Power and the Church: Recovering a Biblical View

To prevent abuse of power, we must understand what power is.

The Billy Graham Center recently hosted a conversation at the GC2 Summit about sexual assault and abuse, harassment, legal issues, consent, responses to abuse, the important role of governmental authorities, the rule of law and additional topics vital and urgent to discuss in today’s culture. Church leaders—women in particular—are gaining a prophetic platform to call out injustices and abuses, both inside and outside the church, that have long been ignored, covered up and even accepted.

During the conversation, I had the opportunity to address the summit about the proper use and the abuse of power in the church. Now, I want to take a deeper dive into the concept of power.

The Subtlety of Power

Power is all around us, and in fact, it is within us. Yet, when it comes to the general public, both inside and outside the church, people don’t typically think of power as something they possess. People tend to think of power as holding a particular position (politically or organizationally), standing on a certain platform, having prosperity or being popular.

In To Change the World, James Davison Hunter notes that the concept of power is closely associated with the roles of elites in society. Power, therefore, is more associated with whom a person is or what he or she has acquired—especially in relation to others.

However, according to Andy Crouch, power—in its simplest definition—is, “The ability to make something of the world.”

Couple this definition with the theology of the imago Dei and the creation mandate, and you arrive at the conclusion that every human being possesses power. God delegated power to humanity by commanding us to be fruitful, multiply, fill, subdue and have dominion over the earth (Gen. 1:28).

In short, power lies in every person.

This may come as a shock for many—especially those in the church—given our misconception of power.

We don’t think of power theologically, but culturally.

The Scope of Power

Words are part of our everyday life. Whether spoken, written, emailed or texted, words are pervasive; yet words are neutral until used. To phrase it another way: Words, in and of themselves, sit in a neutral state until they are used for communicative purposes.

Once gathered together and exercised, words either become a powerful force for good or bad. Money is very similar. Money gathered into a stack or pile lies in a neutral state. However, once that money is used to purchase or invest in something, it then transitions from its neutral state to an effective one.

The exercise or use of words and money exemplify the use of power. Power is both pervasive and neutral. However, power is only neutral until it is used. Once used, power becomes effective. In other words, power effects for the good or the bad.

To put it in the context of Crouch’s definition, the scope of power is either being used to make something of the world better or make something of the world worse.

Pastors and church leaders need to realize that leadership is the exercise of power in real life; it is the skill of using power effectively. Therefore, we must be sensitive to the scope of power, however subtle our power may be.

As you expend power, whether through teaching, preaching, counseling, advising, serving, or equipping, ask yourself, “Am I using this power God has given me for the good of others and the cause of Christ?”

The Stewardship of Power

Andy Crouch provides an exceptionally helpful article about pastors and power in, “It’s Time to Talk About Power.” I’ve come back to it several times and relied on it in this article. In it, he asks what a new conversation about power would include:

“It would acknowledge, indeed insist, that power is a gift—the gift of a Giver who is the supreme model of power used to bless and serve. Power is not given to benefit those who hold it. It is given for the flourishing of individuals, peoples and the cosmos itself. Power’s right use is especially important for the flourishing of the vulnerable, the members of the human family who most need others to use power well to survive and thrive: the young, the aged, the sick and the dispossessed. Power is not the opposite of servanthood. Rather, servanthood, ensuring the flourishing of others, is the very purpose of power.

When people misunderstand where power comes from, they will misappropriate the use of power. If people think they are the ones who earn or work for power according to who they are and what they did, they will use power for their own benefit—regardless of its effect on others.

However, if people believe the power they possess was a gift, they will come to see power as something they steward for the good of the one who graciously gave them the gift.

The Bible as a whole—and Jesus specifically—speaks clearly and unequivocally about the proper understanding of power. God owned the created order, for he had created the heavens and the earth.

After establishing the created order, God delegated to humanity power to make something of this world in a manner that would glorify him and be beneficial to others. In doing so, God envisioned his good, perfect and flourishing kingdom being established on earth through the delegated power of man.

The Right Foundation

Pastors and church leaders, when it comes to properly understanding and using power, we must begin with this foundation. Without a biblical foundation and framework for power, we will lead ourselves and our people to rationalize, spiritualize and personalize (individualize) power.

Consequently, we will misuse and abuse power—whether intentionally or unintentionally. However, if we have a theocentric view—and more specifically, a Christocentric view—of power, we will come to understand that we are to submit our power to the Source of power by stewarding power under his lordship.

The greatest example for recovering our understanding of power is Jesus. As James Hunter describes, Jesus utilized “social” (or relational) power to break and bring healing to the corrupt, manipulative and coercive power of the world.

Hunter goes on to note four distinct features of Christ that embodied and demonstrated a different kind of power.

• Power was founded upon complete intimacy and submission to the Father.
• Power rejected status and reputation.
• Power was defined by compassion.
• Power was non-coercive.

In short, as we follow the way of Jesus we will come to see the subtlety of power, the scope of power and the stewardship of power as we work to make something of the world for the glory of God and the good of others.

