Not So With You


Conflicting Paradigms of Power:
The Power of Love vs. the Love of Power

Robert C. Buehler

Prepared for
the 2001 Annual Meeting of the Wesleyan Theological Society


Since the task at hand is to explore how the dynamics of power might be used in the service of reconciliation, that is, to search for a Christian ethic of the use of power, it seems appropriate to take a serious look at just what the dynamics of power are. This can be done by observation of the world and current issues where the church’s voice on reconciliation is needed, but already a question can arise about whether we have an adequate starting place for such an observation and such a voice.

What role does the church have in effecting reconciliation in the world? What is the church’s relation to power as such? Indeed, what do we mean when we use the word power? Are there different, perhaps conflicting meanings which could confuse our dialogue if not confronted squarely? These questions and others might be addressed biblically by looking into ways the New Testament addresses questions of power, theologically in terms of whether common assumptions about power can be seen in a different light, and also historically in terms of how the church in its long history has both wielded and responded to power.

Power itself can be defined in a range of ways, but within the discussion which follows two conflicting fundamental approaches or paradigms will be illustrated, both of which can be found within the biblical text as well as the historical development of the church.

Specific questions to be addressed include the following:

  • What are some Biblical pictures and paradigms by which power is defined?
  • What is Jesus’ relationship to power in the memory of the various expressions of the early church, i.e, the New Testament writings and those of the early Fathers?
  • What historical and social challenges have affected the understandings of power throughout the history of the church?
  • What expressions of power could be effective for reconciliation in today’s postmodern context?
  • How might the specific emphasis within the Wesleyan tradition on holiness as perfect love provide a compass to help us answer these questions?

This paper will consist of three components. The first and most extensive will review some biblical material. Within the Synoptic tradition, it will be shown that Jesus himself sets up a contrast between two kinds of power. This contrast is built upon the much more ancient prophetic tradition of divine reversals, as brought into focus by, for example, the Song of Mary in Luke 1:46-55, and Jesus’ own introduction of himself in Luke 4:17-21. These two references could be seen to serve as foundation or prolegomena to the entirety of the gospel story, at least in its Lukan version. However, the theme is not limited to the particular perspective of Luke; it has its effect on the NT canon as a whole.

This paper will review briefly how the contrast between two paradigms of power is thematic throughout the New Testament, finding narrative expression in all four Gospels and the Acts, and being expressed as foundational theology within the Johannine and Petrine letters, and especially how it is foundational for the Pauline presentation of the meaning of the cross and resurrection, and thus for an understanding of the entire Christian experience. We will seek clarity as to an appropriate understanding of both paradigms, the love of power and the power of love, as we see them revealed in relation to some of the foundational narratives surrounding the person of Jesus and the development of the early church.

The second part of the paper will briefly review Christian history from the viewpoint of this dual perspective on power. By reading this history through a matrix that distinguishes between the “power of love” and the “love of power” it should be possible to provide a way to view specific events in Christian history through an appropriate theological lens.

Thirdly, some comments and observations will be offered regarding ways in which these two conflicting paradigms continue to play themselves out in the contemporary situation, and may provide a helpful matrix of understanding for those of us who care about reconciliation at many levels to develop an appropriate ethic for bringing about intentional change. Those comments will be suggestive of ways in which the material presented in the first two sections might inform discussion of contemporary issues, in the hope that others will be stimulated to further thought along these lines.

I. A Biblical View

We begin by looking for a biblical handle on the question of what can be meant by references to such things as power, love, the love of power, the power of love, and reconciliation. Walter Wink has laid a broad foundation for discussion of power in his ground-breaking trilogy,1 in which he points out that the language of power pervades the New Testament.2 Though the scope of Wink’s analysis is very broad, the relation of the several kinds of Powers he identifies3 to the ministry of Christ and, by extension, of the church’s ministry, is one of contrast. According to Wink, the Powers, though good, are fallen. It is only when the Powers are redeemed that the sovereignty of Christ will be fully manifest. That redemption is brought about through the process of reconciliation, initiated by God, exemplified by Christ, and continued in the life of the faithful. This process itself is one of power of a certain kind, and is identified repeatedly with the power and authority of God in the raising of Christ from the dead. For this reason we cannot talk simplistically only about power versus love, but about the love of power versus the power of love. It could be said that one view sees power as lovely, whereas the other asserts that love is powerful.

