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Relationism: Pursuing A Biblical Vision For Society (Part IV)

Relationism: Pursuing a biblical vision for society (Part IV)

Dr. Michael Schluter argues that much of the Biblical law is concerned with relationships. But how can we measure the quality of relationships in a given society? Is the focus on the quality of relationships really the way forward for Europe? This is what Dr. Schluter explores in this fourth article of his study: ‘Relationism: Pursuing a biblical vision for society‘.

(Read the whole paper here)

Relationships: What Relevance to Public Policy?

After the insight in 1981 that relationships were the key to interpreting and applying biblical law today, there was a gap of ten years before the next steps were taken towards applying this insight consistently into public life. It was not immediately obvious how the focus on relationships could be used to develop new approaches to diverse areas such as economic policy, financial services, the NHS and the prison system.

In the meantime, in 1985, I was drawn into running the Keep Sunday Special Campaign. To have any chance of winning, a wide coalition of retailers and unions had to be brought together to work with the churches. As the spokesman for such a coalition, it was not possible to use explicitly Christian arguments. The case had to rest on family life, protection of low-paid shopworkers from pressure to work unsocial hours, and environmental factors. These are hinted at in Scripture as reasons for the Sabbath institution (e.g. Deuteronomy 5:15; Exodus 20:11). The approach was consistent with Christian teaching without being labelled Christian. This was to provide a model for the future in how to balance the need to involve the wider world in seeking social reform while remaining faithful to biblical ideals.

In 1991 David Lee began to work with me on a book to examine systematically the impact of public policy on people’s relationships.[1] We developed the concept of ‘relational proximity’, incorporating five facets or dimensions of interpersonal relationship. The factors influencing the closeness of a relationship could be assessed in terms of:

  • quality of communication (directness)
  • frequency, regularity and amount of contact, and length of relationship (continuity)
  • variety of context of meetings (multiplexity)
  • mutual respect and fairness in the relationship (parity)
  • shared goals, values and experience (commonality).

The opportunity to work with the Scottish Prison Service to assess the quality of relationships between prison officers and prisoners led to the development of a formal measurement tool based on relational proximity. This tool has since been applied in companies and homes for the elderly, and between organisations in the NHS. Although without explicit biblical foundation, relational proximity grew out of reflection on the reasons behind many biblical laws, the concept helped to identify the impact of much biblical law on the structure of neighbour relationships.

Many features of Western society today undermine relational proximity. High levels of mobility make it difficult for people to develop close relationships with neighbours. Modern communications have had the effect of dividing our time among more and more people, so that each contact tends to become more superficial; television and the music culture often inhibit conversation; urban planning norms and high-rise buildings have lessened opportunities for people to have frequent contact; the large size of companies, schools and hospitals today reduces frequency of interaction between colleagues.

The relational approach can be used to critique legislation and the structures and working practices of organisations. It offers an alternative ethos for sectors of public policy, for example ‘relational justice’ for the criminal justice system and ‘relational healthcare’ for the NHS. In these and other ways the relational approach, informed by biblical principles, can provide a reform agenda for public life.

Relational Lifestyle

The relationships theme overcomes the artificial divide in much liberal thought between justice in public life and virtue in private life. Christians wishing to think and act relationally in their lives at work and at home will study the life of Jesus, who shows us how to relate to God and to other people perfectly, both by his life and in his teaching. This covers every area of life. ‘Agapelove’, which does not love ‘because of’ but ‘in spite of’, is the ultimate goal for the Christian (1 John 4:7-12).

The primary requirement of a relational lifestyle is the need for long-term, deep, committed relationships. These will generally be focused within the Family but also reach outside it. To achieve such relationships, roots are critical; this is why teaching about the Jubilee, which is primarily concerned with maintaining roots, is foundational to the social structure of OT law.[2]

Time is the currency of relationships. In society today, technology facilitates contact with greater numbers than ever before, but such wider contact is generally characterised by greater superficiality. To have a few close and deep friends, inside and outside the extended family, it is essential to prioritise relationships. Jesus sets relational priorities in his ministry after much prayer (e.g. Mark 3:13-17; 5:37). His relationship with his Father in heaven always takes priority over all other relationships (e.g. Mark 1:35-7). Close friendship, however, is more than a commitment to roots and prioritising of relationships. It involves sacrificial (agape) love, a willingness always to forgive, and an ability to expose one’s innermost thoughts and feelings to another person. Such self-exposure is often painful, always risky. The experience of deep and painful relationships has enriched much of the greatest literature and art, including Goethe’s poetry, Solzhenitsyn’s novels and Rossetti’s painting.

Michael Schluter 

Dr Michael Schluter holds a PhD in agricultural economics from Cornell University (USA). He is the founder of the Jubilee Centre and the Relationship Foundation. He also worked as an applied economist for the World Bank.

With special thanks to the Jubilee Centre. For more information, visit the website http://www.jubilee-centre.org.


[1]Michael Schluter and David Lee, The R Factor (Hodder & Stoughton, London,1993).

[2]See essay entitled ‘Disestablishment and the Church of England’ (Vol 3, No 4, Dec 94)

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