Power, Passivity, or Partnership?

men-1979261_1920I’ve just returned from a regional leadership retreat with the team of leaders for the segment of collegiate ministry I work with in our part of the country. The team of which I am a part is led by a woman, with three men and four other women as team members. It is a gifted team of people highly dedicated to advancing on our ministry in university campuses. We all are committed to bringing our “A” game to this work and to our time with each other. I am a better leader of my particular area of ministry because of the other members of our team. My supervisor, who leads our team, is skilled at keeping our focus on “the main thing,” using our time well, and I have regular sought her counsel on situations where I need wisdom and another perspective.

The sad thing is that the team I describe is not possible in many ministries and church communities. I grieve, because I think of all that would be lost if my women colleagues weren’t at the table with me. One of my female colleagues has stretched my thinking about the use of digital tools to extend ministry into places we cannot physically go. Another has opened my eyes to ways to better work with ministry donors and to help the team I lead with that. I could go on and on.

My purpose in writing is not to send another volley into the hotly contested discussion about gender roles in the church. Many scholars and other writers have probably said all that may be said, and I don’t want to argue this further. To state what I think succinctly:  I believe gender distinctions are real, but that the patterns of dominance and subordination between genders are a consequence of the fall, and neither God’s intention in creation, nor within communities of the redeemed. I have deeply respected friends who think differently about these matters, and if you see things as they do, I’ll suggest what I say to them: let us pray for each other and continue to seek the light of God’s word.

What I wanted to do is share a few observations around two unhealthy places we often occupy and a vision for something better. I especially want to speak to other men (other than to express deep thankfulness to God for the women colleagues I work with, and my most important partner in life, my wife of nearly forty years). There are three words I want to reflect on: power, passivity, and partnership.

Power: Sadly, it is often a case of who has it, and who wants more of it, and our fears of losing it. I wonder if it is often the case for men that there is a fear that we may no longer be able to do things the way we’ve done if women are in the picture. What also strikes me is that when we try to hold onto power, we set up weird dynamics where parties try to control, while others try to manipulate or “game” the system. No one is particularly happy. Whenever I have relinquished power to others rather than fought for control, I find we are more “powerful” together than I could be by myself.

Passivity: One of the fears I’ve heard among men is that if women lead more, men will lead less and become passive. Male passivity is a problem at times, but men, I would like to suggest that it is our problem, and not that of women with gifts and insights they can exercise for the good of Christ’s people. Why must women step back for men to step forward; or men step back when women step forward? Why cannot we move forward together, spurring on one another?

Partnership: This leads me to the vision I would propose, one of partnership, of men and women leading together, encouraging, and allowing each of us to bring the best of what God has given us to advance the work of God. While our team was together, we studied 2 Kings 22, in which King Josiah orders renovations to the temple to encourage the worship of God, high priest Hilkiah finds and reads the book of the law, and prophetess Huldah confirms that Judah is facing judgment but that it will not come in Josiah’s lifetime because he humbled himself before God. The three subsequently lead the nation in revival and reform that lasts the lifetime of Josiah. We noticed what happened when these three came together, and that no one questioned the word of the Lord Hulda brought because she was a woman! There is something powerful and catalytic that happens when this team comes together around the word of God and the purposes of God.

I’ll touch on one other matter before I conclude, and that is the fear men express about sexual temptation if they work closely with female colleagues. I don’t think this is to be laughed at. But neither should our “stuff” as men stop women from the full exercise of gifts God has given. It’s our problem, not theirs. The truth is that both egalitarians and complementarians succumb to sexual temptation. While not temptation-proof, when we see those we work with as whole persons, fellow “kingdom professionals,” that serves as a powerful disincentive to even go the first step in one’s mind toward an illicit relationship. Of course, in the end, our daily dependence upon the grace of God must be the first and last word in these matters.

As in so many things, what we fear often keeps us from seeing and entering into what may be gained. To my brothers in Christ, I would say there is a richness that I hope you will discover. Finally, I would say thanks to my sisters in Christ, for all the ways you have stepped forward, and shown me what an exhilarating journey it can be to press into the call of the kingdom together.

Review: Luminous

Luminous

Luminous, T. David Beck. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2013.

Summary: Explores how purpose, presence, power and peace enable us to radiate the light of Christ in our everyday lives.

“Jesus never intended his people to sit in neat rows like drones on Sunday mornings, or even to fill up our schedules doing things for him because we think he would like them. He wants relationship—such a close relationship, in fact, that he actually shines through us. That’s how he wants to show the world who he is.”