What we are after is what kind of power is available and appropriate for use in the service of reconciliation. Here we are concerned not with Wink’s Powers as such, nor with the totality of his complex analysis, which shows them to be somehow both earthly and spiritual4, but with the positive ways in which power is spoken of in the bringing about of God’s purpose. For the writers and readers of the New Testament, we will see that it is the power of love which brings about reconciliation, and acts in relation, response, and contrast to the Powers of Wink’s analysis, whose fallen state5 is associated with what Wink calls the Domination System6, which is characterized by what I am calling the love of power.

Where to begin?

The choice of a New Testament passage for use as an initial focus-point for this discussion could almost be made arbitrarily, given the way the theme I am proposing permeates, as it seems to me, the understanding of New Testament writers. One could start, for example, with either of the two versions of the Christmas story, with the birth of a babe in Bethlehem as exemplary of the power of love, contrasted with Matthew’s King Herod or Luke’s Caesar as indicative of the love of power. One could go directly to Paul, and again face a plethora of choices: God’s choice of the weak and foolish in 1 Corinthians 1:27-29 to confound the powerful and wise, in light of the unfailing power of love as given in the 13th chapter of the same epistle; love’s power shown in God’s divesting himself of power in the Incarnation, as presented in Philippians 2:5-11; and many others. One could look at 1 Peter, where the power of love covers over a multitude of sins, and is presented in terms of the suffering of God’s people, who participate in the sufferings of Christ, and therefore also in his glory; whereas the love of power can be understood as that which motivates the persecutors. We could turn to the Johannine writings, which tell us in so many words that God’s very nature is love, allowing us to conclude that therein, and not apart from that, also lies God’s power. Or we could look at the presentations throughout the New Testament, beginning with the sermon at Pentecost in Act 2, of the meaning of the Cross and Resurrection, whereby the love of God trumps the power of this world.

The applied theology of Acts and the epistles, however, is tied inevitably to the foundational narratives of the Christian faith, the stories of Jesus which we can read in the gospels. In proposing hermeneutical guidelines for New Testament ethics, Hays points out that “the New Testament is fundamentally the story of God’s redemptive action; thus, the paradigmatic mode has theological primacy, and narrative texts are fundamental resources for normative ethics.”7 This will be important for how we proceed, as we return for purposes of focus to the synoptic gospels, and start with the words of Jesus according to Mark 10:32-45. Notice that by beginning in verse 32 rather than in verse 35, we can see how the canonical order of the text, matched in Matthew’s version of the same events (Matthew 20:17-27) provides a structure which affirms the same contrast of paradigms being pointed out here – a point also made elsewhere by means of a similar structure, such as in 9;30-34ff, and its parallel in Luke 9:44-50.

And they were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them; and they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid. And taking the twelve again, he began to tell them what was to happen tohim, saying, “Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem; and the Son of man will be delivered to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death, and deliver him to the Gentiles; and they will mock him, and spit upon him, and scourge him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise.”

And James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him, and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And he said to them, “What do you want me to do for you?” And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” And they said to him, “We are able.” And Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.” And when the ten heard it, they began to be indignant at James and John. And Jesus called them to him and said to them, “You know that those who are supposed to rule over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. But 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 slave of all. For the Son of man also came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

This particular passage is revealing for our purpose because it touches on the nature of God’s Kingdom, which is to say God’s manner of governing: that is, how God chooses to wield power. The situation is set up, first of all, with the description of what is to happen to the Son of man; an indication of how the mission of the Messiah is to be accomplished, namely by suffering rejection and death at the hands of the authorities, relying only on the power of God to raise the dead. A strange path to power indeed! But within this narrative interpretation of what must happen to the Son of man, the response, shall we say the permissiveness with which Jesus intends to undergo these abuses, indicates his seriousness about practicing what he preaches. He who has taught love of enemies is now about to demonstrate what that kind of love looks like.

