Paradoxy, Set-Theory, and the Nature of Christian Unity

Orthodoxy - Wlliam WarburtonThe Rt. Rev. William Warburton, English literary critic, Anglican clergyman, and Bishop of Gloucester from 1759 until his death twenty years later, was once asked by a colleague (Lord Sandwich) to describe the difference between Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy.

Warburton’s response to Sandwich was instructive (if a bit indecorous):

“Orthodoxy is my doxy,” the Bishop said,
“Heterodoxy is another man’s doxy.”


Part of our problem today is that the word “orthodoxy” has come to mean different things to different people, depending in large part on whether they are conservative or liberal in their overall theological outlook.  This is important, because how a faith community understands orthodoxy affects how they think about truth and the basis for Christian community, which in turn has a direct influence on their understanding of and approach to both unity and conflict.

Three Paradigms of Orthodoxy

What I suggest in Paradoxy: Creating Christian Community Beyond Us and Them is that there are three different ways of thinking about orthodoxy — three orthodoxy paradigms, if you will:

  • A conservative paradigm that I have called Doctrinal-Propositional Orthodoxy.
  • A liberal paradigm that I have called Ethical-Practical Orthodoxy.
  • An emerging paradigm that I have called Incarnational-Relational Orthodoxy.

For ease of comparison I have dubbed these three ways, respectively, Orthoproxy, Orthopraxy, and Paradoxy.

Each of the three paradigms of orthodoxy has its own way of understanding Truth:

Orthoproxy understands truth as propositional and categorical. Because of this, if conflict arises, the assumption is that one side must be right and the other wrong; that one side must have committed a wrong against the other; or that both sides have transgressed against the teachings of the church. Because of the categorical nature of truth, no compromise with the transgressor seems possible.

Orthopraxy understands religious truth as inner experience and at the deepest level all religious truth is equivalent. Because of this, if conflict arises, it is assumed that the conflict is a sign that one or both sides hasn’t yet learned to see the ways in which their positions reflect an underlying universal experience. Of course, human nature being what it is, each side often feels that it’s the “other” that has failed. In Orthopraxy, conflict is to be avoided if possible, and if it cannot be avoided it must be defused through compromise.

Paradoxy recognizes that while ultimate truth exists with God, infinite reality cannot be fully understood. Because of this, conflict is the inevitable and natural result of authentic relationships with Christ and among the members of Christ’s body. As a result, Paradoxy does not shy away from real differences. Rather it requires that each of us confidently offer the truth that we know, with humility, knowing that bumping into people with different understandings than our own could expand our understanding. So rather than seeing conflict as sinful or dysfunctional, Paradoxy views conflict as holy ground: an opportunity to allow God to expand our understanding of God, of ourselves as individuals and communities, and of the reality of the world in which we live.

Three Ways of Understanding Christian Community

How a faith community understands and deals with conflict is perhaps most strongly related to what it understands to be the theological basis for Christian community.

Both Orthoproxy and Orthopraxy view Christian community as bound together by some form of uniformity. The difference is upon what that uniformity is based.

Orthoproxy understands Christian community as bound by a uniformity of belief. Its primary emphasis is on believing what is right and on conformity to what are held to be the church’s traditional teachings. Because Orthoproxy’s sense of unity is defined by a kind of uniformity, any breakdown of uniformity — especially uniformity of doctrine or belief — is perceived as threat to unity: a threat which must be isolated and excluded.

Orthopraxy understands Christian community as bound by a uniformity of purpose or ethical agreement. Its emphasis is more on doing what is right than believing what is right, and its focus is on our love for each other as an expression of Christ’s love for us. Again, since Orthopraxy’s sense of unity is defined by a kind of uniformity, any breakdown of uniformity — especially uniformity of tradition or practice — is perceived as threat to unity: a threat which must be isolated and excluded, or at least ignored.

Paradoxy does not view Christian community as bound together by uniformity but rather as drawn together by the love of Christ. Not our love for Christ or our love for each other as the body of Christ: our love is neither strong enough nor constant enough. In fact, Paradoxy views Christ’s omnipotent and unconditional love as the only force powerful and unwavering enough to hold together fallen, incompatible human beings in community. What makes one a Christian is ultimately relationship with Christ. Because of this understanding, it becomes more open to the differences inherent in diversity as real differences, and it welcomes the struggle that engaging these differences entails as a path to a more healthy way of being community.

Set Theory and Christian Community

Another way of understanding these “differences about differences” is through what mathematicians call Set Theory. As you may recall from math class, a “set” is a collection of objects with similar properties. You may also recall that there are two ways a set may defined. Bounded sets are defined by their boundary conditions (what sets this collection of things apart from all others). Centered sets are defined by what is central to them (what common force holds this collection of things together. Our species homo sapiens is an example of a bounded set because it has certain qualities that set it apart from all other species. Meanwhile, our solar system is an example of a centered set because it consists of everything drawn by our sun’s field of gravitational attraction.

