical America. Ironically, the virgin birth is held as more important than his constant commands to feed the poor. Perhaps an equally honest way of sAying the same thing: we care more about the virgin birth than caring for our neighbors.

    Is it no wonder that the church has lost much of it’s voice in the public square?

  26. Randy,

    I DO care more about the virgin birth than caring for my neighbor! I care far more about the virgin birth, the incarnation, the resurrection, the death, the atonement, and all things concerning Christ. I put more emphasis on those things for two reasons:

    1) Without those beliefs, I lose all justification for reason for helping my neighbor

    2) Christ Himself stated that the greatest commandment is to love God with our entire being; the second greatest is watching out for our neighbors.

    Not that we should sacrifice helping our neighbors – but we have to realize that our thoughts and actions toward God are vastly (infinitely) more important than our thoughts and actions toward His creation (but our thoughts and actions on God should manifest themselves in our love for His creation).

  27. Joel,
    Within the Jewish tradition, love for God and love for neighbor are never meant to be two seperate things. IF you place love for God in such a position that you love your neighbor less, you fail the gospel. Read thru I John 4. The TEXT says that if you don’t love one another, then you don’t love God. It’s that simple, that basic, that biblical.

    So, you are welcome to defend the virgin birth at all costs, but it will eventually lead you to such a place that you will have a gospel that is entirely empty of gospel. It may ‘think’ the right things, but its life will be lifeless.

    Jesus makes it exceedingly clear that ‘whatever you do to the least of these, you do to me.’

    Defending God isn’t loving God. Loving the things of God is loving God.

  28. Randy,

    Let me say this as delicately as I can; you’re wrong on the Hebrew view of those passages. Now, maybe according to some Reform and Conservative (which, ironically enough, are not conservative) sects of Judaism you’re right, but not according to the Orthodox, at least not the old rabbinical teachings.

    Also, one of my biggest pet peeves is when Emergents try to say, “Well the Jewish belief on this is…” when either the modern Jewish practice is wrong or they don’t understand the practice. I don’t get it. They complain about the Pharisees in the Scriptures and compare conservatives to the Pharisees…but then turn around and admire rabbinical Judaism, which is a leftover from the Pharisees. I don’t get it.

    Maybe I’m off, I don’t know. I grew up having my grandfather and father whisper the Shema to me (I can still recite it in perfect Hebrew – the rest of my Hebrew…completely non-existent). I have cousins that are still Orthodox Jews (some of whom won’t talk to me because of my beliefs). So the understanding that was instilled into me was that if we love God, our actions will be displayed toward others.

    However, this comes from the RABBINICAL understanding. Christ’s understanding seems to be a bit different. He elevates our beliefs and actions about/to God above our actions toward our fellow humans.

    Now, while it’s true that our actions must follow from our beliefs (that is, we can’t have beliefs and leave them there), you’re committing the opposite fallacy, which is devaluing beliefs and elevating the results. Think of it this way:

    There are universals and particulars. The universals, in theory, should drive the particulars. The belief in the virgin birth, the resurrection, the historicity of Jesus, etc are all universals. No matter your context, background, culture, or language, these are all things you should believe. The particulars then are the manifestations of the universal, subjective to the context of the person. In other words, if I’m in downtown Dallas, my actions toward my fellow man will be drastically different than if I were in Plano. My actions in Harlem will be different than my actions in South Africa.

    Now, all my actions will be anchored in love, but this too is anchored in the belief in God. Thus, our actions (second law/particulars) are anchored into our beliefs (first law/universal).

    If we forgo the universal and elevate the particulars, then we run into a problem. The Neo-orthodox attempted to do this and the movement eventually grew cold and died. The liberals of Germany attempted the same thing in the 19th century with the same results.

    If we forgo our beliefs in the truly historical Jesus (that is, the Jesus of scripture), but attempt to live with the particulars, then we’re stuck without a reason for doing what we do. The particulars eat away at the universal, to the point we lose guidance.

    So you can apply the Rabbinical understanding all you want. Personally, my family left that way of thinking a while ago. I’ll go with what Scripture says, which is that our beliefs lead to actions, but our beliefs must be there to begin with.