The second paradigm is presented in the form of the request of James and John, who, maybe, see this near-term rejection and suffering as a necessary nuisance, but who are convinced that ultimately the kingdom will belong to Jesus. Hence, still motivated by love of power, their desire to have the places of honor closest to their Lord is an understandable, quite normal representation of personal ambition.

The indignant reaction of their colleagues, if looked at in terms of the political kinds of maneuverings that tend to happen among those close to any powerful figure, may also represent personal ambition disguised as moral outrage. However that may be, clearly the paradigm presented here is the love of power: loyalty to the King (or any powerful figure) is a means to the goal of a place of prominence in his kingdom.>

The response Jesus brings to this situation points up a radical departure from this paradigm, by re-introducing the contrasting paradigm. The contrast between the way things are done among the rulers and authorities of all the nations, and the way things are to be done “among you” is explicit and unequivocal. There is a way to power that does not entail the use of power as understood by the nations and their rulers, a way that is arrived at by intentional acts of loving service, up to the point, even, of deliberate self-sacrifice, the giving of one’s own life. Such a course of action is a powerful one, one which leads to greatness. The same point is brought forward in the foot-washing narrative of John 13. Integral to the teaching of Jesus, particularly the teaching directed at those who are identified as apostles (and thus represent for later ages leadership in the church), is this idea that power in his kingdom is to be arrived at through acts which seem like loss of power, the relinquishing of claim to power. These acts bring in the kingdom of God. The church is present in the world, like Jesus, not to be served, but to serve (verse 45) – and this with a salvific effect.

This is the same choice Jesus himself makes in the temptation story as related by Matthew and Luke, and again when, according to the Fourth Gospel, he refuses to be made an earthly king (John 6:15). It is the same contrast he defends, according to the same Gospel, before Pilate, where he indicates that the thing that distinguishes his kingdom from the kingdoms of “this world” is the fact that his servants do not fight(18:36). His call to self-sacrifice, the taking of the cross, is a call to uphold the power of love, and renounce the love of power.

Before we talk further about the power of love, some clarity is needed on the definition of love. In the modern world the word “love” admits of many uses and meanings, and there is no reason to think that this situation itself is anything new. But for our purpose, not just any definition of love will do. Fortunately the New Testament canon of writings provides something of a compass in this regard. In addition to Paul’s beautiful hymn to love in 1 Corinthians 13, which eliminates some dead ends for us by including helpful listings of many things that love is not, we can turn to several passages from 1 John:

We love, because he first loved us (4:19)
By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren (3:16)
In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us…(4:10)
God is love (4:8; 4:16)

So for at least one New Testament writer, love is the very nature of God. This by itself does not help us very much, since it could lead to a circular definition making love into anything we might propose about God; but because the revelation of the nature of God is bound up with the narrative of Jesus and specifically with his voluntary act of laying down his life, we can say that the nature and meaning of love is revealed definitively in Jesus himself, and most particularly in his sacrificial death/resurrection on our behalf, which provides for us the most powerful and telling definition of love, not as a proposition but as a story.8 This story of Christ’s self-sacrifice shows in what way Christ is the image of the invisible God (Colossians 1:15). The God of Israel is a God who speaks and acts. Likewise the Christ of Christianity both teaches and exemplifies his teaching. If we agree that the love of God is not only the goal of salvation but is the wellspring for both creation and redemption, and is the revelation which has its full unveiling in these last days in Christ (Hebrews 1:1-3), then in practical terms, the imitation of Christ and the life of love are one and the same. What this means, of course, is that to live the life of love means constantly re-enacting or re-incarnating the deeds of Jesus, whether of service, speech, healing, or suffering; all in the same spirit of faith which asserts that these are free actions taken in freedom.

In the passage in Mark cited above, the determination to serve, rather than be served, is indicative of the intentional relinquishing of power and privilege, with a view to accomplishing the work of God. The same theme can be seen, among other places, in Philippians 2:5ff, where ordinary church members are urged to have the same attitude as that which motivated the blockquoteine Son of God when he emptied himself of power and authority which was rightfully his, and accomplished God’s reconciling purpose by other means, namely the assumption of the role of servant — the exact thing we saw Mark’s Jesus urge upon the Twelve.

