“Whether you know it or not, you just are in a position of power.”
This was Eugene Peterson’s response to our inquiry concerning the unique challenge pastors face in relation to power. Our conversation with Eugene was part of a long journey to discover what it meant to embrace power in weakness. He was, of course, correct. Those of us in ministry are all in a position of power. As such, we’ve all embraced a certain form of power. The question is not if we’ve embraced power, but what kind of power we’ve embraced.
This is perhaps the most pressing question in the church today, because it defines everything we do in ministry.
Searching the Heart
A quick glance reveals that power has gone awry in the evangelical church. We’d have to be either naïve or simply uninformed to be unaware of power being employed to control, dominate, and even, at times, abuse. Yet no matter how many high-profile pastors are forced to leave the ministry because of their abuse of power, we still tend to see each incident as a case of individual failure rather than the symptom of a broader systemic issue. The celebrity culture the church has adopted and its lack of pastoral accountability are issues, no doubt, but addressing these issues still fails to unveil the more nefarious fountain fueling the problem. Beneath the surface lies a deep commitment to a form of power antithetical to the way of Jesus.
We’re tempted to imagine unhealthy forms of power are problems for other leaders and other churches, and fail to recognize this longing in our own hearts. But we’re all tempted toward a kind of power antithetical to the gospel of Jesus, even in—maybe especially in—the places we’re most diligently striving to be faithful. Even though our views on power drive our ministries and form how we lead, this topic is rarely addressed explicitly.
If one’s notion of power governs the church and indeed the Christian life as a whole, this isn’t a side topic, but one of the most vital discussions pastors and church leaders should be having today. In order to discuss the kind of power we’ve embraced, we need to ask two simple questions: (1) Where do we believe power comes from? and (2) What do we believe power is for? Our answers will unveil the kind of power we’re wielding.
Perversions of Power
Over the past several years we’ve faced these two questions head on. What we’ve discovered is that, in many ways, our hearts have been committed to a form of power not faithful to Jesus’s way. Our hearts, laced with the vestiges of sin, bend toward autonomy. We’re bent toward a kind of power that rejects dependence and trust in God. We look inward for strength. We leverage our gifts, talents, and abilities to get things done and make things happen. Conversely, we’re not inclined to embrace our weakness and live in reliance on God. Not only are we inclined to look for power in the wrong place, but we’re inclined to wield our power toward the wrong ends. We wield power for control, domination, self-preservation, and defense rather than sacrificial, self-giving love. We’re driven by competition and by winning.
At this point it’s tempting to reduce this discussion to the proper forms and uses of secular principles and practices for the sake of the church. Yet this kind of power, from the self and for the self, isn’t merely a misguided embrace of popular business models or secular leadership principles. It’s a form of power opposed to the way of Jesus. It may not always demonstrate its true character in dramatic fashion on the stage of evangelical subculture, but it sows a cloaked and debilitating destruction in local churches.
According to James 3, this kind of power, marked by selfish ambition and vain conceit, is the way of the world, the flesh, and the Devil (literally earthly, unspiritual, and demonic). Where the church and its leadership imbibe this kind of power, they become proprietors of a way antithetical to the way of Jesus. Where this approach dominates, the way of Jesus is undermined.
When our primary machinery for doing kingdom work is our talents and abilities, we’ve embraced the wrong kind of power.
When leaders are chosen because of their charisma and stage presence, we’ve embraced the wrong kind of power.
When we neglect the little and always favor the big—and when influence, notoriety, and status trump holiness—we’ve embraced a form of power not of the kingdom of God.
When pastors not only succumb to the temptation to take fruit from the tree but invite the rest of the family to take a bite, our churches find themselves in a perilous place.
What Our Churches Need
The church is desperate for a wholesale appraisal of its understanding of power. This isn’t to say that views on power aren’t available—assumptions abound concerning how Christian power should function. However, our concern is that these models of power consistently fail to provide a properly Christocentric and cruciform vision of power the New Testament calls us to as followers of Jesus, one built around the cross (Phil. 2:5–11) and founded on weakness (2 Cor. 12:9).
One approach has been to ground a Christian vision of power in creation as fundamentally creative power. In other words, we look back to Genesis 1–2 as our governing framework for thinking about human persons and power. On the other end, we might go to Pentecost to ground our understanding of power, and unmoor the work of the Spirit from the work of Christ. In both scenarios, power is still understood in basically worldly form; it’s still power in strength for control, but is now seen as given to us from God himself. Both can easily be utilized by the flesh to fulfill that deeply abiding desire of the fall: “You can be like God.”
The prevailing assumptions concerning Christian power seem to assume that Jesus is a secondary issue to be explained rather than the primary model of the Christian way of power. Rather than the invisible made visible in the life of Christ, what we find from these views is that Jesus’s life doesn’t make much sense based on the systems of power we bring to the table. Both emphases unmoor Christian power from Christ in a way foreign to the New Testament—which outlines the form of Christ’s life and, in particular, his cross as the Christian way of power.
But the Jesus way articulates a way of power in the world that takes substantial faith to rely on, because it calls us into places where real fear resides. If I accept that Jesus is right, that power is found in weakness for love and not in strength for control, will ministry still work? As it currently stands, it might not. But in our world today, with the political, social, and church spheres so fully seduced by worldly power, what’s clear is that there’s a real desperation for the power of Christ by his Spirit that’s cruciform, self-giving, and founded on love. What we need are deeper conversations about what this entails in our world today.
Editors’ note: Jamin Goggin (pastor) and Kyle Strobel (theologian), authors of The Way of the Dragon or the Way of the Lamb: Searching for Jesus’ Path of Power in a Church that Has Abandoned It (Thomas Nelson, 2017), searched Scripture and then sought out models of Christian power by meeting with J. I. Packer, Dallas Willard, Marva Dawn, James Houston, Jean Vanier, John Perkins, and Eugene Peterson.
Matt Chandler, Lead Pastor, The Village Church, President of the Acts 29 Church Planting Network
“You need this book. I need this book. We all need this book, probably a lot more than we imagine. Too many of these lessons I’ve learned the hard way. I can only pray a rising generation of Christian leaders will learn from Kyle and Jamin’s journey that the path to true glory passes through the way of the Lamb.”
Collin Hansen, editorial director, The Gospel Coalition; author, Blind Spots: Becoming a Courageous, Compassionate, Commissioned Church
“Insightful, humbling, and worshipful, this book is a necessary call for the church to seek its power in the Spirit, not in the celebrity culture of a lost world. This book will encourage pastors and church members to look at themselves and their fellowships through the lens of the gospel.”
Russell Moore, President, Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention