Multiplex Relationships Through the Church


Discussion can not only reveal new things… it can make old things more clear and vibrant.

I was teaching Cultural Anthropology the other day, and I was talking about Simplex versus Multiplex relationships. Simplex means that there is only one relationship between two individuals— for example, boss/worker. Multiplex means that there are several relationships— for example two people may have a boss/worker relationship, also a Sunday school teacher/student relationship, and a neighbor/neighbor relationship, all at the same time. Or it can be a web of relationships

Figure 17

Simplex Structure

Cult Anthrop Rev - Kindl_html_m566baa79

Multiplex Structure

At first it sounds backwards, but small communities tend to have multiplex relationships, and large urban settings tend to have simplex relationships. Consider the following urban example (from the Philippines perspective). Paul wakes up and starts getting ready for work and he here the “Pandesal Guy” walking through the neighborhood selling bread rolls. Paul buys some pandesal from him. They exchange pleasantries, but they really don’t know each other, Their only relationship is between “Pandesal Guy” and “Customer.” Paul leaves and walks out to the main road to get a jeepney. Along to path Paul sees some neighbors. They are friendly enough but he doesn’t know them beyond being neighbors. The jeepney driver picks him up. They know each other but really only in terms of driver and rider. He goes to work, eats lunch, continues work, and returns home. All along the way, he interacts with dozens of people, but all of them with simplex relationships… he knows them only in one type of exchange, and commonly, those individuals don’t know each other.

Is there anything wrong with this? Well, yes., as was noted by one of my students. Moving from a small community to a large city, he noticed how unsatisfying and shallow the relationships were. Reflecting on the class discussion, he believed that the dominance of simplex relationships is much of the cause. It takes multiple levels of interactions to provide a certain closeness or richness in a relationship.

What are some implications of this? I would hazard a few tentative ones:

  1. A healthy and close relationship should have multiple levels, and web-like cross-connections. “Bowling Buddies” may get along well. But it takes other levels of reltionships (kinship, occupational, religious, etc.) to provide depth to these relationship. One of the closest relationships I have had as a missionary is a friend of mine who I have worked with for years in ministry. But I have also served for a time as his benefactor. He has also served as a time as my benefactor. I have worked for him in ministry, and he as trained under me for ministry. These different, and conflicting, roles strengthen the relationship, I believe.
  2. Perhaps it is out of the struggles of mutliple levels of relationships that true depth in relationship occurs. Imagine two brothers who run a business together. You may expect that there would be a lot of fighting. The kinship and the financial relationships clash with each other. The struggle can tear apart a family. But if the two can learn to deal with conflict, it seems possible that they would have a level of closeness that goes beyond typical brothers. The husband and wife relationship always has conflicts due to the web of interconnections, but also because the multiple roles leads to conflicts. Some groups promoting so-called “Biblical Manhood” and “Biblical Womanhood,” look at the relationship in fairly simple terms– the man is the decisionmaker for everything regardless of whose role or responsibility the decision is related to, while the woman is always submissive or sometimes even passive, even in areas that are tied to her role in the family. That hardly seems particularly Biblical. Marriages in the Bible always seem to have a certain amount of conflict and dynamism associated with them. Perhaps trying to reduce the normally multiplex relationship of marriage into a simplex one would produce a more stable family (Confucian rules of submission do give stability, for example) but hardly a relationally rich marriage.
  3. The church, in an urban environment especially, has the opportunity to provide rich multiplex relationships to contrast the shallow simplex relationships within the surrounding society. A church may have a hierarchal structure, or a more flat democratic structure– I am not sure that that matters. But from a relationship level, the messiness of a small community should be encouraged in the church, I believe.

Visiting a church and a Bible school in Hong Kong, I met a lot of women from the Philippines who serve as domestic helpers (maids, yayas, nannies, and so forth). They work long hours, often from before sunrise, to well after sunset 6 days out of 7. So what do they do on their day off each week? They go to church. They join a Sunday school class, and then they exuberantly join in the main worship service. After, many of them go off to have lunch together, and then many still join together to go off to the Bible school to be trained. Sitting in on one of those classes, I was amazed at the level of camaraderie, and the joy they had to learn together. Also while I was there, an instructor who had taught there for three months, came back for a short visit. She was swarmed by students so happy to see her back. Afterwards, many of us went off to have a meal together. For these women (and a much smaller number of men) this camaraderie compensates to a large extent for the long hours, and in many cases mistreatment, related to their jobs, and at least alleviates a bit their disconnection from their families.

I think that the church, especially in urban settings, or in diaspora/expatriot circumstances, can provide that deeper multiplex relational network that creates a community.

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