Public Square & Theology 101

Should Christians Wield Power?

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They take their faith into every sphere of life, including the workplace, politics, economics, education, and the arts. And in all these realms, they seek to glorify God. They obey, imperfectly to be sure. But their incipient obedience leads to significant changes in society.

– Hugh Whelchel, How Then Should We Work?

What if power was rooted not in coercion but creation?

This was the subject of Trinity Forum’s evening conversation on October 17th, featuring Andy Crouch, author of Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power.

Crouch began the discussion with the story in which the Pharisees asked Jesus whether it was lawful to pay taxes to Caesar:

Jesus said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They said, “Caesar’s.” Then he said to them, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (Matthew 22:20-22).

Just as the coins bore Caesar’s likeness, something directly bore the image of God: human beings. When Jesus mentioned “the things that are God’s,” he was referring to the idea that human beings themselves were image-bearers.

Crouch noted that “God’s culminating intention for his creation is that it be full of his image.” In fact, God declared his work “good” throughout the creation account. But once God created man in his own image, the world was not simply good, but very good.

These image-bearers are given the cultural mandate, in Genesis 1:28:

Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.

Through the cultural mandate, God gave humans dominion—authority—over the earth. They were to unleash the abundance of the earth. This required intentional stewardship by God’s image-bearers to reach its full potential.

Thus, humans have dominion in order to further abundance and flourishing. From this foundation, institutions develop. According to Crouch, institutions are self-replicating “cultural patterns that have lasted for generations…Not many institutions survive without some attention to human flourishing.”

The use of power through these institutions, therefore, is not a necessary evil, but a way to bring about God’s coming kingdom. Unfortunately, due to the fall, humans don’t always want to be image-bearers; they want to be image-makers. That’s how we get idols, and that’s how power goes from being a tool to a controlling force.

Crouch noted that,

The only problem with idols is that they stop working…and as the benefit decreases, the demand increases.

The idol of power is no exception.

Crouch used the history of the Caesars as an illustration:

They initially went from using their power for the flourishing of the people to abusing it and trying to become as gods.

They went from being senators to kings to playing the role of God.

Since power is a good but easily-corrupted tool, Crouch noted that it is imperative that Christians hold positions of influence in order to point to the restoration of God’s kingdom:

The whole creation is groaning for the sons of God…waiting for the return of true image-bearing…this leads not to diminishing but flourishing…Proper exercise of power is not a zero-sum game.

In his book, How Then Should We Work? Hugh Whelchel agrees that Christians should be transformers of culture through their work:

We are to be actively involved in the transformation of culture without giving culture undue prominence…the idea of Christ transforming culture…celebrates the goodness of creation and therefore of human culture. It recognizes the fallenness of creation, but it also recognizes God’s desire to restore creation by the death and resurrection of Christ through the ministry of the church.

Christians who hold positions of influence have unique opportunities to transform culture through their work, and they should embrace their vocations as such. Whelchel says,

Christians are already positioned as leaders and decision makers within many of the institutions necessary to establish cultural renewal…Yet they are ineffective because…they do not understand that the most powerful tool God has given them to impact the world around them is their vocational work.

But Crouch balanced these exhortations by cautioning against the dangers of striving for power.

We are made for more than we could possibly imagine…that’s what makes us seek out that power…yet the one [Jesus] who had most did not grasp at it.

Christians who hold positions of power must be especially careful to keep the culture from becoming an idol and transforming them.

Acknowledging this dilemma, Crouch concluded that Christians may choose to seek positions of influence as a way of fulfilling the cultural mandate—as long as they do so with great caution, humility, and are…”constantly immersing [themselves] in an alternative story,” the story of man’s purpose and the restoration of God’s kingdom.

Can power be a positive thing? Should Christians seek positions of power? 

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  • The concept of “power” and how Christians should talk about it is nebulous, and there is relatively little agreement. When Hauerwas and Walter Wink start to include in “powers and principalities” things peculiar to voluntary transaction-type markets, I think they go awry. Because markets create wealth, and often wealth that gets distributed unequally, markets are viewed with suspicion. But that’s because a large centralized state is taken as a given. Wealth cannot affect power-over state based systematic injustice if the state is properly constrained in size and scope. The problem is that the state is vulnerable to influence from wealthy individuals, seeking to become “crony capitalists” by capturing privileges within the marketplace granted by the state. If the state were so constrained that it could not grant such privileges, then crony capitalism would die away and the market would cease to be a locus of power-over. The market as a nexus of voluntary transactions might make some interactions less personal, but that usually would work to reduce power inequalities.

    Christian involvement in politics has largely worked to expand the size and scope of the state, and in so doing the church has abdicated its peculiar mandates. We fooled ourselves into believing that America was a Christian nation. This became justification for pursuing the mandates of the gospel through the state. We thus lost our peculiarity, and our saltiness.

    I don’t think that power should be used by Christians to do good in the world. I think if we imitate Christ we lay down our “crowns,” our power, and learn submission, achieving the mandates of the gospel through personal sacrifice. We should not work to make abortion illegal, we should adopt babies, and take care of mothers. Our willingness to sacrifice from our own resources demonstrates in real terms what the worth of that baby is to us. Talk is cheap, and legislation is cheaper. It imposes the costs of our peculiar ethic on others. We ought to bear the full weight of that peculiar ethic for ourselves and for others.

    But what are we actually to do? Submission and attention to the Holy Spirit individually and communally are our guides. Just as Jesus only did as he saw his father in heaven doing, we also are only to engage in submission to the Holy Spirit. We need not be concerned with “healing them all” or “rescuing all the lost.” He is sovereign over the suffering of his innocents. Notice whose innocents they are. His not ours. We are simply to be obedient. This recognizes God’s sovereignty (Piper) and prevents us from justifying means in order to accomplish ends (this is the fatal error of progressive theology – Wallis, Sojourners, etc.).

    Inasmuch as Christians enjoy privileges we ought to abdicate
    them whenever possible. I think we might want to abandon the civil marriage
    license, for starters. Christians need to become committed members of
    communities. In one sense this might prohibit church-hopping (and this may
    explain some of the movement of millenials toward catholicism) and treating church like a consumptive activity. In another sense Christians might want to be more ecumenical, recognizing that their baptism binds them to the entire body of
    Christ and not just the local congregation or the denomination, etc..

    Practically speaking, Christians can avoid office politics, always be straightforward in their dealings. Never apply for business privileges from the state. This might include not applying for Patents or Copyright in addition to not applying for business tax favors from local governments! We can be present among those who are suffering.

    Inasmuch as I cannot abdicate some of my privileges, the fact that I am white and male and well educated, for instance, I must never take advantage of those privileges in ways that harm others.

    The appropriate use of power for the Christian is the same as the appropriate use of fasting, as recorded in Isaiah. When we let the power of the Holy Spirit flow through us, the orgasmic rush we experience as he uses us as his vessel is joy. That reward is the ultimate reward, it is the crown, it is what we live for, and what we are willing to die for. In this life joy is all that remains for the believer. And it is greater than all human motivations. It makes us appreciate our human relationships for what they are, opportunities to exercise stewardship and to reflect God’s love for the world and his church. This is the only power that a Christian should touch. It is pure. It is participating in the ongoing creative work of God our Father through Christ Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit.

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