Power, Status and the Church
One of the most basic drives in human nature is the will to power. Perhaps the second is the desire for social status. These two things together motivate and drive almost all human behavior – and not only human but animal as well. Both people and chickens strive, fight and push others around to establish a pecking order, to move up in social standing and to gain power over themselves, others, and their surroundings and environment. The physically strong push the weak away from the food trough and gorge themselves. No tool is off limits as far as gaining power or improving social standing. Amongst humans, money is one of the most used tools. The Bible says that the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil. Not the root of all evil, as many misquote it, because evil existed before money was invented. Government can also to be a tool used for evil. Individuals and businesses use it to pass laws protecting themselves from competition and laws to guarantee the value of their investments without any regard to how those laws impact others or their country. The real purpose of law should be to protect the innocent, but most laws are passed to increase the power and social standing of one group over others.
Groups are another common method of gaining power and standing. By restricting membership in a group (formal or informal) to people like themselves, people can view themselves as superior and others as inferior. Racial and ethnic groups, linguistic groups, political parties, nations, and tribes are all examples of these kinds of groups, which are used as levers or tools to gain power and status for their members. Most Indian tribes referred to themselves as “the people” and considered other tribes as inferiors and enemies. Religions and churches are also a type of group or tribe and unfortunately too often follow this pattern. The Founding Fathers limited (but not entirely eliminated), the effectiveness of religion as a tool to achieve power and social standing by separating church and state, therefore people have moved to more effective tools to achieve their goals, and we have relative peace and freedom in matters of religion in America. In India, by way of contrast, Hindu Nationalism has become a way of hanging onto power for those who exploit the Dalits or “untouchables” as near slaves, and persecute those of other faiths to try to ensure their continuing social superiority under the Hindu caste system.
Power seems to be the central theme of America these days. The nation is divided into groups, each seeking to increase its power at the expense of others. Those who have been traditionally powerful are seeking to hang onto that power. Those who have traditionally been powerless are seeking to increase their power. Government perpetually tries to increase its power. Political parties do also. Women are presently “on the warpath”, seeking more and more power. Racial and ethnic minority groups want increased power.
It is not only groups, but individuals who are ever seeking for power.
This is ironic seeing that the country was designed to split and limit power. The Founders had a rightful fear of those who sought more and more personal and/or corporate power. They also understood that this is an unchangeable part of human nature, and that a way had to be found that didn’t rely on trying to change human nature. They attempted to do this by splitting power, dividing it, and letting the various divisions limit the power of the other divisions. It is becoming obvious that after 240 years that way is rapidly failing. Competition inevitably leads to increasing concentration of power and decreasing competition. The checks and balances have failed as the Federal Government gains power supposed to belong to States and Locals, and to individuals. The courts have expanded their power into legislating. The administration rules by “executive orders” instead of implementing laws passed by Congress.
Lord Acton warned of the attraction of power: “All power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely”. J.R.R. Tolkein based his “Lord of the Rings” stories on the attraction of and resulting corruption by power. He also wrote that: “the most improper job of any man, even saints (who at any rate were at least unwilling to take it on), is bossing other men. Not one in a million is fit to it, and least of all those who seek the opportunity" (The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, 1995, p. 64.)”
The world loves power and status, but what does the Bible teach?
The Christian Way: Jesus’ teachings on power and status.
A. Luke 4:5, 6 And the devil, taking him up into an high mountain, shewed unto him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time. And the devil said unto him, All this power will I give thee, and the glory of them: for that is delivered unto me; and to whomsoever I will I give it.
Before Jesus could even begin His ministry, He Himself had to be tested and to pass the test against the Will to Power. This gives us ample warning warning that we, too will be tested. A warning also that desiring personal power is not a Christian attribute, nor to be allowed to infect either us or the church. And a warning that the Christian faith is not a path to secular power, nor a tool to be used in gaining power and status.
