Pursuing Power, Pursuing Education

students_in_classroomIn Christianity power is not a zero-sum game. Not fundamentally at least.

I was recently in a conversation with some friends about this reality recently. We were mulling over the issue of whether or not Christians ought to pursue positions of power or cultural influence in order to change things from above, or work for the common good in positions of authority.

Of course, while the concept will seem intuitive to some, even mentioning the idea immediately (legitimately) raises the suspicion of others. Nowadays in certain Christian circles there is a lot of talk about “embracing powerlessness” and giving power away as a more fundamentally Christ approach to power and authority. And there’s something to the notion when we look at Jesus. Jesus seemed to intentionally operate on the margins, using poor fishermen, (with a Zealot and a tax collector thrown in), staying in cultural backwaters, and eschewing the crowds seeking to crown him. Finally, there is a form of powerlessness in embracing the Cross, handing yourself over to be crucified, to have the will of others exercised upon you.

Moving to Christian history, it’s always important to remember that the Christian movement began at the margins of society and, even without embracing a full-throated “Constantinian” fall narrative, it’s easy to see some of the negative consequences of the Church gaining political and social authority.

With considerations like these (and a great many more) it is easy to become suspicious of the call to pursue positions of influence. The City of Man’s siren song of the lust to dominate calls powerfully and finds hearts in the Church all-too-willing to listen and be seduced by it. It seems safer (in some ways), wiser, and more Christlike to walk away from positions of power, to distrust political and social authority, and work in a more ground-up, power-relinquishing fashion. When possible, hand over as much as you can, to the powerless, the disenfranchised, and the marginalized.

Again, there’s something to that. But I also want to say there’s something else too. I suppose what I’m saying is that we can’t begin our reflections on the use of power only after Genesis 3. Genesis 1 and 2 have a role to play. The doctrines of God and doctrine of creation are fundamental to our conception of the way the redemption of Jesus Christ changes our ideas and attitudes towards power.

Beginning with the Triune God, we must remember that from all eternity Father, Son, and Spirit has infinite power and glory. What’s more, in his creation, he gifts a measure of power and authority to his image-bearers at no detriment to his own. His gift of authority to humans is no threat to his own. In fact, their power and authority ontologically funds and morally authorizes theirs. In other words, he loses no power, no strength, no sovereignty, even as he exercises authority through his Image-bearers–with, or even (in light of sin) contrary to their own will.

Ideally, human power would function like this in an analogical fashion (our power being finite and dependent). In Genesis 1 and 2, God gives humanity power so that they would then exercise the kind of dominion and ordering of creation that would cultivate and empower it to produce and even greater yield than it could apart from humanity’s guidance. Of course, sin twists that as is obvious and apparent. Power and authority are distorted and perverted–dominion becomes domination.

But when God redeems, he does not move us to a space or a stage that is totally contrary to, or radically different from his original created intention. The redemption of humanity and the cosmos means the redemption of the use of power. By the power of the Spirit of God, whether in common or special grace, humans can use power in order to bless and benefit others. This is one of the majors themes in the OT literature about the righteousness and holiness of the kings and princes of Israel–their godly use of authority and power for the sake of the powerless and the oppressed. Their exercise of power enables the poor to achieve a stable social position in which they are empowered to live without fear and pursue a whole life. Though there is an asymmetry, it is not a vicious, or idolatrous one, but one ordained for human flourishing.

Indeed, if I had time, I think I could even show this theme at work in the New Testament, both in the life of Jesus, the acts of the Apostles, and even the epistles. Not to mention Church history. It’s quite common to remember Christendom’s woes, even while we continue live in the historical wake of its social benefits.

What does this look like in practice, though? Well, this is a brief blog post, but the best example that comes to mind, the paradigmatic example, of a Christian approach towards acquiring and using power in order to empower others in a non-zero-sum fashion is that of education.

Think about the educational process. It is entirely dependent on an asymmetry in knowledge/power between educator and student. It’s precisely because the educator knows more than and has a certain measure of authority over the student that she can teach the student. What’s more, in the process of educating and exercising power, the educator is actually empowering the student, elevating them through the communication of knowledge. This is an example of giving away power that leads to no loss on the part of the educator. The student’s gain in knowledge does not diminish the educator’s in the slightest, but only raises the student.

