The Church & the Powers

I’m reading Walter Wink’s Naming the Powers again, in preparation for an upcoming project.  I’m going to quibble with his identification of the powers, but I find his articulation of the social and institutional manifestations of the powers at times simply masterful.

On the need of the church to resist adopting the power strategies of the culture:

When the Roman archons (magistrates) ordered the early Christians to worship the imperial spirit or genius, they refused, kneeling instead and offering prayers on the emperor’s behalf to God.  This seemingly innocuous act was far more exasperating and revolutionary than outright rebellion would have been.  Rebellion simply acknowledges the absoluteness and ultimacy of the emperor’s power, and attempts to seize it.  Prayer denies that ultimacy altogether by acknowledging a higher power.  Rebellion would have focused solely on the physical institution and its current incumbents and attempted to displace them by an act of superior force.  But prayer challenged the very spirituality of the empire itself and called the empire’s “angel,” as it were, before the judgment seat of God.

Such sedition could not go unpunished.  With rebels the solution was simple.  No one challenged the state’s right to execute rebels.  They had bought into the power-game on the empire’s terms and lost, and the rules of the game required their liquidation.  The rebels themselves know this before they started.  But what happens when a state executes those who are praying for it?  When Christians knelt in the Colosseum to pray as lions bore down on them, something sullied the audience’s thirst for revenge.  Even in death these Christians were not only challenging the ultimacy of the emperor and the “spirit” of empire but also demonstrating the emperor’s powerlessness to impose his will even by death.  The final sanction had been publicly robbed of its power.  Even as the lions lapped the blood of the saints, Caesar was stripped of his arms and led captive in Christ’s triumphal procession.  His authority was shown to be only penultimate after all.  And even those who wished most to deny such a thing were forced, by the very punishment they chose to inflict, to behold its truth.  It was a contest of all the brute force of Rome against a small sect that merely prayed . . .

Wink concludes that the contemporary church must cultivate fresh strategies that will embody the gospel and also expose cultural idolatries.

This is not to suggest that in most circumstances prayer is enough, but in that situation it was the most radical response imaginable.  Then, “Jesus is Lord” shook the foundations of an empire; in the “free” world today, “Jesus is Lord” bumper stickers mainly occasion yawns . . .  But there are countries where “Jesus, friend of the poor” can get you killed.  Fidelity to the gospel lies not in repeating its slogans but in plunging the prevailing idolatries into its corrosive acids.

* Walter Wink, Naming the Powers: The Language of Power in the New Testament, pp. 110-111.

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10 responses to “The Church & the Powers

  • Allen Browne

    Great quote, Tim. That’s a keeper. Thanks.

  • marknieweg

    Tim, are you familiar with a little book by Hendrick Berkhof called “Christ and the Powers”? I came across a quote from him of Paul’s dealing with the powers in Colossians in John Yoder’s book “The Politics of Jesus” years ago. The quote came to mind when I read your post. It is a little lengthy but mentions first how Jesus exposed and overcame the powers in his cross by his willingly submitting to them/it. My use of this has been the challenge of how best to walk a disciple life that does the same. Would you think it gets the same point across as Wink?

