Relational Proximity: a biblical perspective

By Guy Brandon 29 Mar 2017

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Good relationships are critical to the success of organisations and projects of all kinds, but ‘relationship’ tends to be a black box that is not readily amenable to analysis or quantification. The Relational Proximity Framework (RPF) is a way of unpacking relationships and better understanding what makes them successful.

Image Credit: © Tate, London 2020

Relational distance

Relationships are difficult to describe. We might say we have a ‘good’, ‘healthy’ or ‘difficult’ relationship with someone, but exploring what that means in practice is more complicated. Moreover, what it means for someone to have a relationship with their children is different to what it means to have a relationship with an employer, or for two organisations or even two countries to have a relationship. There is typically a vagueness in talking about relationships.

The Bible often expresses relationship in terms of proximity. Hebrew uses many physical, human metaphors and descriptions (for example, the ‘mouth’ of the grave; ‘breath’ = soul; the ‘head’ of a mountain). Language of near and far is one of the primary ways in which the Bible expresses the nature of a relationship.

At the human level, the root qārab is used in several different contexts. It literally means ‘to approach’, as in Pharaoh’s approach of the Israelites with the Egyptian army in Exodus 14:10. It is used of the sexual relationship (Deuteronomy 22:14), but more broadly of a close blood/family relationship, as in Ruth 2:20 and 2 Samuel 19:42. ‘All the men of Judah answered the men of Israel, “We did this because the king is closely related [qārôb] to us.”’

This makes perfect sense from a human perspective, but ‘near’ and ‘far’ are key biblical categories in describing relationships with God, too. There are probably a number of reasons for this. One is that analogy with human relationships is the obvious way to describe the human-divine relationship, and Hebrew idiom lends itself to this kind of metaphor. Another is that deities in the ancient world were believed to inhabit certain regions, with their sphere of influence being linked to the territory of their human populations. ‘The man of God came up and told the king of Israel, “This is what the Lord says: ‘Because the Arameans think the Lord is a god of the hills and not a god of the valleys, I will deliver this vast army into your hands, and you will know that I am the Lord.’”’ (1 Kings 20:28) Moreover, God’s immediate presence was thought to reside in the tabernacle and at the sanctuary; the Holy of Holies was the innermost sanctuary where the Ark of the Covenant was kept: God’s special dwelling place. Thus it made sense to talk about proximity and distance in this context.

There is an emotional element to the physical/geographical metaphor of closeness. In Isaiah 29:13 God says, ‘These people come near to me with their mouth and honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me’, the implication being that a relationship in which closeness is expressed only with words is not truly close; it is empty without the corresponding attitude of the heart.

The same term used of a close human relationship or approaching another person is also typically used of bringing an offering or coming to God at the sanctuary, reflected in the Aramaic word Corban found of a type of sacrifice in the New Testament. ‘Moses said to Aaron, “Come to [qerab] the altar and sacrifice your sin offering…”’ (Leviticus 9:7) Other similar expressions are also used to signify the nature of a relationship. God’s presence was understood in physical terms. In Isaiah 7 and 8, the messiah is called Immanuel, God With Us, a term taken up of Jesus in Matthew 1. In the prologue to John’s gospel, the Word – Jesus, who existed with God from the beginning – is said to ‘tabernacle’ with us. In the Old Testament, the tabernacle, or tent of meeting, was where God’s presence dwelt: his shekhinah (a later, rabbinic term, based on the Hebrew root shākan found in the Old Testament, including in the noun mishkān, ‘tabernacle’).

These terms of near and far, presence and absence, run through the Bible’s descriptions of the Israelites’ relationship with God. ‘Do not be far from me, my God; come quickly, God, to help me.’ (Psalm 71:12) ‘But as for me, it is good to be near God. I have made the Sovereign Lord my refuge; I will tell of all your deeds.’ (Psalm 73:28) Jesus’ words on the cross, referencing Psalm 22:1, not only point to the withdrawal of God’s presence but to the broken relationship this signifies: ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’

A framework for thinking

RPF includes five aspects of relationship: Directness, Continuity, Multiplexity, Parity and Commonality. These are not ends in themselves, and even where they are present to a high degree, they do not guarantee a close relationship. Neither are they measures of the success of a relationship in themselves, which tends to come in less tangible forms such as trust, respect, synergy, and so on. (To a degree these are both inputs and outputs to a relationship, since where there is trust and respect it becomes easier to work together, creating a virtuous cycle. However, as The Relational Lens puts it, ‘The initial decision to trust may be taken in a split second, but sustained trust that enables significant risk or investment doesn’t generally happen overnight. It is typically a long-term process that involves each party taking small steps towards each other.’) Instead, the five dimensions of relational proximity form the context within which close relationships are more likely to develop. If one or more is missing, building a close relationship tends to be harder.

