Before the rest of this post you need to watch this Youtube video by Dave Schmelzer. He presents a great explanation of Bounded Set and Centered Set thinking and it relates to religious communities. While Schmelzer talks about both, the concern in this post is primarily about communities that organize themselves around the Bounded Set paradigm.
Before moving forward I first want to add to Schmelzer’s basic understanding of the Bounded Set, especially in regards to communities.
The basic premise in the Bounded Set paradigm is that the extreme boundaries of the community are the criteria by which we determine if a person is a member of the community. If a person does not meet the right criteria, they are outside the boundaries of the community, they are outside the circle and they are not a member of the community. If a person does meet the right criteria, they are inside the boundaries of the community, they are inside the circle and they are a member of the community.
However, the point I want to add is that even if one meets the right criteria and is technically a member of a community, their standing within that community is still yet to be determined. Are they a “good” member that should be celebrated or a “bad” member that needs to change, grow or improve in some way? To determine this, one is measured additional internal boundaries that exist within the community and its circle. So within the larger circle there are many inner circles that represent different values, beliefs, qualities and attributes that are celebrated to varying degrees within the community. At the very center of the circle lie the ideal qualities or core beliefs of the community.
People who are technically members of the community but do not have, exemplify or agree with the various values of the community are on the on the edges of the circle. While technically “in,” they are seen as in need of change which may warrant further teaching, encouragement, help, and/or discipline along this path. The more values people have, exemplify and agree with, the better standing they have within the community. The people who truly embody the highest values of the community are in the center and are quintessential members of this community.
To flesh this out I’ll use an example from sports. The Chicago Bulls, an NBA basketball team, have a certain criteria of deciding who is and who is not a member of their team. Beyond this basic criteria, the Chicago Bulls also have values and beliefs within their community, such as being a team-player, showing up to every practice on time, being willing to work hard, being excellent at the game of basketball, etc. There have been many Chicago Bulls, people who met the requirements to be considered a past or current member of the team, and there have even been many good Chicago Bulls players. However, Michael Jordan is easily the most celebrated and memorable Chicago Bull. He did not just meet the criteria to be considered a member of that community but also embodied its highest values. He has become the standard by which other Chicago Bulls players, and even other NBA players in general, are often compared to or aspire to be like.
In and of itself this model is not necessarily inherently bad or evil. Knowing who is and who is not a member of your community is not always an injustice and is at times necessary as we pursue various communal activities as humans. It is also a basic reasonable practice to celebrate the behaviors and qualities that you want to encourage others to aspire to and to marginalize or even punish those behaviors and qualities that you want to stop.
However, in religious communities the Bounded Set paradigm often becomes highly problematic, especially if the core values of the community are not in line with the God or the authoritative texts of the religion. For example, the Pharisees understood themselves in a Bounded Set paradigm. This combined with mixed up values and it was a disaster for their own community and everyone else.
For the Pharisees, it is probably safe to say at the extreme edges of the community were circumcision and worship of the LORD. If you were not circumcised and did not worship the LORD you were a Gentile. As a Gentile, you were and outsider and most likely a threat to the worship of the LORD or the physical safety of the Jewish people.
In the middle was a mix of values and laws that came from a variety of sources. Some were from the Mosaic Laws, some were various cultural values (such as beliefs those stemming from the widespread patriarchal values of many ANE societies), some came from Israel’s unique history and still others from other sources. The point is there was a mix of values, some of which had nothing directly to do with the revealed values of the LORD.
Finally, I would suggest that the various laws of the Pharisees were at the center of their Bounded Set community; this fact that their laws and traditions were valued and esteemed above the values of God was the primary reason for their error. While their concern for their laws and traditions and the external boundary markers of Israel may have started with the best of intentions, these things eventually replaced God and God’s values and Laws as the core values of their community. The Pharisees had essentially an idolatrous attachment to their own rules as their concern for their traditions and laws superseded their commitment to God and God’s values. Jesus Himself rebukes them for maintaining their own traditions above God’s Laws. (Matt 15:3-9 and Mark 7:5-13)
I am convinced this disordered/idolatrous attachment to their own man-made laws and traditions led to their error and most of their conflicts with Jesus. If they valued God healing of His people more than their Sabbath laws would they have attempted to rebuke Jesus? If they valued God’s heart for mercy would they have excluded and avoided contact with sinners? If they valued and celebrated authenticity and integrity instead of maintaining their external boundary markers, would they have lived so hypocritically?
Bringing it back to my previous post regarding the error of the Pharisees, having their values at the heart of their Bounded Set community reinforced their error and was also at the same time a product of it. To reiterate, in my previous post I have suggested the error of the Pharisees was two-fold: they lost sight of their calling to be a blessing to all nations and they became so focused on external behaviors that they lost sight of the heart of God. So how, exactly, does the Bounded Set interact with this?
In regards to their losing sight of their vocation to be a blessing to all nations, the Bounded Set paradigm helped establish who was an “outsider” and provided justification for, and even encouraged, the poor treatment of people who were outside of their Bounded Set. One strength of Bounded Set is it makes it abundantly clear who is and who is not a member of your community. The Pharisees used this paradigm to make broad categorizations about people. If you were not circumcised or did not worship the LORD, you were a Gentile. The problem comes in where the Gentiles were seen as a threat to the Jewish people, and understandably so. The Pharisees then treated Gentiles as such, which would be the exact opposite of striving to be a blessing to them.
In regards to their losing sight of the heart of God, their disordered values led to violations of God’s values. Bounded Sets flow naturally with the celebration of those who achieve or aspire to the right ideals and marginalize and even punish those who do not. When the values at the heart of the community are not 100% in line with God’s heart, this causes problems. For the Pharisees, this meant that even if you were circumcised and worshiped the LORD, there were many other criteria that would justify and encourage your marginalization. “Sinners” were avoided instead of being shown mercy and restored to the community because they did not obey the laws of God and/or the laws of the Pharisees. On the flip side if you observed the laws of the Pharisees, the Bounded Set would justify and encourage the showing of favoritism to you, even if you were distant from the actual heart of God. Hypocrites who practiced boatloads of vain religious ceremonies were celebrated as “true” sons of God.
Some of you see where I am going with all of this.
I have suggested that the Pharisees are the spiritual predecessors of Christians and that this is not a “low-blow” to Christians but a justified claim. I believe this is a justified claim because the Christian religious system is primarily organized as a Bounded Set. This Bounded Set organization is a product of and reinforcement to idolatrous attachments within the Christian religious system to values that have nothing to do with the heart of the Father. This situation leads to xenophobia and a concern for external markers of righteousness which prevents Christians from being a blessing to others and leads to hypocrisy.
In short, the error of the Pharisees is alive and well in the Christian religious system. In my next post I will explain this claim in more detail.