One of the things I have always admired and respected about David Fitch is his desire stay clear from the hypermasculine behaviors. Dave's a brilliant thinker and respected leader, a respected theologian who teaches at Northern Seminary. He's also a leading voice for Missio Alliance.
His humble posture to submit to others including women in the church is a striking alternative to male leaders who tell others what to do and expect them to conform to their mini-pope assertive leadership. I've seen Dave up close week in, week out, for a number of years. I have nothing but enormous respect for his desire to submit his superb mind, his bright thinking, and his deep desires for mutuality.
I love David Fitch.
Although he is flawed like the rest of us, I wholeheartedly attest that Dave seeks to honor Christ's words when he said, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all.” This has been the heartbeat of his leadership. Ten years after I started participating in Dave's church, I have nothing but great respect for his desire for mutuality. I consider him to be a friend.
I couldn’t wait to read his new book, Faithful Presence: Seven Disciplines That Shape the Church for Mission. Since I participated in the ministry under his leadership for several years until he moved out of the area, I was eager to read how he would unpack his vision of the church. I wasn't expecting too many surprises.
Dave is an evangelical who is searching for the "real church." The book is published by IVP which took a strong judgmental stand recently against their own employees who were supportive of the LGBTQ community.
He joins the great chorus of men and women who are frustrated and disappointed with the evangelical church, and who want to see God do great things in the church (me too!). There have been numerous books written by both men and women in the last decade that are critical of the church and offer their own unique call for reform.
Like others, Dave has his slant about how the evangelical church is not getting the job done or how it sees God's presence in the world. In particular, he did not like what James Davison Hunter had to say in his book, To Change the World in 2010 and this book is a response to that one.
As the subtitle says, Dave lays out seven disciplines for the church’s mission. He suggests the following are seven disciplines that open space to Christ’s presence: the Lord’s Table, reconciliation, proclaiming the Gospel, being with the “least of these,” being with children, fivefold gifting, and kingdom prayer.
Those are all great disciplines and he shares some beautiful stories interspersed throughout the book while distilling his learned wisdom in participating in these disciplines.
But where is the eighth discipline?
Why isn’t there a chapter on the discipline of intimate mutual friendship?
How can there be a book written in 2016 that stresses mutuality throughout the church but does not include the discipline of intimate mutual friendship? We could ask why isn't the discipline of intimate friendship the golden thread that runs through each and every one of the other disciplines?
I get so pumped when I read, “there is a social closeness that is supernatural. And Jesus, as the host, is at the center of this space. Here the intensity of the presence of Christ is known like nowhere else.” But this acknowledgment begs for the eighth discipline—the discipline of intimate mutual friendship.
In fact, Dave's omission of the discipline of intimate mutual friendship tells us that we can have different sources of motivation for mutuality, different approaches to mutuality, and different meanings about mutuality among egalitarians. Imagine that!
Knowing Dave though, I am not at all surprised however, the book doesn't have any chapter on the discipline of friendship. I am disappointed that he took a pass on that. He continues to remain in the company of Ed Stetzer, John Piper, Timothy Keller, D. A. Carson, Scot McKnight, Mark Driscoll, Albert Mohler, and other white evangelical male leaders who write about leadership or the church but avoid spiritual intimacy between men and women.
Institutional patriarchy, benevolent sexism, acute evangelical-patriarchal anxiety about mutual closeness between men and women—all continue to loom as this huge problem for white male evangelical leaders like Dave. There is so much unacknowledged patriarchal dynamics among evangelicals about social closeness between men and women these male leaders continue to avoid.
If you know Dave, the discipline of intimate mutual friendship has never been in the front and center in his ministry; these seven disciplines in the book are the most important to him and his vision for ministry. These are at the heart and soul of his vision.
Early in the book, he introduces us to the phrase “mutual submission.” This is so near and dear to Dave's mission, and according to him, the church's mission. If you do a word count, “submission/submit” are some of the most used words in the book. They almost outnumber the pages in the book.
