The church has abused power too often. Here’s how we can change.
We’ve seen far too much abuse of power in the church. Women, minorities, the young, the poor, and the vulnerable have especially suffered from this abuse of power. So, how do we relinquish power? And how do we embrace a different kind of power (the power of the cross of Christ) that confronts, subverts, and dismantles worldly and abusive visions of power? Here’s how we can begin to change.
We’ve seen far too much abuse of power in the church.
We’ve seen Christian leaders playing God. Leaders have coerced and manipulated followers. Men have controlled women. Theology has been used oppressively. White colonizers have exploited and ravaged cultures in the name of Christ. Leaders have justified the abuse and silencing of women and minorities, or told these to be compliant and accept the abuse. Children have been abused. Many have used power to instil fear, and to lead to conformity, compliance, and passivity. Leaders have suppressed the truth or withheld knowledge. The list goes on and on.
Want to get a glimpse of how women have suffered humiliation, discrimination, and abuse of power in the church? Look at the #ThingsOnlyChristianWomenHear tweets and posts. I find it both heartbreaking and infuriating. It’s one important example of how power is misused in the church, and more than half the church suffers as a consequence.
But, we have also seen the wise and generous relinquishment and use of power in the church.
We’ve seen Christian leaders giving their power away. Christian men and women have embraced the power that is only found in the weakness and foolishness of the cross. People have empowered women, children, and minorities, and used what power they have for their wellbeing and promotion and benefit. Many have used their power to advance healthcare, emancipation, law, education, theology, and more.
We’ve seen the positive use of personal and collective power through the ages, as well as the abuse of power.
Relinquishing Power and Using Power
Power is “the ability to do something or act in a particular way.” It is “the capacity or ability to direct or influence the behavior of others or the course of events.”
We all have power, but that power varies from person to person, and from group to group. The question isn’t “Do I have power?”, but, rather, “How will I use the power I have?”
For most of us, our power (or powerlessness) is found in our wealth, education, age, intellect, cultural capital, social standing, gender, profession, religious status, political access, ethnicity, and race. Power can be destructive and divisive. But it can also be healing and nurturing when it is released, and when it is used for other’s wellbeing and human flourishing.
Henri Nouwen says there is “the power that oppresses and destroys… I want to show how that power is disarmed through powerlessness, and finally I want to proclaim the true power that liberates, reconciles, and heals.”
We relinquish power when we truly listen to those who’ve been marginalized. We receive from them as we genuinely listen to them, and respond.
We relinquish power (and we use what power we have for good) when we use all our energies to make sure the marginalized are heard, respected, honored, and responded to.
We relinquish power when we seek to give power away, and move the margins to a welcoming center—a multi-voiced, multi-peopled, multi-cultural, new creation, new humanity center.
We relinquish power when we notice those who’ve been disempowered or silenced because of their race, gender, class, or disability, and give power away by opening space for those voices to be heard and those gifts to be used. We choose not to be heard, at least for a time, so that others can be heard. We embrace a listening and learning posture. We open space for others.
We relinquish power when we say “no” to opportunities, so that other voices can be heard. We relinquish power when we say “yes” to justice and action, so that other voices can be honored.
We understand that justice, reconciliation, and healing cannot occur until we give power away.
As James H. Cone says about racial power and reconciliation, “For white people to speak of reconciliation at the very moment that they are subduing every expression of black self-determination is the height of racist arrogance.” Reconciliation is only possible when the church takes on a different set of practices, habits, and postures.
Henri Nouwen has written a profound book on power and weakness, called The Path of Power. The lust for power corrupts the human spirit, damages relationships, perverts institutions, calcifies religions, destroys nature, entrenches inequalities, multiplies wars, and leads to all kinds of evil. God weeps.
Jesus calls his disciples to relinquish the lust for power, and to embrace powerlessness. “In Jesus of Nazareth, the powerless God appeared among us to unmask the illusion of power… God became human, in no way different from other human beings, to break through the walls of power in total weakness.”
There’s something seductive about power and control. Our culture would have us believe that we can control people, wealth, politics, nature, and the future. We seek to control time and destiny, story and meaning, history and education, money and privilege, politics and decisions, the earth and productivity, peoples and hope. We seek to exercise power and control through goal-setting, rhetoric, business, the military, monetary policy, religion, sexism, education, politics, legal instruments, and racial discrimination. In doing so, we often abandon humility and trust and surrender. We sell our birthright for a meagre bowl of political or cultural porridge.