Christianity is a relational religion, and the Bible is a relational document. When Jesus is asked what the greatest commandment is, he answers not in terms of the orthodoxies of the day – Sabbath observance, sacrifice, circumcision – but in the language of relationships. ‘“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: “Love your neighbour as yourself.” All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.’ (Matthew 22:37-40) Jesus, the author of the New Covenant – the new relationship between God and his people – explains the purpose of the Old Covenant in relational terms.

As such, it should not be surprising that Relational Thinking has extensive resonance with biblical teaching. The world of the Bible may be very different to our globalised and hyper-connected society, but human nature and relationships are the same. In the relationships of the Bible, we might naturally expect to find ideas that fit with principles derived from observation of modern business and other contemporary settings.

RPF may be displayed in different ways in the Bible:

  • In the Trinity and the character of God
  • In the laws of the Old Testament
  • In the message of the prophets
  • In the story of Old Testament Israel
  • In the life and teaching of Jesus
  • In the life and teaching of the early Church

Directness: contact

Directness is about how unfiltered your connection is with someone. Does a conversation take place in person, face-to-face – as direct as it’s possible to get? Or is it mediated by technology, conducted over the phone or by email, or through other intermediaries? When communication is filtered in one way or another, content is lost and ambiguities can arise. Although the words may be the same, large amounts of information like tone of voice, body language, facial expression and so on are stripped out. The more direct a conversation, the clearer the communication tends to be.

Separation is the essence of holiness (qôdeš: apartness, sacredness). God speaks to a few people directly in the Bible – including Adam and Eve, Abraham and Moses. The case of Moses makes it clear that this is unusual: ‘The Lord would speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend.’ (Exodus 33:11) This is presumably not meant literally, i.e. facing Moses and in physical (human?) form, since the same chapter records God saying ‘you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live’ (33:20). Occasionally anonymous messengers would turn out to be God (Genesis 32:22-32). Here, though, we might assume that it means God spoke with Moses directly but did not show his actual face; this is Hebrew idiom for close, personal relationship, but not supposed to be understood in such human terms as we might imagine.

Relationships between humans and God in the Old Testament are characterised by layers of mediation due to this qôdeš. The Temple was organised as a series of boundaries, each marking a greater degree of holiness; the Holy of Holies, in the centre, could only be accessed by the High Priest on Yom Kippur.

The New Testament marks a dramatic departure from this separation and mediation between God and humans, with the incarnation (John 1:14). The Word, present from the beginning (the language of John 1 evokes the language of Genesis 1), ‘became flesh and made his dwelling among us’. The Greek word is ἐσκήνωσεν, ‘tabernacled’, referring to the tent of meeting that served as God’s earliest dwelling-place amongst the Israelites. Just as the Tabernacle was the dwelling-place for God’s Shekinah or presence, Jesus was the physical presence of the Word. He is Immanuel, ‘God with us’ (Matthew 1:23).

Jesus did have direct and close relationships with people, including his disciples and some of the authors of the New Testament (1 John 1:1-3; 2 Peter 1:16-18). Many people engaged with him personally during his life and after the resurrection (John 20:10-31; Acts 1:3).

Similarly, our access to God is now direct in Christ, rather than distant and mediated through the priesthood. 1 Timothy 2:5 puts it as follows: ‘For there is one God and one mediator between God and people, the man Christ Jesus.’ The Holy Spirit, sent by Jesus (John 14:15-30), maintains this direct presence for believers.

We are now invited into the presence of God; Jesus has facilitated access to an otherwise distant and holy God. ‘Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathise with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.’ (Hebrews 4:14-16). Jesus is human like us, but without sin, like God – and hence capable of bridging the gap between God’s transcendence and our (fallen) humanity.

