I know, I know. I titled this series Faithful Presence: Three Questions for David Fitch’s Mutual Submission and this is my sixth post and already I’ve asked numerous questions. If there is an order to my madness, it is I have asked many questions under the umbrella of asking two larger questions so far: the Rosa Parks question, and the David Schnarch question.
I am moving toward my third question in this series while asking more questions on the way. I am spending significant time on this book because the meaning of the two words “mutual” and “submission” and their implications for the cross-gender friendship conversation in the kingdom of God.
I am spending significant amount of time in this book processing what is at the heart of this book (mutual submission) because I have questions about the potential (and in my case, real) spiritual bully/male aggression dynamic that is hidden in what I can only describe as a bait-and-switch that caught me by surprise.
I was “under” (see in my first post—the term “under’ is invested with a lot meaning for Dave’s vision of mutual submission) Dave’s vision of mutual submission for several years.
If you get to know Dave he spends a lot of time claiming his version of a neo-anabaptist version of the church with mutual submission at the center is exactly what the world needs. It is the pathway to the presence of God.
If you are around him for any length of time whether it be in church or in social media, you know his propensity to believe there are essentially two ways of life: mutual submission under neo-anabaptist community and excessive individualism. Conservatives, progressives, mega-church ministries are pretty much lumped together under “excessive individualism” with anemic approaches to spiritual formation.
What is significant about that is what I have found most unsettling in Dave’s firm commitment to mutual submission. There is a heavy dose of a white evangelical male calling for the death to self.
At one point in Facebook back in 2013 author Julie Clawson reacting to one of Dave’s status’ asked: "Why is it always white, middle-class, highly-educated males who argue that dying to the self for the sake of commitment and accountability to a local church despite disagreement, silencing, or abuse is the only way one can be a part of the kingdom of God?”
The other dynamic that I found most unsettling that sits just alongside this heavy dose of death to self is that the “I” in the midst of Dave’s conception of togetherness is discovered in submission to community. When you put those two things together in a system of one-size-all mutual submission, its not that inviting for minorities, many women, or other white males who have a healthy skepticism living in the twenty-first century in the Western world.
I believe when I experienced the spiritual bullying I did in 2009, the continual response to the “problem” I was told was submission to the church or that system. Bring in more John Howard Yoder advocates.
“In this space we submit all of our divisions and personal agendas to Christ’s presence. All of this must die” (Faithful Presence 53).
As much as I continued to express healthy skepticism of the top-heavy use of Matthew 18, I was told submission to the system is the answer. Fast forward to seven years later, and Dave’s recent response to me was the same it was seven years ago: a firm belief that submission to his system eventually works everything out.
After my encounter with Dave’s spiritual bullying in 2009 using Matthew 18 as justification, I wondered if his system of submission was true for all stripes of anabaptist or neo-anabaptist churches.
As it turns out, Fran Porter’s Women and Men After Christendom (I love that she’s a woman who is seeking wrestle with church in the twenty-first century) offers anabaptists or neo-baptists (and other interested onlookers) quite a contrast from Faithful Presence.
Indeed, the contrast is striking. You will find Faithful Presence uses “submit” over hundred times while Porter uses the word four times. But wait. The contrast is even more striking. Faithful Presence uses the term “friendship” four times. In Porter’s book, you will find friendship mentioned forty-five times.
In fact, in striking contrast to "mutual submission," as the heartbeat for church life in post Christendom, Porter proposes:
"If we used friendship as an overarching framework (as our hermeneutics) to explore how women and men might relate together in homes, churches and in wider society, might it help us imagine qualitatively different gender relations than those with which we currently wrestle?...
I propose that envisioning women and men as friends today should not be simply or primarily a matter between private individuals, but a framework for gender relations in all areas of life – both private and public. In other words, I am suggesting friendship as the underlying rationale for how we structure ourselves as women and men in domestic, church and community settings and in wider society. This public dimension also includes offering friendship as part of authentic Christian witness. For in the same way that the gospel is not only of individual relevance but has political and social ramifications, gender relations of friendship may be part of the outworking of our discipleship, a way that we live the good news." (2556 in Kindle).
On the other hand, what is striking about Dave’s system of mutual submission is that it appears to be so close to Michelle Lee-Barnewall's book that came out this year: Neither Complementarian Nor Egalitarian: A Kingdom Corrective to the Evangelical Debate.
I was struck by how her critique of women’s individual flourishing, fulfillment, and fullness that have happened from the mid-twentieth century onward sounded much like Dave’s critique of excessive individualism within evangelicalism.
Watch in her passionate argument to uphold a middle position on this debate, how much she sounds like Dave Fitch’s position on mutuality:
“The key to Paul’s ethic is the “mutual upbuilding” of the members of the body, so individual rights are ultimately subservient to love.”
“The concept that all people are created equal and endowed with certain inalienable rights comes from the Enlightenment and would have been “thoroughly alien” to the ancient world.”
“Equality speaks to one’s personal privileges and rights, whereas love describes one’s willingness to prioritize others.”
“The willingness to sacrifice for the good of another is the essence of love in the New Testament. Paul uses Christ’s lowering and sacrifice as an example of the love the Philippians should strive to have among themselves (Phil. 2: 2, 5– 11). Giving up one’s legitimate rights to prevent another believer from stumbling is a way in which love “builds up” (1 Cor. 8: 1– 13).”
“From this vantage point we can gain a larger perspective with which to view individuals, rather than focusing on the individuals themselves, thus lessening the possibility of an overly self-oriented focus.”
“Within this understanding, the body of Christ becomes a prime means for the manifestation of God’s values, values centering not on self but on the other.”
I thought she was channeling Dave Fitch throughout most of this book even though she is arguing for a middle position. In both her book and Dave’s, there is so little attention to recognize male aggression to solve conflicts precisely on the connection between sexuality, gender, and shared togetherness.
How do they refrain from acting as spiritual bullies toward those who disagree in local church conflicts? With female trailblazers? With women (or men) who provoke patriarchal anxiety? With women who are not people-pleasers and have a healthy skepticism toward versions of submission in both books?
With the exception of Dave’s affirmation that women share in all the gifting that men do, I could hardly tell the difference in the way they both critique individual fulfillment, flourishing, and fullness. Both privilege a strong emphasis of the shared togetherness in the church with the “I” in submission.
Also a striking similarity between the two is the absence of a hermeneutic of friendship. Lee-Barnewall’s book like Faithful Presence rarely mentions friendship. Like Faithful Presence the spiritual discipline of mutual intimate friendship is missing.
The books both share a “big boat” ( see my post about this here) assumption whether it comes from a middle grounder like Barnewall or an egalitarian like Dave. There is no place in either book to encourage each leader to have separate boats.