A theology of power

Posted: December 4, 2012 by J in Church, Theology

It’s naive to think our church leaders, left to themselves, will use their power in good ways.

In the gospel, Jesus calls us to seriously rethink our approach to power:

25 But he said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them style themselves ‘Benefactor’.  26 But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves.  27 For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.   Luke 22

Sobering words. According to Jesus, leadership is about power. The natural human approach is to use power abusively, to aggrandise ourselves. Rulers tend to dominate or ‘lord it over’ the people they are supposed to be leading: that’s the fallen human version of leadership. Instead of providing an environment that allows the safe enjoyment of life and freedom, rulers naturally enslave and oppress. They make the lives of those under them a misery.

And at the same time they claim to be the best thing that ever happened for the people. In Jesus’ time the word Benefactor was a title assumed by the powerful, to proclaim the blessedness of their rule. At the same time they were crushing the life out of the weak, they wanted to enjoy the honour of being a public benefactor.

In this saying of Jesus are the makings of a theology of what humanity does with power. We use it to elevate ourselves to the place that belongs to God: rule and honour. And we rise by treading on the weak.

This should be enough to function as a serious warning to us. Unless our human approach to power is radically challenged, in fact completely overturned, than we too will end up using the power we gain for abusive ends.

In other words, hints of ideas about a different way of handling power will not do the trick. The problem is deep in our human sin-structures. We are hard-wired to abuse. Nothing less than an intentional, direct, forceful shakeup of the way power functions in our minds and communities, will be enough.

And Jesus’ words here provide just that forceful shakeup:

But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves…But I am among you as one who serves.

Tomorrow we’ll look at the new structure of power Jesus establishes.

But for our scene, and especially our colleges, we can say this: Alan commented lately that in our colleges there are lots of helpful ideas about power, but that the threads needed pulling together. Exactly. Loose threads will not be strong enough to pull us into line.

What is needed is serious attention in our training colleges to the subject of leadership,  starting with the understanding that leadership = power.  We need a curriculum of leadership studies, which

  • develops a theology of power, and then
  • examines the practical imperatives of that theology for church leadership and ministry

At the moment I think the approach in my scene is to downplay the importance of power in leadership, to say in effect, ‘No, leadership is not a power role, it’s about service.’ We kind of hope this will be enough to keep a lid on the whole thing. We hope power will take a back seat.

It’s an understandable approach. But it’s naive: power is powerful, it takes the driving seat. You don’t neutralise it just by denials. Our leaders are men, not angels. The theology of what humans do with power, outlined above – that applies to them (ahem, to us).

Really what we’re doing is sticking our head in the sand. This weak stance stops us from facing the dangers of the power we wield, and working out how to handle it differently for Jesus. It insulates us from hearing his radical challenge, and leaves power to drive where it will. And we know where power drives us: into abuse.

Jesus doesn’t call us to deny power, but to face it and reconfigure it. And that means (at the least!) some focussed thinking.

I’ve been in pastoral ministry for a couple of years now, so I reckon it’s time I had a go at that!

  1. Chris S says:

    This is importnat stuff methinks. With so many of the hot button issues in Christinity (that we wish weren’t so hot-button), while there is at times I think hubris and intentional smearing, there is also often a genuine fear that what I would call biblical Christian positions will lead to abuse, or are inherently abusive. And sometimes this is driven by experience of such abuse, and sometimes by hearing of such abuse. Sometimes that abuse does happen, and it undermines the beauty of how biblical Christian ethics and relationship structures play out.
    So this is important.

    • Jonathan says:

      it undermines the beauty of how biblical Christian ethics and relationship structures play out.

      Yes, for our witness to the world, this is the vital point. If the Christian way is not seen to be attractive, healthy, life-affirming and liberating, no one will trust us or our message. If the Christian relationship structures are exposed as ugly and destructive of persons, then the game is up.

  2. Chris S says:

    And even if they are not exposed as such (ie ‘exposed’ assuming there is a reality to expose’) but perceived as such due to a misunderstanding of their implications, the game is at least inhibited, – and the earthy-beauty of the relationships structures revealed and encouraged by the gospel is so sadly missed when it perhaps doesn’t have to be.

    • Jonathan says:

      So perhaps we need to be in the reassurance business, towards our neighbours? Is this apologetics?

      • Chris S says:

        Yeah, apologetics to the extent that apologetics is about showing the coherence and goodness of a Christian worldview. So it is apologetics in the effort to try to give a more complete glimpse into the Jesus-centred way of viewing the world and each other, and showing that this is actually healthy and lifegiving.
        But it is more I suppose too – in that a theology of power is good in itself too – ie it is not just about balancing and vindicating and explaining other things Christians say (about gender for instance, as per the previous posts), to show how they work in a positive way, but it is also showing how a world driven by Jesus would revolutionise power itself, and make power something to be viewed positiveyl.
        I think Rosner Ciampa have something in the intro to the 1 Cor comm on this mate – on interacting with post-modernism’s fear of abused power, and they draw on Thiselton for it.

