The Church and the Powers

Author: Lois Y. Barrett

I. Discerning the nature of the powers in our context

As we talk about the powers, we need to be careful about calling anything and anyone that wields power one of the "powers." In the New Testament, the powers have a character beyond individual human beings. They have a collective nature, or an institutional nature, or a political nature as well as a spiritual nature, an ethos, a continuity beyond particular individuals.

Economic systems are powers. The institutions that perpetuate the myth of redemptive violence are powers. Enlightenment systems of knowledge are powers. Nationalisms are powers. Government offices are powers; the New Testament is specific in talking about rulers, authorities, thrones, and dominions as powers. The desire to have everybody around me be "just like me" is a power that results in racism, sexism, and ethnocentrism.

Thus the powers are more than just people or institutions that exercise power. The powers have a tendency to set themselves up as the ultimate power, that is, as gods. The powers have been created by God. Although God has not instituted any particular government, God has ordained that there be the institution of human governments. One way to translate Romans 13:4 is that government is God’s servant when it does the good. But governments, like other powers, want to set themselves up as the ultimate authority and to claim the authority that belongs only to God. Revelation 13 refers to the Roman Empire as the "beast."

This contrast between Romans 13 and Revelation 13 illustrates the necessity of discerning the powers. When there is conflict or injustice, it is not enough to say, All the institutions here are powers, and life is messy and ambiguous, so we can take a stance of neutrality. Nor should we be political realists, and take our cues for how to deal with the powers from the world’s standards rather than the way of Jesus.

The church is the zone where the powers are losing their control, because people have come under the reign of God. Christians have become citizens of the reign of God. The church has become the holy nation with God as its ruler, the people who pray, "Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven…. For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever."

This gives the church the ability to discern the powers from the perspective of that allegiance given to God alone. This enables the church to discern the powers based on the standards of the reign of God, rather than the standards of the powers themselves. Ephesians 3:10 says that, "through the church, the wisdom of God in its rich variety" is to "be made known to the rulers and authorities [principalities and powers] in the heavenly places." So the church has the authority to discern what is a power and whether the power is acting according to God’s purposes for it.

So which of the powers have turned so idolatrous that they simply must be resisted? Which of the powers have become the "beast"?

But a particular congregation cannot engage every power in the culture at once. So in addition to discerning the nature of the powers, a congregation must discern the nature of its own calling to witness to the powers and concerning the powers. A congregation cannot give witness concerning every power in its context. So which of the powers have turned so idolatrous that they simply must be resisted? Which of the powers have become the "beast"?

In my own congregation in Wichita, Kansas, one of the powers we have discerned as idolatrous is Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps in the city high schools. One can certainly debate the educational and ethical value of providing military training in high schools. But it seemed crystal clear to us that Junior ROTC was setting itself up as a god when it insisted on the right of its cadets to wear swords with their uniforms–this in a school district that expels other students for carrying even replica plastic weapons to school! Junior ROTC is a power that has been distorted and has become a law unto itself. In spite of our protests, Junior ROTC and its swords have continued in the high schools, and now a form of Junior ROTC has been introduced into some of the city’s middle schools.

Discerning powers such as these are an activity of the Holy Spirit in the church, the gathered community. The New Testament word that we translate "church," ekklesia, can mean any assembly. But the secular Greek uses of the word are often for a political gathering, a decision-making meeting. Ekklesia might just as well be translated "town meeting." In the Old Testament, ekklesia translates the Hebrew qahal. The primary uses of the two words are when the community of God’s people is gathered for worship and for decision making.

We were convinced that God’s Spirit had been working in our discernment process.

Our congregation experienced the Holy Spirit in our decision making very dramatically a number of years ago. We had been offered a building for little or no money. It was the right size, but the wrong location, etc. It wasn’t that we had conflict concerning whether to accept the building. We just didn’t know what was the best thing to do. One church meeting had not resolved the issue at all, and to make matters more complex, there was an immediate deadline for responding to the company that owned the building. So we called another meeting later that week. After a few minutes of setting out the issues, we spent 20 minutes praying in silence. At the end of that time we went around the circle, saying where we now stood on whether to accept the building. To our amazement, we were all in agreement. We were convinced that God’s Spirit had been working in our discernment process.

II. Getting unhooked from the powers

In Jesus’ ministry, deliverance from the powers played a large role. These powers were both internal and external to people. A clear illustration of this is the story of the Gerasene demoniac (Mark 5:1-20). Here was a man who had unclean spirits within him, who was living in the tombs, who kept breaking out of his chains. Yet the unclean spirits were external as well. When Jesus asked the man, "What is your name?" he replies, "My name is Legion." In a country occupied by Roman legions, his affliction was a parable for the affliction of the whole Jewish population in Palestine.

