Mutuality and Dialogue


A section of my book “Dialogue in Diversity.” The first very rough draft is basically complete and will be reviewed by my students in “Interreligious Dialogue class.

According to Martin Buber:

The presupposition of genuine dialogue is not that the partners agree beforehand to relativize their own convictions, but that they accept each other as persons.”
Mutuality is not as commonly promoted as a Biblical virtue as some others. Yet, it is a strongly supported virtue, especially in the New Testament. Mutuality describes equal support. It implies two different aspects: Equal as position, and equal in interdependence.
Consider the figure below. The figure shows two people– A and B. In the top part of the figure is A and B in unequal positions. If they are communicating, A is “talking down” to B, The middle part of the figure shows the two in equal position, but not equal in interdependence. If they are in conversation, A is “talking at” B, with little communication back from B to A. The bottom one shows equalness in role and in interdependence. They have mutuality in conversation. A and B are “talking with” each other.
Mutuality applies to many things beyond talking.Figure x
The church has often struggled with battle between seemingly competing virtues of submission and mutuality. Typically, the church has tended to focus more on submission— submission to authorities, to parents, to husbands. Yet built into each of these is a mutuality. Jesus modeled and taught a form of leadership built on serving, not being served. Wives may be told to submit to their husbands, but husbands are told to love their wives as Christ loved the church. And that form of love involves self-sacrifice and serving. It is hardly surprising then, that the most well-known passage in the Bible, Ephesians 5:21ff, opens with an overarching call to mutuality, “Submit one to another, out of reverence to Christ,” and then returns to the theme of mutuality with the body metaphor of Christ and the church.
The book of Philemon can be read as a book of Christian mutuality. Paul appeals to Philemon no to punish Onesimus, Philemon’s slave. Rather to accept him back, and even give him his freedom, and treat him as a full brother in Christ. Paul doesn’t actually order him to do that, for to do so would be to place himself as an authority. Rather Paul appeals to him as a fellow partner. The book sometimes is seen as a half-hearted rejection of slavery. However, it may better be seen as how Christian love and Jesus’ form of leadership is applied to a difficult situation, rather than law and hierarchy.
Many of the verses on mutuality are found as “one another passages.” There are dozens of these. A few of them include:

  • Be devoted to one another in brotherly love…” (Romans 12:10)
  • …Honor one another above yourselves. (Romans 12:10)
  • Live in harmony with one another…” (Romans 12:16)
  • …Love one another…” (Romans 13:8)
  • …Stop passing judgment on one another.” (Romans 14:13)
  • Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you…” (Romans 15:7)
  • …Instruct one another.” (Romans 15:14)
  • Greet one another with a holy kiss…” (Romans 16:16)
  • …When you come together to eat, wait for each other.” (I Cor. 11:33)
  • …Have equal concern for each other. (I Cor. 12:25)
  • …Serve one another in love.” (Galatians 5:13)
  • Carry each other’s burdens…” (Galatians 6:2)
  • …Be patient, bearing with one another in love.” (Ephesians 4:2)
  • Be kind and compassionate to one another…” (Ephesians 4:32)
  • …Forgiving each other…” (Ephesians 4:32)

These principles apply to Christians within the church. Some other statements of the same order were given by Jesus to His disciples– most famously, John 15:12, “Love each other as I have loved you.” But to what extent does mutuality apply to dealing with non-Christians, those outside of the church?

Love each other as I have loved you.” But to what extent does mutuality apply to dealing with non-Christians, those outside of the church?

On a strict, rather legalistic, level one could say that since these statement are given to the church for behavior within the church, it doesn’t apply to a Christian’s relationship with those outside of the church.

HOWEVER, mutuality could be understood as a logical application of the Great Commandment. If I love my Christian neighbor as myself, as Jesus so instructed and modeled, and my Christian neighbor does the same, then we relate to each other in a state of mutual love for each other. And if we do that then the other characteristics of mutuality must then also apply (we bear each other’s burdens, we encourage each other, we forgive each other, etc.).

But… the Great Commandment was not given to believers only to relate to other believers (‘love your friends, hate your enemies’). Rather it is for all followers of Christ to all peoples. We may love our families different than we love members of our church, and we may love members of our church differently than we love members of other church, and all of these different than we love strangers or enemies. Regardless, if our behavior to any group is unloving, then clearly we have failed to follow Christ. In like manner, we serve, forgive, encourage, and show hospitality, in a manner that is Christlike even for those outside the faith.

It is interesting to note that over the years mutuality has grown outside of the church, commonly influenced by the church. Sometimes they caught on and even went ahead of the church. Human rights grew out of Judeo-Christian principles where each person has basic rights that are not based on race, gender, nationality, status or achievement. The movement against slavery began largely in the church, and grew beyond the church as some churches sought to defend the practice. Servant-Leadership has now become popularized in business and governance, even while some churches defend unilateral submission.

Dialogue works best from a position of mutuality. We treat each others with respect and with equality. We are there to teach and there to learn. We are there to encourage and be encouraged. We are there to help the other grow, and grow oneself. There is no guarantee that the other will accept those terms. The other may draw away, or may seek to assume a position of authority. We have no control over the other, we only have control over ourselves.

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