For the purposes of defining types of Christian community, Orthoproxy and Orthopraxy can be defined as bounded-set community, while Paradoxy can be defined as centered-set community. It is a matter of focus…

Bounded Set Christian CommunityBounded-Set Christian Community (Orthoproxy and Orthopraxy).

Bounded-set Christian communities are communities that define themselves by their boundaries: the qualities by which they differentiate them from others. This is not to say that bounded-set communities have no center or that what’s at their center has nothing to do with their identity. Rather, it is simply to say that their identity is much more focused on what what sets them apart.

The central question for bounded-set Christian community is, “What makes us different from all other communities (non-Christian, Christian, or otherwise)?” In other words, “What makes US differnet from THEM?” And “What does a persons who currently belong to THEM have to change about themselves to become one of US?”

These answers to these kinds of questions comprize the “boundary conditions” of a bounded-set Christian community. Both conservative and liberal Christian communities have them. Both are defined by them. Anyone who falls within them is considered a member of the group: they are “IN”…and we think of them as “US”.  Anyone who falls outside them is by definition a non-member. They are “Out”…and we think of them as “THEM.” Lack of conformity to the groups boundary conditions cannot help but be considered a threat to unity.

The boundaries one has to cross to become part of a conservative Christian communities tend to be more clearly, openly, and forcefully stated. The boundaries one has to cross to become part of the US of a liberal Christian congregation are more often left unspoken but they are no less thick as those of any conservative one. In fact, you can often tell what they are by the topics that don’t get talked about. As I have often said, “Liberal Christian congregations enforce their boundaries by changing the subject, while Conservative Christian congregations enforce their boundaries by changing the venue (separating themselve from those who disagree). Both conservative and liberal Christians practice bounded-set Christian community. They just have different boundary conditions.

Bounded-set Christian community is the easier of the two kinds of community to form and maintain. That’s because it is more consisent with human nature and the way of the world as it is (i.e., Sin). The problem with centered-set Christian community is that it is not consistent with God’s way.  As Jesus said to his desciples, “those who are not against us or for us” (Mark 9:40) and “I have other sheep not of this flock” (John 10:16). One big downside of center-set Christian community is that it disincentivizes its members and its leaders from from self-critical examination. Once you’re ‘in’ you’re ‘in’… Once you’ve “got your ticket punched” by meeting the boundary conditions, as long as you are careful not to transgress them, you have nothing else to worry about. This is not to say that no one will choose to grow, only that there is little incentive to do the uncomfortable work of considering the ways in which you will may be falling short.

Centered Set Christian CommunityCentered-Set Christian Community (Paradoxy). 

On the other had,Centered-Set Christian community, which I have called Paradoxy, defines community as a centered set. For Paradoxy, Christians are those who are oriented toward the center (Jesus) and are willing to take the next step closer to Him. Christians, in other words, are followers of Jesus. They start wherever they are (every day), orient toward Him, and move in his direction, like pilgrims coming to the Holy City from many different points of origin.

While it is difficult for any human organization to operate entirely without boundaries, centered-set Christian communities make a conscious choice not to define themselves by them, instead focusing their attention and their energies on the One who is their Center: Jesus Christ. The central question of a centered-set Christian community is “What is Jesus Christ calling into being in us (individually, corporately, and as part of creation) and how can we cooperate with that call?

Because its unity is not defined by its boundaries but by what lies at its center (Christ), centered-set Christian community can tolerate much diversity without feeling its unity threatened. In fact, it can even welcome diversity of opinion or practice as evidence of community held together by the gravitational force of Christ’s love. For centered-set Christian community, categories like “IN and OUT” and “US and THEM” are irrelevant.

And unlike boundaried-set Christian community, since with centered-set Christian community there is no artificial boundary at which you can “get your ticket punched” as having “made it,” there is no disincentive to self-critical examination and deepening of descipleship. Rather, those activities and the continuing journey toward the One at the Centeer are the whole point.

Click here for a side-by-side comparison of Orthoproxy, Orthodoxy, and Paradoxy.


3 thoughts on “Paradoxy, Set-Theory, and the Nature of Christian Unity

  1. “Because its unity is not defined by its boundaries but by what lies at its center (Christ), Paradoxy can tolerate much diversity without feeling its unity threatened.” If only. Some of today’s either/or issues about who Christ/our/center is, and what He did for us (God or teacher, atone or merely set an example, condemned by those in power because he said he was God or because he associated with social outcasts) are difficult to discuss without creating an us/them divide. How do you deal with this? Almost best not to venture an opinion, if one doesn’t want to create a division with someone one respects otherwise.

    • It takes a lot of work. You kinda hafta explain where you are coming from theologically first: “I love God, I love you, I think that because of fallen human nature none of can be absolutely certain that we are 100% correct in what we believe, so Christ’s love is the only thing sufficient grounds for Christian community! which makes it possible for us to disagree in good faith and both still accept each other as Christ-followers.” Then state your disagreement: “Now…where were we?”

      It’s a bit easier if a community has already committed itself to the principles of Incarnational Christian community. Then you just hafta remind them…

      Thanks for the comment and the question…

      In Christ’s love,

  2. Pingback: Seeing From The Other Perspective | Minister Raines

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