Ultimately, we will communicate directly with God in heaven. Revelation 22:3-4 recalls Exodus 33:20 and the Fall in Genesis 3, indicating that the rift between God and humans will be repaired and perfect relationship restored. ‘No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads.’ In this life, however, our relationship can never be as complete as it one day will be: ‘For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.’ (1 Corinthians 13:12)

Continuity: story

Continuity is about time over time. A one-off ‘relationship’ is really only an interaction. Getting to know someone properly involves seeing them regularly over a long period of time. It creates a narrative to the relationship, a shared story of your history together. This story also creates expectation of the future of the relationship. The more you know about someone based on past experiences of different kinds, the better you can understand them in the present and anticipate what it may be like in the future.

Continuity is inherent in the Judaeo-Christian faith. The Bible is the story of God’s relationship with humanity, starting at the Creation of the world and running through history to the end of time. The narrative is one of relationship begun in Eden, broken at the Fall but patched up through Noah, the Patriarchs and Moses, repeatedly tested by the Israelites, and finally restored by the Incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. The thread of relationship runs through everything in the Bible from start to finish.

This emphasis on continuity is expressed through both the attributes and actions of God in the Bible. As the refrain in Psalm 136 states, ‘His love endures forever.’ Hesed is a core characteristic of God. The Hebrew word is sometimes translated ‘mercy’ but is better expressed through the idea of faithfulness, loving-kindness, Covenant love. ‘And the Lord passed before him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and great in faithfulness [hesed] and truth, keeping faithfulness [hesed] for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, by no means clearing the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children and the children’s children to the third and the fourth generation.’ (Exodus 34:6-7)

This faithfulness or Covenant love is displayed through the repeated covenants that God makes with his people and key individuals, right from the earliest chapters of the Bible. Covenant is one of the ways that God relates to us: by a promise that establishes his intention for ongoing relationship. These may be conditional or unconditional. The number of covenants between God and humans in the Bible is disputed but includes:

  • The Noachic Covenant (Genesis 9:8-17), established after the flood with all people and living creatures (and therefore binding for Jews and Gentiles, forever). God promises never to destroy the earth by flood again.
  • The Abrahamic Covenant(s). God establishes at least three covenants with Abraham in Genesis 12-17. He promises to make Abraham a ‘great nation’ in 12:1-3; to give his descendants the Promised Land (15:7-21); and to make him the ‘father of many nations’ (chapter 17). This covenant is conditional upon circumcision.
  • The Mosaic Covenant establishes God’s relationship with the people of Israel (Exodus 19-24; Deuteronomy). The Ten Commandments were part of the terms of this covenant, and the Sabbath was both a sign and condition of it (Exodus 31:12-18).
  • The Davidic Covenant. God establishes David and his descendants as kings over Israel (2 Samuel 7). ‘Your house and your kingdom shall endure for ever before me; your throne shall be established for ever.’ (7:16) This Covenant ultimately finds fulfilment in the person of Jesus.
  • The New Covenant. Jeremiah reaffirms the Davidic Covenant and looks forward to a time when the House of David will be restored (33:13-26). However, the New Covenant will be of a different character to the old one (31:31-34). At the Last Supper, Jesus establishes this covenant (Luke 22:20), which is sealed by the crucifixion.

Aside from the series of covenants that reflect God’s faithfulness and establish his relationship with us, his name itself is also a source of continuity. When Moses encounters God at the burning bush, he does not know God’s name; presumably either he or the Israelites do not know it or have forgotten it over the long years of their slavery in Egypt, during which Yahwistic worship was compromised by contact with Egyptian religion. Moses said to God, “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?” God said to Moses, “I am who I am. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I am has sent me to you.’”

‘God also said to Moses, “Say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your fathers – the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob – has sent me to you.’ This is my name forever, the name you shall call me from generation to generation.”’ (Exodus 3:13-15)

Thus God establishes continuity through his name between the faith of the patriarchs and that of the Israelites in Egypt. Moreover, the name God gives  carries a sense of being and continuity, meaning (ambiguously) ‘I am who I am’ or ‘I will be who I will be’ (the name Yahweh is related to the same root in this phrase, ’ehyeh ’ašer ’ehyeh).