It was to this conviction that David Beck came after a life-changing mission trip to Haiti when he had the opportunity to save the life of a sick child he had been looking after in a feeding program. This led him to a fresh embrace of the truth that living the Christian life was not a matter of living for Jesus but with him, in which his presence becomes luminous in our lives.

In this book, Beck traces the formational practices that position us to shine with the light of Christ under four words: purpose, presence, power, and peace. First of all in chapter two he talks about embracing the missional purpose of Jesus and to keep saying “yes” to that purpose in a life of ever deepening surrender. Chapters 3 through 5 explore the idea of presence with God, our bodies, and each other. Striking here to me is that Beck joins a growing number of those who stress the importance of affirming our embodied life and the practices of offering that life to God.

Chapters 6 through 8 focus on power. There is paradox here as he talks about the power of surrender and the power of humility in the first two of these chapters. Yet the surrender is indeed empowering as we surrender our tyrannous selves to the God who can free us, as we relinquish prideful control to be receptive and available to God. All this opens us to the empowering presence of the Spirit of God, which he discusses in chapter 8. This may make some uncomfortable with its openness to Pentecostalism and yet focuses on the essential that life- and light-giving ministry must be in the power of the Spirit. He affirms a simple, wait-receive-go pattern to ministry.

Chapter 9 then speaks of a peace or shalom that re-frames evangelism as compassion that draws people into conversation about Jesus, mercy that models the mercy of God toward all, and justice that seeks the liberation of people from spiritual as well as physical oppression. The book then concludes with the challenge to accept trials and a life of simplicity in a high contrast life of light in darkness.

One of the most helpful aspects of the book are pauses at the end of almost every section to reflect and act upon the content of each section and prayer exercises at the end of most chapters. What separates this book from many books on mission and many books on spiritual formation is how it unites the two of these at a very personal, and not merely theoretical level. Yet this makes so much sense. Mission is leading people into encounters with the living, risen Christ and how can this occur if He is not indeed living within us?

 

Review: Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power

17293092 (1)I think many of us have developed our understanding of power from Lord Acton’s axiom: Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. For most of us, that is the end of story and this accounts, at least among many Christians I know, for a deep aversion to anything like the exercise of power.

Andy Crouch has a different take that is evident in the word play in his title Playing God. We often think “playing God” is the worst manifestation of abusing power. But Crouch would argue that as image bearers, people who reflect something of the nature of God, we “play” like God in using power, and that this was originally intended for the flourishing of fellow human beings, and the creation, for creating cultural goods and even good institutions.

Crouch explores the original gift to power and how it has been distorted through idolatry, which he defines as giving to some cultural artifact ultimate significance. And idolatry leads to injustice as idols demand allegiance that undermines the flourishing of human beings. Crouch argues that instead of idol-making, our calling is to be icons, literally those who are seen through, giving glimpses of the Creator who made us to be like Him.

In the next part of his book, he explores the nature of power. Power is often hidden and yet exists, even in characters like Michael Scott from The Office. He talks about the realities of force, violence, and coercion and what impressed me is the nuanced fashion in which he did so, recognizing these can be used for evil or good (an argument pacifists may not accept). Finally, he exposes the realities of privilege, the perquisites of power we often are not even aware we have, except when we see ourselves through those who do not have them.

For me the third part of the book was most interesting because he explores power in the context of institution-making. Again, we often see institutions in a negative light but Crouch argues that institutions can be gifts for good if we assume our responsibilities as trustees of these institutions.

Finally, he explores the end of power through the lenses of discipline, sabbath, and the consummation of power in the return and ever-lasting reign of Christ. True power is like the prodigal father who uses all he has to maintain and restore his relationships and the flourishing of both of his sons, the younger profligate one, and the older resentful one.

This is an important book. What I believe often happens in Christian communities is that we try to deny the existence of power and thus become less self-aware of how we may exercise it, both for ill and for good. This, to me, seems greater than the danger of the conscious exercise of power that is cognizant of how power may be abused but also how power might be used to serve others and to promote their flourishing. Furthermore, our aversion to admitting the gift of power we’ve been given is the denial of the gifts of God, both those inherent in our humanity, and those spiritually endowed among the redeemed people of God. My hope is that Crouch’s book is widely read, that a new way of using power is charted that neither makes it into an idol nor denies its existence but redeems this gift and uses it for good.