#metoo and Christian Power

The #metoo movement has me thinking a lot lately about power.

Victimized women across the globe are finding the power to bring down even the loftiest of public figures. I’ll admit, I’ve not been shocked at all by the politicians or entertainment gurus. I assume people driven by money and fame are not likely to keep the ills of these power resources in check. But the ever flowing stream of pastors and Christian leaders who’ve come under fire has shocked me.1

The latest firgure, Bill Hybels, really surprised me. From my distant arm-chair observation, he seemed like a straight-laced and sincere Christian leader.2  To the contrary, his victims continue to paint him as a man with great power, who used that power to coerce and abuse them. And unfortuantely, his pattern matches the patterns of other high-profile and powerful abusers.

The New Testament, and the Gospels in particular, have a great deal to say about power and it may not be what you expect.

Throughout Medieval and Modern History the Church embraced worldly power. You can close your eyes and see conquistadors marching into peaceful villages under banners emblazoned with crosses. But even today, there’s a strand of the Evangelical church in America that is really built entirely around power: rockstar pastors who are protected by an entourage, televangelists who buddy-up to whichever politician is in vogue, and large lobbying organizations—who you may agree with in principal, but to me they seem as interested in winning (power) as in enacting policies that reflect the nature and standards of Jesus.

In my own story, I remember in high school my bible study group used to pray for God to increase our influence over others. We presumed, of course, that we’d be using that influence for good, but when I look back that seems like a ludicrous assumption. I had plenty of corroborating evidence to suggest that if I had more influence I’d be likely to squander it. At the time, I had significant power over my dog, and I sometimes forgot to feed him and refused to take him for walks. If I couldn’t be trusted to foster a healthy power dynamic with my dog, who was innocent, cute, and cuddly, then what made me think I’d be a good candidate for power over not so innocent or cuddly humans?

Back to the New Testament: in the Gospels, worldly power is scorned. Here’s a fascinating tale involving Jesus granting seventy two of his disciples tremendous spiritual power: 
He said to them, “I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning. See, I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing will hurt you. Nevertheless, do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven” (Lk. 10:18-20). 
My paraphrase, yeah sure, you’ll have great power in this life, but what matters is that you belong to me.3  But how do we get from power-hungry to focused on serving and spending time with Jesus? Well if I knew that, I’d have a lot more power than I have.

You might stop me here and protest, “Wait a second, I’m not a megachurch pastor! I don’t really have the kind of power you’re referring to.” Sure, me too. I don’t have thousands of people listening to me preach every week or millions reading my blog. In fact, at this point in my life I have about as little power as I’ve ever had. And yet, I possess tremendous power over my children and I know how to influence my wife. I’d never dream of using my power in my family the way Hybels and others have, but I might try to coerce them to do what I want. I may use my power to compel my those in my sphere to feel guilt so that I can feel innocent or shame so that I might feel righteous. I might withhold my affirmation and full presence, because it feels like it costs too much to me.

Coercion versus self-determination is key here. Jesus, to my knowledge, never coerced anyone to do anything. I imagine he had the power to say, keep Judas from betraying him or Peter from denying him. And yet, in all his power he never interfered with his disciple’s self-determination. He stayed focus not on coercion, but on servanthood.

I can do that too. I can ask God to set my eyes on how I might use what power I have to serve others—especially my family. I can try to clear my heart each morning, and reset my focus on Christ’s servant character. I can seek out other servants and ask for their prayers and ideas.

What about #metoo and Christian leaders like Bill Hybels? It may sound too simple, but I think servanthood is key not just for the smaller power of a parent, but also for those who wield significant social power over their subordinates.5  Too often the crowd surrounding these figures are there to prop the figure up or lend social credibility to these people. How many church boards are comprised of attorneys, accountants, or professors? How often are the boards filled with the rich and powerful from a given congregation? Too often we fill leadership positions with already powerful people. Now, I’m not saying powerful people must be expelled from elder boards, but I wonder what would happen if we intentionally surrounded pastors and other Christian leaders with people heaven-bent on servanthood. What if we sought pastors and preachers and authors based upon an illustrated focus on servanthood, rather than placing eloquence, charisma, and platform at the top of the list? What if we took our eyes off the power and put them on heaven?

Now, I realize I’m not solving the problem of men abusing women here. I think we need to keep listening to the women affected by these violent tragedies of coercion. In their voices we’re likely to find deeper solutions to that specific problem. This is really a blog more about the nature of power and how Christians can use Jesus’ example to relate to power. In that regard, I hope this gets us all thinking. I hope that we might find ourselves relinquishing a power mindset, and allowing the Spirit to replace it with and Jesus-centric servanthood. Maybe we could spend more time relishing in the presence of our Lord and his eternal work than rejoicing over whatever power serving him might grant us.

*An afterthought: it makes me afraid that someone might read this and not quite understand what I mean by servanthood. Servanthood, for me, is the single most important and deepest lessons Christ has and is teaching me. To date, I am unswervingly committed to the following definition:  Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form,  he humbled himself  and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.
1 It’s also shocked me how little victim-shaming I’ve heard around these cases. 2-3 years ago I would have expected bucket-loads of criticism for the women who came forward, but in my own circles there’s been none. 
2 If you have no idea what I’m talking about, you can read the litany of accusations against him here. 
3 Also, or perhaps, especially, consider Jesus’ encounter with Satan in the Gospels. Two out of Satan’s three temptations involve power and Jesus refuses them. He only uses his power to serve the needs of people and his Father’s will. Power for power’s sake is seen as contrary to his mission. 
4 See what I did there?
5 I’m not saying servanthood is the only answer, by the way. But it is Jesus’ standard answer. He says as much to James and John after their infamous request for glory—if they really wanted to be great they just needed to focus on servanthood. And even more instructive, Jesus himself illustrates a sharp focus on serving his Father rather than the power at his disposal. Even so, alongside this traditional Christian answer, we might add the expertise of physcologists, church structures with strong pastoral accountability, church transparency, and efforts to develop a culture that listens to victims. 


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