November 6, 2015 — by Rev. Eric O. Jacobsen


Jesus Christ As The Center Of The Church

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you to live in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel – which is really no gospel at all.  (Galatians 1:6-7a)

What could possibly have the Apostle Paul so worked up in his letter to the Galatians that he jumps right into a tirade at the very beginning of his letter?  Normally, this is the part in which he expresses how thankful he is for them.  What has gotten Paul so upset?  I can answer that question in just two words….  

Math theory.  

Yes, math theory.  Well, Paul may not have phrased it quite in this way, but that is exactly what Paul is angry about.  Paul and the Galatian leaders are having a disagreement over stipulations concerning belonging – who’s in and who’s out.  And this is exactly the kind of issue for which we use math theory (or more precisely set theory) to solve.

Every group (or set) has some way of determining who belongs to the group and who does not.  If we didn’t have some way of defining who is a member of a group and who isn’t, the word ‘group’ wouldn’t have any meaning.  That said, there are two basic kinds of groups with two basic kinds of ways of determining who’s in and who’s out - the bounded set and the centered set.

A bounded set (or group) defines its membership in relation to its boundaries.  Those who meet a certain set of criteria are‘in’ and those who fail to meet that set of criteria are ‘out’.  One could argue that the Israel we encounter in the Old Testament was a bounded set.  That is to say, one would be considered a true Israelite if one lived according to the holiness code laid down in the Old Testament.  And all of the pagans from the surrounding nations were ‘out’ because they didn’t keep the stipulations of the law.

The second kind of set (or group) is a centered set.  One could argue that the Christian church that we meet in the New Testament is a centered set.  In establishing the church, Christ did two things that were game changers.  He kept the law perfectly.  And he died on the cross to secure forgiveness for our transgression against the law.  For those then who receive Christ, our holiness (or membership in the group) is through Christ. The church, then, defines its membership not in terms of our keeping the law (bounded set), but rather in terms of our relationship to the center of the church (which is Christ).  People are either oriented towards Christ because they have confessed their sin and received His forgiveness or they are oriented away from Christ because they have refused to confess their sins and receive forgiveness.  This makes the Christian church a centered set, because membership in the church is defined by one’s orientation to the center (or Jesus) rather than one’s ability to maintain a particular ethical code.  

The move from a bounded set to a centered set mentality can be very disorienting for anyone.  It was a challenging paradigm shift in the 1st century and it is a challenging paradigm shift today.  At one level, the Galatian leaders understood that they were now working within a centered set and that one’s relationship to Christ was the most important part of membership in the church.  But, at the same time, as lifelong Jews, they couldn’t completely let go of some of the boundary issues that had defined them for so long.  They had a hard time letting go of circumcision and therefore argued for a hybrid model – Jesus (center) and circumcision (boundary).  But Paul would have none of it and wasted no time in reminding them that the Christian church would be an exclusively centered set – Christ alone is sufficient for salvation.

Paul has to use strong language to make his point, but ultimately this is very good news even for the Galatian leaders because of one fatal flaw in their logic.  In their oversimplified recollection of their own history, the Jewish leaders were thinking of the Old Testament as describing a bounded set with Israel being ‘in’ because of their faithfulness to the law and the pagan neighbors being ‘out’ because of their failure to keep the law.  But what the Jewish leaders had forgotten is that not even Israel was able to keep the law perfectly, so they too were outside of holiness just as much as their pagan neighbors.  The fact that Jesus kept the law perfectly and died in their place was not a game changer only for Gentiles, but for Jews as well.  Paul wanted to make sure that everyone knew that the centered set characteristic of the Christian church was good news for everybody.  

While we don’t wring our hands over circumcision any more, if we are perfectly honest with ourselves, we may have some problems with the bounded / centered set idea as well.  These issues usually come to light when dealing with two kinds of issues – modern day Pharisees and recent converts.   

We’ll first look at the modern day Pharisees.  Imagine two people who both are living their lives in close proximity to the lifestyle that Christ modeled.  But if we look at their hearts we see a significant difference between these two.  One of them knows that she is a sinner and is completely dependent on Christ’s grace.  The other (we’ll call her a modern day Pharisee) believes that she is able to keep up this ethical lifestyle on her own efforts and deep in her heart believes that she is earning her salvation and has not need of Christ’s death in her place.  In this case, one of these people is not in Christ, nor is she a member of the true church even though she looks like she should be.  

Now, we’ll look at the case of the recent convert. Imagine two people more on the periphery of the group.  One is a classic heathen.  He lives completely for himself and doesn’t care in the least if his actions hurt others or are in violation of God’s law.  However, there is another person who lives in exactly the same way as the first person.  But very recently, this person heard about the good news of Jesus, repented of his sins, and accepted Christ’s death on his behalf.  This person is truly sorry for his sins, but he hasn’t yet dealt with any of his lifestyle choices.  He shows up to church hung over and reeking of pot.  Even though his behavior might suggest that he is not part of the group, an examination of his heart would reveal that because he has entrusted his life to Christ, he is just as much a member of the redeemed as anyone else in the congregation that morning.  He’s fully ‘in’ with regards to his relation to Christ, but some of us may have a hard time seeing him in that way.  

These stories are a bit counterintuitive, but very important for us to grasp.  We may go through a season of our lives in which we subconsciously slide into a kind of confidence in our ability to secure our own salvation and we may feel some resentment over some of the people who we feel don’t really deserve to be included in the church.  Often thoughts like this float just under our conscious awareness in the form of gut feelings.  But like Paul’s approach with the Galatian leaders, it is extremely important that we don’t for a minute let this notion go unchallenged.  Because this attitude will be deadly to the new convert and poison to our own soul as well.  Sooner or later, we will discover anew the sobering reality of our own sin and it will be vitally important that we know with absolute certainty that our standing before God is based on Christ’s righteousness and not our own.  

One of ECO’s core values is a center-focused spirituality.  We are focused first and foremost on Jesus Christ as the center of the church. We recognize that questions of behavior and lifestyle are vitally important for the life and health of the church.  We are not afraid to take a stand for Biblical values even if they are culturally unpopular. However, when it comes to fundamental questions of who is considered part of the church and who is not, we agree with Paul.  One’s orientation to the center of the church – Jesus Christ – is the only criteria that matters.   

Or to put it another way, in ECO, we believe that math theory is essential to the health of our churches.  Join us next week, as we discover how the Pythagorean  theorem ‘solves’ the problem of the trinity.  


Rev. Eric O. Jacobsen

Eric Jacobsen is the senior pastor at First Presbyterian Church, Tacoma Washington. Eric previously served as the Associate Pastor of First Presbyteriam Church in Missoula, MT from 1995-2004. He also has taught as an Adjunct Professor at both Regent College in British Columbia and Fuller Theological Seminary in California, where he received his Ph.D. Eric is married to Liz Jacobsen, an elementary school teacher who brings her extensive theater background as well as her love for children to the classroom. Liz and Eric have four children, and they both have deep roots in the Pacific Northwest (Liz’s mom grew up in Tacoma!).  

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