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Power in the church

How should we relate to one another within church communities?
Posted August 4, 2010

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How should we relate to one another within church communities?

Followers of Jesus are called to love God and love their neighbours. Jesus said that our relationships can mark us out as his. The inevitable implication of this is that if our relationships are not characterised by love then we dishonour Jesus’ name.

Carl Jung, a significant pioneer in the field of psychology, suggests that the ‘will to power’—the desire to exercise control over another—is the opposite of love. If that is the case, then those who would follow Jesus Christ need to both understand and be aware of power dynamics in all their relationships.

Power: What do you mean by that?

One way of defining power is to observe that, in any given situation, the person with power is the one who determines what is going to happen. Or, putting it another way, power is the ‘capability to achieve specific goals or objectives’. 2 Power, then, is the ability to do something, to assert one’s will, or to determine that something will happen.

Closely related to the concept of power is that of authority. Authority is not so much about the ability to determine what is going to happen, but about the right to do so. Being in a position of authority within a group, for example, might mean that a designated leader has the right to make a final decision when the group cannot agree.

Of course, it is possible to have authority without power. It is equally possible to wield power without the authority (the right) to do so.

Defined simply as ability, power is a morally-neutral concept; power itself is neither good nor bad. It is the when, how and why of the exercise of power that determines its moral quality. Power exercised without proper authority or in defiance of legitimate authority is wrong. Some means of determining what is going to happen are morally bankrupt; just because we are able to do something does not mean that it should be done. Even if we have the right to determine what will happen, it does not mean that every action taken to achieve our goals is legitimate.

Authority, too, is morally neutral. But its validity will depend on whether, and by whom, authority has been granted. Who has legitimate authority—and why—will vary from situation to situation. In a church setting with formal leadership structures, there are usually clearly defined lines of authority. Self-assumed authority is almost certainly of dubious moral quality.

Power, especially as we are thinking about it in the context of the church, is all about relationships between people. It’s therefore important to consider how we relate to one another within the church: Who has authority (the right to determine what is going to happen)? Who has the power (the ability to determine what is going to happen)? What ends are appropriate (the why questions)? And what means are appropriate for achieving them (the how questions)?

Power: What does the Bible say?

From a biblical perspective, all power and authority belongs to God as the creator, preserver and governor of all things. Human authority—and the exercise of power—is legitimate only insofar as it is understood as delegated stewardship from God (Genesis 1:26-28).

The Bible contains some clear and simple instruction about how this stewardship should be regarded. For those with authority, the instruction is to use it for God’s purposes (Matthew 20:25-28, 1 Peter 5:2-3). For those under the authority of another, the instruction is to respect that authority (Hebrews 13: 17,1 Thessalonians 5: 12- 13a).

While the Bible makes some direct statements about power and authority, the same principles are also illustrated in biblical stories.

Saul and David
Saul was delegated God’s authority to act as the first king over Israel. He was authorised to act on God’s behalf for the good of the nation. His kingly powers existed for that purpose; however, Saul lost sight of this fact and began to trust his own judgment and to act from selfish motives. As a result, God withdrew the authority that established Saul’s right to act (1 Samuel 15: 10, 16:1).

Saul desperately clung to his position and used his power to attack David, whom he perceived as a threat. David still maintained respect for Saul and, on more than one occasion, refused to use the power that he had to harm Saul (1 Samuel 24 and 26). David recognised that he had no authority to use his power to force the outcome of events. Even so, he could still respectfully question the way Saul was treating him (1 Samuel 26:8).

David later had his own struggles with inappropriate use of the power associated with his kingly authority. His taking of Bathsheba as his lover and the murder of her husband, Uriah, testify to the temptations that power and authority present. Like Saul, David forgot that power is to be used only for God’s purposes. He instead used it for self-gratification (2 Samuel 11 and 12).

In the gospels, Jesus clearly has power. Over and over again he is portrayed as one who has the ability to make things happen. Jesus forgave sins, he healed physical illness, and he changed the course of people’s lives. But the way that Jesus made things happen is significant.

Jesus’ question to blind Bartimaeus: ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ (Mark 10:51 ) is a good example. Bartimaeus is a partner in his own healing, which occurs at Jesus’ invitation.

The pattern is repeated in many places: Jesus responds to the brazen faith of four friends (Mark 2: ff), to the impassioned plea of a synagogue ruler (Mark 5:2 ff), to the secret touch of a desperate woman (Mark 5:25ff), even to the impertinent bargaining of a Gentile mother (Mark 7:24). In none of these situations is it Jesus alone who determines what will happen. Jesus’ way is the way of invitation; not compulsion, coercion or manipulation.

With his disciples, Jesus seems more direct: he sent them out (Mark 6:7), he made them get into a boat (Mark 6:45), he gave orders to prepare for a Passover meal (Mark 4: 3ff). Even the call to discipleship sounds like a command: ‘Come, follow me!’ (Mark 6: 7). And yet there are those who refuse the invitation to follow (Luke 9:58ff), and there are disciples who, having begun to follow, turn and walk away (John 6:66).

It seems that Jesus’ orders are an invitation to obey, but where obedience does not follow there is no compulsion, no coercion and no manipulation.

Biblical principles

The Biblical principles seem clear: those with authority must exercise power as a stewardship from God; they are not to ‘lord it over’ those for whom they are responsible, but to seek the good of others at all times. (Mark 10:42-43)

Those under authority should also exercise the power they do have as a stewardship from God; their power should be used to support those who exercise legitimate authority within the church ( 1 Thessalonians 5: 12- 13, Hebrews 13: 17).

Power must never be used for selfish purposes (Romans 2:8, 1 Corinthians 3:5, Philippians 2:3, James 3: 6). On the other hand, God’s people are exhorted to ‘defend the cause’ of those without power (Psalm 82:3, Isaiah : 7, James :27). The command to ‘maintain the rights of the poor and oppressed’ implies an ‘oppressor’ or an oppressive system, which must be resisted. While Jesus speaks against forceful resistance in one’s own defence (Matthew 5:39), active resistance against oppressive evil is exhorted elsewhere (James 4:7, Peter 5:9).

Jesus is the ultimate example of power under control. When we consider his example we see that humility is an essential characteristic of faithful Christian leadership (see Philippians 2:3-8, especially verse 3):

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.
Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God
something to be grasped,
but made himself nothing,
taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to death—
even death on a cross!