Of course, in order for this kind of empowerment to happen, what does the educator have to do? They have to pursue knowledge and become an authority on a given subject matter. In order to give power away in a non-zero-sum fashion, they have to pursue that power through years of study, training, and so forth. Of course, there is a selfish way of pursuing education, knowledge, and authority–one that keeps the educator in possession of knowledge to the exclusion of others. Absolutely, they can use it to control, to elevate themselves at the cost of others. But we have to see that this is not inherently the case. And for any of the good of education to happen, we must run the risk of pursuing intellectual power.

Obviously, not all exercises of authority and power are exactly like this. Certain resources are more limited and there are certain “zero-sum” limitations to its exercise. But the fundamental principle of using power in order to empower others is still a creational and, I would say, redemptive reality that cannot be ignored or downplayed without detriment to our witness and our basic love of neighbor.

Soli Deo Gloria

Christ the King: Kingdom of Power, Kingdom of Grace

christ pantokratorIn a section on church government, Herman Bavinck begins to elaborate the Reformed view in contrast to a number of others by reflecting on the nature of Christ’s kingship and kingdom. Simply put, this is one of the most majestic passages I’ve ever read on the subject.

The Reformed, thanks to their deep sense of the sovereignty of God, understood this. Those who proceed unilaterally from the goodness or the love or the fatherhood of God do not come to this understanding. But those who do not just highlight one of God’s attributes but bring all his attributes to the fore and proceed from God as [the living] God have no choice but to subordinate all creatures to him, in dependence and humility. God is sovereign always and everywhere, in nature and grace, in creation and re-creation, in the world and in the church. His statutes and laws are the rule of our lives, for humans are his creatures, subject to him, and obligated to respond in total obedience.

In the church this view naturally led to the confession of the kingship of Christ. For just as in civil life God instituted the government on account of sin, so he anointed his Son to be king of Zion, the mountain of his holiness, and appointed him to be head over all things for the church (Ps. 2:6; Eph. 1:20; Phil. 2:9–11). Christ is not only a prophet who teaches by his word and example, not only a priest who atones by his sacrifice, but also the king who preserves and protects his own and to that end has been clothed with power in heaven and earth. He is king in a much more authentic sense than any secular ruler. He is that not only according to his divine nature but also according to his human nature. The human Christ Jesus has been exalted to sit at his Father’s right hand. He was all this not just from eternity and in the days of the Old Testament and during his sojourn on earth, but is still all this today and will be to the end of the ages. He is the same yesterday, today, and forever. Indeed, he is this now in the state of exaltation in a much richer sense than he was in the state of humiliation and in the time that preceded it. Granted, he had from eternity been anointed king and exercised this office, along with that of prophet and priest, immediately after the fall and up until his death on the cross; but on account of his humiliation God highly exalted him and gave him a name above every name. By his resurrection he was declared with power to be the Son of God, became Lord, received all power in heaven and on earth, and now reigns until he has completed the kingdom and put all his enemies under his feet.

This kingship of Christ is twofold. On the one hand, it is a kingship of power (Pss. 2:8–9; 72:8; 110:1–3; Matt. 28:18; 1 Cor. 15:27; Eph. 1:21–22; Phil. 2:9–11; Heb. 1:6; 1 Pet. 3:22; Rev. 17:14). In order that Christ may truly be king over his people, the king who redeems, protects, and preserves them, he must have power in heaven and on earth, over Satan and the world. It is a kingship of power, subordinate to, and a means for, his kingship of grace. It does not mean that the Father has ceased to govern the world and that now all authority in the creation comes down from Christ and is exercised in his name. But, based on Christ’s perfect obedience, God has granted the Mediator the right and the power to gather his people together out of the world, to protect them against all their enemies, and to completely subdue those enemies themselves. God so rules the world that Christ may ask for the Gentile nations as his inheritance and the ends of the earth as his possession [Ps. 2:8]. In the event of Christ’s exaltation, the Father recognized his Son and appointed him as the heir of all things (Heb. 1:2).

