Power and Powerful

Our culture values, as Richard Foster wrote so many years ago, money, sex, and power. And, in fact, the three often go together. A Hollywood mogul may make buckets of money and have the power to make or break a career and because of the two be able to get sexual favors from actors. writers. and the like. We talk about powerful politicians (or about the more powerful financiers and party bosses behind the politicians) or businessmen and businesswomen or generals or the military-industrial complex. We are also well-aware of the scandals that have resulted from the misuse of power.

The above is why I am concerned when Christians get into the power game. This happens when we look up to a pastor who appears “successful,” whose church can obviously spend lots of money on worship or web platforms, who demands absolute allegiance or else . . . People boast that that go to pastor x’s church. Christianity Today’s podcast series “The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill” shows what can happen. But one sees the same in a number of books, blog posts, and articles that came out in 2021. (It seems to have been a good year for taking a hard look at such things.) This can happen when people go to charismatic conferences advertised as “powerful” or with a “powerful healing evangelist” or that it will have “anointed” (read powerful) worship or will feature the “powerful prophetic ministry of . . .” It can use a substitute for the power word and people get the message. This will start a global awakening or will destroy powerful demonic holds over nations (and is therefore more powerful itself). People go to “schools” to get this type of power, whether it be prophetic, healing, or apostolic (that is in itself a power term, for it implies authority over a number of churches, not missionary activity as one sees in its origin). Powerful phenomena happen and the more that happen, the more significant the conference or church service.

Now there are several issues this raises. First, seeking power, spiritual or financial or influential gets one into the culture’s methodology or, as Foster put it, money sex and power. That means that one is using the culture’s methods to try to gain spiritual ends (or admiring the use of those methods). Second, it puts one at risk of misuse of money and sexual exploitation of others. More than one megachurch pastor has fallen into one or both of these traps and the same has been true of more than one charismatic community or organization. They are at risk of becoming a TACO, a totalist, aberrant, Christian organization (the subject of the doctor thesis of a friend of mine some decades ago), one that is controlling to the point of abuse, whether it be spiritual, emotional, or sexual (and sometimes also physical).

Third, and most importantly, it breaks with the Christian spiritual tradition. While Jesus is pictured as exercising power in the coming age, in his life he is portrayed as not exercising the power of this age, but instead serving others. We do not find him kicking any of his disciples out, not even Judas. Nor do we see this in the letters of Paul or the other New Testament writers. Paul, in fact, boasts in his weakness and critiques those who want status in the surrounding culture or to be seen as powerful by the church. Down through the ages these has been a tradition of giving up power and focusing on service. There have, of course, been exceptions when the church became corrupt, but I am talking about those we refer to as saints, as the examples of those who. embodied the Christian spiritual tradition. Many, while from noble birth or having significant positions in the church, cared for the poor and tended the sick. Others were noted for selling luxuries of their state in life. Gregory the Great described himself as “servant of the servants of God” and that tradition continued in those who embodied his spirituality right down to at least Pope Benedict XVI who was noted for a simple lifestyle and a reluctance to seek or even exercise power (other than teaching and leading by example) right down to and through his retirement. Men and women with known healing gifts did not speak about them and often moved to areas where they were unknown to avoid fame – most of such people we only know about through others who wrote about their gifts. I think of Br. André scrubbing the floor when someone came to him asking for healing for a family member. He did not look up from his scrubbing the floor, but just said something like, “Go home. They are well.” In other words, it is humility that is a Christian virtue, not telling of the great things one has done. It is “not letting the left hand know what the right hand is doing.” It is sacrificing one’s life for others (as not a few did quite literally and others by caring for plague victims). All of this is inimical to seeking, holding onto, or exercising power over others (unless it is a necessary part of one’s office and one does it humbly and reluctantly).

So flee power, if you can, and embrace humble service. Beware of advertisements that boast of this conference or institution is great, powerful, “anointed” or “world shaking” or the like. That will protect us from the dangers of power and allow us to live in the freedom of the children of God who identify with Jesus who gave his life for others.

About Peter H. Davids

I am a retired Director of Clergy Formation for the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St Peter, a retired professor, and an active Catholic priest (and former Episcopal priest for 34 years, writer, and editor). My present appointment is Chaplain to the Dominican Sisters of Mary Mother of the Eucharist in Our Lady of Guadalupe Priory in Georgetown, Texas. I am also a priest available to parishes and communities in the Diocese of Austin, and the resident priest for the Austin Byzantine Catholic Community. I am married and so am a husband and also a father, and a grandfather.
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