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6) Mutuality

1. What is/was Mutuality? With this post we return to the subject which motivated the original comment by “S. Friant,” which led me to launch this series of posts. Back in early June, Rachel Held Evans (RHE) held a week-long “Syncro-Blog” on Mutuality to which I contributed three posts (more than eighty posts were submitted). Mutuality is a term which many Christians today use to discuss the roles of men and women, especially in marriage and in the churches. Mutuality, that women may exercise the same offices and responsibilities as men based on giftedness and calling was affirmed by RHE’s syncro-posts in contrast to Complementarity. Those who assert Complementarity insist that women are and were always intended to occupy supporting (subordinate?) positions in marriage and in the church, regardless of their sense of calling and giftedness. Mutuality, as RHE uses it, has sometimes been called egalitarianism and complementarity is often called paternalism.

In this post I want to expand my understanding of mutuality beyond its use in my previous posts. My thesis is that the normal position of every Christian to every other Christian is one of mutual submission because of our reverence for Christ Jesus. I am arguing a biblical view which does not assert equal rights but rather equal subservience to Christ.[1]

I begin here with the same Pauline exhortation as I did in one of my posts for RHE, Ephesians 5:21:

And do not get drunk with wine, for that is dissipation, but be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord; always giving thanks for all things in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God, even the Father; and be subject to one another in the fear of Christ.

Ephesians 5:18-21

Paul strings together a list of behaviors which he contends flow normally from being showered with the costly blessings which come to those who believe Jesus is their conquering and saving king. The first is a prohibition and the rest are positive actions which lead further to the depths of riches which believers share. The last of these exhortations was the subject of an RHE post, along with verse 22, the first half of a series coupled examples of what it means to be subject one to another: “Wives, be subject to your own husbands, as to the Lord.” The Greek verb, hupotasso, (be subject) does not actually appear in verse 22; it is borrowed from the previous verse. In English, this would literally come out as: “…and be subject to one another in the fear of Christ; wives, to your own husbands as to the Lord.”

Hupotasso was a military term which, when it was used outside of military situations, meant to cooperate, to voluntarily assume a burden or voluntarily take on responsibility. This meaning is the basis of what I mean when I refer to mutuality. Paul calls on every Christian to voluntarily, appropriately, submit themselves to each other because of the awesome things King Jesus has done for all. And what are those awesome things which Jesus has done, the opportunities he has afforded, the gifts he has given? Paul has laid out the riches which the community of faith has in King Jesus in chapters 1 through 3 of this letter. So here Paul writes, “In our awe for all Christ Jesus has done, we now surely will mutually yield ourselves to each other.” Then he gives husbands and wives, children and parents, slaves and masters as part-for-the-whole examples of how mutual submission ought to look and work in the new kingdom/new creation ethos of the risen Lord.

As RHE and others noted in their posts, in this passage Paul mimics – almost parodies – a style of well-known Roman document called the Household Code. In those documents there was plenty on how wives should obey their husbands, children their fathers and servants their masters. Every detail of the ancient household codes made it crystal clear to one and all that all allegiance was owed to the Paterfamilias (father of the family) who must be obeyed in everything. In contrast, Paul’s take on “who’s actually in charge” is quite subversive of the Roman notion of “good order.” For Paul, King Jesus alone is in charge and everyone else needs to mutually subject themselves to each other for Jesus’ sake.

And how would such a thing work, you might ask? If my neighbor and I stand outside a doorway, issuing mutual invitations for the other to enter first, forever preferring the other over ourselves, neither of us will ever get into the next room. On what basis then, are we to defer to each other? If one reads through chapters 4 through 6 of Ephesians, Paul exhorts every Christian to grow up into full maturity in the use of the gifts each has been given by the conquering King. It is, I believe, on the bases of maturity and giftedness that we are most often to each defer to others.

In practice, that would mean that the one who has become mature in, say, biblical studies should be submitted to in the use of that gift. However, the mature and gifted pastor/teacher had best remember who she is, a child of God and therefore neither frustrate nor mistreat those under her tutorial authority. Moreover, although her mature use of her gifts have gained her proper respect in her area, she needs to submit herself to the authority of her doctor who uses his gifts in a masterly fashion as well. And the doctor need not take on airs. He must submit himself to others who have demonstrated mastery in flower arranging, music and landscaping. In that way, every mature member within the community ought to submit to every other mature Christian, depending on their areas of giftedness.[2] And those who are mature to whom others submit must never ever forget that they have and utilize their gifts for the sake of the Body. All mastery is for the sake of others. The greatest must be the servants of all. We have heard this forever. Have we ever lived it?

