The Problem of the Language of Power in Charismatic Christianity

The Problem of the Language of Power in Charismatic Christianity May 8, 2015


In yesterday’s post I spoke of the crumbling of charismatic Christianity (which I will abbreviate here as CC also denoting the term ‘Charismatic Christian’). At the end of that post I mentioned that if there is to be any hope for this movement it has to have a different starting point in its theological model. CC takes as its current starting point the resurrection of Jesus and identifies itself through the use of the language of power. I will state at the outset that the gospel is power-laden, however, it is not the kind of power that CC’s think.

‘Power’ is one of those slippery words that get tossed to and fro without examination. In my experience of CC the concept of power as used by Christians within this movement is that which connotes a hierarchical relationship, that is, power is always ‘power over’, power over disease, death, the devil etc. One finds in CC that this then manifests itself in terms of ministries which focus almost exclusively on the ‘supernatural’ [sic] over the ‘natural.’ I also find that this language of power then is sociologically understood in terms of leadership over others (thus the language of covering). In this model of theology, power is structured in such a way that a person of power has control, for power implies control. Herein lies the main problem of CC. It has failed to recognize that the gospel subverts our concepts of power. The CC has simply imported into their understanding of power all of the connotations and denotations found in the way power is exercised in the world. This simple explanation goes a long way to helping shed light on why there is so much abuse of power in CC and why this movement has hurt so many. The same could be said of almost forms of Christianity.

What the CC utterly fails is to understand is that all of the language of power in the New Testament arises from a different source than worldly power. Inasmuch as the CC assumes the Evangelical paradigm of the sovereignty of God, it also assumes the Evangelical understanding of power. The worldview of the CC and the Evangelical hearkens back to older medieval concepts of kingship, lordship and feudal power relations. In this model the lord of the manor or the king has all power while the serf or the servant has none. The higher up on the ladder one rises the more power one is given, and make no mistake, power in the world is not inherent in the figure of the king or the lord, it is a power given by acquiescing subjects. The king may have a mighty army but as we have seen since the 17th century, when the populace finally decides that it has had enough of autocratic power [so perceived], it rises up in revolt. Sadly revolution after revolution has simply replaced one king, lord, president or power with another. The world abhors a power vacuum.
When power is understood in hierarchical terms, the one in power must set themselves up as a model to be emulated; in the world power flows upward. In the gospel the opposite is the case, for power as the gospel conceives it is never power over another. The model of power in the gospel is not in a hierarchical relationship with those underneath him/her. In the gospel, true power is…powerlessness.


When the CC speaks of empowering it is usually in the language of hierarchy. God, who is sovereign of all empowers the church with the Holy Spirit which then is supposed to go in the world and reign over all that is perceived of by the CC as evil. Leadership within CC thus uses the language of empowerment as a means by which to control others. In CC power flows from the top down but it does that only because like the world power is conceived hierarchically. This accounts for all of the language of a ‘special anointing’ or ‘mantles’ etc. In this model of leadership the leader is what Girard would refer to as a model/obstacle and this is the worst kind of human relationship we can be in with one another. Let me explain.


A model who sets themselves up to be emulated seeks to have their power validated by others. Their power only arises from this validation. Without that validation or recognition, the leader has no power. In other words, while the language of empowerment suggests that it is God who gives power to the leader in reality the power of the leader is only as real as those who ‘give’ power to the leader. The leader is thus empowered by the people. If the people no longer recognize the ‘power’ of the leader then the leader has no power (and their ‘ministry’ collapses). In the same manner that people vote a leader into office and thus empower the President or Prime Minister so also in the church the leader only has as much power as people give him/her. Should the populace withdraw their power, the leader becomes powerless.


This is why leaders are so careful to use the power given them to consolidate their power and do everything in their power to ensure that the populace or the ‘sheeple’ do not challenge their power. They contrive all manner of arguments to shore up their power and claim for themselves power that is ‘divine’ in nature when in reality it is purely human power. A leader in this position on the hierarchical ladder (the top rung) is thus not simply a model who needs others to validate their power, they are also obstacles for the ladder of hierarchy is actually a pyramid; there is only room for one at the top. The leader needs others to validate their power (‘anointing’ or ‘mantle’) but cannot really allow others to imitate them for if those below them were to do so they would displace them.
Leadership or power in CC is not how the gospel conceives or perceives power or empowerment. In the gospel, empowerment of the other means the opposite, the giving away of all power. Not this may sound like a contradiction for have I not just said that the power of the leader derives from the people? In the hierarchical model, the people surrender power to the leader (or model/obstacle). But this is not what the gospel is doing when it speaks of power or empowerment.


