Money, sex and power are the trinity of age-old temptations. But we have few resources for understanding what power is and how it operates. Personal finances and sexual integrity are regular topics in Christian books and sermons. By contrast, little is taught or written about power and its effects.
Andy Crouch has written much to make up for this dearth. Like money and sex, power is not inherently evil. In fact, he writes, it is “a gift—the gift of a Giver who is the supreme model of power used to bless and serve.” Crouch continues:
“Power is not given to benefit those who hold it. It is given for the flourishing of individuals, peoples, and the cosmos itself. Power’s right use is especially important for the flourishing of the vulnerable, the members of the human family who most need others to use power well to survive and thrive: the young, the aged, the sick, and the dispossessed.”
Power is the innate human ability to steward the world to glorify God and bless creation and fellow image bearers. God originally intended for all humans to exercise power as an extension of their bearing God’s image. And, whether God intended it or simply because of how humans have organized societies and cultures since the beginning of time, some people have more power than others. Yet the mark of power rightly stewarded is that those with power enable everyone around them to flourish. People entrusted to their care thrive in material, spiritual, and relational ways, and are themselves empowered to steward their own power on others’ behalf.
For those of us who have belonged to a community where power was stewarded well—where the people in charge were healthy, grounded, and humble—we know power can be a good thing. I experienced this at a Chicago-area church as a young adult. Our priest obviously held more power than us. He was formally trained to preach and lead in ways we were not. The power differential was obvious, symbolized by the robes and vestments he wore every week. Yet he was a shepherd entrusted with caring for the flock, and he held that high calling seriously and soberly. He stayed connected to Christ in spiritual disciplines. Church members could easily access him for prayer and direction. He was accountable to a vestry, a bishop, and other leaders besides. And he (and his wife) cared for me like a daughter. We were happy to grant him power because he stewarded it so well. We felt its good effects.
By contrast, if you have belonged to a community where power was stewarded poorly, you have seen the devastating effects. Perhaps you carry the devastation within you. When power becomes an idol—promising those with power that they can be like God apart from God—those in power seek not to bless but to dominate. They take what is not theirs, exploit, crush, defeat, gaslight, ridicule, and silence. In their presence, others feel disempowered. And this is why power has such a bad rap, because doesn’t this account of power just seem like the oldest story in the book?
This is the type of power Jesus warned against in Matthew 20: “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them” (v. 25). The operative word here is “over.” Jesus is describing a power that seeks to rule over others rather than for others. Another translation of this verse says, “Their great ones are tyrants over them” (NRSV). Have you ever worked for a tyrant? They are harsh, unrestrained, and frankly scary. You feel disempowered rather than empowered because of the way they lead. And that’s the point; they want you to quake, if only a bit, at their power over you.
This is not the power that Jesus’s disciples are to seek. “Not so with you,” Jesus says. “Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave” (Matt. 20:26–27). And the disciples thought, Sounds like kind of a bummer. This wasn’t quite the glorious life they imagined—or we imagine. If we want to be at the top, Jesus says, go lower. It’s the opposite of what our idol-making hearts want.
Jesus’s inversion of worldly power appears throughout his gospel teachings. He demonstrated those teachings through his death on the cross. People exercising godly power are willing to give it up in the ways Jesus did. They know that their power is provisional, deriving from God, and intended to be given away, not hoarded.
Here are some hallmarks of power rightly stewarded today, by people who seek to serve in the way of Jesus:
The servant is the person who knows his or her spiritual poverty (Matt. 5:3) and exercises power under God’s control (Matt. 5:5) to maintain right relationships. The servant leader apologizes for mistakes (Matt. 5:4), shows mercy when others fail (Matt. 5:7), makes peace when possible (Matt. 5:9), and endures unmerited criticism when attempting to serve God (Matt. 5:10) with integrity (Matt. 5:8). Jesus set the pattern in his own actions on our behalf (Matt. 20:28). We show ourselves to be Christ-followers by following his example.
If our leaders hit even some of these marks—humility, mercy, peace, and integrity—we are grateful to have them in power. Ultimately, it is God’s grace that allows any of us to steward power in the way Jesus did. I say this not to minimize our own responsibility to keep our power in check but to highlight how alluring and intoxicating power is. (If you don’t believe me, go read The Lord of the Rings. I will refrain from recounting the plot in Elvish here. You’re welcome.) The moment we think we wouldn’t be enticed to abuse our power, we’re in grave danger.
Few people go into ministry or leadership thinking they’ll become tyrants, of course. It often starts with good motives. Someone with clear gifts and passion starts out wanting to leave a profound kingdom impact. They publicly embrace the concept of servant leadership. They sincerely submit to external accountability. They seek to bless others instead of dominate them. In the case of many leaders who ended up abusing their power, followers reflect back that the early days seemed pure. They were drawn in by a vision of kingdom service, and the leader modeled it well.
Then at some point, maybe a leader feels what it’s like to be treated like the most important person in a room. For a hush to fall over a crowd when they walk through the door. For people to hang on to their every word. It feels good. Perhaps their followers and supporters tell them they have special, indispensable gifts and that God has destined them and their ministry for kingdom greatness. That also feels good. If they are impressive communicators who can captivate a crowd, it’s likely that they start getting invited to speak and teach all over the country. Their platform grows. It seems like God is expanding their reach. Book deals come their way. That, too, feels good. They can have influence, perhaps even on a national or international level. (More on the promises and pitfalls of Christian book publishing in chap. 5.)
At some point, maybe they start enjoying the accoutrements of success—nice dinners, first-class travel, time-shares, access to private VIP areas (whether in the nightclub or the country club), the chance to rub elbows with other important ministry leaders. And they start to believe that all of this isn’t a gift but something they deserve. They are entitled to be treated like the most important person because clearly they are. They start treating people around them like they are not as important and lash out at anyone who might question their importance or restrain their power or spending.
And besides, look at all the ministry fruit.