The principles of faithfulness and continuity that are found in the character of God and his covenant relationships with his people are also expressed in biblical law. Faithfulness is a fundamental good. Thus continuity of relationship is an ideal found in marriage (see Exodus 21:2-11 and especially Matthew 19:1-9, which appeals to Genesis 2:24), land ownership and the institution of the Jubilee, and the long-term, intergenerational family and community relationships this enables (Leviticus 25), for example.

The New Testament (Covenant) updates the covenant relationship but does not suggest a fundamentally different nature of God. Jesus fulfils the Law, rather than abrogating it (Matthew 5:17). He reveals God fully, rather than replaces him. He is God, Immanuel, God With Us, not a messenger or prophet as in Islam. The incarnation has sometimes been a point of contention within Christian theology. A debate raged as to whether Jesus was homoiousios (of a similar substance) or homoousios (of the same substance) as the Father. The single iota difference has implications for continuity across the testaments, and even for monotheism. The Arian heresy held that Jesus was more than human but less than divine. At the Council of Nicaea the Church affirmed that God and Jesus were of the same substance, reflected in the words of the Nicene Creed still spoken today.

Jesus, like God, is unchanging in character, ‘the same yesterday and today and forever’ (Hebrews 13:8, see also James 1:17). Relationships with Jesus also display continuity – in fact, not just continuity but permanence, the ultimate form of continuity. ‘And surely I am with you always, even to the very end of the age.’ (Matthew 28:20) We are to remain in Jesus (John 15:5-8), and enjoy eternal relationship with him (Revelation 22:5).

Multiplexity: breadth of knowledge

Multiplexity is about knowing someone across different contexts – in their home life, at work, in church, in their hobbies, and so on. Knowing how people relate to third parties in these situations is a source of information we would not necessarily receive through our own interactions with them and allows us to form a more rounded and complete picture of their character.

Multiplexity is less immediately evident in the Bible than the other drivers of relational proximity. One of the reasons for this may be that much may be assumed in the relationships of the Bible due to the nature of society at the time. Because people were less mobile (partly by design) and tended to live in established communities, they knew each other better. They would also know people as part of a family, not just as individuals. So a loan, for example, would be made directly to someone you already knew, not to an anonymous third party via a series of official intermediaries, as we do in our modern banking system. Multiplexity is a by-product of low mobility, stable communities and the fact that the economy was less diversified than ours – ‘going to work’ typically meant working alongside family members and others in your village on the land, rather than commuting to an office and working with people we don’t see outside the office or off the factory floor.

The Trinity is the biblical archetype of multiplexity: three persons in perfect relationship, where each not only knows both of the others but how one of the others relates to the third. God, of course, knows everything about us (Psalm 139 and Matthew 6:25-34). ‘Are not five sparrows sold for two cents? Yet not one of them is forgotten before God. Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Do not fear; you are more valuable than many sparrows.’ (Luke 7:6-7)

1 Corinthians 13 looks forward to a time when ‘I shall know fully, even as I am fully known’ (verse 12). In the meantime, we are encouraged to pray about everything (Philippians 4:4-8), in order to know God better (Ephesians 1:17). We can expect a process of increasing awareness and knowledge of God. ‘My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you.’ (Job 42:5) There is nothing that God does not already know about us. ‘Why do you complain, Jacob? Why do you say, Israel, “My way is hidden from the Lord; my cause is disregarded by my God”? Do you not know? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom.’ (Isaiah 40:27-28)

Jesus experienced life as a human, and therefore understands what it means to be tempted and suffer. ‘Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death – that is, the devil – and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. For surely it is not angels he helps, but Abraham’s descendants. For this reason he had to be made like them, fully human in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.’ (Hebrews 4:14-18)

Anonymity can be considered a lack of multiplexity: a gap in your knowledge of another person that changes the interaction between you in some way. Anonymity is not uniformly viewed as a bad thing in the Bible, depending on the reason. There are numerous occasions where God withholds his identity (Jacob wrestling with ‘an angel’; Abraham and the three visitors). On the Road to Emmaus, Jesus’ identity is at first withheld from the two disciples. In this instance, the lack of multiplexity is used as a teaching opportunity, to bring them to deeper faith. Examples in which low multiplexity is used to mislead someone include Saul and the Witch of Endor (1 Samuel 28) and Judah and Tamar (Genesis 38), albeit for understandable reasons in the latter case.

