Monday, February 18, 2013

Voluntary Powerlessness

More thoughts on power through weakness...

When we look at weakness in the New Testament, one of the major themes I see is weakness as not only enforced externally, as in the case of Paul's thorn in the flesh, but voluntary weakness or the willing setting aside of worldly "power" in favor of weakness as an act of obedience and witness. It is not that Christians inherently weak or unable to strive for and achieve worldly power but that as a result of the changed heart and the example and command of Christ we willingly set aside worldly notions of strength for the sake of the Gospel. This is such a counter-cultural notion that it is often missed or misunderstood in the broader culture and unfortunately often ignored by the church itself. I am the first to admit that I have difficulty practicing this.

As a side note, force and coercion on behalf of the weak is not really what I am talking about. Income redistribution, wars of conquest to "liberate" people, unions, etc. are examples of using worldly strength and power to try to achieve some notion of "justice". For New Testament followers of Christ, we dispense justice via sacrifice and voluntary weakness rather than manipulating the strength of the world to achieve Kingdom goals.

What I want to do next is demonstrate how this is true from Scripture rather than just making a blanket assertion based on an opinion. As we look to Scripture, I believe we find ample evidence of what I am arguing for. Examples in Scripture abound of voluntary weakness in the three major spheres of life for Christians: the church, the family and the world.

First, the church. The church is where voluntary powerlessness is perhaps the most apparent in Scripture and yet the most often ignored in practice. In His response to the mother of the sons of Zebedee regarding her sons being on His left hand and His right is one of the most powerful and revolutionary teachings of Christ:

But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:25-28)

The great lording over the lesser is the way of the world but Jesus teaches a different way. Not an optional way or a preferential way. He says "It shall not be so among you" (emphasis mine). In the church, the most talented, most powerful are no better than the least among us. We do not exalt some men over others, or at least we shouldn't, based on standards that the world finds appealing. Nor should those we recognize as leaders presume the right to demand deference from the church, whether than is something as simple as expecting to be addressed by an honorific like "Reverend" or an expectation that others will kneel before you and kiss your ring. Instead we are exhorted to seek to recognize as leaders men who do the simple things like being good witnesses to the world, loving their wife and their children and serving others. When some men demand that others defer to their "authority" they completely miss the essence of New Testament leadership. Ours is an upside-down kingdom and nowhere more so than in the community of faith where those who lead are often the ones who are least interested in demanding that others follow them.

The next area of voluntary weakness is in the family.  Family is an area where so much angst and heartache comes from in our culture where we have this love-hate relationship, singing the praises of "family values" from the highest mountain while every day many people struggle with family relationships. Again this is nothing unexpected. One of the first and most pivotal events of the Bible occurs in the Garden in the very first chapters and involves a power struggle of sorts between the first husband and wife. As we learn simply by reading Genesis and later references especially in 1 Corinthians 11, the order of creation is not a random event. God specifically and purposefully made man first and then from man He created woman to be a helper to the man, a complement to man and a companion to complete man. By Eve serving the fruit from the tree forbidden to Adam everything changed. The relationship between genders and the strife we so often see is a constant theme in Scripture and it is also one commonly referenced by Paul so the "gender wars" are clearly nothing new. We see this played out today in the egalitarian-complementarian debate, a debate that is rarely edifying.

What is often missed in these conversations on both sides is that submission in the family must be freely given and is always couched in those terms. I cannot make my wife submit to me. I can perhaps bully her into doing things my own way, she can be culturally intimidated into covering her head but that is not submission because submission must always be voluntary. Likewise I can make my children, at least up to a certain age, do what I tell them to do but that is a far cry from honoring their father and their mother. Obedience and submission are not the same thing. Too often our conversations about voluntary submission is a really about perceptions of forced obedience. My children are to honor and obey me not because I can make them but because in doing so they obey God just as my wife is to submit to my headship as an act of obedience. For men our call is not to submit to our wives but to sacrifice ourselves on their behalf. Loving my wife as Christ loved the church doesn't mean being a milquetoast leech but a willingness to die to self or even if need be literally die for her. I cannot be made to love my wife this way anymore than she can be made to submit and respect me but in doing so I honor Christ, loving God by loving my wife.

It is ironic that many who cry the loudest about power and injustice miss this point when advocating for neo-feminist power grabs in the family and the church. Also sadly ironic is that many people who hold to a complementarian view of gender hold to a heavy handed notion of hierarchical rule in the church that is the exact opposite of what Christ taught. When we look at these questions from a perspective of "who is in charge" rather than "how can I serve" we will inevitably have disordered and dysfunctional relationships.

Finally we have the voluntary powerlessness in the face of the world. This has many manifestations but the general rule of thumb is that in every circumstance we must set aside our rights and our strength and our power for the sake of the Gospel. Nothing is more important than our witness to the world. Not wealth or prestige or family or even life.