B. James Chapter 2: This chapter warns against using the Church as a tool to gain and keep social status and power. God has blessed, (or cursed, depending on how they use it), some Christians with wealth, power, and status, but that is the exception, not the rule. In most of the world, for most of the history of the Church, Christians have occupied and occupy the bottom rungs of the ladder of social status and wealth, and have little or no secular power. Where this situation has reversed, as after the fall of the Roman Empire, the church has been totally corrupted by worldly power.
C. 2 Corinthians 10: Within the church, there is to be no worldly “pecking order”, no arrogance, no comparisons among ourselves. 2 Corinthians 10:12 For we dare not make ourselves of the number, or compare ourselves with some that commend themselves: but they measuring themselves by themselves, and comparing themselves among themselves, are not wise.
D. John 19:10, 11 Then saith Pilate unto him, Speakest thou not unto me? knowest thou not that I have power to crucify thee, and have power to release thee? Jesus answered, Thou couldest have no power at all against me, except it were given thee from above: therefore he that delivered me unto thee hath the greater sin. Worldly power is very attractive, but it is subject to God’s power. This is not how most of the world’s leaders, wealthy men, and the politically powerful see it. At best, they see Christ’s body, the church, as being subject to them, and having no power whatever except as they allow. At worst, they see it as a rival and a threat to their own power and position and seek to eliminate that threat. Therefore the true church and secular powers are always at odds. We are told to obey human leaders and laws unless and until they contradict God’s commands, and to pray for them. This is a difficult task for most of us, but especially for those who are on a power trip themselves and think secular powers should be subject to the church.
E. 2 Corinthians 10:3 For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war after the flesh: (For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strong holds;)
Mao Tse Tung said in 1927 that “political power grows out of the barrel of a gun”. Too many Christians follow that erroneous line of thinking. Gaining political power and forcing our beliefs on the unsaved will have no lasting effect except for a growing hatred of us and an eventual violent reaction. Laws do not produce righteousness, they produce a thin veneer covering an abyss of unrighteousness. They legitimize hypocrisy.
We can only achieve victory by following Christ’s commands and example – by our words and lives combined with the power of the Holy Spirit winning converts to Christ and discipling them to do the same. That itself will only work if we employ our most powerful and most neglected weapon – PRAYER.
F. Matthew 28:18 And Jesus came and spake unto them, saying, All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth. If Jesus has ALL power, that leaves none for anyone else – including power for you or I apart from Jesus. If this is true, then what exactly does this mean for us?
(1) If we have no power of our own, and Jesus has all power, it means we have to obtain power from Jesus in some way.
(2) The way Jesus has prescribed to do that begins with waiting on Him instead of going ahead in our own strength and in our own way. This can be difficult. In the Old Testament Saul decided he couldn’t wait any longer for Samuel and did what it was forbidden for him to do – breaking the separation of the secular and the holy. In so doing he signed his own death warrant and lost his kingdom. Jesus told His disciples in Luke 24:49 And, behold, I send the promise of my Father upon you: but tarry ye in the city of Jerusalem, until ye be endued with power from on high. Without that power, they simply had no power and could have done nothing. With the indwelling Holy Spirit they changed the world: Acts 1:8 But ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you: and ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth.
(3) Once we have the indwelling Holy Spirit and the power of God flowing through our lives, it is necessary to abide: John 15:5 I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing. This also is hard. Too many who call themselves Christians have the idea that “it depends on me and what I do. Hopefully Christ will pitch in and help out. But whether He does or not, I am going ahead anyway and will accomplish it through my own efforts.” No you won’t, because Jesus warned that “without me ye can do nothing”.
Jesus’ power is only available if we are submitted to Him and following his will. We have to yield ourselves and all we are and have to Him. This is directly contrary to the way most approach religion and what most religions teach. For instance, the Star Wars concept of the “divine” is as a neutral force that men can manipulate and use for both good and evil. We want to be in charge, not have God in charge.
God is a person, not a force. As a person, it is He who defines what is good and what is evil, not us. One of the last stages of personal and corporate decline is when people begin to call good evil and evil good. They are essentially declaring themselves to be gods.
How should all of this work out in the structure and mission of the Church?
Matthew 23:11, 12 But he that is greatest among you shall be your servant. And whosoever shall exalt himself shall be abased; and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted.
