Power! What is it? And what is there about it that drives people to do almost anything to possess it?
The nineteenth-century sociologist Max Weber defined power as "the chance of a man or a number of men to realize their own will in a social action even against the resistance of others who are participating in the action." 1
In other words, power is "the ability of an individual or group to carry out its wishes or policies, and to control, manipulate, or influence the behavior of others, whether they wish to cooperate or not." 2
Based on this understanding of power, Lord Acton declared that "power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely."
Are these things true only in the world? Or do they affect churches as well? Harvey Cox declares: "Entirely too much has been said in most churches about the stewardship of money and too little about the stewardship of power."3 And I believe he is right.
I have yet to hear a single sermon on power and its right use, or read an article by a Christian author on the stewardship of power. I have heard many a sermon on money and how it should be used; I have read many an article on the power of the gospel, the power of the Holy Spirit, the power of the church; but nothing on the stewardship of power itself.
All of us have power—social power, "the capacity to control the behavior of others, directly or indirectly." 4 Even a tiny baby exercises some control over others.
Two types of power
There are two kinds of power in the world today: power that operates out of selfish interest, and power that operates out of selfless interest. Each has held sway at times in the world. When selfish power has been on the throne, the world has been thrown into chaos. Think of the Spanish Inquisition and Adolf Hitler. When selfless power has been wielded, the course of history has been altered. Think of William Wilberforce, Mahatma Gandhi, and Moses.
The prevalent form of power displayed in the world today—between governments, in national and local politics, in racial conflict, sometimes even in the church, and in some homes—is the manipulative, coercive, selfish type of power that seeks to get its own way, as Weber says, "even against the resistance of others." Such manifestation of power derives from Satan. This type of power is so prevalent in society that most people have come to accept it as the normal way of getting business done.
Christians—those who supposedly have "died to self," who are "crucified with Christ," who are to put others first, who, like their Lord and Master, are to serve and not be served—often find themselves resorting to ugly, selfish uses of power in their attempts to get their own way. The world and fellow Christians stand in amazement and cry, "These, then, are the 'redeemed'? Pray tell, from what are they redeemed? Have they been redeemed from the love of money? Have they been redeemed from class and ethnic pride? Have they been redeemed from racial intolerance? Have they been redeemed from obsessive craving for control? Have they been redeemed from a desire to have their own way and impose their will on others? If not, why do they call themselves redeemed?"
From the parable of the wheat and the tares comes an even more penetrating question: "Good Father of human kind, didn't You sow good seed in Your field? Then where did the weeds come from?"
It is in the church, where the good seed of the gospel is most thickly strewn, that we can expect the devil to work his hardest. Many sad chapters of church history testify to his successes. Many a business session of the local church be comes a playground for Satan yet today as brothers and sisters in Christ struggle to impose their will on others.
God's use of power
God does not operate in this way. He does not use force. He does not impose His will against our resistance. He does not violate our free moral choice. Here is the difference, and here we have the true definition of power. From the divine perspective, power is the ability to influence the behavior of others without violating free moral choice. How does God do it? Through love. He operates out of love. Therefore, from the divine perspective, love is power. Ellen G. White writes: "Love is power. Intellectual and moral strength are involved in this principle, and cannot be separated from it. The power of wealth has a tendency to corrupt and destroy; the power of force is strong to do hurt; but the excellence and value of pure love consist in its efficiency to do good, and to do nothing else than good. Whatsoever is done out of pure love, be it ever so little or contemptible in the sight of men, is wholly fruitful; for God regards more with how much love one worketh than the amount he doeth. Love is of God. The unconverted heart cannot originate nor produce this plant of heavenly growth, which lives and flourishes only where Christ reigns." 5
Love, or better stated, compassion, is a rare commodity in the world today, for it can only be generated by God. Compassion is a divine character quality that comes only from God and not from human hearts. It is a divine plant of heavenly origin, and its source is heaven, not earth. Whenever it is manifested by human beings, it is because God has moved upon the hearts, whether or not they declare them selves to be children of God. They can be atheists, agnostics, spiritually indifferent, or Communists, but if they display compassion toward others, it is because God is working within. God is thus present in such action and in that person, even if the individual does not acknowledge Him as God. This is the message of John: "Beloved, do not imitate evil but imitate good. He who does good is of God; he who does evil has not seen God" (3 John 11, RSV). This text does not judge people on the basis of their beliefs, but on the basis of their behavior—their actions. Nothing is said of their beliefs. It is people's behavior that determines whether they are of God, not what they believe. In other words, how they use the power entrusted them. And in the last judgment, when God separates the sheep from the goats, it is behavior that determines destiny. This is precisely what Ellen White says: "When the nations are gathered before Him, there will be but two classes, and their eternal destiny will be determined by what they have done or have neglected to do for Him in the person of the poor and the suffering." 6
What the powerful do on behalf of the powerless determines destiny. The great est power in the world is the power of an unselfish life. "No other influence that can surround the human soul has such power as the influence of an unselfish life." That's power, the kind Jesus displayed, and the kind that shapes the very character of God.
What we see on the cross in the person of the God-Man Jesus Christ of Nazareth, hanging between heaven and earth, is the raw power of divine love. From the human perspective it is powerlessness. "He saved others; himself he cannot save. If he be the King of Israel, let him now come down from the cross, and we will believe him" (Matt. 27:42). But from the divine perspective it is the most powerful act God has ever done, and the world has not been the same since. In 1 Corinthians 1:21-25, the apostle Paul contrasts these two perspectives: "For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles" (verses 21-23, RSV).
Why was the crucifixion of Christ a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles? Because the Jews, a powerless and a subject people, wanted a Messiah who could confront Roman steel with steel, and not with statements about loving one's enemies. And the Gentiles, who wielded power over the Jews, saw in such methods of salvation only the foolish gesture of powerless peasants.
"But to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men" (verses 24, 25, RSV).
God takes love, which the world regards as weakness, and makes it the most powerful force in the world. That's power! In Ephesians 4:31-5:1, Paul again writes: "Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, with all malice, and be kind to one another, tender hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God" (RSV).
Here we have the two types of power available in the world today—power that operates out of force and power that operates out of love. The one originates with Satan, the other with Christ. Which one do we as pastors manifest?
Two behaviors, one servant
"Who, then, is a faithful and wise servant? He is the one that his master has placed in charge of the other servants to give them their food at the proper time. How happy that servant is if his master finds him doing this when he comes home! Indeed, I tell you, the master will put that servant in charge of all his property. But if he is a bad servant, he will tell himself that his master will not come back for a long time, and he will begin to beat his fellow servants and to eat and drink with drunkards. Then that servant's master will come back one day when the servant does not expect him and at a time he does not know. The master will cut him in pieces and make him share the fate of the hypocrites. There he will cry and gnash his teeth" (Matt. 24:45-51, TEV).
The servant in this parable is entrusted with an assignment, the stewardship of power. There are not two servants in the parable, but two behaviors. Jesus is describing two types of behavior, two possible ways that His followers can use power while they await His coming. They can use it selflessly, motivated by love, focusing on the needs of others. This is the way God uses power. In this way they can influence the behavior of others without violating free moral choice.
Or they can use power selfishly and, as Weber put it, "realize their own will. . . even against the resistance of others." The focus of this behavior is not on others, but self, not on love, but greed.
When we teach the doctrine of Christian stewardship, we need to focus on more than money. We need to teach principles for the proper management of power within the church. This includes the management of power in the home as well as the management of power in our institutions. The parable says nothing about money. But everything in it speaks of the stewardship of power! This stewardship of power must first be exemplified in our own attitudes and actions as pastors, for we are the servant in the parable, and we must decide how we will use the power given to us.
Notice also that the different behaviors are related to different attitudes toward the Master's coming. When the servant is manifesting a Christ-like behavior of selfless service, he does not perceive his master's coming as delayed. But when he perceives his master as delayed, his behavior changes to correspond with his belief. Here is a case where belief and behavior impact on each other.