In the face of a manifestly unjust Roman dictatorship, most of us would see nothing wrong and indeed a lot that we would see as noble in taking up arms to overthrow such a cruel regime. Rather than rising up against the unjust rule of Rome, Paul told the church in Rome and by proxy all of us to submit to the governing authorities in so far as they dealt with those matters that are "render unto Caesar" questions. We see the practical wisdom of this starting in the 4th century when the ironically named Constantine "the Great" was "converted" to Christianity and began more than a millennium of pseudo-Christian religious rule by the state. What resulted from the Constantinian shift when the church went from a reviled and fringe part of the culture to a perversion of the church that dominated the Western world among popes and Protestants alike for centuries, a situation that is today rapidly unraveling to the horror of many who are invested in and benefit from the status quo where Christianity is co-opted for personal enrichment and empowerment, was a religious culture that saw a false Christianity used as a tool to control the masses for the benefit of a few. As history has shown us, indeed as it shouts to us, Christianity cannot properly function when coupled with the state. The message is lost and the true power and influence of the Gospel fades in the quest to gain and retain earthly power. Where religion and the state are joined in the name of Christianity, the Gospel is often made secondary to religion and power and I would go so far as to say that the more accepted and powerful  pseudo-Christian religion is, the less true Christianity is practiced and preached.

This is why I think that Christians should hold to a philosophy that seeks to maximize liberty rather than theocracy, even the soft theocracy of the religious right culture warrior. In a society where the Gospel is part of the free exchange of ideas it will flourish whereas when it is backed up by the force and compulsion of the state and culture it will wither. Proof of this is all around those reading these words in America and Europe where cultural Christianity has given perhaps millions false hope for centuries and that same hypocritical cultural Christianity has served to alienate the lost we are called to receive, leaving behind an empty shell called "church" that has no power other than that which has been invested in it by the state. That is why I believe Christians should embrace a political philosophy of liberty where the Gospel is not coupled with seeking state power to coerce others into ostensibly "Christian"behavior distinct from Christian regeneration. The Gospel message is inherently apolitical and cannot be properly preached from within the confines of a worldly system of power.

Even within the church voluntary powerlessness is practiced. One of the most interesting examples of this is in 1 Corinthians 6. In America when someone wrongs you, you sue them. Simple as that. This attitude carries over to the church with no interruptions. There are constant lawsuits between alleged believers, churches suing members, members suing churches, denomination suing one another over property, churches even getting restraining orders against people they consider to be disruptive. This is obviously nothing new but Paul tells us of a different way

When one of you has a grievance against another, does he dare go to law before the unrighteous instead of the saints? Or do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world is to be judged by you, are you incompetent to try trivial cases? Do you not know that we are to judge angels? How much more, then, matters pertaining to this life! So if you have such cases, why do you lay them before those who have no standing in the church? I say this to your shame. Can it be that there is no one among you wise enough to settle a dispute between the brothers, but brother goes to law against brother, and that before unbelievers? To have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you. Why not rather suffer wrong? Why not rather be defrauded? But you yourselves wrong and defraud—even your own brothers! (1 Corinthians 6-8)

What? Even when I am "right" I should set that aside?! We sure are quick to shake our heads and wag our fingers at the world when it acts like we should expect it to but when our pride or pocketbook is threatened watch us run to Caesar for redress! Our reliance on Caesar for matters of disputes in the church (and caring for our children and our elderly, and caring for one another to ensure that none go without while others have excess, and caring for the poor and the widow and the orphan, and...well you get the picture) brings shame on the church. Rather than a secondary consideration or something that only applies in "the church sphere" when we are inside the walls of a church building, voluntary powerlessness in the face of the world is a crucial part of our broader witness.

Of course the ultimate example of this was Christ and it is largely because of how He lived that we should practice voluntary powerlessness. Even the very act of the incarnation was a sign of voluntary powerlessness when Jesus took on flesh to dwell among us. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the power words of Paul in Philippians 2:1-11....

So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:1-11)

He emptied Himself to become like a servant so that in serving He could show us a better way. I cannot really begin to comprehend this, that in perfect fellowship with God, immortal and omnipotent, Christ took on a body of flesh with all of the weakness of man to become like us in order to save us and show us how we who are redeemed should live. Far from a distant God who sits in grim judgment of us, He become like us and in suffering and death He became like us and calls us His brothers.

This is a hard teaching. It is hard for me, someone who craves that feeling of being right, of winning, of defeating others. It is also a non-negotiable. We cannot choose to do things our own way and expect to see Kingdom fruit. We didn't choose how we are saved and we don't get to choose how we live now. If I have learned anything it is that Christ knows better than I do and even when (especially when?) it makes me uncomfortable I should follow Him. If He voluntarily became weak for my sake and in doing so showed greater power than any human ruler or kingdom, why then should I hesitate to do the same. If I wish to truly be a witness of Him to the world I must set aside my own notions of strength and embrace voluntary weakness as my refuge in a world that cannot be won by force. There is no other way.


Aussie John said...


Much appreciated,courageous, and to the point.

Don't know why it reminds me of a young fellow who attended a study group I once led: He used to bring, to every meeting, a very heavy suitcase full of commentaries,etc., which he used vigorously, inserting comments into what anyone, and everyone tried to say.

During any time of prayer, his usual starting phrase was,"Lord, thank you for making me so humble."

Steve Scott said...

I blogged once about the Matt 20 passage, and the elders of the church I attended had a "meeting" with me, telling me I had to stop blogging. Hahaha

Arlan said...

Quite subtle and insidious, isn't it? The desire to control runs from overt actions (guns) to subtle inactions (the silent treatment).