Mark 9:35 And he sat down, and called the twelve, and saith unto them, If any man desire to be first, the same shall be last of all, and servant of all.
Christians should not be following the world’s concept of power and status. For instance, and just as one example, the current continuing dispute over how and where women should minister in the church is basically a power and status struggle based entirely on worldly concepts of power and status. God does indeed set up an organizational structure and chain of authority in the church, but it is not supposed to be based on worldly qualifications. Those who seek power and status are disqualified to hold it: Mark 9:34, 35: But they held their peace: for by the way they had disputed among themselves, who should be the greatest. And he sat down, and called the twelve, and saith unto them, If any man desire to be first, the same shall be last of all, and servant of all.
God’s way to advance in the church is to humble ones-self, not exalt ones-self. The church is not a secular organization, but a spiritual organism. In a secular organization, people claw their way to the top using every tool at their disposal – exalting themselves (or “selling themselves“ as it is usually called), making the competition look bad or fail, lying, cheating, bullying, political maneuvering, etc. Sometimes the whole organization goes under due to those things. In most cases it is severely weakened.
In an organism, all the parts work together in their assigned roles for the good of the whole organism, and so that the organism as a whole succeeds. Paul illustrates this idea brilliantly in 1 Corinthians Chapter 12, especially note in 1 Corinthians 12:18 that it is GOD, not man, who sets each member of the body in its appointed place. The qualifications are spiritual, not educational. Every member is to have a part and to fulfill their role in that part. All the parts of the body are necessary, none is more important or has higher status than the others. The foot is no less important than the arm. The church janitor isn’t any less important than the pastor, the nursery worker less important than the elder – all are necessary parts of the body and have to work together smoothly for the organism to succeed. Neither was the church meant to be an organization where most sit back and do little to nothing while hiring “professionals” to do the work.
In your own experience, have churches succeeded at this? No. Mostly they are worldly organizations, rife with power struggles, politicking, gossip, and social groups seeking status. Many give lip service to “all members of the body being necessary and important”, but don’t really believe it based on what goes on in them in real life. But to be positive, some do and others are making a genuine effort.
Churches are not businesses, yet have fallen into the trap of using worldly business principles to grow. Instead of following Jesus’ example of going out into the highways and byways and seeking out the excluded, they have catered to the worlds’ wealthy and powerful, entertain them to draw them in, set up church governance patterned after various familiar worldly business and political models (the church is neither a democracy nor an autocracy of man, but a Kingdom under Jesus).
Churches seldom if ever examine and purge the ranks of those who harm the organism – like in business, where everyone rises to their level of incompetence and stays on there negatively impacting the health of the organism. It is interesting reading the history of early movements like the Methodists and Quakers, where the leaders regularly examined the membership and pruned it back. Jesus did this exact same thing in John Chapter 6.
Many churches are full of people who attend sporadically, never volunteer to do anything but want to pay professionals to do what has to be done, (yet give as little as possible towards paying them), can’t be trusted to show up to serve if they do agree to do so, and complain continually about the quality of those others who do minister.
This failure to follow Christ’s plan and pattern for the church but relying instead on worldly wisdom and ideas is largely responsible for the weakness of the organized church, and for why increasing numbers of young people are shunning it. Power and status seeking has lead to power politics infesting the church and alienating those who seek God.
Reforming this requires change. Change in the way we think. Change in the way we behave. Change in the way we relate with God. It starts with us, but its success or failure depends not on our own efforts, but quite simply on our willingness to submit to God and allow the power of the Holy Spirit to flow through us. God has the power to change us, and using us to change the world around us. Let us determine to allow God to begin changing us today.
As John Wesley wrote back around 1765: “Consider deeply with yourself, Is the God whom I serve able to deliver me? I am not able to deliver myself out of these difficulties, much less am I able to bear them. I know not how to give up my reputation, my friends, my substance, my liberty, my life. Can God give me to rejoice in doing this; and may I depend upon Him that He will?”
“Weigh this thoroughly; and if you can trust God with your all, then go on in the power of His might.”