Power Dynamics and the People of God
We may not actively think about power dynamics and how they play out throughout our affiliations and relationships. In fact, many forces at work would rather you never think about them.
According to the witness of Scripture, God has established authorities and powers in His creation (Romans 13:1-2). In a very real sense, every created being has a level of authority and power: they have been given free will and will be held accountable for the decisions they have made (Romans 14:10-12, 1 Corinthians 6:3). Some humans have been given authority in various domains and will be held accountable for how they exercised authority over those domains: households, institutions, governments, etc. (1 Peter 2:11-17, etc.). Likewise, God created spiritual beings and gave them authority over various peoples, institutions, and the like (Psalm 82:1-6, Ephesians 6:12). Thus, all our affiliations and relationships are overseen, to some degree or another, by authorities invested with power, both material and spiritual. As those seeking to serve God in Christ we do well to consider how power and power dynamics among God’s people should be leveraged to God’s glory.
When we think of power among the people of God, we would immediately first think of the Lord Jesus Christ as the head and thus authority and power over the church, with elders shepherding local flocks over which the Holy Spirit has given them oversight (Acts 20:28, Colossians 1:18, 1 Peter 5:1-4). All should look to the Lord Jesus as their head and authority; whenever there are elders overseeing a local congregation, they will be seen as having at least some level of authority and power, and must live accordingly.
Functionally and practically, however, power and power dynamics among God’s people goes well beyond the Lord Jesus Christ and elders. Their power is often deemed “hard” power, while other forms of power, involving influence, persuasion, etc., is considered as “soft” power. Preachers may not have much “hard” power but their “soft” power within a local congregation tends to be considerable. Preacher’s wives, deacons, deacon’s wives, or elder’s wives may also leverage significant “soft” power; the same might be true of any member who has a strong reputation, charisma, or both. In congregations without elderships, the preacher’s “soft” power tends to accumulate, and there are likely a few men (and even perhaps some women) who leverage “soft” power.
Christians and local congregations can also be significantly influenced by the “soft” power given to external actors and factors. Sources of Bible class material and the previous influencers over the preacher and others bring influences to bear. Christians have tended to lionize certain preachers or positions, and their influence can spread far and wide. In their liberty Christians have established many institutions and organizations, from benevolent organizations to schools and colleges and various foundations or publications, and many Christians are influenced by these organizations and work diligently to maintain them. The “inputs” Christians receive during the times they are not present in the assembly, be it from secular or “spiritual” media, whether books, magazines, television, streaming shows, or engagement on social media, can find their way into the assemblies of Christians and in the ways they look at one another and the world.
We might be able to think of other sources of “soft” power which influence Christians and local churches, yet so far all of them save the Lord Jesus have been people or that which people have made. While we may not know much about how the powers and principalities work, we must always be aware of their existence and their likely influence over us (Ephesians 6:12). The wording of Revelation 1:20-3:22 suggests Jesus wrote in the Spirit to the angel of each of the seven churches, giving credence to the strong possibility each local congregation has an angel, a spiritual power, overseeing it. If nothing else, Revelation 2:1-3:22 powerfully demonstrates how Jesus is not an absentminded landlord but very aware of the activities and dynamics of each local congregation of His people.
Thus, whether we consciously consider it or not, power and power dynamics remain at work as we relate to one another as fellow Christians and in local congregations of God’s people. The only question is whether we will submit to the pattern and embodiment of the Lord Jesus Christ in how we leverage power and power dynamics or whether we will capitulate to the powers and principalities of the world in how power is used.
The Apostle Paul has left us without any doubt: Jesus has triumphed over the powers and principalities (Colossians 2:15). They have been brought low by His cross and resurrection, and now maintain only the power people give over to them in their anxieties and fears.
Nevertheless, as the people of God, we should never underestimate the temptation we have to give our power over to those powers and principalities and to cause inestimable grief and pain in the process.
