As Christians we acknowledge there are powers at work beyond our vision.
And we are tempted to believe the darker ones have full reign.
How can our small, ordinary congregations work against global political and economic powers?
How can our paltry sermons speak against the cacophony of hate-speech?
How can our small hands give enough to fill all the empty stomachs?
How can our small hearts love enough to overcome all the loneliness?
We can relate to the pain Walter Wink expresses:
In my despair I wondered how the writers of the New Testament could insist that Christ is somehow, even in the midst of evil, sovereign over the Powers. I wrestled with this assertion with my whole being. [1. Walter Wink, The Powers that Be: Theology for a New Millennium. New York: Augsburg Fortress, 1998., p. 7]
As I read Wink’s The Powers that Be, I find surprising hope. Although published in the 1990’s it speaks prophetically to our moment. So I simply want to summarize a few of his chapters here to release his wisdom from the pages of a 20 year-old book and into the conversations taking place this moment. (All quotes are from Wink’s The Powers that Be and page numbers are given in parenthesis.)
Churches, Angels, and Spiritual Power
Just as the churches in the book of Revelation each had an angel, human organizations—whether nations, corporations or congregations—each have a corporate personality or spirit. “There is nothing, from DNA to the United Nations that does not have God at its core. Everything has a spiritual aspect. Everything is answerable to God.” Every organization that exists was created by God for a purpose—to serve the welfare of humanity. (5)
The question is: will each institution acknowledge this reality? Will each organization choose to use its power for good?
Wink writes: “[If] the demonic is the spirituality produced when the angel of an institution turns its back on its divine vocation, then I could not only believe in the demonic, I could point to its presence in everyday life. And if the demonic arises when an angel deviates from its calling, then social change [depends] . . . on recalling its angel to its divine task.” (5-6)
Here is where we, as Christian leaders, can see our influence and opportunities with new eyes. According to one way we’re tempted to see the story: we lead struggling organizations with dwindling numbers and resources and growing challenges and conflicts. How are we supposed to overcome the immense, dark forces around us?
And yet, we have two kinds of good work to do—both interwoven with the other. And both entirely doable!
We each do the good work of calling our own institution back to its vocation.
The Church universal has a Spirit. It is not an impersonal thing—a factory or faceless system—but a living being, called both the Bride of Christ and the Body of Christ. And within that broader body, each congregation, each seminary, each Christian non-profit has an angel—a unique personality and calling which fits within the broader calling of the Church universal. The more we call the organizations we lead back to their true vocation, the more the power of our organization is a power for Good. We have some say in whether the angel of our institution lives out its divine vocation. The more we call the organizations we lead back to their true vocation, the more the power of our organization is a power for Good. Click To Tweet
This is hard work, to overcome the powers of nationalism and religious hierarchies and cultural traditions, the anxieties and reactions which masquerade as Christianity. But for every meeting we hold, every sermon we preach, every conversation we have, calling our people back to their God-ordained calling, we are evoking our best Angel.
When we do this work without the spiritual power already given to us, we are tempted to perpetuate the evil of the world, ironically, even as we fight to overcome that evil.
Against such monolithic Powers it was and is tempting to use violence in response. But we have repeatedly seen how those who fight domination with violence become as evil as those whom they oppose. . . [This is the] ‘Domination System,’ which sustains itself by violence and by the myth that violence is redemptive.” (7,11)
(And before we imagine we would never resort to violence to further God’s work, let’s remember that not all violence is physical. We daily use power plays to dominate and manipulate one another, twisting the story to get our desired outcome, creating caricatures of one another instead of truly inviting the other, forever reactive and fearful. We do violence by using Christian language to justify our own agendas.)
But we have been promised something more powerful than all these desperate efforts at domination: “Jesus himself, in his own life, broke the endless spiral of violence by absorbing its impact in his own flesh.” (11)
We can be transformed! Powers can be transformed! Not through human power, perpetuating the ways of domination, but by acknowledging that we represent One who has already overcome the Powers and calls us to embody that Truth to the world. Which brings me to the second part of our good work . . .
We do good work as a church by calling other human institutions back to their vocation to serve humanity.
When a particular Power becomes idolatrous—that is, when it pursues a vocation other than the one for which God created it and makes its own interests the highest good—then that Power becomes demonic. The spiritual task is to unmask this idolatry and recall the Powers to their created purposes in the world. But this can scarcely be accomplished by individuals. A group is needed—what the New Testament calls an ekklesia (assembly)—one that exists specifically for the task of recalling these Powers to their divine vocation. That was to be the task of the church, ‘so that through the church (ekklesia) the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places’ (Eph. 3:10). And the church must perform this task despite its being as fallen and idolatrous as any other institution in society. (29)
We must repent of our materialist ways, assuming that what we can see and measure is reality. Scripture speaks of a spiritual reality at work in everything we do—every action we do on earth has a spiritual counterpart and vice versa. What we bind on earth will be bound in heaven and what we loose will be loosed in heaven! Which means that small people and small churches, as limited as their economic and political power may be, have vast influence when they remember their true calling.
We don’t have to engage with huge systems to overthrow them according to their own Powers. We have been given insight into the evil in the world that is structural and spiritual. “Only by confronting the spirituality of an institution and its physical manifestations can the total structure be transformed. Any attempt to transform a social system without addressing both its spirituality and its outer forms is doomed to failure. Materialism knows nothing of an inner dimension, and so is blind to its efforts.” (31) Any attempt to transform a social system without addressing both its spirituality and its outer forms is doomed to failure. Click To Tweet
We don’t have to conform to a spiritualist worldview which says all matter is evil. We don’t have to conform to a materialist worldview which says matter is ultimate. We don’t have to create a false dichotomy between the material and the spiritual. We don’t have to demonize those who do evil. Instead, we can embrace the story of Scripture—that ‘Spirit is at the heart of everything, and all creatures are potential revealers of God.’ (20)
Our Power is not founded on our buildings or our budgets. Our Power is not founded on our theological prowess or our ability to formulate perfectly-worded doctrinal statements. Our Power is not founded on our ministry models, our platforms, our social and political sway. As helpful as these may be, they become Evil if our idolatrous attitudes to them keep us from knowing our True Power.
Jesus has promised us we have Power because he overcame the Powers. Not a Power to attain in our own strength but a Power granted by Jesus if we’ll just claim it.
Our work, my brothers and sisters, is to keep our imagination true by remembering every day the scriptural reality of Powers at work in everything. Our materialist ways will tempt us to see Power in buildings and titles and resources. But we must keep returning to the story of Scripture. So that we can call our organizations back to their true calling, over and over again. And as little bands of Christians, gathered according to His Power, remember how to join God in his good work in the world, “to bend the Powers back to their divine purposes” we will also find our true vocation (35). We will remember how to speak truth to invisible Powers. We will find in ourselves engaged with and transformed by a Power that is not our own but ours because we’ve been given it.
Our work, my brothers and sisters, is to keep our imagination true by remembering every day the scriptural reality of Powers at work in everything. Click To Tweet
‘Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,’ says the Lord Almighty. (Zechariah 4:6)