I totally get why a number of evangelical men and women are drawn to his theory of mutual submission that he presents in this book and as a leading voice in Missio Alliance. I also get that one of his former co-pastors saw so much relational beauty in Dave's theory of mutual submission that he named his blog, "Submissional Leadership" blog.
When I began to go public with cross-gender friendship in 2009 as a shepherd (their word for “elder”) in Dave's church, I stirred up quite a hornet's nest. Patriarchal anxiety and the urge to control/coerce among the leaders was extraordinarily thick and entrenched and he was in the middle of it. I totally affirm his good intentions and his being caught in the middle of it. The patriarchal fight or flight dynamic was quite real back in 2009.
The ensuing chaos led to intensive, months long conversations between Dave and I as well as other leaders within the church. It led to a spiritual-emotional gridlock between us that eventually shut down mutual presence between the pastors and myself.
A few years later, Ty Grigg became a co-pastor. Ty was the first pastor after that gridlock to embody an authentic, non-anxious presence with me and sought to be fully present with me. And we connected on differentiation! More on that to come! I love Ty! I love my church, Life on the Vine. It's not perfect. But we have matured in this ever-deepening conversation through the years!
I want to explore three questions as I engage the book. We will look at each question in a different post. My three questions are going to be about trailblazers, spiritual intimacy, and shalom.
A Question about Trailblazers
Dave talks about how these seven disciplines accompanied with a posture of humility opens up a social space for God's presence to break-in. I love that!
With him, I hunger for the presence of Christ. We both have a passionate agreement that the world is “aching for mutuality.” How thrilling it is to be talking about mutuality and leadership in 2016!
I had a burning question when I read through the book. Well, I had several but this was an important one I have had since 2009: is there any open space in the church for trailblazers? Or groundbreakers? Pioneers? Boundarybreakers? Or for those who stir the hornet's nest? Or, a prophet?
Let me quote two sentences from the book to set the table for this question:
“Each leader serves under the community, not over it. Each leader’s gifts still had to be recognized within the community (or there would be no community).”
Faithful Presence: The Seven Disciplines That Shape the Church for Mission
I would submit to you that in my six plus years of experience under David Fitch while he was pastor at Life on the Vine, these two sentences summarize what I understand to be the heart and soul of Dave’s leadership and mutuality.
That five letter word—u-n-d-e-r—makes all the difference in the world in our understanding of mutuality according to Dave.
Note some of the “unders” in the book. He writes, “living together under the one reign of God in Christ,” and then, “We submit to each other under Christ during the week in the same way as we do on Sundays or within church polity.” Also, “Rather, because all are committed Christians carefully discerning their submission to Christ and to one another under his reign.”
It also frames all his language about mutuality. My friend writes, “By mutually submitting to one another under his lordship through this discipline, a space was opened up for his presence, and the kingdom broke in.” Also, “As people enter into this place under his authority, they are stripped of all presumption of power, including positions of power they hold in the world that may put one person over another.”
From personal experience and this book, I can testify that the most important word in Faithful Presence is “under.” It is how Dave frames mutuality, how he understands a “social space” is opened, how he frames, “discerning the presence of Christ,” how he frames listening to the Spirit. Under is everything to him!
Now to be fair to Dave, everyone is “under” the “Lordship of Christ" including himself. For him, one of the implications for this means no leader is to seize power over another person. He asserts, “In the kingdom of God however, there is no more seizing power by someone over others.”
As my friend Kathy Escobar says, prepositions matter!!! There is a world of difference between "under" and "with." More on that to come.
Dave's claims raise up a zillion questions given his need for everyone being "under" in community. But, I'll focus on this area. In what sense then, in this particular system of mutual submission, are trailblazers, pot-stirrers, prophets, rulebreakers, and groundbreakers “under” the church? Where, in his vision, does God gift the church, gift the Kingdom with these individuals?
I mean its one thing if the trailblazer is blazing an exciting but rather benign trail. But where is an open space for the “leader” (individual) who blazes a controversial trail? A provocative trail? Not for the sake of controversy but for deeper peacemaking?