Jesus travelled with his disciples and spent three years living with them. He also visited, relied upon and interacted with their families. They saw him, and he them, in every possible context. He visited and healed Peter’s mother-in-law (Matthew 8:14-15). Much of his work involved integrating marginalised people back into society; his healings did not just have medical but relational significance (e.g. the Gadarene demoniac, the woman with the issue of blood).

Parity: use of power

Parity is about appropriate use of power in a relationship. It is not about uniform equality, since differentials in power and status are often necessary (for example, between a parent and child, or between an employer and employee). However, how this power is exercised colours the relationship. Right use of power facilitates a better relationship.

There can be no equality between a qôdeš (holy, separate), all-powerful God and humans. However, God draws near to us and seeks relationship with us. In the Garden of Eden he walks with Adam and Eve (Genesis 2); he allows Abraham – who is described in James 2:23 as a ‘friend of God’ – to bargain with him over the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18); he listens to Ezekiel’s complaint and changes the terms of his enacted prophecy (Ezekiel 4:9-15).

Relationships between the members of the Trinity are equal; although they have different roles their worth is the same and each is concerned for the glory of the others. ‘When [Judas] was gone, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man is glorified and God is glorified in him. If God is glorified in him, God will glorify the Son in himself, and will glorify him at once.”’ (John 13:31-32, see also 17:1) As in the discussion of Continuity, above, the nature of Jesus as homoousios – of the same substance as the father – has implications for Parity and the nature of the relationship between the persons of the Trinity.

Humans are made in the likeness of the Trinitarian God: ‘Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.’ (Genesis 1:26-27). The implication of these verses is that the male-female relationship somehow images the relationships of the Trinity. The next chapter of Genesis unpacks the nature of this relationship further. Eve is to be an ‘ēzer kenegdô to Adam: an equal-but-opposite partner.

Justice and righteousness (mišpā and edeq) are two further key attributes of God. Mišpā comes from a verb meaning to judge or govern; to act as lawgiver; to decide controversy, condemn or punish.[1] The noun mišpā can mean several things, including the act of deciding a case; the seat of judgment; process or litigation before judges; a legal sentence or decision; the execution of judgment. The word edeq (righteousness) means what is right, just, normal – whether in speech, government, a legal case, or even the weights and measures described in Deuteronomy 25:15.

‘He is the Rock, his works are perfect, and all his ways are just [mišpā]. A faithful God who does no wrong, upright [edeq] and just is he.’ (Deuteronomy 32:4) God’s perfect justice and righteousness both separate him from us and inform our understanding of his treatment of us and our own human interactions. In the New Testament, Jesus bridges the gap between divine and human. Even in the Old Testament, there are times where God opts to be the less-powerful partner in the relationship, or chooses not to exercise power. Moreover, God’s approach to power is reflected in his approach to different human relationships, and to the standards for relationships between humans in different areas of life. ‘Do not show partiality in judging [mišpā]; hear both small and great alike. Do not be afraid of anyone, for judgment [mišpā] belongs to God.’ (Deuteronomy 1:17) Thus the justice and impartiality of God is to be reflected in human relationships.

This parity in judgment is seen amongst humans in the Bible’s approach to the Law. The lex talionis, ‘An eye for an eye’, sought to limit punishment to no more than had been suffered by the victim, to prevent the escalation of blood feuds (Leviticus 24:19-21). In the New Testament, Jesus builds on and perfects this principle. ‘You have heard that it was said, “Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.” But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.’ (Matthew 5:38-39)

There is to be no partiality based on wealth or circumstances. ‘Do not deny justice to your poor people in their lawsuits. Have nothing to do with a false charge and do not put an innocent or honest person to death, for I will not acquit the guilty.’ (Exodus 23:6) Everyone was supposed to be the same under the Law, given by God – including the king (Deuteronomy 17:14-20). This was in stark contrast to other Ancient Near Eastern cultures, in which the king was viewed as above the law.