James, the half-brother of Jesus, writes, “Anyone, then, who knows the good he ought to do and doesn’t do it, sins” (James 4:17). Applying Andy Crouch’s definition of power—the ability to make something of the world—to this verse would suggest that those who know what they should do (or refrain from doing) in order to make something better of the world for the glory of God and the good of others but fail to do it, would succumb to sin.

In other words, failing to do the right thing in the context of using power—making something better of the world—would be a good description of the “abuse of power.”

In short, abusing power is sin.

Pastoral Power Abuse

When pastors abuse power it can be disastrous. Pastoral power abuse can lead to different kinds of sin, depending on where that abusive power is exercised. Pastoral power abuse can lead to the misuse of authority over church leaders or a congregation, the sexual harassment of adults, the abuse of children and a myriad of other sins.

All are about the abuse of power; how the abuse is manifested is different depending on the person abusing the power and the local situation.

But Jesus and the gospel show us the better, more godly way to keep from being consumed by power, to wield power through the ministry of the towel—serving others.

Jesus, after washing the disciples feet, turns and tells them, “Now that I, your Lord and teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet” (John 13:14).

The Apostle Paul captured such a humble posture of sacrificial service when he penned,

“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.”
—Philippians 2:5–7

As pastors, following the footsteps of Jesus, we are called to lead and serve, not to lord and abuse. We all know this, which is why it bothers us so much when we see distortions of the biblical models of pastors as servant leaders.

Biblical pastors serve, not lord.

However, pastors and leaders must do more than just be concerned about the abuse of power. We must first guard against our own lives succumbing to the misuse and abuse of power. So, how does Jesus teach us a better way to guard against the misuse and abuse of power?

Recognize the Power of the Fall

Power was distorted in the fall.

In Genesis, God gave the responsibility and power of caring for creation to Adam and Eve, and they were originally designed to wield power and authority over creation in love, care and peace.

But the reality is that the fall happened. Sin entered the world. Power was abused. And, abusers come to power.

The fall was real, and it has real consequences on how power is wielded.

Now, instead of power being wielded for good, it is often abused. And it is not as if we are not coconspirators in this. We are not swept away by the fall as unwitting participants, but we participate in this fractured and broken reality. In fact, we are born broken and then as we move through the stages of life, we exercise that brokenness willingly.

While we know something is wrong, there’s this element of sin and power that pleases us—at least for a moment. The engagement and exercise of sin and brokenness not only manifests itself in our actions, but also in the systems we create.

And those systems perpetuate the power that ultimately undermines the servanthood of the pastoral office.

Therefore, even for believers, sin and evil still exist—and we are naive not to see that sin and evil would impact people with power, pastors included.

The Propensity Toward Abusing Power

Thus, there remains the potentiality—and even to a degree, the propensity—for those in leadership, including church leaders, to misuse and abuse power. It happens at mission agencies, campus ministries, Christian camps, local churches, Wheaton College [where Stetzer works] and many more places.

We have to plan in accordance with the reality that the fall was real and power will be misused if unchecked.

How many times and places are we warned of this? The Founding Fathers created checks and balances in government because they knew that government leaders would abuse power. The business world publishes books about how to deal with toxic leaders. Every day, someone is on the news for taking advantage of someone else.

But, regrettably, some Christians thought that it would not apply to the church.

Perhaps the last few years have taught us better, but since such abuse keeps happening, we need to be reminded again.

Naivety Is Not a Virtue

We must not be naive.

Naivety is not a virtue.

Pastors can be abusers, and they are empowered in their abuse when people don’t have a proper understanding of power and have chosen not to address the foundational and systemic issues of abuse that plague the Bride of Christ.

As John Stott explained, “Leaders have power, but power is safe only in the hands of those who humble themselves to serve.”

And, we don’t naturally humble ourselves—pastors included.

Furthermore, many pastors don’t start out being inappropriate users of power, but can quickly do those very things, because at some point they succumb to the temptation that power always offers.

Wolves

When thinking of the word predator, the animal kingdom comes to mind. In fact, the Bible uses such imagery. Both Jesus and Paul warn the church about predators—wolves being among the sheep.

“Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them.”
—Matthew 7:15–16

“I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. So be on your guard!”
—Acts 20:29–31

Don’t forget the ultimate purpose for wolves is that they stealthily and deceptively draw sheep away to devour them in order to fill their bellies. The predatory nature of wolves is always for selfish satisfaction and survival. Thus, they stalk their prey looking for the weakest and most vulnerable.

This is a short description of a wolf, and this is what we must guard our churches from. Pastors and church leaders, this is what we must guard our hearts from becoming. We must recognize the reality of the fall; we must recognize the power of the gospel.

In closing, we must walk in wisdom and discernment with the knowledge that we could become the very people who target churches for selfish gain.

Therefore, pastors need accountability, which I will address more in future installments.

The temptation to abuse power is always present, but the gospel, Spirit-empowerment, godly character, accountability structures and Christian community subvert the pervasiveness of the fall with the better way of Jesus.

Read more from Ed Stetzer »

This article originally appeared on The Exchange.