Reflections and resources for lifelong learning for missionaries

Tag: Paul Hiebert

Paul Hiebert’s “Excluded Middle”

In 1982 Paul G. Hiebert wrote an article in Missiology entitled “The Flaw of the Excluded Middle.”1It is reprinted in Paul Hiebert, Anthropological Reflections on Missiological Issues, 1994, pp 189-201. and also available at Essentially, the article explains why many western missionaries may be perplexed by spiritual phenomena in non-Western cultures. The article has influenced many missionaries and missiologists.

What is the Flaw of the Excluded Middle?

As a missionary in India, Hiebert observed spiritual activity that his functional worldview could not analyze. Indian villagers regularly consulted magicians or saints to help them when they were sick, infertile, or experiencing some misfortune. These spiritual practitioners used magical charms, chants, or amulets to address these problems. However, those who became followers of Jesus now took these problems to the missionaries. But missionaries often did not know how to deal with questions about curses, black magic, or witchcraft.

How do we decide whether someone is a Christian?

You may have heard comments about “bounded sets” and “centered sets” in missions conversations. Since introduced by Paul Hiebert in 1978, these terms have been part of many missiological discussions. Frequently, in a somewhat reductionistic way, “bounded sets” are seen as Western and traditional and “centered sets” are seen as more progressive.

Let’s review what we are talking about. Bounded sets are defined by the boundaries used to describe the set. For instance, either conversion or baptism might be the boundary for a bounded set of the category “Christian.” According to this way of categorizing people, in order to be considered a Christian, you would have to have a conversion experience or be baptized. Often the list of characteristics that define a Christian are expanded to include things like: going to church regularly, not drinking alcohol, having assurance of salvation and espousing orthodox theology on all major doctrines.

Review of Paul Hiebert’s Transforming Worldviews

Cover Art

Transforming Worldviews: An Anthropological Understanding of How People Change is variously described as “the capstone of Paul Hiebert’s work”, “Hiebert at his best!”, and “mission anthropology at its best.” (from the back cover). A. Scott Moreau writes, “For the first time, all of his major missiological insights – from set theory in church growth to the flaw of the excluded middle to critical contextualization – are integrated into a single volume.” (back cover).

Hiebert’s central focus is that the transformation of worldviews must accompany change in behavior and beliefs. Without the transformation of worldviews, change in belief and behavior remain on the surface level. He writes:

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