A number of significant laws aimed at avoiding entrenched poverty and the power differentials this brought in society, as well as curtailing the power of the wealthy (including the king). The ban on interest and the Jubilee legislation are examples of this. Sabbath laws ensured not only that no one worked, but that no one could force another person (or animal) to work on the Sabbath. Except in rare cases (Deuteronomy 23:20), there was to be one law for native-born Israelites and foreigners alike (Exodus 12:49; Leviticus 24:22).

God shows no partiality towards us (Romans 2:11); before God, we are all equal, ‘for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.’ (Romans 3:23-24) As Paul writes, ‘There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.’ (Galatians 3:28-29) This would have been tremendously challenging for many of Paul’s readers. Paul is arguing that Jewish converts to Christianity are not superior to Gentile ones, and that there is no reason to accept Jewish customs as a condition of conversion. Such a demand was even counterproductive. God’s grace levels the playing field and more, prompting an abrupt rethink for the Judaising preachers who had influenced the new Galatian church.

Despite the equality of relationships in the Trinity, at the Incarnation ‘the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many’– something that is supposed to inform our own relationships and attitudes to power (Mark 10:43-45). For all his power and authority, Jesus ‘being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death – even death on a cross!’ (Philippians 2:5-8). Again, this is supposed to serve as a model for our own behaviour (verse 4). Just as God is not ashamed to be called our God, Jesus is not ashamed to call us brothers/sisters[2] (Hebrews 11:16; 2:11, 17).

Our status in God’s sight unsurprisingly extends to financial circumstances. In human terms, money tends to add weight to a person’s influence: money is power and we listen to wealthy people, companies and nations more than we take notice of poorer ones. The story of the Widow’s Mite shows that it is the attitude of the giver and the extent of the sacrifice given their circumstances, not the absolute amount, that impresses God (Mark 12:41-44); personal worth is not measured in financial terms.

Parity is not about equality but appropriate use of power; power differentials exist legitimately as well as unfairly. Therefore whilst all believers have equal worth before God and should be treated the same, regardless of circumstances (James 2:1-7), there is still the obligation to obey those in authority, whether earthly authorities or those in the Church. ‘Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account. Do this so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no benefit to you;’ (Hebrews 13:17). All authorities have been established by God (Romans 13:1-7).

Commonality: shared purpose

Commonality is about the extent to which aims and values are shared. Where people have the same goals, the relationship is likely to be stronger since they are working towards the same ends. If there is a conflict of interests, this is likely to result in problems within the relationship, since they will be pulling in different directions.

The Trinity are mutually involved in the Creation and redemption of the world. At the beginning of the Bible, God creates the world by speaking (the Word, who was with God in the beginning, see John 1:1-5), and through the Spirit, who was ‘hovering over the waters’ (Genesis 1:2). The Trinity share the goal of redeeming humanity, and each play a part in this (Hebrews 9:14; 2 Corinthians 5:18-19).

Humans share the task of stewarding God’s creation. ‘The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.’ As his equal-but-opposite partner (see above, Parity), Eve shares Adam’s purpose in this work of stewardship.

Commonality in different kinds of relationship is a concern shown in the Law. The Israelites, for example, were not to intermarry with pagan nations due to the fundamental tensions raised by the differences in religion. ‘They will turn your children away from following me to serve other gods, and the Lord’s anger will burn against you and will quickly destroy you.’ (Deuteronomy 7:4; see also 2 Corinthians 6:14)

Returning to the biblical ideals for lending, parity (see above) also brings greater commonality. The purpose of a loan was not an extraction of value from the lender to the borrower through the exaction of interest; it was to help maintain the economic independence of a fellow Israelite. The conflicts of interest we see in our highly leveraged and anonymous financial system were absent. The absence of interest payments would have meant a more prominent place for equity sharing, where incentives for success were aligned for both parties.

The purpose of the Law is to bring us into alignment with God’s will. Human fallenness means that we are unable to share perfect commonality with God. As Paul writes, ‘We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good.’ (Romans 7:14-16)

Our fallenness impacts our capacity for commonality with God even when we do want to do his will. Each person of the Trinity plays its part in addressing this rift. ‘For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children.’ (Romans 8:14-16) Where we do not know what to pray, ‘the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God.’ (Romans 8:26-27)

Jesus prays for his disciples and later believers to have unity, even to the extent that the Trinity has unity. ‘My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one – I in them and you in me – so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.’ (John 17:20-23) This purpose is, of course, set by God rather than humans: ‘your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven’ (Matthew 6:10).