In my experience, under Dave's leadership, it is the individual leader who is a provocative trailblazer that must “submit” because every leader must be “under” the church. This is not abstract theory for me. I experienced how mutual submission kicks in when a trailblazer stirs up unacknowledged patriarchal chronic anxiety lurking among leaders and others.
Let's pick a provocative example from the past, shall we? Now don't get me wrong or misunderstand me because at this point in history Dave bleeds for genuine reconciliation between races. He is in touch with white privilege.
But Rosa Parks? The "first lady of civil rights." Back on that day, a pastor with Dave’s mutual submission system would have been the first to put Parks in the process of Matt. 18 the moment she sat down on the bus. So much social space disturbed by crossing social boundaries that polarized church going people and disturbed their social peace about order! All she did was choose a seat and that turned into a heated and controversial place of nearness as defined by the community.
Under Dave's system of mutual submission had she been a leader in the church she would have been urged by one of the co-pastors to die to her self and submit to the church until the process was discerned according to Matt. 18. They would have told her she needed to lay down her agenda for the sake of the church during this time, for the sake of the Gospel. They would tell her as a leader she would need to put herself “under” the community. All the time the pastors would be quoting Matt. 18.
Her ego, according to a pastor following this kind of mutual submission, she must surrender her ego in this process. Her self-absorptions must be put "under" submission. As Dave insists, she must come, "not seeking to win." She must trust in the faithful presence of God putting her ego "under" the community.
They would have told her she may have to die to her dream for justice, her dream for equality for the sake of mutual submission and the church. Would she also be described as someone who was polarizing the church or splitting the church?
Fast forward to the present. Does this view of mutual submission discourage strong female personalities? Does it favor women with a particular kind of personality over other personalities? Does it discourage female dissenters who are trailblazers? Is the fullness of spiritual humility for women trailblazers (and for men) restricted and limited to submitting to this system?
As much as Dave stresses the Kingdom of God is not about coercion on the one hand, this system demands tight-knit control over ensuring that Matt. 18 needs to happen in order to keep leaders “under” community. Where is the relational beauty, relational breathing space for provocative trailblazers or prophets, or shalom-makers?
Suddenly, well-intentioned, this mutual submission system sounds like it invites “nice,” “compliant” and “humble” women who stay “under” the system (mutual submission) for keeping the peace. White women, or women of color are welcomed as long as they are “humble,” (i.e. submit), nice, and compliant to the system of being “under.”
Every woman who is trailblazer, a prophet, a provocative boundary-breaker body needs to get in line or go through a top-heavy, possibly long drawn out process of Matt. 18 under compulsive/enforced togetherness as a need for “each leader” to be “under” community. And who gets to decide in this system of power when the enforced togetherness of Matt. 18 ends? When does it start? When does it end? Especially if there is gridlock?
I know many strong women (white and women of color) who are faithful followers of Jesus who would not want to be entrapped by that kind of tight-knit control to maintain the “under” status. But that takes us to the spiritual fullness of women in spiritual intimacy.
This question directs us back to deeply embedded and unacknowledged issues of patriarchal power and anxiety when men put forth systems of submission. I know Dave has good intentions but how is a woman as a leader who blazes a provocative trail, able to break free from a male-centered culture of submission in this system?
“Herding” is what Edwin Friedman calls an enforced togetherness compelling individuals toward the least mature members. This is the “process through which the forces for togetherness triumph over the forces for individuality and move everyone to adapt to the least mature members.”
And what hope is there for the trailblazer/prophet for constructive movement out of this kind of herding? Especially when they are told they have to die to self and their dream for the church while this herding is taking place?
Is there an open space for rulebreakers/trailblazers in Dave’s mutual submission? Or are we just avoiding the question of authentic mutuality in spiritual intimacy? “A male-centered world tells women who they are or who they should be, especially in intimate relationships.”
That leads us into our second question. A question about spiritual intimacy. How does spiritual intimacy flourish in the system of mutual submission? Part two.