by Berry Friesen
Over one hundred Mennonite leaders recently gathered in Florida to discuss “how power works” across Mennonite institutions. According to accounts written by Wil LaVeist and published by The Mennonite and the Mennonite World Review, the meetings were designed to help the agencies and organizations of Mennonite Church USA “embrace diversity, so it can thrive amid the racial and ethnic demographic changes occurring church wide.”
During my years of working within a Mennonite institution (1989–1997), “power” was a frequent topic of conversation around office water-coolers: who had it and who didn’t, why some were being groomed for it and others not, where it was being used deftly and where clumsily, and how gender and ethnicity factored into it all. I gather from these recent news accounts that discussions about power continue to attract a curious crowd.
“Power” is often referenced in the Bible, more than 150 times within the Second Testament alone. It’s remarkable, though, how differently the Bible speaks of power as compared to my experience.
First, the Bible is rather unabashed in its affirmative view of power. It shows no embarrassment about the matter whatsoever. John the Baptist, Jesus, Peter, John, Stephen, Philip, Saul and Apollos are all described as powerful. When Jesus commissioned his disciples and sent them out, he first equipped them with “power and authority over all demons and to cure disease” (Luke 9:1).
Second, the Bible anticipates more power and more people exercising it. The prophecy of Joel—fulfilled so remarkably at Pentecost—is the clearest example with its proclamation of the Spirit’s abundance poured out “upon all flesh” (Acts 2:17).
In other words, Biblical writers did not assume a static reality where a fixed amount of power must be allocated equitably according to some moral principle. The primary example of that approach—the mother of the sons of Zebedee lobbying Jesus to name her sons to executive positions in the new administration—resonates within our institutional frames of reference, but serves in the Bible as a lesson in how not to think about power (Matt. 20:20–28).
So power is good, will multiply with great abundance and be spread around. That’s the expectation.
Toward what end? Read the gospel accounts of Jesus and you see that power is consistently viewed as the capacity to attract an audience, unmask deception, speak with authority and persuade people to repent and align their lives with God’s truth. Yes, healing is also a frequent element, but apart from the context of healing, power is usually demonstrated through the transformation of people’s emotions and worldview.
Certainly biblical writers were aware of a less rhetorical kind of power—one that humiliates, inflicts physical harm, throws people into prison and destroys livelihoods. In our contemporary way of framing the matter, we take pains to denounce such power as violent and unethical. Yet biblical writers wasted few words on this. Instead, they spoke of the “power of sin,” our enslavement to sin and the futility we experience “following the ruler of the power of the air” (Rom: 3:9; Rom. 6:16; Eph. 2:2). Apparently, the fact that we are forced to act against our interests is unremarkable; what’s important to grasp is how we’ve been persuaded to want what is bad for us and thus empower those who oppress us.
How does all of this relate to a typical Mennonite institutional setting where there are only three vice-president positions, ten department heads and fifteen seats on the board of directors?
Paul’s second letter to the assembly in Corinth may help us. He was involved in a power struggle with other leaders there. Beginning with chapter 10, Paul’s tone intensifies and we see hints of our contemporary win-lose approach to conflict and power.
But amid Paul’s typically combative rhetoric, two things shine through. One is his insistence that just as weakness, suffering and affliction played a key role in the power of Jesus’ message and life, so it plays a key role in the exercise of power within the Kingdom of God. This makes no sense (or seems manipulative) from a conventional perspective, but it makes a lot of sense when we embrace the biblical view of power as the capacity to transform how people see the world and themselves in it.
The second noteworthy aspect is Paul’s way of placing his power struggle within the larger frame of mission. Thus, he speaks of “a new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17) and of proclaiming “the good news in lands beyond you” (2 Cor. 10:16). In other words, the greater cause in which he and the assembly in Corinth were engaged dwarfed Paul’s little arm-wrestling contest with his rivals there.
This suggests an organizational context that is dynamic, outward-looking and accepting of risk. It engages the injustice of the world with the gospel of Messiah Jesus. Because the mission is big and risky, it summons all hands on deck to help. Power flows and the number of people exercising it multiplies. Conversely, when the vision is narrow, accommodating of injustice and focused primarily on making an institution and its official leaders look good, then power is a zero-sum game in which every winner results in many losers.
Practically speaking, Mennonite Church USA will soon be going through a process of constriction in which the number of paid leadership roles is likely to decrease. Yet the power of many in the church will increase as we identify with the pain of our world and proactively engage it in the bold-yet-humble and compassionate spirit of Jesus.
Berry Friesen lives in Lancaster, Pennsylvania and is part of the East Chestnut Street Mennonite congregation in that city. He blogs at www.bible-and-empire.net