A large body of literature has been produced in recent decades emphasizing that pastors and other church leaders are to be servants. Phrases similar to “servant leaders” and discussions of the proper use of pastoral power are common. What has been missing, however, is an analysis of the relationship of pastors and power in light of two crucial elements of the larger framework—namely, the nature of the “Principalities and Powers” that influence human use of power; and second, the character of God and the way that God chooses to work out the Triune purposes for the cosmos.
Contrary to the views promulgated by some contemporary novels that the Principalities and Powers are little demons that fly around spitting sulfur and making trouble for human beings (I mock to stress the point), biblical vocabulary actually distinguishes the Powers as a separate category from angels and spirits in the entire semantic field of all the various kinds of evil forces (cf. my Powers, Weakness, and the Tabernacling of God [Eerdmans, 2001], and my PhD dissertation, “The Concept of ‘the Principalities and Powers’ in the Works of Jacques Ellul” [The University of Notre Dame, 1992]).
Under the headship of Satan (Lucifer, the Prince of Lies, the Devil), there are many forces and forms of evil. On one end of the spectrum are those supernatural beings that many people in North American society like to discount, but which are taken seriously by Christians in other parts of the world. For example, an important part of Christian mission in Madagascar is the casting out of evil spirits. On the other end of the spectrum are those evils wrought by human beings, which will not be elaborated here for lack of space.
Between these two poles are the Principalities and Powers. They are not supernatural beings—in fact, they are normal products of human culture, such as money or government or technology—but exert a supernatural power beyond that of mere human capabilities. For example, why does money have such control over so many people (including each of us)? It is just paper, and yet most of us at some point in our lives fall prey to its influence and either have too much of it because we hoard it, covet it because we do not have enough of it, or are stingy with it because we do not trust the generosity of God and have not learned generosity ourselves.
I detail that example because it illustrates that in many ways money can overstep its proper vocation and become a god in our lives. In the same way, all the Principalities and Powers, which were originally created for good, participate in the fallenness of the world and tend to function in ways that violate their created purpose and ensnare human beings in workings of evil. Jesus exposed and triumphed over the fallen Powers of money (Judas), government (Herod and Pilate), and religion (Caiaphas) in his work of redemption.
The church, too, is one of the Powers. As such, even though it was created for good, it can also violate its proper vocation and function in evil modes contrary to God’s purposes—unless its members are vigilant. You and I could list many ways that institutional churches have done so in the past and continue to do so in the present. Our purpose here, however, is merely to set this background of the biblical notion of the Principalities so that we can more clearly understand why pastors must be extremely careful about their use of power, lest they go beyond their proper vocation and abuse, misuse, or over-use power in destructive ways.
The pastor’s vocation, according to Eph 4:12-13, is to “equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ” so that the whole universal Church can be unified in faith, know God’s Son, and reach maturity. Jesus underscores the pastoral vocation in John 21 when he tells Peter to feed his sheep and tend his lambs.
These two texts and their images are extraordinarily helpful for judging whether a pastor is misusing power. How does a pastor teach the doctrines of the faith? Sheep cannot be force-fed. Does the leader try to control the congregation’s beliefs and behaviors or pass on the heritage of Christian faith and life by gentle invitation, tender nurturing, and joyous proclamation?
Consider all the ways a pastor could use power to “get things done” in a parish. If the clergyperson will be true to the pastoral role of equipping the saints for ministry so that their contributions build up Christ’s Body, then what is required is to uplift and utilize the parishioners’ own spiritual gifts and skills and character rather than to manipulate them into doing what the pastor wants.
So that the Church can be unified, a pastor’s work cannot exert power that favors one side over another in conflicts. Instead, the church leader will work to reconcile opponents so that, together, all members come as one Body to the fullness of the stature of Christ.
These are but a few of the many examples we could cite to guide church leaders in their personal use of power. However, we must also look more deeply at how clergypersons are influenced by the Principalities and Powers to abuse their own power in ministry. For example, institutional churches act as fallen Powers when they make numbers their primary goal. Teachers who succumb to this mistaken thinking misuse their power by employing it to do what “attracts people,” instead of what contributes to their becoming equipped for the costly life of discipleship that leads to the maturity of the Body and the extension of God’s Kingdom. This is most evident these days in the worship life of congregations, for—far too often!—pastors use their leadership power to turn worship into entertainment instead of an encounter with the God who calls us to take up our cross and to suffer for the sake of the world.
Similarly, the Principality of money frequently perverts pastors’ use of power, for their energies become directed toward maintaining a church institution instead of feeding God's sheep throughout the world. Again, the Power of technology can distract a clergyperson from genuine face-to-face tending of lambs by means of the sometimes dehumanizing powers of such conveniences as e-mail and cell phones. The Principalities of government in our world rely on violence to accomplish their purposes; entertainments in our culture depend on violence for their appeal. In such a society, a pastoral leader is excessively tempted to use means that violate the integrity of other people or to use other forms of violence (even doing violence to the Word when it is not spoken truly) in order to stay in control.
