January 23, 2023
by Greg Henson, CEO Kairos University; President of Sioux Falls Seminary and David Williams, Kairos Executive Partner; President of Taylor Seminary
Over the past five weeks, we reviewed the various ways Paul Hiebert approached the concept of social set theory. His work and that of the scholars, pastors, teachers, and authors who have interacted with it over the past 40+ years is very important. It has given us tools to consider the missional task of following Jesus in community. Last week, we suggested there might be a need for a new way to envision that community, a new way to know who is with us as we participate in the Kingdom mission of God.
We contend that social set theory, as we have come to understand it in the church, finds its origin in the story of Rome’s need to “banish all causes of dissention.” We noted that “when compared to the previous councils, the theological statements coming out of the Council of Nicaea were given extraordinary power because they were backed by the power of the state and enforced by the Roman army. As a result, we suggested, “Practicing the way of Jesus became subservient to speaking or writing the correct theology.” We can simultaneously be grateful for things like the Nicene Creed and Chalcedonian Christology, which were crafted in light of Rome’s political needs for unity, and lament the impact it had on the Church’s ability to be an ongoing community of discernment. The coalescence of theological statements, the power of the state, and the desire to “banish all causes of dissension,” seems to have led to a centuries-long battle over theological boundaries – one that continues today.
As a result, social set theory, as we have come to understand and describe it in the Body of Christ, begins with theological statements – with disembodied words or phrases which were designed to answer challenges facing the Body of Christ in the 4th century. Those challenges were different from those faced by the disciples in the Gospels and those faced by Paul in his missionary journeys in the first century. While there are obvious similarities across the centuries (i.e., concern for the other) and God’s nature is unchanging, the Body of Christ must always be about the work of discernment. Herein lies the challenge with social set theory as we currently understand it. Bounded, centered, and fuzzy sets all begin by naming boundaries, by determining who is in and out based on “disembodied words or phrases.” While boundaries are important, we contend that what centered the early Church was following the Spirit. It was focused on discerning where the Spirit was leading rather than determining who was in the group. That is to say, they didn’t begin with boundaries. Rather, they began with listening to each other, engaging those around them, and watching for the Fruit of the Spirit. The community was constantly discerning how to be faithful followers of Jesus, even to the point of changing commonly held beliefs and practices.
For example, we wrote previously about food sacrificed to idols. Additional examples could have been aspects of table fellowship such as not only what faithful disciples could eat but particularly who they could eat with. These are just a few examples of the disruption to “boundaries” that following the Spirit entailed. The early church couldn’t rest in the rules. They had to follow the Spirit.
Instead, the Body of Christ held a posture of discernment. This led to both continuity of the truth of Gospel and changes in commonly held beliefs and practices. As they learned more about the work the Spirit was doing in the world and discerned the direction of the Spirit’s leading, they discovered ways in which the truth of the Gospel was being reinforced and ways in which obligations revealed in the past may no longer be appropriate. What’s more, they recognized that the Sprit might be leading one community to do one thing in Corinth and something else in Rome – yet both were moving in the same direction. The Fruit of the Spirit would be visible in all but what each community actually did might be different. That is to say where they were headed – their direction – is what brought them together. The communal discernment process brought consensus around the direction the Spirit was leading and they coalesced around that direction. We call that a directional set.
Yes, there were beliefs and practices to be shared but those were not the starting place for inclusion in the community. We consistently see Jesus and the apostles including people who did not yet share the “right” beliefs or practices and we see the early church continuing to listen to the leading of the Spirit even when it meant changing those beliefs or practices. In Matthew 28, Jesus even commissions some who doubted! What bound them together was a common direction – participating in the redemptive work of the gospel by following Jesus into the world through the power of the Spirit to the glory of God.
A directional set coalesces around where God is leading, around a direction, while also accepting the dynamic nature of discerning that direction. The direction, participating in the redemptive work of the gospel by following Jesus into the world through the power of the Spirit to the glory of God, is unchanging but the day-to-day realities of what that means are not static. If such things remain static, we, by extension, may be saying that the Spirit is no longer leading us or, worse, that we have discerned the mind of Christ and no more thinking or reflection is needed. We contend the Spirit is still moving, still speaking, still calling us into the fullness of the Kingdom. That means we are moving in a direction and must have the humility to continually discern what that means. Such humility brings with it a new lens for envisioning the Body of Christ. Rather than a static community that has nailed down all the “right” things, it is the community of people who are listening to and following the leading of the Spirit. This will manifest itself in the Fruit of the Spirit over the long term. It will also generate a willingness to patiently submit to the Spirit and others who claim Jesus as Lord.
Over the next few weeks, we will share more about this concept of being a directional set. In particular, we will look at the way it has been played out in various traditions of the church, what it means to be a community of discernment, and how we deal with the tension between the dynamic nature of a directional set and the unchanging nature of God.