Relationships – Bilateral vs Unilateral

Romans 12:17-18 “Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” (ESV)

Doesn’t it feel unfair when someone harms us and they get away with it? There seems to be some innate acceptance within the human heart of the “eye for an eye” principle. After all, if people don’t get what they deserve, how will they know that they’ve done the wrong thing? Never mind Christ’s inconvenient teaching about turning the other cheek (Matthew 5:38-42) and the immense grace that he has shown us; our nature far more readily seeks to dispense vengeance than it does grace. This attitude of retribution affects our relationships in a number of ways, some more easily recognisable than others. One particularly insidious effect is easy to miss, but completely alters our functional model of what a relationship is.

A successful relationship between two people, we are told by modern culture, is built on the foundation of compromise. This does not feel intuitively wrong; to expect one party to make concessions without demanding the same of the other offends our innate sense of fairness (or, perhaps, selfishness). Each member of the relationship is expected to be prepared to meet the other somewhere in the middle, on the condition that the other does the same. This model of relationships can be described as “bilateral” (two-sided); here, the concept of splitting responsibilities 50-50 reigns supreme.

The bilateral model is almost universally accepted as the “right” model in the modern Western world, although this has not always been the case. Relationships such as friendships and marriages have largely been transformed to reflect this. Friends and spouses receive conditional commitment; once they stop providing some benefit, when the compromise is deemed to have broken down and the 50-50 balance becomes skewed, the relationship becomes disposable and is cast aside. Traditional relationships of respect – child/parent, student/teacher, subject/leader, to name but a few – have gradually been whittled away; where once respect (even in the absence of adoration) was expected unconditionally, now it must be earned under the same bilateral model as any other relationship.

As a Christian, we are well aware that what feels natural is not always right (sin, to mankind, is the most natural thing in the world, after all). Because of this, we test all things against the Scripture; we are not interested in whether something feels right to man, we are interested in whether it is judged right by God. In some cases, this is a simple process. If we want to know whether murder is right or wrong, there are some rather straightforward prohibitions to be guided by. Unfortunately, there is no eleventh commandment of the form, “Thou shalt not operate under the bilateral model of relationships” to give the same clarity of guidance on relationships. Nevertheless, the Bible consistently speaks to a model of relationships that is rather alien to the bilateral mindset.

The quote from Romans 12 at the beginning of this post gives a hint as to the Biblical perspective on relationships; while the bilateral model puts the focus on “if the other person holds up their end of the bargain”, Paul exhorts believers to act rightly “so far as it depends on you”. In Romans 15:1-3, Paul writes, “We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up. For Christ did not please himself, but as it is written, ‘The reproaches of those who reproached you fell on me’” (ESV). A Christian relationship does not strive for a 50-50 balance, but for complete service of others.

Paul is not the final (or even highest) authority to issue instructions that go against the bilateral model; Christ himself speaks on the topic. When addressing a man who had invited him to dinner, Christ teaches him that he should have invited are those who have no ability to repay him (Luke 14:12-14). Enemies epitomise those who are not prepared to compromise; nevertheless, Christ taught that correct response to enemies was to show them love, not to repay them with hate (Matthew 5:43-48, c.f. Luke 6:27-36). Interestingly, when giving this command, Christ compares showing love to one’s enemies with God’s own perfection and mercy; instead of looking toward a bilateral model of relationships, we look toward God himself.

If we are to reject the bilateral model, what then do we use instead? I believe the Biblical model of relationships is best described as “paired unilateral” (paired one-sided). Instead of a relationship in which both parties are expected to meet in the middle, splitting responsibilities half and half, a paired unilateral relationship gives each party a defined set of responsibilities. These responsibilities belong 100% to the relevant party; regardless of the actions of the other party, they are to be fulfilled. 50-50 gives way to 100-100. No longer are our actions towards others based on how they act towards us; we act always to fulfil our Biblical responsibilities.

The danger in such a model is that, when one party sufficiently violates their set of responsibilities, the other party is open to exploitation and potential harm. Fortunately, the Biblical model is not silent on this matter. Returning to Romans 12, Paul makes the qualifying statement “so far as it depends upon you”, in recognition that it will not always be the case. The believer is not responsible for maintaining peace where the other party makes that impossible; they are, however, responsible for fulfilling their obligations so long as the other party makes it possible. One example of this in practice is Paul’s teaching to converts in mixed faith marriages. Paul places the responsibility on the believer not to divorce their partner, but grants them freedom should the unbelieving partner leave (1 Corinthians 7:12-16). This echoes the same principles as Christ’s teaching on divorce; the Christian is responsible for remaining faithful in marriage, but is permitted to leave in the case of adultery (Matthew 5:31-32).