The Powers in our culture (as they function in the media especially) have made fame and influence highly seductive to pastors and teachers, with the result that they can easily abuse their power in efforts to gain and wield prominence and predominance. But that is not the way God works for the salvation of the cosmos. For this reason my other concern in this essay is to look more deeply at the way Jesus dealt with power, since the pastor's first call to ministry is Christ's command, “Follow me.”
From the beginning of the Scriptures God performed mighty acts of power—the exquisite, massive, intricate, and vast wonders of creation; the high drama and forceful deliverance of the ten plagues and the dividing of the Red Sea; the stunning spectacle of the burning bush and the thunderously terrifying theophany of Sinai. But an extraordinary turning point occurs in 1Kgs 19:12 when, instead of Sinaitic earthquakes and fire, God comes to Elijah in a small whisper or a sound of sheer silence. Acts of power continue certainly, but increasingly the LORD works in gentle ways that dumbfound us with their lack of power.
The most astonishing, of course, is the Incarnation. Ponder Christ’s enormous humility that the Creator of the cosmos should become a creature, born in poverty, accompanied throughout his life by every imaginable kind of suffering, destined for torturous death and abandonment. When Jesus was treated cruelly, he did not respond with power, but submitted to (and thereby overcame forever) the acts of power directed against himself. By refraining from power, he reconciled the world to the Trinity and thereafter bequeathed to us the same ministry of reconciliation.
More than anyone, the apostle Paul realized that Christ’s weakness was the model for the way God’s people, and especially pastoral leaders, should work in the world. In 2 Cor 13:4 he stresses, “For he was crucified in weakness, but lives by the power of God. For we are weak in him, but in dealing with you we will live with him by the power of God.”
Because of this model of serving in weakness, Paul can exalt in 2 Cor 4:7 that we have the treasure of the Gospel in the clay pots of ourselves, so that the extraordinary power may be God’s and not ours. More forcefully, Paul can accept the Word that grace is sufficient for him, for his power is “brought to its end” in weakness (a more accurate translation of the original Greek of 2 Cor 12:9). For that reason he can “boast all the more gladly” of his weaknesses so that Christ's power tabernacles in him.
Such an attitude frees Paul (and us) to be “content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ, for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.” Though it is hard for us to believe (especially because our culture functions primarily through power), God can accomplish the Triune purposes much more effectively through a pastor’s weakness than through his/her practices of power, for then the power is God’s—a power of divine humility, love, and reconciliation.
With a full awareness, then, of how easily our own desire for control and the temptations offered by the Principalities and Powers functioning in our culture draw us into misuses of power, and with a firm recognition that God wants to work in the world through our weakness, pastors will more painstakingly be able to employ God’s power according to God’s purposes. Any power will come from a character not of hubris, but of humility. It will be the power of knowing one’s weaknesses and rejoicing in the way that God tabernacles in those weaknesses to work for good.
As the pastor leads worship, preaches, teaches, offers spiritual direction, counsels, administers, and serves the needs of the local community and the larger world, God’s love will be the empowerment. That means not trying to effect change, but encouraging transformation; not wanting to influence, but to invite; not exacting, but equipping.
The pastor’s goal, then, is not to achieve personal success, but to participate in God’s work of reconciling the cosmos. The power will come from engaging in what the Trinity is already doing in the world; its shape will be an ambassadorship for the Kingdom of God; its hope will be the assurance that God’s Kingdom has already broken into our era in the anti-power submission of Christ to the Powers that led to their defeat and promises us God's eventual triumph over all the forces of evil.
All that this essay has been saying does not eliminate pastoral authority; instead, it reconfigures it. Pastoral authority is understood not in terms of power, but of legitimacy. It is specifically the authority of the Word (both in the sense of Christ himself and of the Scriptures which bear testimony to the Triune God) and the authority of the Christian community across space and time, in whose name the pastor is called to serve.
I stress legitimacy because one of the tenets of postmodern philosophy is that any meta-narrative that claims to be universal is a bid for power. By that reading the Christian story, which its adherents believe is true for all people, disguises the believers’ true intention of exerting power over everyone else. But, to the contrary, the Christian meta-narrative, an account that encompasses the entire cosmos, is one of grace and love and reconciliation instead of power. God comes to everyone with invitation, not coercion. Though the Trinity is sovereign, the LORD never messes with human free will. God desires glad obedience, not forced compliance. God courts instead of compels.
When the pastor exercises God’s kind of non-power in the name (that is, the character) of God, it is a powerful authority.