On the other hand, the kingship of Christ is a kingship of grace (Ps. 2:6; Isa. 9:5–6; Jer. 30:9; Ezek. 37:24; Luke 1:33; John 18:33ff.; Eph. 1:22; 4:15; 5:23; Col. 1:18; 2:19). Inasmuch as this kingship is totally different from that of the kings of the earth, the New Testament much more frequently calls Christ “the head” than the king of the church. For it is a kingdom of grace in which Christ rules by his word and Spirit. His word comes to us from the past, binds us to the historical person of Christ and to the work he accomplished in time, and asks of us faith in the sense of assent and acknowledgment. But he who descended is the same as he who also ascended far above all the heavens [Eph. 4:10], is seated at God’s right hand, and dwells in us “with his divinity, majesty, grace, and Spirit and never again departs from us” [Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 47]. It is the living Christ exalted to sit at the right hand of God who consciously and endowed with all power gathers his church, defeats his enemies, and guides the history of the world to the day of his parousia. As our Mediator, he is still always active in heaven and present by his Spirit on earth in church and in the offices, in Word and sacrament.

-Reformed Dogmatics Volume 4: Holy Spirit, Church, and New Creation. pp. 370-372

Three points I want to highlight:

  • Christ is king according to both his divine and his human nature. Jesus is the resurrected and ascended human Lord of all things who fulfills God’s intention for Adam’s race.
  • Christ is a king with power who subdues his enemies for the sake of his people.
  • Christ is a king with grace who rules by word and Spirit. It is a gospel-kingship.

May these truths fill you with love and adoration for our glorious king. Marvel before him and offer up your lives as a faithful service to the King who served us.

Soli Deo Gloria

Elisha Ben Kenobi and the Power of God

The other night I taught my students on subject of the power of God out of 2 Kings chapter 8. What follows is a cleaned up, very abridged version of the talk.  

Here we encounter a funny episode in the ministry of Elisha, demonstrating the Lord’s favor and supernatural power working through him. Israel and Aram were at war with each other, and apparently the unnamed king of Aram kept sending raiding parties into Israel. Time and again, though, Elisha kept warning the king of Israel of his plans and thwarting Aram’s plans. Finally, the king of Aram had enough, found out Elisha’s location and sent a platoon of men and chariots to capture Elisha in Dothan, and this is where we pick up the text:

When the servant of the man of God rose early in the morning and went out, behold, an army with horses and chariots was all around the city. And the servant said, “Alas, my master! What shall we do?” He said, “Do not be afraid, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them.” Then Elisha prayed and said, “O LORD, please open his eyes that he may see.” So the LORD opened the eyes of the young man, and he saw, and behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha. And when the Syrians came down against him, Elisha prayed to the LORD and said, “Please strike this people with blindness.” So he struck them with blindness in accordance with the prayer of Elisha. And Elisha said to them, “This is not the way, and this is not the city. Follow me, and I will bring you to the man whom you seek.” And he led them to Samaria. (2 Kings 6:15-19)

Now, this is amusing on couple of levels. First, there’s the reaction of of the servant compared to Elisha. This man opens the door, probably fresh from bed, looks up, and see the place surrounded by soldiers armed to the gills. Then Elisha says, “Nah, don’t worry about it, we got more guys.” At that point, if I’m the servant, I’m looking out and saying, “Elisha, I’m looking at the jerseys and they all say ‘Aram’ on them, what are you talking about?” At which point Elisha prays and has his eyes open, and sees the fiery chariots.

obi-wanSecond, Elisha pulls a total Jedi with the blindness above:

Elisha: “This is not the city you’re looking for.” (hand waves)
Aramean Storm Trooper: “This is not the city I’m looking for.”
E: “You want to follow me now” (hand waves)
AST: “I want to follow you now.”

Beyond the humor, though, you see the difference between the reactions of the Elisha and the servant came down to one thing: Elisha knew the power of God and the servant didn’t.

Knowing the power of God is at work on your behalf leads to a radically different approach to way believers live their lives. This is why Paul was so determined that the believers in Ephesus know what was the power at work on their behalf:

For this reason, because I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers, that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.

(Ephesians 1:15-23)

You see that? One of the main things that Paul is praying for this young, struggling church to know is the muscle God is flexing on their behalf! What is the power the God is leveraging? Resurrection power!

Paul says that the power that broke through the chains of death that were holding Jesus is at work for those who believe! The power that raised Jesus from the dead and seated him at the right hand of the Father is being exercised on your behalf! In fact, it’s precisely because Jesus is seated at the right hand of the Father ruling over all things–whether political powers, economic powers, and every other power you can think of–that we can have hope that he has power over the enemies that threaten us.

