Redeeming Power: Understanding Authority and Abuse in the Church, Diane Langberg. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2020.
Summary: A psychologist looks at the dynamics of power behind various forms of abuse and trauma in which church figures are either perpetrators or complicit.
Diane Langberg is a career psychologist and Christian who has studied physical and sexual abuse, domestic violence and trauma around the world. Much of what she has seen involves the church, whether sanctuaries filled with bodies in Rwanda, killed by other Christians of a different tribe or churches who have suppressed the truth, protecting power rather than victims, when a woman or child has been abused.
The topic is urgent when reports come weekly of such incidents. But what has Langberg’s attention is power and its abuse, and the reflex to protect power rather than victims or the potentially vulnerable. It is not enough to set up systems of accountability for the protection of potential victims if the issue of power is not addressed. What is distinctive about Langberg’s approach is its theological character, that begins with conceiving power as given by God for good. Power is derived from and sourced in God, which for Langberg is what makes its misuse so offensive:
“Any time we use power to damage or use a person in a way that dishonors God, we fail in our handling of the gift he has given. Any time we use power to feed or elevate ourselves, we fail in our care of the gift. Our power is to be governed by the Word of God and the Spirit of God. Any use that is not subject to the Word of God is a wrong use. Any use of power that is based on self-deception, when we have told ourselves that what God calls evil is instead good, is a wrong use….The exercise of the power of position to drive ministry workers into the ground ‘for the sake of the gospel is also a wrong use of power. Using emotional or verbal power to achieve our own glory when God says he will share his glory with no one is a wrong use of power” (p. 12).
She goes on to name the abuses of success, finances, theological knowledge and exploiting position or reputation to get one’s way as wrong uses of power. It is a sweeping indictment.
She begins her work with a study of the source of power, as already noted, in its derivation from God. She also explores its nature in a fallen world and the paradoxical tie between power and vulnerability, both how we use power against the vulnerable, but also how we use power to protect our own sense of vulnerability, as a cover for our own woundedness. She invites us to consider how Jesus became vulnerable for us.
Her two chapters on the use of deception and the use of words in power are striking and worth long reflection in our post-truth culture. Not only has this been a feature of abusive and totalitarian political leadership, but it strikes close to home in the church where words are used to cover rather than to heal in ministries where speaking truth is crucial. Of course, the ultimate result of deception is self-deception, where the lies we spin ultimately inure us to the truth we so desperately need.
The second part of the book dives deeper into the abuse of power. It looks at the combination of physical, verbal, and emotional power used to manipulate and “groom” victims. Langberg also considers the use of systemic power in complicity with abuse, considering the case of the Boy Scouts where abuses were covered by leaders for decades. She speaks about power between men and women and how often church teaching and counsel has implicitly supported domestic violence, where women and children are not believed when trying to report abuse, and teaching dehumanizes and subjugates women. She contrasts this with the Lord’s treatment of women, who asked for water from a Samaritan and revealed his identity to her and who showed compassion on Mary Magdalene, one of the women who was the first to see and testify to the risen Lord.
In this section she also discusses the abuses of power around race and speaks of the generational trauma of those and their descendants, who have become the objects of vicious racism. She explores the dynamics of abuse across cultures. Finally, she touches on how we have exchanged Christ for various Christendom projects, exchanging the way of the servant for attaining cultural power over others.
The final part of the book returns to its title and the redemption of power. She believes this can only be grounded in Christ, his person and work. Only relentless dependence upon and pursuit of Christ will redeem the abuses of power. She writes:
“We who are Christ followers are to follow hard after love. We humans are easily deceived. We originally ran after fruit that looked good! Now we run toward the fruit of numbers, money, expansion, ovation, and status. Our original purpose was likeness to God. Our purpose today is the same: to be Christlike. Our purpose is not church growth. When growth–or anything else is our aim, we will bow to whatever we must do to acquire that goal. God in Christ is our goal. And our God tells us he is love” (p. 180).
Langberg surprised me in this book. Instead of offering an expose’ of abuse, she gives us a theological study of power, used either to abuse or to promote the flourishing of humans and the healing of nations. It offers the hope of those in places of power following “hard after love” and hard after Christ. Indeed, she pinpoints the tragedy both within U.S churches and our wider engagement with the culture. Why have we exchanged the majesty of the risen Christ who loves us for piddling exercises of power in tiny church fiefdoms or the illusion of influence in paltry politics? Has Christ become so little to us? When out of our woundedness we inflict wounds on the other, do we no longer recognized the Wounded Healer who would make us whole?
This is an important work for church leaders or any Christian in ministry leadership. It is a searching book, that makes us take a look at how we use power, how we teach, the reasons we exploit, and the ways we use words to deceive and manipulate. It also holds out the One who both meets us in our vulnerability and calls us into the loving use of power for the common good.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.