CC begins its reflections on power from the resurrection but invests the language of power that it uses with purely worldly connotations. It is not authentic power that is seen in CC, but simply worldly power clothed with Christian language. When this pseudo-power is challenged (and it will be challenged by those who see through this deceptive cloak), the leader must remove the challenger from his/her midst lest that challenge to power become a contagion that affects the entire community and the leader finds the consensual power withdrawn. Is it any wonder that CC has strong fortifications in place around its concepts of leadership? It does this because its power is not divine but worldly. In its claims to manifest divine power the CC leader points to all manner of ‘supernatural’ events but the fact is all of these so-called manifestations can be found outside the Christian tradition. Healing, prophecy, exorcisms etc are not just the purview of the Christian faith. But in order to keep people in line, CC has turned to the demonizing of other faith traditions, accusing those outside the Christian faith of healing and prophesying from ‘satanic’ power. This has been a standard argument since the second century. Demonize your opponent. Accuse them of being in league with the devil. It was a form of accusation thrown at Jesus during his ministry.


The process of demonizing the other is an essential component of the scapegoat mechanism upon which the world is founded and which the gospel came to expose and destroy. Yet CC persists in seeking to consolidate its power base by arrogating to itself all ‘supernatural power.’ Its dualistic worldview (which as I showed in The Jesus Driven Life arises from victims), thus grounds all of its language and justifies all of its accusation of the other who would demonstrate ‘power’ outside the context of some divine hierarchy.


In Luke 22, after sharing (or inaugurating) the Eucharist with his followers, something rather remarkable occurs: “An argument broke out among the disciples over which one of them should be regarded as the greatest. But Jesus said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles rule over their subjects, and those in authority over them are called ‘friends of the people.’ But that’s not the way it will be with you. Instead, the greatest among you must become like a person of lower status and the leader like a servant. So which one is greater, the one who is seated at the table or the one who serves at the table? Isn’t it the one who is seated at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.” (CEB)


Now a lot of ink has been spilled on the concept of ‘servant leadership.’ However it is rarely practiced within CC. Why? It cannot be practiced inasmuch as the CC leader still functions within a hierarchical understanding of power replete with the language of ‘anointing’ and ‘mantles’ and ‘divine mandates’ or ‘calling.’ The entire ‘Shepherding Movement’ was nothing other than worldly models of hierarchy imported into the Christian faith. In the same way the world crushes its foes and challenges to power, so also these faux shepherds consolidated their power to crush all dissent within their ranks. Countless tens of millions have left Christianity because of the misuse of power.


A servant is one who has relinquished all power. A servant does not rise to the top but descends to the bottom. A servant does not take power from the people and then dole it out to those below them in dribs and drabs. A servant gives up all rights to power. A servant does not ascend a ladder, they ascend a cross. They give up power over others. This is the gospel. The God of the Gospel is one who has given all power to humanity through Jesus Christ the True Human. In short, the God of the Gospel is powerless!!!!


Let that sink in a bit. To begin our theology from the cross is to reorient all of our definitions of power. Where CC has a deus ex machina, a God of power who from time to time arbitrarily comes to save the day, Jesus has a Papa who gives up power and does not save the day at Calvary. Had the Father demonstrated power at the cross, the world would never have been saved for God would have become like one of us, using power to retain power, using violence to justify power and in the process brought nothing truly revelatory to us.


To follow God, to follow Jesus, is not to claim divine rights or power but to give them up (Phil 2:5-11). The CC leader is identical to the medieval lord, or the Greco-Roman leader who claims power over rather than giving up all power, and herein lies the seeds of the destruction of Charismatic Christianity. In the same way that medieval kings claimed they ruled by ‘divine right’ so also the CC leader claims to ‘shepherd’ by divine right. There is thus no difference between the CC leader and the models of the world.

Now I personally know some pastors who have successfully managed to give up power. They empower others from the bottom ‘across.’ They are not celebrities. Their only goal is to give themselves away. They do not need the limelight, nor do they hog the stage. They do not claim anything for themselves. These pastors who have given up power are the most powerful people in the world that I know.


The power of the cross, as the apostle Paul so eloquently puts it, is not a power from the top down nor is it a power from the bottom up; those are the way the world structures power, hierarchically. The power of the cross is not vertical, it is lateral, it is power with, a power shared as community where there are no more distinctions between slave and master, ethnic division or socially constructed gender roles and identities (Gal 3:28ff).

If Charismatic Christianity is to truly be ‘revived’ (for it is dead in its worldly ways), it must first begin with a ‘theologia crucis’ (a theology of the cross). It must begin by abandoning all worldly understandings of power and authority and cease cloaking itself with pseudo-mechanisms that just reproduce the mechanisms of the world that depend on us-them mentalities and hierarchies. CC must, like Jesus, let go of power, not seek it. Then and only then will they find themselves truly empowered with the Spirit of the Servant Jesus.



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