Mel and I were having a conversation with a friend recently, and the word ‘power’ came up quite a bit. I love this friend dearly, and I do not question his heart or his motives at all – but his openness to pursuing greater ‘power’ made me slightly uneasy.
As we talked, we discovered that he was using the word in a different way than I heard it, and the thoughts of this blog in part come out of that conversation. I think it has a lot to do with the difference between authority and power.
As Christians I believe we have one, and often strive too much for the other.
We talk of authority quite a bit in Christian circles. We speak of the authority of scripture, believing the truth of 2 Timothy 3:16, that “all scripture is God-breathed, and is useful” in a whole variety of ways in shaping Christians. We speak of the authority given to those who teach, with Titus (for example) being instructed to ‘encourage and rebuke with all authority’ (Titus 2:15). We speak even of the authority of the governing bodies around us, taking note of Paul’s instruction to the Romans: ‘Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established’ (Romans 13:1).
We dare to claim authority also for ourselves. We recognise that Jesus gave authority to His disciples and that, as we stand in the long line of those whose job it is to represent Jesus to the world, we too have that authority.
But there is something we must always remember. All true authority is God’s authority.
The world is His, and nothing stands outside His authority. About this I think we can be clear. This means that any authority found anywhere else (in a government, a book or a person) is only ever a delegated authority. It comes from a source, and that source is Jesus who can boldly and truthfully say:
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” (Matthew 28:18)
Jesus is God’s authority. It is in fact because of that authority that is given to Him that we are given the mandate to make disciples of all nations. Our mission stems from His authority. Our authority stems from His authority.
Now if all authority we have comes from God, we must ask what are and are not appropriate ways of wielding that authority. I was told recently, and I think this is true, that as soon as we start to wield the authority of God (whether that be through scripture or elsewhere) in a way that is contrary to God’s own use of His authority, we are stepping outside the authority of God.
It’s like if I buy a new phone. It has come from a manufacturer (probably Apple) and they have said how it is and is not to be used. For example, they say it is not for use underwater. As soon as I go swimming with it, I am no longer using it in a way it was designed to be used, and Apple are well within their logical and legal rights to say “We claim no responsibility for that. He did not have our approval to do that.”
We Christians need to be careful, I think, not to claim God’s authority for ways of working that are thoroughly different from His own.
I am firmly committed to the fact that the fullest revelation of God is in the life and person of Jesus, to whom all authority was given. So in working out how to wield authority, I think we must look to Him.
Authority, not power
In His incarnation, Jesus showed that having authority does not mean rising above those whose lives you seek to affect. It means entering into their world, living among them, beneath them. It means weakness. It means being with the outcasts, rather than casting out. It means rebuking false religiosity, not religiously rebuking falsehood. Jesus strongest ethical teaching is reserved for those who followed Him already (Matthew 5:1-2), rather than being aimed at the crowds. Jesus strongest challenges are for those who claim allegiance to God and use that ‘authority’ to oppress others and continue in hypocrisy.
In His crucifixion, Jesus showed that having authority does not mean fighting against our enemies, against God’s enemies, until they have been beaten into submission. It means submitting to them even when it means being beaten and killed.
In His resurrection, Jesus showed that having authority which comes from God means a far deeper and more powerful power than that which people wield. The power to give life, not to take it. He had no need of the sort of power for which politicians campaign and kings fight. Why would He?
Jesus repeatedly and systematically shunned all human concepts of power. He could have claimed them in the blink of an eye. But He did not. That is not how God exercises His authority.
Nor should it be how we exercise authority.
Yet so often I think that is exactly how we Christians try to wield God’s authority and the authority He has given to us.
The Bible is the word of God – it is authoritative – so we must keep yelling it’s truths at everyone until they submit to our ways of thinking.
The Church is the community of the Spirit – who surely has authority – so we must be respected and listened to and have our voices heard because we deserve it more than others do.
But that is not worthy of the Bible which informs us. It is not worthy of the Spirit who empowers us. It is not worthy of the Son of God who gave life to us. It is not how any of them function. We must find another way. Paul, in his first letter to the Corinthians (who loved their status and worldly power and influence, and were accordingly ashamed of the odd thing or two about Christ), said this:
‘Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.’ (1 Corinthians 1:22-25)
We are called to embrace what looks silly, because it is God’s wisdom. We are called to embrace what feels weak, because it is God’s strength.
This raises all sorts of questions. How are Christians to engage in public debate as a prophetic voice in the world without succumbing to worldly ideas of power? What does it mean in practice to decide to wear authority with weakness and humility, not strength and pride? What of the so-called ‘Christian celebrity’? What of the church functioning as a powerful institution or becoming an empire, not a community that exists for mission? How do we understand the role of the church in relation to the state? How can preaching reject human conceptions of power and yet still be powerful? And many more.
I don’t have all those answers (that’s sort of the point of the blog), but as followers of Jesus we must start with His example, not the world’s ideas about power and authority.
God’s authority and worldly power are poles apart, and our lives should keep them that way.