  3. Alan Wood says:

    If you locate ‘power’ within ‘leadership studies’, it’s practically effective, because you focus the attention of ambitious young theological students and ordination candidates: “Oh, this is what I have to master to be a Master? OK.” So, it’s not a bad idea.
    But what do you do with male-female roles in marriage? It’s a step (not a gulf, but a step) away from ‘[Paid Ordained] Leadership’ as the (perceived) core subject. That’s perhaps not insurmountable – if you do the theology well enough with a purpose in itself, before moving on to “the point”, i.e. the practical ministry application. But it’s a potential difficulty.
    When would you do it? Before or after examining how ethics flows from the gospel in 3rd year?

    • Jonathan says:

      I love these practical down to earth questions, Alan. You’re a few steps ahead of me here. I haven’t really got a detailed plan at this stage.

      I think your question ‘When would you do it?’ relates specifically to the curriculum at Moore College. I’m not sure of the answer, but third year sounds like a good time to run it. Course could start with the idea, “You’re about to be a powerful person”.

      What are your thoughts?

      • Alan Wood says:

        Well, to start an entirely different argument, I’d point out the problems with Congregational Ministry as it is currently taught – which has been changed with good intentions and imperfect outcomes several times, as I understand it. It’s a tricky area.
        What you want is for Power to be part of our Doctrine formation, and for that to flow into our praxis. Maybe start with Barth in Dogmatics in Outline, saying that worship of the Almighty qua Almighty is satanic. Maybe start with ‘God is Love’, if you want to sound more cuddly.
        What you will get is Power as a subject either in Doctrine, where pastoral application isn’t the main game, or in Congregational Ministry, where your mark barely counts. Perhaps Ethics is the bridge – but I don’t know that it bridges terribly well right now. B/c Ethics flows out of Doctrine, we get to it late (btw, I think that’s why Brian and Andrew make early third year harrowing – they’re trying to make up for all the cementing of bad practice that has happened while we were getting up to speed on Doctrine. But I found it was challenging intellectually rather than practically).
        The problem is of course within us (alumni, sending mentors, students and supervising rectors). We are people who were trying to get good marks and not so worried about the process, the apprenticeship, all the practical aspects. And we allow people with that attitude to get through without severe rebuke. We are a community where deep practical relationship – working on ministry together – is optional except for one week a year.
        Boy, that went off in another direction again. <>

  4. Ben Hudson says:

    Stimulating as ever, Jono.

    My sense is that we are more likely to use the language of authority rather than power, but to the extent that their meanings overlap, we do talk quite a bit about the responsibility of those with authority to use it in a criciform way, in the service of others. This is especially so when it comes to gender issues. cf sermons on Eph 5 etc …

    Are you suggesting that we need to talk about this stuff more/better so that the SMH pick it up? Or that what we say is undermined by what we do? Or both?

    • Jonathan says:

      Yes, I think they do overlap, but not fully, with authority being a slightly more static concept in English, than power. I agree Ben that we talk about the responsibilities that go with authority. And that’s good. Especially in gender issues. My experience is we touch on these things fairly often, rather than going deeply into them. What, after all, does it actually mean to lay down your life for your wife?

      But these are still threads. What I’m calling for is a full-orbed theology of power, which as Alan says gathers and structures the threads. Which would include the idea of authority, would look at the positive responsibilities that accompany power of all sorts, and would have gender/marriage as one avenue in which it’s played out. But they would only be parts of the whole package. The package would need to look at the negatives as well, the dangers and problems of human power. The sort of thing I’ve attempted in this post very briefly, I’ve rarely heard discussed in a church leadership context anywhere. Except by the diocese’s Professional Standards Unit!

      So yes, you could say we need to talk about it better. A biblical theology of power would be a good place to start.

      My feeling is we do need the SMH to hear us articulate this persuasively. But even more we need, as pastors of the churches, to hear ourselves articulate this. WE need our students at the colleges to hear us articulate it. So we all learn to lead and not abuse people.

  5. Ben Hudson says:

    Yep, I see what you mean. Thanks.

  6. Ben Hudson says:

    Has Oliver O’Donnovan done this? Not specifically in relation to church leadership, but the Biblical Theology stuff?

  7. portll says:

    Elders (Andrew Denton thing on ABC iView) has an interesting interview with a Catholic priest you’ll have heard of on the subject. Certainly nails the power versus authority argument, with clarity and goes through the repercussions of abuse. Think it’s still available for a couple of days.

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