So, what can we do? Repent of this lust for power. Surrender control. Return to dependence on God. Find fresh ways to honor the weak and foolish and dishonorable and powerless. Determine to relinquish power. Embrace what it means to be “the scum of the earth,” whose approach to life seems foolish, yet tells of another way.
Jesus showed us what it means to give away power. He calls us to relinquish power, to embrace powerlessness, and to give power to others (especially to those that the world has despised or denied power). Jesus came into this world to show us he loves us. He did that by giving up his power and his life for us.
There is power in the gospel and in Christ. And it is a power that we must rediscover and embrace.
It is a power the world does not often understand. It is the power of truth, justice, peace, love, hope, humility, faith, forgiveness, and relinquishment. In weakness, foolishness, and vulnerability, we discover a world-transforming power. In humility and self-giving we open space for God to reveal his power. It is the power of grace and love. It is the power of peace and integrity. It is the power of the Spirit and truth. It is the power that honors and heals and forgives and unites. It is the power of giving power away.
Sarah Coakley has written a wonderful book called Power and Submissions. In that book, she explores the notions of vulnerability, self-emptying, and power. Coakley argues that there is power in self-emptying (and there certainly was power in Christ’s self-emptying), and that it confronts the abuse of power.
Patterning our lives after Jesus’s self-emptying (kenosis), enables us to unite human vulnerability with divine power—which confronts, subverts, and dismantles worldly and abusive visions and expressions of power.
Vulnerability isn’t weakness, it is an astonishing form of human strength.
So, Where Do We Start? Take the “Power Audit”
A useful place to start is by taking a “Power Audit.”
You’ll need to print both these documents to do the Power Audit (or open them in 2 separate browser windows).
The aim of this Power Audit is to enable people to realise the different types of power that they have and go beyond the idea of straight hierarchical power.
The types of power listed in the Power Audit are a representative selection of the many different types of power. The audit can be adapted to the specific cultural context or country that it is used in, but some types of power will be across cultures.
1 is seen as little or no power and 5 lots of power.
Having conducted this tool in Latin America, Europe, and Asia, Mandy Marshall has often found that men (generally) underscore themselves as they feel uncomfortable recognising the power that they have and down play it. This is for a variety of reasons, but the most common two are:
(1) It’s not seen as very Christian to have and hold a lot of power (nonsense, obviously, when you think about power in church and society, and how it is used)
(2) The expectations placed on people who hold power, and people being uncomfortable with those expectations
What the exercise displays is a need for Christians to be released into acknowledging that power, per se, is not bad. When used well, power can bring great change. There is a need to enable people to use power well and be held to account for that use of power so as not to be tempted to abuse it.
Mandy Marshall often uses the analogy of an old car that’s in terrible condition not being ready to hold an F1 engine. We need to have the right structure (discipleship and humility) to handle and hold power well, and to use it for the wellbeing of others, and to not abuse that power.
We seek to relinquish power. But, at the same time, we accept what power we do have, and we use that power for the sake of others and their wellbeing.
Sometimes we shy away from using what power we have, because of insecurities (and because of aspects of personal or ministry identity). We want to be accepted and included. So, for many of us, using the power we have to challenge injustice and the status quo is a scary thing to do. Using power this way will marginalize some people (often others with power) and make some enemies. The temptation, then, is to shy away from using our power to address injustice and the status quo, which is seen as hard.
For Mandy Marshall, all this comes back to discipleship. How are we being transformed on a daily basis into a disciple of Christ, putting love and bringing justice first (and doing all this above and before considering ourselves)? How are we becoming disciples of Jesus, who willingly relinquished power? How are we following the one who used what power he had to challenge injustice and the religious and political and social status quo? This is hard to do. But then again, discipleship is hard work! If it’s not, then we are not doing discipleship right.
Being a disciple of Jesus involves acknowledging what power we have, giving our power away, using our power to confront injustice and the status quo, and using our power for the wellbeing of others.
So, how will you give your power away? And how will you use what power you have to confront injustice and the status quo, and to help others enjoy a full life?
Dr Graham Hill is the Founding Director of The GlobalChurch Project – www.theglobalchurchproject.com. He’s the author of “GlobalChurch: Reshaping Our Conversations, Renewing Our Mission, Revitalizing Our Churches” (IVP, 2016), and 3 other books.
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 See: https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/us/power
 Henri J. M. Nouwen, The Path of Power (London: Darton Longman and Todd, 1995), 7–8.
 James H. Cone, Black Theology and Black Power (New York: Seabury, 1969), 147.
 Henri J. M. Nouwen, The Path of Power (London: Darton Longman and Todd, 1995), 17 and 23.
 Mother Teresa, No Greater Love (NovatoL New World Library, 1997), 21.