See, the young man was scared until he saw the power that God was leveraging for him and Elisha. But we have seen what the young man could not, we have seen God do something even greater. Kierkegaard has a fabulous quote on this in his journals:

God creates out of nothing. Wonderful you say. Yes, to be sure, but He does what is still more wonderful: He makes saints out of sinners. 

Every single one of us who have place our faith in Jesus and been united with him by the Spirit has experience personally the miraculous, regenerating power of God. Every Sunday you sit in the pew, you’re sitting next to a miracle. You’re sitting next to someone who used to be dead, but now is alive.

So what happens when you know the power of God? Plenty, but I think at least three things mark the lives of believers who know the power of God.

1. Belief in God’s power means belief in prayer.

The first thing that’s going to happen is that you’re going to pray more. Look at Paul. Paul is right here praying for the Ephesians to believe in the power of God, but he only prays that because he believes God has that kind of power. Right? That’s what we see in the story of Elisha as well.  Elisha prays for God to save because he knows the power of God to save. As James says, “You have not because you ask not”  (James 4:2). God can change things. He can improve relationships. He can heal the sick. He can lift our spirits. He can save marriages. He can save the lost. And the believer who knows this will ask in faith and begin to receive these things in accordance with God’s wisdom.

2. Belief in God’s power means trusting transformation/holiness. 

Connected to this, believing in God’s resurrection power for us, means that we have actual hope for holiness in this life. A lot of us live with this sense that, “Yes, I’m a sinner who needs to be saved. Yes, God has paid for my sins in Christ. Yes, I’m forgiven and one day I’ll be set free from sin–when I die.” But what a lot of us don’t realize is that even now God is at work and has given us the power to be transformed into the likeness of Jesus. This is what Paul tells us in Romans 8:

You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh.

(Romans 8:9-12)

You don’t actually have to stay stuck where you are. God not only saves us from the guilt of sin on the Cross, but from the power of sin through his Resurrection gift of the Spirit. You don’t actually have to keep sinning over and over, never moving forward, never getting freedom, never getting better. Through union with Christ, you have the Spirit of life at work in you, enabling you to make actual progress in holiness and freedom from sin.

3. Belief in God’s power means allowing ourselves to be weak.

A lot of us live like we have to be strong all the time. That’s the American way, right? We’re rugged individualists. We don’t need help. We’re as emotionally composed, complete, and stable as our best Instagram shots say we are. Except that’s a lie. At least for a lot of us. The spiritual reality is that we’re all weak. We’re all broken. We’ve all got bits falling off and in need of repair.

Paul says that the gospel teaches us that we see God’s strength come into its own most in our weakness:

But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:9-10)

Paul knew that it was only when we stop trying to be strong, complete, whole, and everything the way the American dream says we should, we actually tap into the way of strength. See, when I’m focused on being strong, I’m not relying on God’s power. When I’m fixated on my own natural solutions to things, I don’t give God any space to work supernaturally in my life. The upside-down reality of the gospel is that it’s only when we begin to admit our weaknesses, when we proclaim our inadequacies, that we can see the omnipotence of God.

Pray that God would open your eyes to the mighty power he is leveraging on your behalf, that you might begin to live with the confidence, joy, and peace of Elisha before the Lord.

Soli Deo Gloria

A Few Looks At Crouch’s “Playing God”

playing godAndy Crouch, executive editor at Christianity Today and author of Culture Making, just released his new book on power called Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power. I haven’t read it yet, but apparently his thesis is that we’ve been given some shallow thinking on the topic lately, so Crouch wants us to re-examine our views of God’s gift of power in light of our creation in the Image of God and the redemption of that Image in Christ. Personally, I coudn’t agree more. Ever since reading James Davison Hunter’s critique of the Religious Right, Left, and Neo-Anabaptist rhetoric of power in To Change the World, I find myself constantly chafing at the inadequate ways we’ve been trained to conceive and exercise it as Christians.

While I haven’t read Crouch’s book yet, I have found some stimulating reviews floating around the web worth checking out.

First, Justin Taylor interviews Crouch over at the Between Two Worlds blog:

Taylor: The concept of flourishing is crucial for your book. What does it mean to flourish, and why is power such a key means and threat for the promotion of human flourishing?