Paul urges his readers to ‘make my joy complete by being of the same mind, maintaining the same love, united in spirit, intent on one purpose.’ (Philippians 2:2) This commonality is a feature of the early Church and extends even to possessions, as well as mission: ‘They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favour of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.’ (Acts 2:42-47)

The outcomes of relational proximity

In practice, each of the five dimensions of relational proximity does not occur in isolation, or in equal measure; different relationships require different balances of these elements, and what is considered healthy for one kind of relationship may not be for another. For example, the relationship between a parent and a child is characterised by high directness and high multiplexity. For a teacher-pupil relationship, there is still high directness, but less multiplexity – in particular, the pupil will typically know much less about the teacher’s life than vice versa. Where the balance is upset, problems may result. For example, a lack of parity is appropriate between ranks in the armed forces; no one wants to think that orders may be discussed between superior and subordinates before they are executed.

RPF mixes and toxic combinations

Challenges in different relationships may be prompted by a deficiency or imbalance between the dimensions of relational proximity. In some situations, this imbalance can constitute a ‘toxic combination’: a harmful relational outcome that is set up by the underlying dynamic. Take, for example, the case of the exploitative and often abusive relationship between a doorstep lender and his client, which is characterised by high directness but low parity. Conversely, where proximity is done right, it can result in healthy relationships, characterised by qualities like trust, respect and synergy.

These dynamics are reflected in the Bible’s narratives and teaching, which provides a broad range of examples that can be understood from the perspective of relational proximity.

Intermarriage. The Bible is consistently wary of intermarriage – that is, marriage between a believer (Israelite or Christian) and one of another faith. In the Old Testament, there are repeated warnings about the nokri (foreign) woman, particularly in Proverbs. The term nokri is used of foreigners who are not willing to integrate with Israelite culture and religion, in contrast to the ger. Solomon was led astray by his hundreds of nokri wives (1 Kings 11:1-13).

The Israelites are warned against being led into idolatry, but are not completely forbidden from entering business relationships with foreigners. However, marriage brought particular risks. In this instance there is an unusually high degree of directness, continuity and multiplexity, but a lack of commonality in the religious sphere. As Paul put it in New Testament times in 2 Corinthians 6:14, ‘Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers’.

Lending. In other instances, relationships with those of other faiths and values are permitted but an element of relational distance is advised. For example, Deuteronomy 23:19-20 indicates that the only time an Israelite was ever allowed to charge interest was in the context of a loan to a foreigner. The degree of parity that was supposed to exist between neighbouring Israelites did not apply here – probably in part because the foreigner was not bound by the same rules, and could lend an interest-free loan on to another person (including an Israelite) at interest. As with intermarriage, business with a non-Israelite entailed a lack of commonality, and this brought with it a potential exploit – and therefore a difference in parity. Additionally, it is possible that a lack of multiplexity could have raised the risk of making such a loan; the foreigner may not have been part of an established community, due diligence would be harder to conduct, and the odds of default higher. Thus the exception to the ban on interest addressed the inherent lack of parity that existed within such a relationship.

Slavery. Slavery in the ancient world was typically for life, and slaves were treated as property. Law codes such as the 18th century BC Mesopotamian Law of Hammurabi show that killing a slave was considered a far lesser crime than killing a free person, requiring only financial restitution. Thus there was high continuity but low parity entailed in slavery.

Israelite ‘slavery’ was quite different to the no-holds-barred slavery of the surrounding nations, and could more accurately be described as bonded servitude. Those who were unable to pay their debts might sell themselves into service and work for another family. However, this was time-limited: slaves were set free every seventh year (Deuteronomy 15:12-18). Slaves also had more protections than they did elsewhere (Exodus 21:20, 26). The Israelites’ treatment of slaves was to entail greater parity (compared to other nations) and limited continuity under those conditions of still reduced parity (compared to free citizens).

Government. The laws on slavery were informed by the Israelites’ own experiences of harsh slavery in Egypt. These experiences reflect the relational distance that was embedded in the Egyptian model of government. Pharaoh was all-powerful, with political, religious, financial and military power concentrated in him. There was a lack of parity, but also a lack of multiplexity: as a top-down state, decisions were taken far from those they affected most, with little understanding or concern for their circumstances. Nevertheless they were forced to work for Pharaoh, so there was a high degree of directness in their engagement with the state apparatus.

