At Work & Theology 101

Redeeming Power at Work

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Work in any organization long enough, and you might see a familiar scene: the workaround.

Someone in the organization wants their way, so they play office politics to get it. They size up colleagues as either allies or enemies, and go about pitting these “teams” against each other.

Eventually that person gets what they want, but the organization is divided and its culture poisoned.

This situation is but one of the bitter fruits growing out of the idolatry of power.

Pursuing Power

Tim Keller devotes a whole chapter to “power idols” in his book Counterfeit Gods. At one point he writes,

Idols of power then, are not only for the powerful. You can pursue power in small, petty ways, by becoming a local neighborhood bully or a low-level bureaucrat who bosses around the few people in his field of authority. Power idolatry is all around us.

Power idolatry manifests itself in many ways besides the workaround. You can see it at work when:

  • Someone takes all the credit, refusing to acknowledge the role of others on a project.
  • Accountability is refused or ignored.
  • Departments seek to undermine one another out of rivalry.
  • People treat power as only a zero-sum game, doing whatever it takes to amass more power and get ahead of others.

Power doesn’t always have to be a zero-sum game, with one person taking and using power to limit that of others. In fact, Andy Crouch argues in his book Playing God that the biblical purpose of power is very different.

“True power is not exclusive, [and] does not require domination and control to be fully expressed,” he says.

The Biblical Purpose of Power

When Playing God was published, Crouch gave an interview with The Gospel Coalition about the idol of power. He explained that,

A key theme of Playing God is that all of us, not just “the powerful,” have real power and the responsibility to use it well.

Crouch argues that power isn’t something to be avoided because of its potential for abuse. Instead, it is “a gift to be stewarded” in service to others.

You may not feel like you have any power, but you do. Ever since God created human beings to cultivate and care for creation, he has given them the power and ability to carry out that mandate.

God has given you a vocation, and he’s bestowed upon you skills and talents in some measure to pursue that vocation and live it out. You exercise power and dominion over creation by honing and using those God-given skills.

As many authors on this blog have written, that power is given to you for the purpose of flourishing. Crouch argues as much regarding the biblical purpose of power. In the same he interview he says,

Flourishing requires the exercise of true power, power that is bent on creating the best environment for someone or something to thrive.

You’ve been given all your skill and power in order to give a foretaste of God’s kingdom. Crouch says,

In the world we have, broken and distorted as it is, one of the best uses of our power…is to restore the image-bearing capacity of the vulnerable, the least, and the poor.

With this in mind, how can power be redeemed at work?

Redeeming Power at Work

Utilizing power as a gift requires relationships. Crouch argues that,

True power is meant to be embedded in relationships of mutual trust, submission, and creativity.

People in the grip of power idolatry fear and avoid relationships. They often bristle at having to submit to authority or accept the help of others. They obsess over their own reputation instead of using their power to invest in others and help them thrive in their own “image-bearing capacity.”

Jesus, as our Savior and teacher, is the ultimate example of using power to bless and serve. Crouch examines Christ’s use of power in a Christianity Today cover story, pointing out that Jesus exercised authority and vulnerability when he washed the disciples’ feet.

Christ humbled himself and served his disciples, and when he finished he still took his place of authority at the table and began to teach. Trust, intimacy, and power were exercised. Jesus honored his disciples, empowering them without losing any of his own power and authority.

The challenge for us, then, is to find ways to use our power to promote the “thriving and flourishing” of others, just like Jesus.

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