I have been preparing to preach a sermon on power and authority this Sunday. As part of my informal research, I have asked several people to define the words power and authority for me. Are they the same? Are they different – and if so, how? Most people gave a similar response: a short pause, followed by an attempt to reason the similarities and difference between the two terms. It was our youth pastor who gave the best response. After pausing for a moment, he said, “You can feel it. The difference is there. But articulating it is hard to do!”
Power and authority are major themes in the Scriptures. It is incredibly important that Christians develop a positive theology for power and authority – not only so that we know how to handle them rightly, but also so that we know how to prevent and respond to their abuse. One of the reasons why churches have proven incapable time after time in preventing and responding to abuse is because we do not have a positive theology for how to handle power and authority with godliness, humility, and respect.
So what do we mean by the terms power and authority? While I cannot attempt to say everything that could be said, here are six points for us to keep in mind as we develop a theology of power and abuse.
First, all power and authority in this world begins with God. Psalm 106:8 says that God saves his people to make known his mighty power. This includes his power to save as well as his power over creation.
This has led some theologians to refer to God’s power and authority as two of his Lordship attributes. Theologian John Frame says that the relation between God’s power and authority is the relationship between might and right. Power means God has the ability to direct the whole course of nature and history as he pleases. Authority means he has the right to do so.
Second, power and authority are given by God as a good gift. This is precisely Jesus’ point when he responded to Pilate in John 19:11. Any authority Pilate may think he had came to him as a gift from God. Romans 13:1 says there are no authorities except those which are from God and instituted by him.
Now when we move toward defining power and authority on a horizontal plan in terms of human relationships and institutions, defining these words can become a little bit trickier.
Cultural theologian Andy Crouch defines power as the ability to make something of the world, while authority is the capacity for meaningful action. When I asked him on Twitter, he expanded his views by saying that authority conveys power that is seen as, or seeks to be seen as, legitimate.
Dr. Diane Langberg, a psychologist and expert on abuse and trauma, says power is the ability, capacity, or strength to influence, shape, and command.
Bob Burns, Tasha Chapman and Donald Guthrie at Covenant Seminary similarly define power as a capacity to act and influence.
Putting these definitions together, we can say that the power given to us is the ability to make something meaningful out of the world, and authority is the capacity to do so in a legitimate and God-given way.
Third, to be human means to be one trusted with power and authority. They are essential attributes of image-bearing. In Genesis 1:28, God tells Adam and Even to subdue creation and have dominion over it. This is power and authority language.
A key component of suffering and victimization is powerlessness, which treats victims as being less than human.
Fourth, when used rightly power and authority multiply themselves. This is not a zero-sum transaction. When God gave authority to his image-bearers, he did not all of a sudden have less power or authority. But he did create more of them! Unlike money, power is not a currency to be traded. When Jesus gave authority to his followers in Matthew 28:18-20, Jesus did not lose power or authority– he multiplied them.
Fifth, power and authority seek the good of those whom they serve. There is a sacrifice involved in the proper use of power and authority. In his book Strong and Weak, Andy Crouch explains that true authority must enter a place of vulnerability. Vulnerability is exposure to meaningful risk and the possibility of loss. Persons who use godly authority for the good of others are those who take the risk that something could go wrong, or that something could be taken from them.
Of course this is exactly what Jesus did, for as Philippians 2:6ff tells us, he was in the form of God but did not count equality a thing to be grasped (this is power language), but instead he emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, and humbled himself to the point of death – even death on a cross.
Finally, power and authority are meant to bring about flourishing life in those who receive it. It is God’s authority over the dead which made Jesus’ resurrection possible, and it was his power which accomplished it. The Scriptures say that Jesus was raised to new life by the power of God, and it is that same power by which we now live (2 Corinthians 13:4)! Jesus said in Acts 1:8 that we will receive the Holy Spirit with power. Christians are those who have been trusted with a power that ought to help lives flourish as God intended.
Power is good. Expressed in this light, perhaps we can see why God places such an emphasis on submitting to figures of power and authority (Romans 13, Hebrews 13:7 and 17, 1 Peter 5, etc.). Such figures are ordained by God for our good and serve us well when power and authority are used as God intends.
And let us be honest with ourselves: this is a difficult teaching for us. Not only do we live in a world that is ripe with examples of abuse, but we also live in a culture that is highly individualistic and anti-authority. Christians have been just as influenced by this culture as anyone else.
A number of years ago, the satirical news website The Onion ran an article titled Nation’s Experts Give up. The headline went like this: “Citing years of frustration over their advice being misunderstood, misrepresented or simply ignored, America’s foremost experts in every field collectively tendered their resignation Monday.”
In his book The Death of Expertise, author Tom Nichols argues that something new we are seeing in our country is not just an ignorance toward figures in authority, but a proud defiance toward those figures and their knowledge.
I see this proud defiance in Christians in the way we talk about churches – as if they are products for us to consume and evaluate, rather than a people for us to learn submission and service to. I hear it in the way we talk about celebrities and political leaders. Somehow, cynicism and sarcasm have been baptized by evangelicals as an appropriate way to treat figures in authority that we don’t like. How that happened I have no idea, for Scripture holds us to a higher standard and calls such behavior slander and sin.
What does this mean for us? Well in this highly autonomous, individualistic culture – where abuses can be found in every institution, political party, country, state, and city – we actually need more power and authority, not less. We need more of the right kinds of power and authority, that which produces empowerment, life, and flourishing in others.
As Christians, if we live as those who are wary of authority, or who do not trust or speak poorly of figures in authority, we are (if you trace our theology backwards) actually communicating that God cannot be trusted. We communicate that power is not a good gift, which means God is not a good gift giver. We communicate that God does not know what he is doing with his power and authority. We communicate that the gospel may not be good news at all, but instead it is the message of an abusive tyrant.
In their best-selling book New Power, authors Jeremy Heimas and Henry Timms argue that our world needs less “old power” and more “new power” in order to bring about positive change and progress.
The authors define “old power” as a currency that is held by few. Once it is gained, it is jealously guarded. The powerful have a substantial store of it to spend. It is closed, inaccessible, and leader-driven. It captures.
“New power” is not a currency but a current. It is made by many. It is open, even participatory. It distributes. It is most forceful when it surges. The goal for new power is not to hoard it but to channel it.
Now what does their definition of “new power” sound a lot like? Is this not the kind of power God gives to his image-bearers, and promises to give in abundance to those who follow him? Our world is longing for even more power and authority, the kind of power and authority that can only come from God, and they don’t even know it.
Will we be those who unleash this power and authority to the world?