The life of love as the imitation of Christ is spoken of repeatedly in the Pauline epistles in terms of the cross of Christ and of the resurrected life. It is Paul also who gives us the image of the cross/resurrection as paradigmatic for reconciliation on every level. 2 Corinthians 5:14-15 and 18-20 says:

For Christ’s love controls us, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, that those who live might live no longer for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised…

…All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that is, God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the ministry of reconciliation. So we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We beseech you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.

Thus participation in the death and resurrection of Christ is rooted in God’s reconciling initiative, and has as its immediate consequence the ministry of reconciliation; all of this being understood as the compelling result, even the defining indication, of Christ’s love. Likewise, in the epistle to the Romans, the language of reconciliation is linked to the death/resurrection of Christ(Romans 5:8,10-11)

But God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us…For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life Not only so, but we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received our reconciliation.

So we see that the basic theme is not merely Johannine, but is Pauline as well, and indeed appears to permeate the New Testament canon. For example, the ethical instructions in 1 Peter 3:8-18 present the same paradigm of victory through the imitation of Christ, again linked to his suffering, death and resurrection.

In none of these passages is there any hint of winning God’s victory through the assumption of the kind of power used by the “rulers of the Gentiles,” whether it be political persuasion, manipulation of legal authorities, acquisition of political power, or the use of violence or coercive measures of any kind; but instead the victory is to come through redemptive submission to the often violent measures ways of the rulers of this world; which is to say, through the power of love.

The cross and resurrection of Jesus points to a radical revelation of God’s chosen method for dealing with sin and all human brokenness, including human brokenness as it is manifested in and by powers and authorities: he does so in Jesus by renouncing all coercive forms of power, in the cross actually letting such power do its worst against him; and in reserving to himself only the power of love, demonstrates in the Resurrection (as it has been demonstrated earlier in the miracles of healing) that this is also the power to give life. That is, by God’s own sovereign self-limiting choice, in the defining story of all defining stories, namely the paradigmatic events of Cross and Resurrection, God reserves to himself no power, except the power to give life. By making this radical story the central paradigm for faith, ethics, and behavior in community, the community of faith itself is urged and empowered to become a life-giving, reconciling force – also through, in the first instance, a renunciation of the uses of power.

Two other biblical points remain to be mentioned here briefly: the first is the way in which the temptation story, related by Mathew and Luke, speaks to the love of power; and the second touches on biblical mention of secular authorities or powers in passages such as Romans 13:1-7 and 1 Peter 2:13ff.

In the temptation story, the love of power is presented as one of the temptations, and Matthew makes it the final, ultimate temptation. It is interesting to note that both evangelists associate the acceptance of worldly power with worship of Satan, and the response of Jesus contrasts it with the worship of God.

Romans 13:1-5 might appear to offer a different view than the one presented here, by legitimating the powers or authorities of human government, and enjoining the believers not to resist or rebel against such authorities. But even here, we can note that although he urges his readers to submit to such authorities as God-ordained, the apostle does not seem to envision a situation in which the roles are reversed, and secular authorities submit to or are subject to the dictates or directions of believers. Elsewhere, with reference to the eschatological kingdom, a time is envisioned when believers will reign with Christ, rule the nations and even judge angels (1 Corinthians 6:3), but we have already seen, for example in the Markan passage that opened this discussion, that the way into this eschatological kingdom is not through the pursuit of power or authority but through the imitation of Christ, who subjected himself to the unjust judgment of these very authorities.

In all of this we can see that the New Testament writers do not appear to have envisioned a time when the followers of Jesus would, or would want to, assume earthly power of a political or coercive nature. McClendon points out,

Perhaps the greatest obstacle to objectivity in examining the New Testament is the temptation to separate these documents from the history in which they first appeared. Once that move has been made, all sorts of mischief follow.9

Loving persuasion was expected to be used in the church, with the severest penalty being, at most, expulsion from the community — and even then with an eye to restoration. But there would come a time when this persecuted minority would become a force to be reckoned with, and the temptation which Jesus rejected with the words, “Get behind me, Satan!” would come, at an opportune time, to confront the community of his disciples.