It is important to distinguish here between conditional responsibilities and bilateral relationships. In a bilateral relationship, the emphasis is on meeting in the middle. Any violation in the compromise potentially provides the grounds for retaliation. On the other hand, a conditional responsibility has clearly defined terms; if the terms are not met, the exemption extends only to the particular responsibility attached to the condition. Maintaining a physical relationship is a responsibility of both the husband and wife in marriage (1 Corinthians 7:3-5). In a bilateral mindset, a wife’s failure to fulfil this responsibility gives the husband a reason to withdraw in other areas of the relationship; in the paired unilateral model, because there are not responsibilities made conditional upon this, he remains bound to all of his responsibilities. On the other hand, avoiding adultery is another shared command of both the husband and the wife. Under the bilateral model, a wife’s failure to fulfil this responsibility once again justifies retribution from the husband. The paired unilateral model, grants the husband the right to divorce; there is an explicit condition with an explicit consequence.

Reflecting on Christ’s comparison of this type of relationship to God’s perfection and mercy, it is interesting to examine the covenant relationships God has with his people. There is no clearer picture of this than in the book of Hosea. Hosea himself is called to be a graphic illustration of God’s relationship with Israel; the faithful husband to the unfaithful wife. Hosea remains committed to his marriage covenant for the full duration of his wife’s unfaithfulness and, when she is at her most desperate, he is there to act as her redeemer. His faithfulness was not predicated on his wife’s actions, but on his 100% commitment to his side of the relationship. This models God’s treatment of Israel. Despite all of Israel’s faithlessness, God always fulfilled his promises. When Israel questioned how God had done so, the evidence God presented was his commitment to Israel as his chosen people (Malachi 1:2-5). Some of God’s promises are conditional (e.g. Malachi 3:6-12) but, regardless of the promise made, God remains faithful. This is God’s perfection and mercy; we are called to strive toward the same standard

This post may seem to be an odd inclusion in a series on gender relationships. However, I believe that it illuminates one of the great points of contention in modern discussions on gender (while also adding value to several others). The point of which I speak is victim shaming. Any suggestion that women should act to protect themselves against sexual assault is met with venom; the modern mindset hears such suggestions and arrives at the corollary that, if a woman doesn’t protect herself, she is partially responsible should she be assaulted. This, I believe, is one of the darkest manifestations of the bilateral model of relationships. If any responsibility is to be placed on women in such a model, avoiding sexual assault becomes a compromise position; if a woman holds up her end of the bargain, her would-be rapist will hold up his. If she fails, however, he believes himself to be excused. The only refuge proponents of the bilateral model have is then to assert that women are absolved of all responsibility to protect themselves.

A better resolution occurs in a paired unilateral model, because the responsibilities in the situation are not conditional. I believe that women have the responsibility to make safe decisions; this responsibility is 100% theirs, and no matter how others are acting it belongs to them (this, I might add, is not a uniquely female responsibility, but it is females who are the focus of this case study). Men (and women, for that matter), regardless of the actions of others, have the responsibility not to violate another person sexually; this responsibility belongs 100% to the would-be perpetrator. There is absolutely no connection between the two sets of responsibilities; women can be acting as unsafely as possible and there is no justification for sexual assault, and men can be acting as responsibly as possible without absolving women of their responsibility to act responsibly. It doesn’t matter whether a woman has 100% of her skin covered or 0%; there is no justification for sexual assault. Nevertheless, women have the responsibility to do what they reasonably can to protect themselves.

Aspects of the modesty discussion are also in play here. There is a common question from women in the Christian blogosphere: “Why should I be responsible for a man’s sin?” This is another bilateral corollary arising from the responsibility of women to dress modestly in light of the lust of men. If the bilateral model is in play, this makes men avoiding lust the compromise position; women are then responsible for the lust of men if they fail to dress modestly. Once again, it is the paired unilateral understanding the resolves the problem. Women are responsible for modesty; this is 100% their responsibility, no matter how men are responding. Men are responsible for avoiding lust; no matter what a woman is wearing, there is no justification for a man to lust. Here, the responsibility of women is to not provide temptation and the responsibility of men is to not sin. Once again, the responsibilities are independent; to address the original question, women are not responsible for the sin of men.

I believe that we, as Christians, need to reject the bilateral model of relationships. While compromise in relationship sounds nice, it is not the Biblical model of relationship, and ultimately leads to dangerous conclusions. Instead of 50-50 relationships, we should aim for 100-100 relationships, in which we fulfil our responsibilities as completely as we are able to. As much as it depends on us, we should strive to live peaceably with all. Whether to our friends or our enemies, by doing so we become more conformed to the mercy and perfection of God, a goal to which every genuine Christian aspires.


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