I was preaching on Philippians 2 in our Farsi service on Sunday, and was particularly captured in the inspiration by the idea of power in the church community. Paul is concerned in the beginning of Philippians 2 to talk about what should characterise Christians in church: they should be of one mind, sharing the same love, being in full accord with each other.
Then he moves on to talk about how Christians relate to each other: they should do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility they should regard others as better than themselves. We shouldn’t look to our own interests, but to the interests of others (it’s interesting to notice the way this is often softened in some translations to be “not just to your own interests”). To illustrate this point, of course, Paul points to the example of Christ (Phil 2:5-11).
This all got me thinking about the power dynamics in our relationships with each other in the church. I think that most churches are characterised by a mixture of the kind of love that Paul is pointing to, and a mixture of unbaptised conceptions of power and what power looks like (as is so often the case in human relationships).
Sometimes, our unbaptised conceptions of power can often frustrate or damage our good intentions. The desire to build others up and promote leadership skills in others, for example, can often be frustrated by unconscious bias towards those who look most like us, whilst overlooking those who are different or who exercise their skills in different ways. Our embodied existence – our nationality, sex, gender or social class – can often give us a disproportional voice in our Christian communities, meaning that other important voices are marginalised or ignored.
Sometimes, though, power in Christian contexts can be more malign. Justified zeal for social or theological issues can sometimes work themselves out in unhealthy ways: forming of closed niches or pressure groups that talk about other Christians rather than to them, which are suspicious of other groups. It’s very easy to find oneself in a spiral of sharing Facebook statuses and tweets, forming coalitions and forgetting that our brothers and sisters in Christ are exactly that – family, not enemies. It’s possible to be completely theologically right – and at the same time completely miss Jesus in the way we act towards each other.
And sometimes, of course, power can be downright toxic. We all know stories of churches which have become the personal fiefdoms of their leaders, or key families in the church. Or of spiritual abuse, pastors and elders ruling over the people they were meant to love and serve, causing unjustified fear and guilt in the lives of God’s beloved children.
I think toxic power is also a big problem in contemporary evangelical culture. We’re seeing more and more instances of boys clubs of big name speakers, the Top Men of Evangelicalism. These are dressed up in language of coalitions and gospel partnerships, maintaining a unity around the core truths of the gospel in the face of an unbelieving world (central to these core truths, for some reason, seems to be complementarian gender roles). The Top Men are featured in every conference, their books fill the bookshops, their sermons are podcast far and wide.
But these same structures become self-generating, with people being willing to make all sorts of moral compromises to keep them going: ignoring credible claims that a gospel buddy covered up sexual abuse, not asking too hard about your gospel partner’s temper, turning a blind eye to dodgy financial dealings. Such issues are sideshows to the core issue of keeping those big coalitions on the road. Yet to do so is to side with the abuser against the abused, the strong against the weak, those who have voices against those who are structurally voiceless.
In the face of this, it’s good to go back to Paul. Consider the example of Jesus, he says. Although he was in the form of God, he didn’t consider that something to be exploited: rather he emptied himself, became nothing, took the form of a servant and humbled himself to the point of death.
It’s mind-boggling to think about – and challenging to preach when our images of God are so often characterised by metaphors of strength. Jesus Christ, through whom all things are created and by whom all things are sustained, became small and vulnerable for our sake. He became a baby, dependant and helpless. And he took on our frailty, our sin and our death. The symbol of Christianity – the cross – is the symbol of helplessness in the face of dominant power. And yet this is the content of God’s revelation of Himself: self-giving in love, the just Judge judged and condemned in our place. The one who had all rights giving them up for those who had none.
This, then, illustrates a different idea of power, the one Paul was talking about in verse 3. Power used to bless and further others. Of course, Jesus example was in a sense unique and vicarious. But Paul clearly also sees it as the pattern of our lives.
It’s encouraging to think about how we would give this idea hands and feed. Maybe it looks like promoting others, using our voice to draw attention to other people rather than just scratching the backs of people who will scratch ours in return. Maybe it’s using positions of privilege we might have to plead the cause of those forgotten by society: refugees, those in economically fragile situations, those abused and ignored.
It’s definitely a teaching which redefines what Christian leadership looks like. Paul teaches in Ephesians that the role of pastors and leaders is “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith” (Ephesians 4:12-13, emphasis mine. Obviously.). Christian ministry according to Paul is one that needs to pay careful attention to the whole body. Backscratching coalitions maintaining the status quo for those already in power aren’t going to cut it.
It’s a hard call, and one which we will always at best falteringly fulfil. The nature of the blind spots of our privilege is so often just that – we can’t see them. That’s why we need to be characterised by careful and attentive listening – to each other, to the Spirit and especially to those who criticise us. And yet, even in the midst of the uncertainty, Philippians 2 continues the thought with a word of hope: even as we work this out with fear and trembling, we know that God is at work in us, even in our imperfection. (Phil 2:12-13)