II. Not So With Who? The Love of Power In Church History

In the Roman world of the first century, it may have been, in a sense, easier than it is in the North America of the twenty-first century for believers to identify themselves with Christ at the underside of history.10 The methods he urged in his teaching, and exemplified in his manner of death, were remembered and taught by the apostles to a generation of believers which in its turn sought by word and deed to be conformed to Christ. An ethic of suffering was appropriate for such a time, among people who were few in number, limited in resources, for whom suffering seemed an inevitable part of life itself. But over time, the church grew, its influence spread, and it became more organized and less marginalized. The time would come when its voice could be heard in Caesar’s palace and other halls of power, not just as the lonely witness of Paul the prisoner, but as a widespread constituency to be reckoned with. Yet well into late antiquity, the prevailing view within the church was that the life of a Christian was not compatible with the exercise of either physical force or political power;11 although as the Christian movement gained wider acceptance, there arose alternate viewpoints which would allow for accommodation between the kingdom of Christ and the powers of the world.

In conjunction with Constantine’s official interest in Christianity, making it first of all tolerable, we might even say politically correct, for someone to be a Christian, a sea change in attitude overtook the Christian movement which resulted in a variety of responses. After centuries of rejection and persecution, here was an opportunity for the faith of Christ to be not only tolerated, but even recognized, accepted, promoted by the powerful. It could be said that the sense of relief at this turn of affairs was so great that whereas earlier Christians who refused to fight had as an alternative prayed for the protection of God on the emperor and his armies, now the emperor came to be viewed as the protector, promoter, and thus in some sense a temporal savior, of the church. For the first time, the relation of Christian people to power in the form of political authority and military might, began to be one not merely of submission but of (at least) mutual benefit and, inevitably, a reversal of former roles. Thus began the transformation of Christianity into Christendom, and with that transformation the path of submission, obedience, and renunciation of power became just one of several competing subcurrents within the thought and practice of the church.

Illustrative of the paradigm shift that makes this possible is the spread of the possibly apocryphal story of Constantine’s dream just prior to the battle at the Mulvian bridge12 wherein the words “By this sign you shall conquer” were associated with Christ. We are not here concerned with the historical accuracy of this tale, but with its effect as a defining narrative when it began to be included in a general understanding of the Christian story as a whole. Now in this instance the name of Christ was blockquoteorced from the imitation of Christ. The one whose death and resurrection had been associated with the renunciation of coercive power in favor of the demonstration of the power of God to give life, would hereafter be seen instead as the patron of the armies of Rome. For the emerging church, this narrative of Constantine’s victory under the sign of the cross would modify and sometimes overshadow the narrative of Christ’s victory by means of the cross. The image of Christ crucified becomes overshadowed by that of Christus Victor; the vocabulary which had served to promote the power of love, which in the New Testament witnesses to renunciation of the love of power, came into the service of Constantine’s consolidation of power. It allowed him to be loosely be allied with Christianity without himself being a disciple of Christ.13

The Christian message thus began to be bifurcated. In one stream, the love of power became justified because it was now possible, so it seemed, for worldly power to be wielded in the name of Christ, for Christian purposes. From this stream flow many of the excesses of the hegemony of Christendom in the millenium and a half which follows: justification of wars, crusades, inquisitions, pogroms, blockquoteine right of kings, the maintenance of a permanent upper class which produced both aristocracy and high clergy; eventually also colonialism, conquests, justification of the slave trade, manifest destiny, genocide. From the other stream flowed an ideal of Christianity that produced vows of poverty and chastity, a clergy that was forbidden by canon law to take up arms,14 monastic withdrawal from worldly affairs, and reform movements which from time to time reinvented these ideals, challenging by counter-example the legitimacy of the powerful, as for example was done by Francis of Assisi when he and those who joined him took personally the call to the imitation of Christ.15 Other examples, taken from nearly every period up to the present day, could be multiplied.

The interplay of these two paradigms in the history of the West provides starkly contrasting models for reading that history, so much so that the moral questions raised in a reading of Christian history are not radically different from those raised when comparing the Old Testament with the New. How can the way of Christ be one of reconciliation, when the name of Christ has been so often used to create or justify the conditions which call for reconciliation? It is at this point that John Wesley’s thought is helpful.