Imagine a society where every area of life, whether banking, pipe-fitting, pasturing people or pasturing sheep, every area of life was viewed as a holy calling, an arena wherein the gifts of the Spirit were exercised for the sake of the Body of Christ and for the ultimate redemption of all things! If you can imagine such a world, in which class, status, ethnicity and gender are all subsumed in love for creation and Creator, then I think you are catching a glimpse of the subversive society which Paul hoped to see become a light to a needy and broken world right inside of a brutal empire. This was the Spirit-driven social order which Paul prophesied would eventually “bring to nothing the things which” were then and there in the Roman empire, the false hierarchies, based on the world’s old and oppressive ways which still seemed right to most but which lead to death; the same false notions which still drive so much of our society toward cliffs of extinction.

Mutual submission because of awe for what the king had done to rescue us and all creation from evil.

2. How was Mutuality Lost? I have no idea whether any church to which Paul wrote ever caught his vision for a new society, rising up in the midst of the old. I am not sure Paul’s vision has ever been played out anywhere for very long. My guess is that anything approaching true and full mutuality has never more than barely touched down on the earth. At the same time, as surely as Ephesians is the letter in which Paul described the battle in which Christians are engaged as a battle fought “in heavenly places,” I am sure that whenever mutuality happens on the earth, heaven has touched down again.

3. Should Mutuality be reclaimed?

In our day heaven and earth are on tiptoe waiting for the emergence of a Spirit-led, Spirit-intoxicated, Spirit-empowered people. All creation watches expectantly for the springing up of a disciplined, freely gathered, martyr people who know in this life the life and power of the kingdom of God. It has happened before. It can happen again.

If you have read through this series of posts you will have noticed by now, I never seem to tire of quoting the first lines of the 12th chapter of Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline. That is surely because it is for the realization of those lines that I most fervently hope and pray. The Spirit can visit his people again in a powerful way. If Phyllis Tickle is half right and a great time of change and growth (after a terrible period of loss, bankruptcy and confusion) has come upon us, then I pray for a great time of mutuality, of mutual submission of one to another, to be part and parcel of the new ethos which emerges from the ashes of our dim era of practical, ethical and doctrinal chaos.

Mutuality. Would it not be an amazing thing if something so hopeful and powerful was happening in our age and we could be a part of it?

Come, please, Holy Spirit. We are so desperate for you!

Please join me in praying that the Spirit of God will fall afresh on his people; that we might again be melted, molded, filled and used as the transforming body of Christ.

~~~~~     ~~~~~      ~~~~~


1 Back to Post In one of her posts, RHE argues that in marriage God intends Christ Jesus to be in charge rather than either the man or the woman. Some who commented disagreed with RHE, arguing that such a position leaves the marriage with no final decision-maker. When I read such comments I remember thinking that such an objection amounts to deism if not atheism; God cannot communicate with a couple when they disagree or else God is not there? The argument is not about which person is in charge but about whether everyone knows that God is actually in charge, that all are his servants and so all seek to know God’s actual will. In Celebration of Discipline, Foster describes much of what I mean by mutuality within the discipline of Submission. He begins that chapter (pages 110-125) with a discussion of the manipulative and destructive ends to which submission without mutuality have been put among Christians. Then he describes the incredible freedom which comes through true and mutual submission.

2 Back to Post There is much more to say, about those who are immature as well as situations which might easily arise wherein two or more brothers and sisters who are mature and have similar expertise disagree and the community seeks Guidance. In such a situation one who is without any expertise in the subject area may become God’s prophet, bringing a previously not considered solution or even preventing consensus on the matter for a time. Such is sometimes the way of the Spirit within Submission. At the heart of the disciplines of Guidance, Service and mutual Submission is the Spirit-empowered grace of humility. In fact, much of what I am describing as mutuality, Richard Foster assigns to the disciplines of Service and Submission. There can be no Guidance, no true Service and no mutual Submission without humility; we must come to know who we are, good, beautiful, loved sinners, saved by grace, before we can mutually submit to each other.