Crouch: I think of flourishing as fullness of being—the “life, and that abundantly” that Jesus spoke of. Flourishing refers to what you find when all the latent potential and possibility within any created thing or person are fully expressed. In both Culture Making and Playing God I talk about the transition from nature to culture as a move from “good” to “very good.” Eggs are good, but omelets are very good. Wheat is good, but bread is very good. Grapes are good, but wine is very good. Et cetera. And the Bible has a third category, which is glory, which I would define as the magnificence of true being, a kind of ultimate flourishing. It is significant that the New Jerusalem will be full both of the glory of God—the magnificence of God’s true being fully known, experienced, and worshipped—and “the glory and honor of the nations”—which I take to mean the fruits of human culture brought to their deepest and fullest expression.

The interesting thing is that flourishing never happens by accident. Intentionality is always involved. And for most parts of creation, intelligent, attentive cultivation is required for things to flourish. If wine is one “very good,” flourishing expression of the grape, well, you don’t get wine if you just let it ferment on its own—you get vinegar, or worse. Wine only comes with tremendous skill, patience, and indeed creativity.

And this is why power is so intimately connected to flourishing—flourishing requires the exercise of true power, power that is bent on creating the best environment for someone or something to thrive. And while human flourishing is of paramount importance, the witness of Scripture seems to be that we human beings are here not just for our own flourishing, but for the flourishing of the whole created order. I think this is why Paul says the creation is “groaning for the revealing of the sons of God”—that phrase “sons of God” (which of course includes redeemed image bearers both male and female) is meant to signal true authority and dominion. If the true “sons of God” were to be revealed, the creation would flourish in ways we only dimly glimpse now.

James K.A. Smith forwards the discussion in his review over at Comment, especially when he  notes the ‘different story’ Crouch is telling about power:

Crouch reads cultural phenomena in order to discern the spirit that animates them, the worldview that undergirds them. “The premise of the Western,” for example, “as with the Nietzschean strain in literature from Lord of the Flies to The Hunger Games, is that when you strip away the trappings of civilization, you will find raw, primal conflict, bodies in competition to occupy all space.” In the face of this, Crouch asks the most fundamental question: “What is the deepest truth about the world? Is the deepest truth a struggle for mastery and domination? Or is the deepest truth collaboration, cooperation, and ultimately love?”  His reply is no less foundational: “I want to argue,” he emphasizes, “that Nietzsche’s ‘idea’ can be countered, point by point, with a very different vision of ultimate reality.”

This tack is just right: it goes to the root to recognize that how we conceive power comes down to fundamentally different mythologies, different faith-stances. What you think about power is always and ultimately rooted in some confession. In this sense, Crouch’s critique and counter-narration unwittingly replays—in much more accessible prose—precisely John Milbank’s critique of Nietzsche in his landmark book, Theology and Social Theory (especially chapter 10). A Christian understanding of power begins from a fundamentally different confessional standpoint. We refuse the myth that collapses power into violence and domination. We affirm a fundamentally different story in which power is a creative gift, and when we exercise that power rightly, we image God and love our neighbour.

Finally, towards the end of his review over at the Gospel Coalition,  John Starke addresses what Crouch’s ‘good news’ about power has to do with our view of institutions:

But I thought institutions frustrated creativity and cultivation. Isn’t that what we’re led to think? Crouch recognizes institutions can make that mistake. He also recognizes institutions can cultivate a culture of injustice and oppression. But institutions provide, he contends, roles (think “father” in the institution of the family), arenas (think “galleries” for art), and rules (think “regulations” for day traders on Wall Street) where image bearers can flourish as fathers, artists, and bankers. The power of institutions is to distribute power for comprehensive flourishing, not merely private thriving.

The most helpful and intriguing part of Crouch’s book is his formula for what makes institutions that leave behind cultural significance. They must have four ingredients (artifacts, arenas, rules, and goals) and three generations (e.g., Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob). This is a helpful guide as he then turns to churches and church leaders who have “poured their energies into creating forms of church life that serve just a single generation.” Crouch sees institutions as something of a remedy for churches and other organizations to flourish across space and time, to be a blessing to our children’s children.

I don’t know about you, but it looks like I’ve got another book to read.

Soli Deo Gloria