Wesley proposed in no uncertain terms that Christian perfection is possible in this life, and defined that perfection as being made perfect in love. He understood that love to be something like what has been outlined above, namely the imitation of Christ, love of enemies, etc.16 and was unmoved by objections that few persons could be definitively said to have attained to it. From this we have a pointer to a Wesleyan perspective on the use of the power of love to answer and overcome the love of power: by personal and corporate holiness, the relinquishing of ordinary power and comfort for the sake of the inbreaking kingdom of God, it is possible to re-enact in our earthly circumstances the reconciling story of cross and resurrection, by which the power of love is made manifest as the power to give life. By allowing the story of Christ to be not mere symbolism but a compelling paradigm that actually shapes our life, a story which gives shape and meaning to the stories which we are enacting, we become proclaimers and ambassadors of good news, ministers of reconciliation.

III. The Power of Love for Reconciliation Today

There is plenty of estrangement and alienation in the world, and the need for reconciliation pervades all of life. If Christ is to be the one before whom every knee shall one day bow, do we quietly wait for that as an eschatological hope, or do we somehow participate in the anticipation of that hope? Samuel Hines, drawing on Ephesians 1:10 to identify the eschatological purpose of God “to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ,” identifies this coming together with “God’s one-item agenda” of reconciliation.17 Every aspect of the gospel calls us to be reconciled to God, to ourselves, to one another, to our family, our community, our neighbor, our enemy. The reconciling stream within church history, in which the power of love lived out as the imitation of Christ is expected to have an influence on the world, without using the power-loving ways of the world, is accessible in light of the Wesleyan understanding of the possibility of being perfected in love; not by assuming the power of the powerful, but by faithful living in demonstration of the life-giving power of God. We live today in a world as ambiguous, perhaps, as that of Constantine, and are faced with choices not terribly unlike the choices faced by the church in late antiquity. Like post-Constantinian Christians, in North America we live in a society where officially all religions are treated equally, and in reality Christianity, at least in some of its forms, is given preference. Economic inequality haunts us. Racial mistrust disrupts even the fellowship of the church. Political issues blockquoteide communities. How do we seek reconciliation, and what kind of power can we use?

I would suggest that just as the power of God manifested in the cross and resurrection is the power to give life, and is arrived at through the power of love to renounce the love of power, it is by allowing this formative story to enter the story of our own blockquoteidedness that we can come to a place where reconciliation is, like the kingdom of God, at hand.

The responsibility is a double one, depending on where we find ourselves within the story. Those who are, like Jesus in Palestine and like the early church, without power, receive from the gospel the ability to turn away from the temptation toward domination (Matthew 4:8-9, Mark 10:42) and exercise the power of love by the discipline of obedience: turn the other cheek, go the second mile, forgive seventy times seven, seek rather to serve than to be served. Followers of this way witness effectively to power, by demonstrating a holy dignity that disarms the powers, because “the spirit of glory and of God” are with those who live like this (1 Peter 4:14). But for those who as Christians do not so completely fit the profile of the powerless, but find themselves in more of a position of authority or privilege, or find themselves among those in the role of attackers or oppressor, whether by privilege of race or gender or economics, social status or political authority, more is called for, the imitation of Christ on yet another level: the intentional release of existing privilege that could be used, the determination not to break the bruise reed or snuff out the smoldering wick (Isaiah 42:3). Thus, if it is possible for there to be Christian leaders of a nation, the Christianity of those leaders requires them, as servants of Christ, to take on the role of “slave of all” (Mark 10:44) – including those who are not Christians at all. Likewise, if European-Americans people are serious about reconciliation with our neighbors with roots in Africa, Asia, or our own continent, it cannot be enough to simply try to move directly to a situation of equality: instead, those of us who have enjoyed political, social and economic superiority must intentionally, persistently, for the sake of Christ, assume an inferior position, looking for ways to actively serve. The relatively wealthy, to inherit the kingdom of God, cannot be content with donating a portion of our abundance to the deserving poor; we must, as Isaiah says, look for ways to “pour [ourselves] out for the hungry” (Isaiah 58:10). The call to holiness requires no less. In this way the demands of God’s love are uncompromising for those who want to demonstrate it in the world. It calls high and low alike to the imitation of Christ, the way of the cross, the power of God.

