Chapter 8: Christ and Power
1972: Some have argued that Jesus’ radical personalism makes him irrelevant to questions of power and structure. When the post-Constantine Christians found themselves in positions of social responsibility, they had to look outside the New Testament for their ethical guidelines because Jesus had nothing to say about the subject. We need to examine the New Testament understanding of powers and see how it relates to modern views of the topic.
Since not everyone imagines the same thing when the words “principalities and powers,” or “thrones and dominions” are used, we need to see more specifically what Paul meant by these terms.
We used to write off those areas of Paul’s thought that dealt with angels, demons, or powers as something from an old-fashioned worldview. The World Wars of the twentieth century have driven theologians to look deeper at what Paul might have had to say about systemic evil. When we take the time to consider what Paul meant by the powers, we see that he does speak about power systems.
Paul often speaks of the powers as a fallen reality. It’s important to remember that they too were originally created by God for good (Colossians 1:15-17). Even fallen, God can use the Powers for good. Indeed, we cannot live without them. Powers (religious structures, intellectual structures, moral structures, and political structures), however fallen, give order to creation. In doing so, they are fulfilling the will of Christ, in whom they all hold together.
Jesus, in living a completely free human life, did three things to the powers (Colossians 2:13-15):
- He made a public spectacle of them.
- He triumphed over them.
- He disarmed them.
He did this by breaking their rules and refusing to allow their self-glorification. His death revealed, conquered and disarmed the hyper-extended reach of the Powers. It is the role of the church to preach and live this freedom from the Powers. What may appear as weakness—the otherness of the church—is not mere withdrawal from the world, but active resistance.
The church itself is a social structure whose very existence is a sign of the power’s defeat. The church doesn’t attack the powers—Jesus did that. The church’s role is to resist being seduced by conquered foes. This resistance takes concrete form within. It’s only when the church has dealt effectively with unjust social problems within the congregation that it can speak faithfully to the powers without. We put the cart before the horse when we give in to the temptation of the Sadducees—seeking to be political power-brokers and game-changers.
Paul’s theology of the powers is misunderstood in two ways today. He did not say that the gospel only deals with personal ethics. He also did not suggest that the way to effect change is to change the heart of the powerful and let the change trickle down. The world is changed through the church. The church, to remain faithful to Christ, will at times refuse to even exercise power because the power structure is so corrupt that to try to change it from within would be a denial of Christ. This is not withdrawal but active resistance.
Just as humans are at the same time fallen yet redeemable, the powers of the world are simultaneously fallen and called by the church to return to Christ their Lord.
1994: This new vision of what Paul meant by “powers” has taken root. See, for example, Walter Wink, Anthony Tyrell Hanson, and Jacques Ellul. There is still a question about whether or not the powers are ‘real’ or metaphorical. This argument would be foreign to the first century hearers of scripture.
This chapter starts with a point I’ve been considering for a while. Jesus ministered to the politically powerless. How can we live his teaching in a post-Constantinian context? It seems like the current evangelical view is to take control of political power by lobbying for Christian leaders. Yoder labels this as giving into the temptation of the Sadducees. It’s worth considering when it’s time to withdraw from the political structures (powers) because to participate in them would be a denial of Christ.
Speaking of powers, I grew up imagining that the principalities and powers that Paul spoke of were creatures out of a Frank Peretti novel—real sulpher-laced demons. After exploring Walter Wink’s writing, I’ve started to think more about how they could be understood metaphorically. Yoder does a good job of categorizing the powers evident in our world: religious structures, intellectual structures, moral structures, and political structures. It makes perfect sense to see Jesus’ refusal to play by the Pharisee’s rules as one of the ways he conquered the religious structural “powers” of his day.
The redemption of the powers is another fruitful area to consider. Take moral structures for example. In submission to Christ, morality can flourish in its rightful place. However, when separated from it’s Redeemer, moral structures overreach their boundaries and produce rigid legalism.
This is another thought-provoking chapter worth rereading and exploring in greater detail.