  29. Darrell

    Randy, thanks for affirming my point (at least potentially), and I would agree that our actions–at least my exposure to evangelicalism in general (which yes, is limited)–do reveal that we our doctrines are often more important to us than tangible acts of love toward people, whether that be giving to the poor or forgiving our spouses for really evil things they’ve done.

    This is not something to be proud of, and I disagree with Joel that we should care more about doctrines than we do about love for neighbor. But this conversation is an effort at standing on a very thin wire and not falling off one side or the other. Love for neighbor (e.g., giving to the poor) should be primary to us. But that does not make doctrinal clarity secondary. We need to emphasize them equally as the two-sided coin that they are. We cannot love well if we don’t think right; and we cannot think right if we don’t love well. We can fake either one for a while but not for long.

    And I agree that love for God and neighbor cannot be separated. If faith without works is dead, and we must have a transformed mind, how can we pit one against the other?

    (On the side, I reject what seems to be implied above that love for God is basically thinking rightly (doctrines). Love for God and neighbor is the sum of the whole law, which includes thought, emotions, and actions. To prioritize one over the other, I think, misses the point of both.)

    Paul wrote in Galatians 5:14-15: “The entire law is summed up in a single command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ If you keep biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.”

    What does it mean that Paul only uses the “second” greatest command to summarize the entire law? I really doubt that he disagreed with Jesus and thought that love for neighbor is more important than love for God. And Jesus’ statement itself puts love for God first. So, I think the point is that we cannot have one without the other. We cannot claim to love God without loving our neighbor in tangible ways. And we cannot claim to love our neighbor without loving God with all our hearts, souls, minds, and strength. The two go together, and we should refuse to pit them against each other or prioritize one over the other.

    Having the right “universals” (beliefs, I think), as Joel put it, is not enough to guarantee that the “particulars” (loving actions, if I’m understanding right) will emerge. In fact, I’m sure we’ve all seen people (perhaps ourselves at different points) who believe the right stuff but fail to live those beliefs out. But that doesn’t make those beliefs unnecessary. It screams for reclaiming the tangible nature of the Christian faith.

    Ours is not a faith of words but of words AND actions. We need to have clarity on who Jesus is and how he wants us to think (doctrines) AND work hard at living those beliefs out. The very fact that these so easily become separate categories reveals how much we misunderstand the Bible and the Way of Jesus.

  30. Joel


    What I was saying, quite poorly, is that if our beliefs are skewed, then our actions will not follow – that or the action will be meaningless. We must believe the right things about God and our fellow man before having meaningful actions toward either. Likewise, our beliefs and actions toward God are more important than they are toward man – that is something I won’t step down from. God is above us, we are part of creation. Now, this doesn’t excuse the Christian who doesn’t take care of the poor or help those in his context, but it does show that knowing about Christ, who He was, who He is, is vastly more important than going out and feeding the poor. The reason is He provides the substance for why we care. Without Him, our actions are empty.

  31. Darrell


    I’m with you on everything except where you say that knowing about Christ, etc. is “vastly more important than going out and feeding the poor.” First, let’s think more broadly than the current, sexy act of love: feeding the poor (not to disparage it…there’s just a lot more to love than that). Second, knowledge about Christ without actions to follow is empty, so I don’t know how you prioritize it over the other. In fact, we’re never commanded to just know about Christ. We’re commanded to know Christ himself (a personal, relational knowledge like you know a person rather than information about him/her).

    So knowlege/beliefs and actions must always come together, and if they don’t, we haven’t gotten any of it right. I share your desire to retain beliefs, but it’s imbalanced to pit beliefs against actions the way you seem to in the statement above.

    I’m genuinely curious how you explain Paul’s reference to love of neighbor as the sum of the law. How is it that loving one’s neighbor even summarizes those parts of the law that relate to loving God?

    My take is that loving God takes form and is seen tangibly through loving neighbor. We don’t show love for God only through pious facial expressions and being moral. We love God by loving our neighbor. And we love our neighbor by loving God. The two fuel each other and give tangible (aka “relevant”) feet to each other.

    That’s why I think they should receive equal emphasis.

  32. Joel


    Maybe I’m not explaining myself, maybe I’m wording myself wrong, or maybe we actually disagree. 🙂

    I’m stating that without certain beliefs, our actions are pointless and worthless. They are “filthy rags” unto the Lord.