Abuse of power and disregard of power dynamics is not new among God’s people, and it is not limited to a select few. Those who have come forward with stories of sexual abuse or assault, or mistreatment and prejudice on account of their ethnicity, gender, race, or other factors, have often been silenced, suppressed, or portrayed as the real source of the problem and the sin. Horror stories exist regarding the kinds of doctrines and practices which preachers have attempted to impose on their fellow Christians; many can rightfully cast aspersion on the conduct of many elders in terms of the things they imposed on their flocks. At the same time, elders and preachers can tell you many stories of abusive and manipulative behaviors which they have suffered from Christians and from one another. Christians should be the best of people, yet they also remain capable of being the worst of people.
Unfortunately, the people of God have thus proven as worldly, if not even more worldly, than those in the world when it comes to exalting the demonic wisdom of the world in how power is leveraged and how power dynamics play out. Such abuse takes place because Christians have, however wittingly or unwittingly, given themselves over to anxieties and fears: anxiety about standing among God’s people and within society; fear of humiliation, shame, and loss of income for people or cherished institutions; misplaced zeal in binding where God did not bind, or loosing where God had not loosed; and so on. A whole lot gets justified in the name of “such is just the way things are.”
The Lord Jesus was very much aware of “the way things are”; that is the way which led to His humiliation and execution. In Matthew 20:25-28 Jesus directly addressed such matters of power and power dynamics with His disciples. He spoke of “the way things are”: the Gentiles lord their power over others and are deemed “benefactors.” He then explicitly contradicted this “way” for His people: it should not be so among you! Instead, Christians should embody the way of Jesus: seeking to serve and not to be served. The Apostles who heard this message would be utterly transformed by what they would see, hear, and experience in Jesus’ death, resurrection, ascension, and the outpouring of His Spirit; they were given significant spiritual power but leveraged it not for their own benefit, not out of their own anxieties and fears, but to serve the Lord Jesus and His people, and exhorted their fellow Jesus people to do the same (1 Corinthians 11:1-2, 2 Corinthians 10:8-12:19, Philippians 2:5-11, 2 Timothy 2:2, 1 Peter 2:11-3:9, 4:10-11).
Thus, we should recognize all power and influence we have, whether “hard” power or “soft” power, is a gift from God, a resource which we should steward, and to use to serve the Lord Jesus Christ and one another. It is not enough for the end of our exercise of power to glorify the Lord Jesus Christ and encourage one another; the means by which we exercise that power must do so as well. It was once generally recognized how “the ends justify the means” was Machiavellian and diabolical; not so much anymore. We cannot imagine we can use the abusive, degrading, heavy-handed, manipulative ways of the powers and principalities over this present darkness to accomplish the Kingdom work of the Lord Jesus Christ. While God is able to use the work of the principalities and powers to accomplish His purposes, God’s people should never imagine they can empower and endorse someone else to do the evil, ungodly work and think it will not change themselves or its consequences will not redound to their harm.
Instead, we must follow Jesus’ ways of love, compassion, humility, and service toward one another and to all as we exercise and leverage the power and influence God has given us. We must give one another the benefit of the doubt, but we also must pursue truth and accountability for transgressions, proving always more loyal to the Lord Jesus Christ and to His Kingdom than to any individual person or institution. Christians should not shy away from accountability for behaviors while proclaiming and seeking all to find forgiveness, love, mercy, and grace through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Each believer must consider him or herself and the power they leverage, whether “hard” or “soft,” and keep any power imbalance in mind when seeking to encourage and cultivate relationships with fellow believers.
Humans are like a vapor: here one moment, gone the next (James 4:14). Nations are like flowers and grass: glorious at one moment, withered soon after, and then burned (Isaiah 40:6-8, 1 Peter 1:23-25). Human institutions are like the nations, and will not endure. Even local churches have come and gone. And yet Jesus is Lord yesterday, today, and tomorrow; the Word of God endures forever (Hebrews 13:8, 1 Peter 1:25). God is able to uphold and support His own; He has called upon us not to protect His work, nor to draw boundaries around it, but to serve His Son and the people of His Son as His Son has lived and served us (Matthew 20:25-28, John 13:31-35, 1 Peter 4:10-11). May we leverage all authority, power, and influence God has given us in love, compassion, and humility, as stewards who will need to give an account, not out of our own anxieties and fears but seeking the best interest of those under our care and stewardship, and thus glorify God in Christ!
Ethan R. Longhenry