The Israelites’ own model of government addressed this in a number of ways. Firstly, even the king himself was subject to the Law, rather than being above it (Deuteronomy 17:14-20), so there was greater parity. The king did not have ultimate power over citizens – for example, someone who was just married was exempt from military service (Deuteronomy 24:5). There was also a greater devolution or decentralisation of decision-making. Local courts dealt with most cases, with only the hardest being passed up to a more central authority (Deuteronomy 17:8-13; Exodus 18:13-26). This meant there was greater parity, and critically greater multiplexity: judges in local cases would know the communities and individuals involved, and could make far better judgments as a result. Directness with the top level of government was reduced to a level appropriate to the other dimensions of proximity.

The teaching and miracles of Jesus. As discussed above, Jesus’ miracles restore relationships as well as healing the body. This theme of reintegration and addressing relational distance can be seen in many passages.

In John 8:1-11 (albeit a text that is omitted by many manuscripts), the teachers of the law and Pharisees bring to Jesus a woman ‘caught in the act of adultery’ and ask whether he agrees that she should be stoned to death as the Law requires. There is low parity here: the teachers of the law occupy a position of power and respectability, and women were in any case regarded as second-class citizens. Commentators have asked where the man was and why he was not being threatened with stoning too. Yet there is high directness: the woman is brought – presumably dragged – to the temple courts, and paraded in front of the crowd that has gathered to hear Jesus teach. Jesus himself apparently also starts in a position of low parity: the Pharisees have contrived the situation to force him into a double bind. Either he agrees with the Law, and endorses an act forbidden under Roman law (the Jewish authorities were not permitted to put anyone to death), or he risks the wrath of the crowd if he says the Law should not be observed.

Jesus turns the tables on the Pharisees by demonstrating a degree of multiplexity they had not anticipated. The low parity in the situation is partly a result of their social standing; however, this is amplified by the fact that they have caught the woman in an illegal act under Jewish law. They know something about her, and knowledge is power. Jesus shows that he knows something about them, too.

It is not clear what he writes in the dust with his finger; it could be the Ten Commandments, it could be more personal information about each of the accusers. However, the effect is that the Pharisees one by one become acutely aware that they are in no position to stone her, since they too have sinned and deserve the death penalty. If anything, their position of authority holds them to a higher standard, which none of them have met. At the end they have all left. Jesus, who alone has the moral authority to condemn the woman to death, does not exercise this power and instead allows her to leave.

The letters of Paul. Having planted many churches across the Roman empire, the apostle Paul found himself in a difficult position. He was unable to stay with every church for an extended period of time, if at all, since he was later imprisoned. Continuity was interrupted. Many of these were Gentile churches, too. The problems this raised included challenges to his authority from Judaising evangelists (see above, Parity), and members or whole churches that were led astray by Gnostic thinking and other heresies. Paul’s letters to these churches, addressing various aspects of doctrine and discipline, comprise a substantial fraction of the New Testament.

Paul cannot attend the churches in person; there is a lack of directness. He finds his authority being undermined by the ‘super apostles’ (2 Corinthians 11:5) who are superior in rhetoric and have the advantage of being physically present. One of the ways he addresses the lack of directness and parity is by increasing multiplexity. His letters are full of personal information – ‘boasting’, in his words – that is intended to restore and enhance his credentials. This includes his conversion experience and choice not to be a burden on the churches he founded (1 Corinthians 9); his experiences of persecution, torture and hardships for his faith (2 Corinthians 11:22-29; Philippians 1:12-30); and his lineage as a Jew and background as a Pharisee (Galatians 1:11-24, see Acts 22). Where possible, he sends messengers instead, and his letters serve as a placeholder to maintain continuity before his next visit (1 Thessalonians 2:17-3:13; 1 Corinthians 4:19-21).

If you would like to contribute to the discussion on this paper, please write in the comments section below.

Cambridge, July 2016


[1] F. Brown, S. Driver, C. Briggs, Hebrew and English Lexicon (BDB) (Hendrickson, 3rd printing, 1997).

[2] The masculine plural is used in Greek to refer to groups of both gender.

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