The Church and the Struggle for Power

Humans crave power. We may declare that we don’t…but we do. We always have. I am pretty sure we always will.

I am right now in the middle of Henry Chadwick’s The Early Church. I love history and I wanted to reconnect with some of the historic moments in the early centuries of the church. This is a classic short volume on those times.

As the years move forward, natural conflicts between church and state arise. In the second century the general populace was suspicious of Christians because they met privately with much less fanfare than the pagan temples and didn’t engage in many of the pagan social rituals that were so central to everyday life. The most interesting observation of the Christian presence in ancient society is summarized by Chadwick: “The paradox of the church was that it was a religious revolutionary movement, yet without a conscious political ideology; it aimed at the capture of society throughout all its strata, but was at the same time characteristic for its indifference to the possession of power in this world.

Because power is a human yearning, the church’s indifference to the possession of power in the world was and is a constant struggle. As Christianity grew in popularity, the church’s indifference to worldly power turned to vicious battle to gain and retain power. We still wrestle with this issue today.

It’s not easy to put aside because we realize that power gets things done. We realize that power provides recognition for the church. We realize that power in the hands of the church tends to make the lives of Christians much easier. So when we feel power slipping away from us we are easily tempted to do anything and everything that we can to retain the power that provides us with freedom to exercise our faith in the way that seems best to us. In doing so, however, we subtly declare that we are motivated by our comfort and even more frightening, we subtly declare that the real power of the world is not God but resides in human beings and the institutions that we create. No Christian would proclaim that the real power of the universe is anything or anyone other than God, but when we relinquish and compromise the teachings of Christ and make how we treat people secondary to getting what we want, we are actually misrepresenting God to the world.

The solution is not that Christians remove ourselves from involvement in politics or power structures. The solution is for Christians to use human power structures not for ourselves, not for our ease and comfort, but for the good of society and particularly people who have no access to power, people who are most vulnerable, people who are taken advantage of. All the while, we are ruthlessly examining our lives about what’s driving us and about maintaining the spirit of Christ in all that we do and in how we do it because we know that we are all susceptible to being corrupted by power.

Let’s not forget that our striving for power is not limited to society at large; we are just as susceptible where we work, in our homes and even in the church. Every grasping for power is an opportunity for us to deny Christ, to deny the reality of the Almighty God, to quench the Holy Spirit in us. Contrary to popular opinion, Jesus says, Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth (Matthew 6:3, 5). It’s so counterintuitive that it could only be foundational for the kingdom of our Lord.