The return to servanthood
Jesus calls His followers to serve others rather than self. "Neither be called masters, for you have one master, the Christ. He who is greatest among you shall be your servant" (Matt. 23: 10, 11, RSV). This concept of the greatest being the servant, the first being last, that we are to serve and not be served, is repeated seven times in the Gospels, which shows that Jesus "radically questioned social and religious hierarchical and patriarchal relationships." 8
In the world, rulers may lord it over their followers and over each other, "but it shall not be so among you," Jesus declared (Matt. 20:26). "You are here not to put yourself first, but others." Like the disciples, we don't have the foggiest idea what all of this means. We take this sevenfold message of the first being last and superimpose it on our hierarchical structures based on a patriarchal concept of God, and the result is that the church sets up leaders as lords and princes, and then baptizes this lordship by calling it "service."9
What is true for the individual disciple is also true for the collective body of disciples called the church. Just as the individual Christian is not to place himself or herself first, but to serve others, so the church is not to place itself first, but is to serve others.
We must face the question Is the church's mission to defend the church or to defend humanity? If it is the first, then the church becomes an end in itself and is no longer the means of making hope visible. Because of this me-first attitude, too often the church finds itself thinking that God is on its side. There is some thing about self-serving that is so self-deceiving. We must never forget the words of Abraham Lincoln in reply to some who hoped that God was on their side: "It is more important to know that we are on God's side."
James and John felt that by having the best positions they would best be serving God. That is how deceptive self-serving power can be. The basis of Christianity is self-sacrificing service to others. It is this basic principle that should motivate all human actions within the body of Christ. And the authority that God gives the church is not authority to lord it over, but authority to be of service to others. It is not authority of lordship, but authority of servanthood.
Servanthood or servitude
How does this relate to people whose social position has already relegated them to servanthood? There is a fundamental difference between servanthood and servitude. Servitude is a forced social status, imposed on a person by others, depriving that person of the freedom to choose his or her own course of action and life options. Servanthood, on the other hand, is a voluntary action where a person, of his or her own free will, chooses to be of service to others. Human dignity is at risk in servitude; it is enhanced in servanthood. Jesus condemned servitude; He encouraged servanthood.
We need to evaluate our present church and institutional structures in order to make a correction in this area. There needs to be a mutual sharing of power between pastor and laity for the well-being of the whole body. But some, because of their desire to grasp power for self-serving purposes, or because they may not understand fully the nature of God's kingdom, are not able to visualize what needs to take place.
It is time for us to understand that we can no longer continue self-serving and self-seeking, motivated by what Martin Luther King, Jr., called "the drum major instinct"—the desire to be first, out in front, leading the parade of self-glorification—and still call ourselves Christians! We must place the needs of others first, and consider how we can best meet those needs.
Repentance and power
Harvey Cox goes so far as to declare that "the modern equivalent of repentance is the responsible use of power." 10 I believe there is some truth in this. The church must repent for its misuse of power. Individuals, including pastors, must repent for lusting after power, not in service to others, but in service to self.
And through repentance we will gain access to genuine power, love power, the only power that must be manifested within Adventism—power that influences the behavior of others without violating free moral choice.
Such power can only be made manifest as we heed Jesus' call to servanthood the first shall be last, the greatest must be the least, he or she with the greatest credentials (whether Ph.D., Ed.D., M.D., or any other fragments of the alphabet behind a name) must be the servant of all.
This is the message of Jesus for the mission of His church in these last days, a return to servanthood.
"Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master; nor is he who is sent greater than he who sent him. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them" (John 13:16, 17, RSV).
1 Max Weber, Economy and Society (Berkeley:
UniversityofCaliforniaPress, 1978), vol. 2, p. 926.
2 George Theodorson and Achilles Theodorson,
A Modem Dictionary of Sociology (New York:
Bames & Noble, 1979).
3 Harvey Cox, Religion in the Secular City (New
York: MacMillanCo., 1965), p. 118.
4 Gene Sharp, The Politics of Nonviolent Action.
Part One: Power and Struggle (Boston: Porter
Sargent Publishers, 1973), p. 7.
5 Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church
(Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn.,
1948), vol. 2, p. 135.
6 ______, The Desire of Ages (Mountain
View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1940), p.
7 ______, The Ministry of Healing (Mountain
View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1942),
8 Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, "You Are Not to
Be Called Father, Early Christian History in a
Feminist Perspective," Cross Currents 10 (No. 3): 317.
9 Rosemary Radford Ruether, Mary—The Feminine
Face of the Church (Philadelphia: Westminster
Press, 1977), p. 84.
10 Cox, p. 119.