1 Naming the Powers: The Language of Power in the New Testament (1984); Unmasking the Powers: The Invisible Forces That Dominate Human Existenc (1986); and Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination (1992), all published by Fortress Press.

2 Wink, Naming the Powers, 7

3 Ibid., 13-27

4 Ibid., 11

5 Wink, Engaging the Powers, 66-73

6 Ibid.,

7 Richard B. Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament: A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics, HarperCollins Publishers, 1996. 310

8 For a vigorous defense of narrative ethics, see James W. McClendon, Jr., Systematic Theology: Ethics, Abingdon Press (1986), 328-334

9 McClendon, Ethics, 300

10 For a perspective on the sociological function of biblical literature as a corrective to official histories, see unpublished essay by R. Buehler, “11 See Roland H. Bainton, Christian Attitudes Toward War and Peace, Abingdon Press (1960), 66-84. Though the bulk of the argument here has specifically to do with whether or not Christians were allowed to kill, Tertullian and Origen seem to have held that participation in political life was also off-limits (83-84)

12 Williston Walker, A History of the Christian Church, third edition, Charles Scribner’s Sons (1970), 101

13 It is possible that Constantine himself recognized that his duties as an earthly ruler necessarily involved sin; at any rate, he delayed his baptism (the sign of repentance) until shortly before his death.

14 McClendon, Ethics, p. 301

15 Walker, 235

16 John Wesley, A Plain Account of Christian Perfection (1789); Found in The Classics of Western Spirituality: John and Charles Wesley (1981), Paulist Press, Frank Whaling, ed.. 299ff.

17 Hines, Samuel George and DeYoung, Curtiss Paul. Beyond Rhetoric: Reconciliation as a Way of Life (2000). Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 24-25.

Toward a Christian View of Politics


by John K. Stoner

Christians and politics–a puzzle, to be sure.
Like the eagle on their dollar bill, which holds olive branches in one set of talons and arrows in the other, Americans, and American Christians in particular, are of two minds in their thought about politics. That is, Americans believe that their democracy has achieved far more cultural transformation than it actually has, but simultaneously, they believe that due to the drag of sin, true cultural transformation is impossible. What we need is a political attitude which transcends this contradiction.
Here is the problem. Americans ask you to look, on the one hand, at what their experiment in democracy has done: it has ended King George’s British tyranny over the Colonies, produced the Declaration of Independence, written the world’s greatest document of governance, the Constitution, freed the slaves, fed the world, made space for God and religion, melted the pot, developed the West, invented the light bulb, given women the vote, birthed Henry Ford, produced the car, gone to the moon, built the mall, televised the NFL, won two world wars, isolated Castro, and woven the world wide web. All of this is affirmed periodically by going to the polls and voting. Democracy works, isn’t it wonderful!?
But next they describe all of the elements of culture which are fixed in stone and can never be changed: Indians are lazy, war is inevitable, education costs too much, more prisons are needed, public transportation doesn’t work, the car is sacred, old growth forests must be cut, homosexuals must be isolated, rain forests are an outdated luxury, acid rain can’t be helped, blacks are lazy, arms sales strengthen the economy, land mines create jobs, nuclear weapons keep us free, global warming is a myth, advertising fills a need, fetuses are good, immigrants are bad, and poverty can’t be helped. Humans are born in sin, and culture is trapped where it is.
Sin, Americans believe, guarantees the permanence of cultural depravity. The triumphs of democracy, on the other hand, are proven and perpetuated by right and practice of voting. In this view, voting is the ultimate political involvement, the elixir of society’s ills, the perfect tribute to democracy’s success in the past and the guarantor of its achievements in the future. To vote, and only to vote, is to be a responsible member of society. The meaning of politics, and the essence of political action is reduced, for all practical purposes, to the single act of voting.
But politics is vastly more than voting. Politics is the challenge of achieving human community. The root word is “polis,” or city, which is the essential symbol of human community. Of course narrower definitions are possible, such as the art or science of winning and holding control over a government, or activities characterized by artful and often dishonest practices. A moderate definition would be “the art or science of governing.” This may be useful, if we think of governing as guiding the process of achieving human community.
As the challenge of achieving human community, politics deserves the attention and energies of Peace Church and all Christian people, because God, by all indications, has an interest in the development of human community. There will, of course, be people who make a specialty of governing, and that should not be surprising. However, it is not to be expected that those specialists should be left alone to, by themselves, define the meaning or content of governance. Every person has an interest in defining the shape of the human community, and narrow definitions of governing should not be permitted to obscure the fundamental goal of serving the needs of humanity as a whole.
For Christians it is worth remembering that the central message of Christ Jesus, whose name we bear, was that the kingdom of God has appeared in the midst of human affairs. I shall proceed to argue, in fact, that this kingdom memory must be decisive for our political thought. Christians are bound to ask what Jesus Christ can teach them about politics, or else maintain a discreet silence about BOTH Jesus AND politics. This is an argument, I fear, which will not find easy acceptance with my readers, whose indulgence for some moments I nevertheless beg. If this seems like strange politics, I respond that any discussion which includes Jesus is, by definition, strange in a way, and anyone who brings up Jesus has brought up a voice which is, in profound ways, quite alien. This really can’t be avoided. Jesus taught us to pray, “Thy kingship come, they will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” That crosses over some planets, and if we pray the prayer we are committed to making the leap. (Or we could, of course, abandon the prayer….)
Kingdom denotes reign, or governance. The message of Jesus was that God is present and taking charge. The will of God is being done on earth as it is in heaven. This is thoroughly political, and only centuries of compromise with earthly kingdoms, growing out of a fear to challenge kings as directly as Jesus challenged them, has made it seem otherwise to most Christians. Continue reading “Toward a Christian View of Politics”