Luke 13:10-17 tells the story of Jesus’ healing the woman with a spirit that had crippled her for 18 years. The sabbath had been interpreted such that it no longer served its God-given intention. Through Jesus, the woman becomes unhooked from the sabbath as a distorted power. She is "set free from bondage."

Throughout the Synoptic Gospels, salvation and healing are connected. The same Greek phrase is translated differently in different passages: "Your faith has saved you." "Your faith has made you well." Jesus brought salvation from the power of sin and deliverance from the powers of illness, death, and possession by unclean spirits.

The accounts of the early church also recognize deliverance from the powers–deliverance from angry mobs, healing from illness, angels opening prison doors. Early baptism liturgies sometimes included exorcisms, and the Book of Common Prayer asked baptismal candidates, "Do you renounce the devil and all his works?" Jesus’ ministry of deliverance from evil powers has been given to the church; "as the Father has sent me, so I send you" (John 20:21).

Christians also unhook themselves from the powers through the act of public worship. Worship itself is a political act. The most concrete meaning of the Hebrew word for "worship" is to fall down on one’s face in front of one’s ruler. Worship is a pledge of allegiance to the one true God. Through the act of worship, we are disengaging from the other powers that claim our loyalty.

We unhook ourselves from the powers when we practice discipling and loving accountability in small groups.

We unhook ourselves from the powers when we practice discipling and loving accountability in small groups. We cannot save ourselves from the powers. We need God’s help, and we need the help of others in the church. The discipling process, helping each other follow Jesus more nearly, enables us to see the role of the powers in our lives and to loosen their grip on our lives. Holding each other accountable in groups small enough to fit into a living room also loosens the grip of the powers on us. I do not know of any other effective way to practice loving accountability in the church than through relationships in small groups. Without love, church discipline becomes harsh and punitive. Without accountability, church discipline becomes nonexistent. Loving accountability happens best in relationship with people who know us and care about us and want to help us in the Christian way.

That kind of discipling in the church also helps us disengage from the powers by transforming our whole world view. The church is called to be an alternative community, a contrast society. The internal life of the church that is ruled by the power of God, rather than the powers, gives integrity to witness beyond the church community.

III. Engaging the powers as a church

The church engages the powers both in the spiritual realm and in the physical realm. In the spiritual realm, the church engages the "spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places" and the "cosmic powers of this present darkness" with the "armor of God"–truth, right relationships, proclaiming the gospel of peace, faith, salvation, and especially prayer (Ephesians 6:10-20). Prayer is a powerful weapon against the powers. When we pray, it is not just a transaction between us and God. The powers are also involved, often blocking the doing of God’s will on earth. When our prayers are not answered, it may not be our lack of faith or God’s lack of attention to us; the problem may be the interference of the powers. Our prayer can be the opening through which God deals with the powers.

Our congregation and other congregations in Wichita have often held prayer vigils at the sites of drive-by shootings as a witness against local violence. This was especially the case a few years ago when the Los Angeles gangs moved in and set up their franchises in Wichita. We have held prayer services in front of City Hall when the U.S. military has been bombing some other country as a witness against global violence.

We have also engaged the powers in the physical realm. Through Mennonite Housing Rehabilitation Services in Wichita, senior citizens and the poor have had their houses repaired, or have been able to buy new houses with sweat equity. In cooperation with a neighborhood organization, the churches have reversed the abandonment of a neighborhood to commercial and industrial interests. They have given new hope to neighbors who had doubted that City Hall would ever listen to them.

In this engagement of the powers in the physical realm, the church is an instrument of the reign of God, proclaiming the reign of God by word and deed. The church is called to confront lies or ignorance with truth; to confront oppressive and broken relationships with right relationships; to confront violence with the gospel of peace; to confront unfaithfulness with faith and covenant; to confront danger, sin, and bondage with salvation and healing; to use the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God-the Word made visible in Jesus, the written word of Scripture, and the present word given by the Holy Spirit.

Philippians 2:10 says that everything will give allegiance "at the name of Jesus." Why did God give Jesus this exalted position? Because of his suffering for the sake of the reign of God. This was Jesus’ way of confronting the powers. The church as the body of Christ, living "in Christ," is called also to that willingness to suffer, with the hope and promise of resurrection and God’s justice, God’s final victory over the powers.

This was the situation of the martyrs in the history of the church, suffering for the sake of the reign of God, in the hope of God’s final victory. This was the hope of two Hutterite young men from South Dakota who, because of their faith, were conscientious objectors to military service during World War I. In spite of their objections, they were sent to Fort Leavenworth and ordered to put on a uniform and carry a gun. For their refusal to do so, they were put into military prison, where they were mistreated, tortured, and eventually died. The army sent the bodies back to their families in the military uniforms they had refused to wear when alive. But because of their witness and the witness of others, during World War II the U.S. government made provision for alternative service for conscientious objectors. Their deaths were not in vain. They said no to the powers and yes to God’s reign.