Marva Dawn on How Power Corrupts Ministry

I’ve been thinking lately about cruciform ministry and the constant struggle against idolatries that our hearts generate regarding Christian community.  The subtle temptations to power and the lure of manipulative techniques are constants.  Marva Dawn writes brilliantly about this in her book, Powers, Weakness, and the Tabernacling of God

This rest of this post is from her chapter on how churches act like fallen cosmic powers:

Why do conversations at the dinner tables of pastors’ conferences seem to focus more on comparisons (competition?) with other churches than on creating justice for the poor?

I wonder if the very prominent concern about survival in churches is a sign of their fallenness.  As Bill Stringfellow pointed out, “The principalities have great resilience . . . [they adapt their] means of dominating human beings to the sole morality which governs all demonic powers so long as they exist—survival.”  Both the concern for “church growth” and the concern for survival (which sometimes are the same thing) lead to many of the tactics of fallen powers, such as competition, the overwhelming pressures on church leaders to be successful, reduction of the gospel for the sake of marketing, and so forth.

Furthermore, what happens to church leaders who act out of their power or out of the pressures of power instead of out of the weakness that receives God’s tabernacling?  Speaking of secular leaders, Stringfellow writes,

In truth, the conspicuous moral fact about our generals, our industrialists, our scientists, our commercial and political leaders is that they are the most obvious and pathetic prisoners in American society.  There is unleashed among the principalities in this society a ruthless, self-proliferating, all-consuming institutional process which assaults, dispirits, defeats, and destroys human life even among, and primarily among, those persons in positions of institutional leadership.  They are left with titles but without effectual authority; with the trappings of power, but without command over the institutions they head; in nominal command, but bereft of dominion.  These same principalities, as has been mentioned, threaten and defy and enslave human beings of other status in diverse ways, but the most poignant victim of the demonic in America today is the so-called leader.

Isn’t that an apt description of the way many pastors feel today?  Just this morning I was engaged in conversation with a counselor who is working with a pastor enslaved by the need to keep up a wicked pace in order that the congregation he serves can continue “growing.”  Is a parish growing well if the pastor himself is too frantically busy to care for his own spiritual nurturing?

Bill Wylie Kellerman shows us the reason power makes victims of its wielders by looking to the biblical account of Jesus and the temptations.  He observes that

The insidiousness of the temptations lies in the integrity of how and who.  Power and person are the topic.  The one crouched ready to gobble up the other.  Power may consume, corrupt, inflate, distort, dissipate, or simply deaden the person.  The Confuser’s scheme is for Jesus to forget who he is by getting lost in how he’ll work, so that the One who is the beginning and end will get swallowed up in the means.

It seems more and more widely recognized that each of the temptations is to power: the first is to economic power, the second is to military/political power, and the third is to religious power.  In all, we’re granted a concise and compact exchange on issues at once very concrete to the life of Jesus and pertinent to our own.  Remember that at the conclusion of the encounter the tempter doesn’t slink off into oblivion forever defeated; he withdraws “until an opportune time.”  Such times present themselves repeatedly to Jesus and his followers.

Our times seem to be opportune for great temptations; consequently, my main purpose in this chapter is to rouse us to greater vigilance.

** Marva J. Dawn, Powers, Weakness, and the Tabernacling of God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), pp. 75-76.

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3 responses to “Marva Dawn on How Power Corrupts Ministry

  • John Thomson

    Totally agree with the sentiments of this post.

    However, where you write,

    ‘Why do conversations at the dinner tables of pastors’ conferences seem to focus more on comparisons (competition?) with other churches than on creating justice for the poor?’

    I may have written ‘ … than on Christ as the glory of God’.

  • Sean Leroy

    She has a great way of putting things…but – and don’t take this wrong way – sometimes I feel we are so far afield from these sorts of concepts, that her wisdom falls on deaf ears. It’s kinda like “Yeah, Yeah, kid go along and play…” LOL

    • timgombis

      I think you’re exactly right, Sean. For those with ears to hear, who have been worn out by power-oriented and performance-oriented conceptions of ministry, this sounds like pure gospel.

      For those wrapped up in it and who haven’t yet felt the sting of worldly ministry models, it does indeed sound nuts, pathetic, foolish, simplistic, unrealistic.

      Further, as Dawn discusses, and as most theologians who deal with the powers note, one of the most insidious aspects of the powers’ work in the world is to make the perversions seem “normal.” So, to call it out and call for something different sounds completely loony.

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