    When our beliefs don’t lead to actions, it generally means one of three things:

    1) We don’t take seriously what we believe, or we disconnect it from life

    2) Our belief isn’t significant to us

    3) We don’t really understand what we believe

    All three, however, indicate a problem with the person or the belief.

    My point in everything is that our beliefs often dictate our actions. Now yes, without actions our beliefs are dead, but if our beliefs are wrong, our actions will follow.

    Does that make more sense?

  33. Darrell


    I think I know where you are coming from. Your point that “our beliefs often dictate our actions” is definitely true, and if that’s all you’re saying, I agree. (“Often” is an important word because I’m not sure beliefs always dictate actions. Emotions play a role as well.)

    And–to the point of Mike’s book–the problem with Christians who do not live out their faith may not be that they emphasis beliefs, it may be that they don’t emphasize the practice enough. They don’t understand how their beliefs should drive their actions, and pastors/teachers/etc are in many ways accountable for this.

  34. Interesting how we start with mental belief leading to action… aka orthodoxy leads to orthopraxis. The fishermen followed Jesus after the simple words, “follow me.”. They did not
    understand very much of his message at the time…

    The point is that we have switched up our expectations of starting with mental ascent but Jesus did the opposite.

  35. Randy,

    Why look at just one example that, of course, is in a specific scenario? Why not follow the rest of Scripture that clearly indicates that what occurred with the disciples was the anomaly to the norm?

  36. Darrell

    Why is this an either/or issue? Why do we need to say either orthodoxy leads to orthopraxis OR orthopraxis leads to orthodoxy? Aren’t both true at times?

    Quite often, our actions come out of mental processes and beliefs; we think about something and then decide to act. And also, at times, we do things and those actions/experiences shape our mental processes and beliefs. This is foundational to spiritual formation–practices shape our thoughts. But if we want to stay biblical, we also need to allow the text to shape our thought, then our actions.

    It’s wishful thinking to put all our eggs in one basket (either orthodoxy or orthopraxis) and expect one to be enough to form us into Christlikeness.

  37. Layman Speaks


    “The point is that we have switched up our expectations of starting with mental ascent but Jesus did the opposite.”

    I think you have missed it here. Every single person who stopped to follow Jesus, did so because they thought they had an idea of what he was about. (Ask yourself the question: ‘Why did Jesus have to wash the disciples feet at the last supper and not one of the other men?’) It was only after they truely understood what he was about that they were confronted with the great question that Pilot would face “What shall I do then with Jesus who is called Christ?” (Matthew 27:22) From a careful reading of the gospels it would appear that the majority of Jesus “followers” left him once they started to understand what he was about – so much so that Jesus asked the twelve “You do not want to leave too, do you?” (John 6:67)

    Jesus initial appeal to his followers may have been simple and to the point, however it quickly became apparent to all of them that the commitment they were being asked to make was nothing short of radical commitment. “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.” (Luke 9:62), “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters – yes, even his own life – he cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:26)

    We can make apeals for more Christ like living, which is all well and good, we cannot however expect it except from those who have been transformed by a saving encounter with the resurrected Christ. An encounter based on knowledge of Christ, (i.e. scripture) empowered by the Holy Spirit.


  38. The disciples understood little of Christ until well after he arose… Does that make them inadaquate?

  39. Layman Speaks


    Inadaquate may be just the right word for it… that is until Pentecoste. Jesus told his disciples to wait until the helper comes. And “..when He the Spirit of Truth comes, He will guide you into all Truth…” See the frail Peter who denied Jesus with a curse “taking his stand with the eleven..” (Acts2) and speaking to the very same crowd that killed his Lord. Notice the power of his message, a message based in Truth, facts and doctrine. See the effect of that meassage as 3,000 souls are added to the church that day. Notice it was not a message of “follow Jesus” but a message of “repent and be baptized” It was a radical message.


  40. Larry Layman,

    I love your passion! Perhaps we are splitting hairs…

    If you want to see people living and thinking about radically following Jesus, let me introduce you to my emergent friends whose lives are so emeshed into the gospel story that they’ve given everything in the name of Jesus Christ.

    They hold onto the hope that Jesus Christ is better and larger than America or money… they bear witness to the reality of the gospel message in ways that the evangelical American church has yet to imagine…


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