    “By the cross (which must always, here as elsewhere, be seen as a unit with the resurrection) Christ abolished the slavery which, as a result of sin, lay over our existence as a menace and an accusation. On the cross He ‘disarmed” the Powers,’ ‘made a public example of them and thereby triumphed over them.’ Paul uses three different verbs to express more adequately what happened to the Powers at the cross.
    He ‘made a public example of them.’ It is precisely in the crucifixion that the true nature of the Powers has come to light. Previously they were accepted as the most basic and ultimate realities, as the gods of the world. Never had it been perceived, nor could it have been perceived, that this belief was founded on deception. Now that the true God appears on earth in Christ, it becomes apparent that the Powers are inimical to Him, acting not as His instruments but as His adversaries. The scribes, representatives of the Jewish law, far from receiving gratefully Him who came in the name of the God of the law, crucified Him in the name of the law. The priests, servants of His temple, crucified Him in the name of the temple. The Pharisees, personifying piety, crucified Him in the name of piety. Pilate, representing Roman justice and law, shows what these are worth when called upon to do justice to the Truth Himself. Obviously, ‘none of the rulers of this age,’ who let themselves be worshiped as divinities, understood God’s wisdom, ‘for had they known, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory’ (I Cor. 2:8). Now they are unmasked as false gods by their encounter with very God; they are made a public spectacle.
    Thus Christ has ‘triumphed over them.’ Their unmasking is actually already their defeat. Yet this is only visible to men when they know that God Himself had appeared on earth in Christ. Therefore we must think of the resurrection as well as the cross. The resurrection manifests what was already accomplished at the cross: that in Christ God has challenged the Powers, has penetrated into their territory, and has displayed that He is stronger than they.
    The concrete evidence of this triumph is that at the cross Christ has ‘disarmed’ the Powers. The weapon from which they heretofore derived their strength is struck out of their hands. This weapon was the power of illusion, their ability to convince men that they were the divine regents of the world, ultimate certainty and ultimate direction, ultimate happiness and the ultimate duty for small, dependent humanity. Since Christ, we know that this is an illusion. We are called to a higher destiny; we have higher orders to follow and we stand under a greater Protector. No Powers can separate us from God’s love in Christ. Unmasked, revealed in their true nature, they have lost their mighty grip on men. The cross has disarmed them; wherever it is preached, the unmasking and the disarming of the Powers takes place.”

    • timgombis

      I’ve got Berkhof on my stack, along with Wink, Schlier, and some others. I may have read Berkhof first some years ago when first becoming aware of this topic. And yes, this is very much along the same lines, identifying the manipulative power-games that Christ exposes in his cruciform life and his death.

      What amazes me is that this tradition (Berkhof, Schlier, et al) doesn’t have a strong contemporary exponent, and that the contemporary American church is so badly in need of this prophetic voice. Cultural accommodation is rampant and an exposure to how biblical writers speak of the powers would be quite salutary.

      • marknieweg

        Tim, I agree the contemporary American church is certainly in need of this prophetic voice, particularly since the mythology of “Christian Nation” is so tied up with its understanding of its own significance and security (Revolution, Exceptionalism, etc.) Most discussions I am aware of when addressing faithful discipleship seldom take into account worldly power and its use to maintain security and significance, and that our focus needs to be the “unshakable kingdom” to demonstrate we even understand Jesus, and need not fear the loss of those things. I’ve wondered if this prophetic voice were ever given a forum in the typical American congregation what would happen. I’d venture to guess something along the lines of “Crucify him! And let his blood be on us and our children.” After all, that shout was in direct response to Jesus’ challenge of God’s people’s significance and security.

      • timgombis

        Well-put, Mark. Nationalism, militarism, among other things, are indeed wrapped up in worldliness, and to call it out in some ‘Christian’ circles these days (in the States, anyway) is tantamount to blasphemy. Indeed, exposing idolatries and similar presumptions is precisely what Jesus’ prophetic ministry was all about.

      • Marco Salazar (@M_Salazar78)

        When you talk of a contemporary exponent regarding the powers I think of the way we “do” church. We have the best musicians on stage and the most dazzling light shows to exhibit how culturally relevant we are. While these things can be useful it forces me to ask the question, “Are we getting it right?” We often operate from positions of strength then positions of weakness. I think of 1 Samuel 16 and the verse that speaks of man looking at the exterior and God looking at the heart. It was the boy who was looked upon as the weakest, having little to nothing to offer, that God chose. As the church do you think we just flat out look or esteem the wrong things? So many things to ponder. Thanks for posting!

      • timgombis

        Like you say, Marco, loads to think about here, beginning with church as spectacle rather than church as family gathering. “Getting it right,” or, always-approaching-faithfulness seems to require a constant repentance, a constant turning away from corrupted worldly forms and a constant trying on renewed patterns of behaving so that we’re truly drawing upon the life of God by the Spirit.

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