A Christian Approach to Relating to Others Part 1, Horizontal vs. Vertical Relationships

Relating to Others

In the beginning God created a man.  He was alone. God said that it was not good that the man was alone, so he gave him a wife.  You might think that having a wife was the answer to the problem.  It was not. It was the beginning of the answer. It was step one.  But the real answer came about two hundred years later when these two had built a society.  God made man in his image to lovingly relate to other people.  Adam and Eve had to create other people, who would create other people, who would create other people. In their long lives they had time to see most of the known world populated with their family before they died.  This was God’s plan when he said in Genesis 1:28, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.” 

Part of being human, then, is doing life with others.  God in himself is three persons, so he could not make man, who is one person, like him in his image without giving him community. So that is what he did, starting with Eve.  Then he gave him children, grandchildren, great grandchildren for many generations.  These families formed communities.  After the flood and the Tower of Babel, these communities spread over the face of the earth.  Now there are continents, countries, regions, states, cities, suburbs and villages, neighborhoods, and households.  At every level the principles of relating to one another are the same, but the distance between people is closed as you work your way inwardly, both because of the number of people at each stage, and the geographic location of people in relation to one another. Even in our modern globally connected world, this still applies.  

So it is important for the Christian, the image bearer, to learn the principles for relating at each of these levels. Psychologists have said that every emotional problem humans face is an interpersonal relationship problem. Remember my earlier post about the man who escaped his problems by hiding in the woods for over twohttps://formyownsake.com/2020/05/https://formyownsake.com/2020/05/15/manifestations-of-a-broken-image-pt-3/ decades. He knew all his problems were interpersonal relationship problems, but he just didn’t know what to do about it. God helps us if we are willing to listen and do the hard and courageous work of transformation. If we allow God into our lives in these areas, relationships will become a source of joy and a part of our abundance of life.

Horizontal vs. Vertical

In the kingdom of satan, relationships are hierarchical. Everybody knows it. Jordan Peterson, a psychologist of recent internet fame, says people are like lobsters, looking for their place in the status ladder, always challenging for a position higher. He is completely correct. In this world it is ‘dominate or be dominated.’ Human history is the history of who dominated whom. Many of us are evaluating people as soon as we meet them. Unconscious or consciously we are asking, “How do I measure up to this one? Could I win a fight with him” (Guys ask this, women might ask, “Am I prettier than her”)? Our real question is, “Am I any good?” And the vast majority of us will use the people around us to answer that question.

This is what the disciples were getting at when they argued about who was the greatest.  Yet somehow they knew Jesus wouldn’t like it (Mk 9).  This is what James and John were getting at when they had their momma come and ask Jesus to give them the two highest positions in their kingdom.

20 Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came up to him with her sons, and kneeling before him she asked him for something. 21 And he said to her, “What do you want?” She said to him, “Say that these two sons of mine are to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.” 22 Jesus answered, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am to drink?” They said to him, “We are able.” 23 He said to them, “You will drink my cup, but to sit at my right hand and at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.” 24 And when the ten heard it, they were indignant at the two brothers. 25 But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. 26 It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, 28 even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mt 20:20-28).

After telling them that they have no idea what kind of burden such a position would bring, that of drinking from the same cup of suffering as Jesus, he says to the disciples who were indignant because they didn’t think to get their own moms involved to get them a position (not really, but maybe),“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them.”  Notice he doesn’t say that they are too domineering, or that the Gentiles necessarily abuse those who they lead. What he says is they lord it over them, which means they take a position of lordship, and they “exercise authority.” They take a position of authority.  What’s so bad about that?  It sounds perfectly natural. There are leaders, and there are followers.  Don’t there have to be?  Well, yes, and no. 

Jesus says, “It shall not be so among you.” You will not lead that way. You are different from the world. The world does what is perfectly natural for people and lobsters, but you are not natural people, you are spiritual people, supernatural people. Your relationships will not be characterized by dominance.  Your identity will not be characterized by your place in a hierarchy.  This will have massive implications for how church should be done, but rarely is.  Jesus has made a powerful statement about the way humans are to relate to one another.  

Even in a situation where positional authority is recognized, personal authority is not proper.

In short, no man should have another man as his leader, meaning, as a person who can dominate that man with his personal power, especially not in the Church. Early twentieth century psychologist, Alfred Adler called this the difference between horizontal relationships, and vertical relationships.    

According to God, all relationships should be horizontal, except for our relationship with him.  That one is completely vertical. His ways are higher than our ways. His glory is and always will be greater than our own.  He is in charge, we are not in charge of anything except what he alone gives us charge over.   But with other people, it is a different story.  When I am face to face with another man or woman, we are equals in dignity. We are equals in intrinsic value.  Why? Because we are both created in God’s image, and that is a great honor.  We don’t share dignity with animals. They are lower than us.  Even the majestic ones who would eat us, are considered by God to be lower than us (Gen 1:26).  In a relationship with an animal, all humans rank above them.  Your dog is not your son.  He is your dog, and he will thrive if you treat him like one.  But the people in your life should be treated as humans, equals, and you should expect, demand, that they will treat you the same. 

Are their hierarchies?  Yes. Are their rulers and governments? Yes.  Does God call us to obey authority? Yes.  Ok, so how then are these people over us our equals?  

Because their authority over you is not personal, and has nothing to do with who you are intrinsically.

It has to do with what power has been vested in them by God.  If the state gives someone authority over you, like a police officer, then it is actually vested by God.   If the company gives a manager authority over you, then it is vested by God. It is true that the company CEO or board of directors is the one who gave that manager authority over you, but it is institutional, and limited in scope.  You may have to submit to him concerning the job, but only under certain moral parameters, and only according to what is reasonable under the contractual agreement that you have with the company.  Though this is your boss, you have a horizontal relationship because you are trading value for value.  You might be allowing him to direct you, but only if he (or she) keeps up his end of the bargain and pays you what he agreed to pay you, and treats you in a way that is appropriate.

Being in a horizontal relationship with this person means that he or she is not better than you just because their institutional position is higher.

Even the police man only has authority over you within certain parameters. The laws of the United States don’t give him absolute power over your life. The laws, in fact, protect the individual from the power of the state. The state, including the police officer, must be just, or they lose their authority. Your relationship with the police, the judge, or the President of the United States, is horizontal. They are not personally over you. They are not better than you intrinsically. They may be more competent, for now, or they may represent a higher institutional authority than you, and representing the institution, they represent God so long as their rules are just, which means that they are in accordance with Scripture and logic, whether they acknowledge that or not. But, they are not over you.

But why do we feel like they are? Because it is natural to feel that way. It is natural in our flesh to feel our lack in the face of a stronger personality. That is why Jesus had to teach the disciples a way of thinking about leadership that went opposite of the world’s way. Not so with you. You will not “exercise authority.” No using natural means to gain power over others. No standing between people and God, which is what happens when one lords it over another, and exercises personal authority, human, natural authority.

The head of Christ is God. The head of man is Christ. 1 Cor 11:3-13 says it is disgraceful for a man to wear a head covering, because it is a sign of authority, such as a wife would wear who has a husband, who is her “head.” But no man has another human as his head. No man is to have another human standing in between himself and God. Some of those in ministry see themselves as holding that position, we’ll discuss this more in a future post, but for now I’ll say they are sorely mistaken, and they do a great disservice to the people they serve if they think that way. Jesus said it would be different in his Church.

I will continue this series in several parts about relating to other people. I hope you’ll come back tomorrow to continue the conversation. I welcome your comments.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s