Christ and Power - Posted 11/29/2017

From Pastor Chris

Two more stories of men misusing power have hit the news today. Matt Lauer and Garrison Keillor join the flood of men–from sophisticated journalists to crude comics–to be outed for abuse of power after the accusations against Harvey Weinstein broke a cultural dam. How do we think of these issues of “power differentials” biblically? How do we respond? Let me offer a brief overview of the biblical story of power then suggest what we should do.

In the beginning, there was power. God, the uncreated, speaks into nothingness and something materializes. No power rivals this absolute authority. 

In his wisdom, God entrusts power to his image-bearers, charging them to rule over the earth and subdue it. God also asserts His ultimate authority by giving a command. And when the man and his wife break that command, the story of power forever changes.

Scholars quibble over the precise meaning of the part of the curse where God tells the woman, “Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you” (Genesis 3:16). But if the rest of Genesis is any indication, God wasn’t predicting domestic bliss. Humanity’s abuse of power plays like a minor-key motif throughout the unfolding story. Cain misuses his physical power, killing his brother. Abraham and Isaac each pass his wife off as his sister, abdicating his responsibility and risking her violation. Sodom has “excess of food and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy” (Ezekiel 16:49). And on and on.

In response to this misuse of power, God embeds protections in the Law for the most vulnerable–the poor, the sojourner, the orphan, and the widow. Farmers and vinedressers must leave a portion of their fields untouched for the poor to work. Sexually violated women have legal recourse. The indebted can anticipate release. Doing what is equitable and right by all was interwoven into community life.

This standard of social justice becomes the launching pad for the prophets’ sharpest pronouncements. These covenant enforcers leveled their “Thus saith Yahweh” at landowners who exploit their workers, merchants who use false weights, spiritual shepherds who prey on the sheep rather than praying for them, and the wealthy who turn a blind eye to the poor. Along with (and not unrelated to) the condemnation of idolatry, outrage against the misuse of power occupies the center of the prophets’ call to repentance. 

This connection between repentance and the right use of power continues in John the Baptist’s ministry, as he calls tax collectors and soldiers to leverage their power for the good of others rather than for selfish gain (Luke 3:7-14). Jesus reserves one of his most startling indictments (“it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea” [Mark 9:42]) for those who cause a “little one” to stumble. Meanwhile Jesus welcomes the children, associates with the outcast, touches the leper, and receives the repentant sinner. In the ultimate right use of power, he foregoes the legions of warrior angels at his beck and call and dies on the cross for our sins, since he alone has the power to make it out alive again. And Jesus calls his followers not to “lord over” but to “serve under,” for the greatest is to be the servant of all.

So how should we live as his followers? 

1. Recognize our power

Dozens of factors give us power–connections, wealth, position, intelligence, beauty, charm, etc. Regretfully, gender and race still play a role as well. We will not steward our power wisely if we do not recognize that it exists. For instance, I am bigger than my children, stronger than my wife, and have authority to shape the culture of our church. We must begin not only by identifying the power differentials that exist in our relationships but also by acknowledging ways we have abused our power in the past. The misuse of power is a spectrum, not a True-or-False test, and we must honestly assess where we have been on the spectrum.

2. Recognize God’s power

The fear of the Lord, Proverbs instructs us, is the beginning of wisdom. We will only view our power with humility and accountability when we bow before the Almighty. Daily. With eternity in our sights, we must look toward the day when the power of this world will become the power of our Lord and of his Christ. And he shall reign forever and ever (Revelation 11:15).  

3. Recalibrate our moral outrage

Have you ever seen a 5 year-old push over a 2 year-old? You know the fire that ignites in your heart? That is a flicker of the wrath God feels when he sees a 30 year-old attorney groom a 14 year-old for a “date” or a Hollywood executive press a struggling actress for sexual favors. His anger burns. 

And so should ours. We need to recalibrate our moral outrage. We should be as incensed about the Payday Loan store down the street from our church as we are the Adult Video store. We should be as burned up over the pastor who abuses his power as we are about the pastor caught in sexual sin. While most of the stories in the news are sexual in nature, they were not ultimately about sex but power. We need our moral furnace recalibrated to match God’s anger over the abuse of power.

4. Resolve to serve others with our power 

As a pastor, I have been entrusted with many heartbreaking stories of abuse. The common theme these survivors shared is that the cover-up was worse than the abuse itself. When they reached out to a pastor or parent–those with power–only to have their story hushed or minimized, the shame and grief compounded. So let us resolve to leverage the power God has entrusted to us for the sake of those who have less, whatever the fallout may be. And in this may the mercy of Jesus, the crucified Sovereign, be on display in our lives.

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