Jesus and John the Baptist


Jesus and John the Baptist

A sermon delivered on October 20, 1996 at Marbury Church of God

Text: Luke 7:17-35

  • The evidence of Jesus’ authenticity was his healing ministry.
  • Jesus reassured John’s faith by pointing out the effects of His ministry.
  • Of others Jesus had said, “you will know them by their fruits.” He applies no less a standard to himself.

Contrast between style approach of these two men:

John the Baptist


Lived in the wilderness Lived in towns
Wore camel’s hair Wore normal clothing
Drank no wine Turned water into wine
Taught his disciples to fast Took his disciples to dinner parties
Ate strange foods Ate whatever was served
Did no miracles Did many miracles
Preached in one place only Went from town to town
Preached judgment and repentance Preached repentance and forgiveness
Warned of wrath to come Promised eternal life

How can two such different men and ministries be serving the same God? Yet that is what this passage teaches us. Though different in so many ways, and even though some of John’s disciples left him to follow Jesus, we never hear of one criticizing the other. In fact, Jesus makes it clear that both were bringing the same message to “this generation”.

  • Reaction of the crowds, and of the Pharisees and lawyers, to Jesus’ words was similar to that of John’s ministry, despite all the differences. Why?

It is the word of God that changes hearts, that brings the honest sinner to repentance, that effects the benefits of forgiveness in their lives. The style of the messenger can be harsh or kind, spectacular or understated, flamboyant or soft-spoken, but until we hear God speak to us personally, we will be unmoved. Those who saw their need for repentance heard John’s word of judgment and responded; likewise they were ready to hear Jesus’ words of grace. But those religious leaders and Bible teachers who “rejected God’s purpose for themselves” rejected the message both of judgment and of mercy

  • Do not honor the messenger, or the style of delivery, more than the message itself!

God will find ways to speak to you, including ways you do not expect. John Newton wrote, “’twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved.” Each of us, at whatever point we are in life, may need to hear a different bit of God’s voice – and God will provide that to us. But as John the Baptist said, “He must increase, and I must decrease,” so the voice of joy and mercy and eternal life must increase over the voice of woe and judgment and wrath. He that is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than John, though John is greatest among the prophets. But both are agents of God’s grace.