Healthy Views of Power in the Church

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In this video, Jamin Goggin and Kyle Strobel warn against assuming that we won’t struggle with misusing power. The warping effects of power lurk closer than most Christians tend to suspect.

The following is a lightly edited transcript; please check the video before quoting.

Jamin Goggin: This is a really important question, and I think it’s a question that we’re often prone to give some trite answers to rather quickly. Sometimes, I think our answer to this question might be something like, “Well, if we just get the right model and the right system and the right governance and structure down, then we’ve kind of answered this question quite simply.” And so, maybe we’re prone to look for the silver bullet kind of model of ecclesiology. To be sure, there are systems of governance and structures of leadership in the life of a church that are more conducive than others in regards to questions of healthy power, but I think this is a false answer to think that if we just land on the right perfect model, then all the rest will kind of fall into place.

The other answer, I think, we’re prone to give that I think we need also avoid is to kind of point the finger at the big churches and say, “Well, they’re the ones with the problem with power, you know, the mega-churches, that’s where the real problem is.” And there’s a lot that can be said about why I think that’s wrong, but maybe my own experience itself would be enough in this regard. I remember being a young youth pastor, young in ministry, just first getting into what it meant to do this thing, and meeting on a Wednesday night regularly in a home for a Bible study with 30 or 40 high school students. And I can remember, in that room, how much I was wielding my personality to kind of wow my audience, and how much grandiosity was in my heart for what it meant to kind of build a ministry around my personality. In other words, the truth is, it can be just as tempting to embrace misguided and unhealthy forms of power in a very small church, in a small Bible study of 40 students, as it can be in an auditorium with 3,000 people listening.

And so, I think we need to avoid these two temptations of just landing on the silver bullet model, and thinking that resolves all the questions or saying, “Well, the problem is with the big churches.” And so, then what might we say in answering this question? Well, I think there’s a lot that can be said, but there’s a couple of markers that I think I would like to identify that I think are helpful signs of a church that has embraced a healthy view of power.

One of those is confession. Is confession a practice that is kind of built into the life of the church? Are we in the habit of being the kind of people who are inclined to share the truth of our failure and our weakness and our brokenness? And is that modeled by those in leadership? Are pastors in the life of the church inclined to talk about when they used to sin, or do they talk about their very real struggle with sin still in their life, in appropriate ways, of course? Are elders and leaders in the life of church modeling even in their own meeting together, confession one to another? Are small group leaders in small groups cultivating environments or being honest about our sins and temptations? It’s just part of how we do life together. And this can show up in a myriad of ways, but I think the practice of confession is incredibly important because it continues to draw us into this truth that we are weak, we do have sin, we do have failure, and we’re in desperate need of God.

Another practice, I think, that is important in the life of the church, it shows up in a myriad of forms, but is a real commitment to reconciliation in life of the church, that oftentimes, churches with unhealthy power structures tend to privilege certain ages of people, certain races of people. And so, the question is, are we cultivating a church culture that actually, through our worship and through our communal life, is committed to reconciliation, is viewing every member in the body of Christ as critical and essential to the building up of the body?

I think another piece this touches on is maybe the question about the marginalized. Well, where do the marginalized kind of fit into the life of our church? And maybe a hard question to ask often as pastors, but I think an important one is, is our church culture and the community of our church really just a reflection of the community that we’re in? Or is there something different about it? And I think one of the ways we can get at this is, the marginalized in our community, are they still marginalized in our church? Those that are on the kind of outskirts and the rejected within the city we find ourselves in, are they also on the outskirts and find themselves rejected in life of our church? Are we the kind of church that through our embrace of reconciliation has actually centered the marginalized, viewing them as critically important to the building up of the body of Christ?

And these are some markers, I think, some questions we can begin to ask about certain practices and values we might have as a church that can be signs that we have a healthy view of power up and running.

Kyle Strobel: Yeah, well, I think that’s exactly right, and I think, even maybe deeper than some of these questions is, are we even talking about this at all? And one of the most disconcerting things I have found is that, by and large, I don’t see this conversation being had in churches anywhere.

And if we’re not talking about it, we are probably missing all sorts of areas where it’s infiltrated our churches. I’m convinced that one of the, if not the most pressing issue in the western church today, is a question about power. Have we embraced worldly power to try to further an agenda, try to further the kingdom even, to try to further our platform, to try to protect ourselves from the world? Or have we embraced Christ’s way of power? That is a question we have to have.

I remember I introduced this in a class of seminary students once, and I was astounded with the response, because the response to Jamie’s point was almost always like, “Yeah, there are people out there that have this problem.” It was always the mega-church pastors or the people with platforms. But the real problem with power is the problem with the fallen human heart.

It is a problem for all of us. Our devotional lives, our ministry lives, our vocations, all of it is funded by our view of power. And so, we actually need to cultivate spaces where we think about, what does it actually mean that we have power in weakness? That power is for the sake of love and not for the sake of success, that, like, how does that on the ground actually look?

We need a new conversation about power in the church today, and by and large, it is not being had. And how that influences the church is going to be fundamental, but then secondarily, politics, engaging the world outsiders. You know, all of this is determined by how we understand the nature of power. So, if we don’t talk about that, my worry is that we will be seduced by a very different way, and at the end of the day, it will kind of warp up the soul of the church from within.