I actually have 7, not just 3 ways bounded sets are detrimental to faith. However, when I began this post, I imagined it being just a few thoughts. It has grown a bit. So to keep it a bit more manageable, I’ll post 3 reasons now, and 4 next week.

Last week I introduced a question about what it means to be a Jesus-centred community of faith by talking about bounded sets [This post will make more sense if you read that one first]. In that post, I offered that many, if not most, churches operate as bounded sets.  

Before talking about centred set churches…and what it means to be a Jesus-centred community, I want to explain why I believe that churches operating as bounded sets are detrimental to multiple aspects of faith. They tend to hinder discipleship, evangelism, and spiritual formation; they create unhealthy, fear-based communities; and they make something other than following Jesus the goal of Christianity. 

But besides that, I’m sure they are great.

I believe there are at least 7 reasons bounded set churches are detrimental to our faith. The first three are below with 4 more to come.

1) Many of our Boundaries are Culturally Determined and Have Nothing to do with Jesus or Scripture.

There is a lot in scripture about which faithful, intelligent men and women who love Jesus disagree. While we can cite some beliefs that all Jesus-followers agree are central to the Christian faith, we soon discover that list is short. 

Too often, our theological boundaries, rather than pointing to the essentials of the Christian faith, are more about setting ourselves apart from “those other Christians”.

And this is a crucial question if we are going to have boundaries—where should we draw them? And who gets to decide upon the boundaries for everyone else? 

In the first church where I was on staff, the pastor declared multiple times from the pulpit that going to the movie theatre was wrong. [I wrote about this experience here.] Well, unless it was a Billy Graham movie. Well, until he got upset at Billy Graham. But you could still watch videos at home.

Not only does that boundary move based on the whims of the pastor, but it is also confusing and vague. And that keeps the power in the hands of the pastor. You may try hard to navigate and honour this barrier, but it will always be up to someone else whether you have succeeded or failed. 

(Is it a coincidence that behavioural mandates often align with the pastor’s personal preferences?)

And when we move into things like hairstyles, dress length, dancing, card playing, music styles, and movie viewing (you get the idea), we quickly move into cultural preferences rather than anything approaching biblical encouragements or instructions. 

(If you have a boundary dealing with a dress code but not one regarding loving your neighbour, and you don’t see that as a problem…there is a problem.)

2) Bounded sets tend to oppress rather than bring freedom. 

Stuart Murray writes that an “inability to differentiate between essentials and nonessentials can make bounded sets oppressive”⁠. 1 He also notes that Tomlinson’s 1995 book the Post Evangelical expresses concern that “those whose experience within such churches was marred by such attitudes as legalism, authoritarianism, judgmentalism, and sectarianism”.⁠ 2

If certain beliefs must be held to remain within a bounded community, how can doubts be expressed? 

They can’t.

Instead, they must be kept silent. So, rather than a person being able to express sincere doubts and perhaps have some of their concerns addressed, they are buried and allowed to fester. They are left to believe that everyone else believes all this stuff, and if they want to not lose their community, they will act like they do too. 

Wrestling with doubt costs the individual and the community an opportunity to explore their faith more deeply and discover God in a more profound way.

3) Bounded Set Communities Hinder People’s Capacity to Find Healing and Freedom.

Just because you have a boundary doesn’t mean everyone inside is actually “following all the rules”. When I was just starting out in ministry, I was Licensed and eventually ordained with the Assemblies of God. As an AG credential holder, you sign a form saying you will not drink alcohol. I signed it, and for the 8 years I was in, I followed the rule. However, I met more than a few people who also signed the form but ignored the rule. 

My point is not to judge the rule breakers…instead, it is to point out that just because you have a boundary does not mean everyone who says they are in it are actually in it. 

The story above was regarding clergy. Imagine the average person in a congregation. If there are actions which they believe will cost them their place in the church, and they struggle with violating one of them, they will be less likely to confess their struggles (or sins) for fear that they will lose their community.

Living a lie becomes a means for me to ensure I do not lose my friends. 

And here is my more significant concern. If a person is in a bounded set community and knows that specific actions will put them on the outside, they will not feel safe to confess or talk about their struggle. They will keep it hidden, hoping no one finds out. When they are with their church community, they pretend everything is fine and, just like everyone else, are still in the circle.

Only when we have people around us that we can talk to, who can hear our confession and help us carry our burdens, will we be able to experience freedom and healing.

(This is not to say that an individual needs to confess publicly or to a leader. There must be trusted people within the community that they can talk to openly and honestly, receiving grace and not judgement).

I will post 4 more thoughts on bounded sets next week. Any thoughts in the meantime?



Photo: The photo is one I took recently while walking along the Clontarf Promenade earlier this month.