Imagine yourself at any church service you wish. Imagine the music, the preaching, the reading of Scripture. Hear the voices of others next to you in welcome or in questions or in laughter. Feel yourself bumping against strangers and friends. Observe the movements of others in this scene as they jostle, listen, squirm. Listen to the message proclaimed; watch the administration of the bread and the cup.
Now, some questions: Where was power in this picture? How did it work? What was power doing? From where was power coming? Did you even see power in this picture before now?
Asking about how power functions in unseen ways only highlights how, for many, power goes unnoticed until there has been an egregious breach of trust. And in recent years, there have been innumerable breaches in church contexts, both infamous and obscure, and frequently centered on the abuse of persons: the manipulative sermon, the self-serving or even predatory pastoral figure, the overreach of the pulpit into politics.
This is the context—of pastoral failures, political alliances, and confusion about what power means for the church—in which David E. Fitch offers his newest book, Reckoning with Power: Why the Church Fails When It’s on the Wrong Side of Power.
From the onset, Fitch has in view the various high-profile cases in which the wrong kind of power has been found operating within the church. His examples include Christian nationalism, moral failures, sexual abuse, and other forms of damage. In summing up the current situation, Fitch proposes that there are “really two kinds of power at work in the world”:
There is worldly power, which is exerted over persons, and there is godly power, which works relationally with and among persons. Worldly power is coercive. [...] Worldly power is enforced. It is prone to abuse. God’s power, on the other hand, is never coercive. God works by the Holy Spirit, persuades, never overrides a person’s agency, convicts, works in relationship.
On the worldly side are variations of what Fitch calls “power over.” Tyrannies, organizations, and even justice-coded movements to redistribute power all operate on this same basic model, he argues, and they most clearly reveal their underlying congruity in displays of violence and other coercion.
This antagonistic understanding of power pervades how Christians think about our lives, both within and beyond the church, and we are tempted to similarly use “power over” because of its sheer effectiveness. This is dangerous for Christians, Fitch argues. “It is true that worldly ‘power over’ can still be employed for good purposes, if limited purposes, with the right management and accountability,” he writes. “But it is fraught with danger, and it limits what God can do.”
Fitch surveys the Scriptures to back this assertion, but it is difficult to read the Bible without seeing the pervasive fingerprints of “power over,” including among God’s people following God’s commands. The Scriptures are rife with stories of conquest and kings, of violence and misdeeds by authorities. Here, Fitch contends that the Bible points Christians toward the example of Jesus, who modeled submission to God and the redemptive way of the Spirit. He therefore explains most (if not all) the biblical stories of “power over” as “leaders attributing the acts of worldly power to God”— biblical figures’ sinfully blurring divine commands with worldly notions of how to wield the authority God has given them.
This history of mixing “power over” with the power of God continues throughout church history, Fitch writes, as church leaders from the 2nd century to the 21st have combined “power over” and God’s “power under.” Even those who handled the combination comparatively well, like the Reformer Martin Luther’s depiction of “power over” as God’s way of preserving order within society, mixed the two in practice to sometimes terrible effect.
More recently, declamations of Christian nationalism provide a vividly negative object lesson in how this mixing leads Christians astray. Even the well-intentioned pursuit of social justice, Fitch says, may perpetuate the very “inequities, abuses, and exclusions” it seeks to undo if activists take a “power over” approach.
So, what does the alternative of “power under” look like? How does “power under” function in practice? As history and Scripture show us, Fitch writes, it is dangerously easy to miss a shift—perhaps even accidental or well-intentioned—from exercise of “power under” to “power over,” whether in ourselves or in our institutions. There is no how-to manual for discerning the two powers, though we may see “red flags that indicate worldly power is already at work.”
And there are green flags of “power under” too—practices such as mutual submission, receiving the plurality of gifts that are present in the body of Christ, and inclusion of those affected by decisions in leadership processes. For Fitch, a consistent emphasis on listening, trusting in the illuminating power of the Spirit, and all persons submitting to each other in pursuit of God’s voice are key to embodying the “power under” of Jesus.
Fitch’s concern over how churches have prioritized organizational self-preservation at the expense of love and justice—or have used mechanisms of state and social power to enact changes favorable to Christians—is well-founded. And his call for Christians to develop difficult habits of listening, mutual submission, and conversation is sorely needed.
And so, in what follows, I want to affirm his practical suggestions while asking some more difficult questions about the sustainability of the framework undergirding Reckoning with Power as a whole, which I argue does not ultimately offer a compelling way forward.
In naming the pervasiveness of “power over,” not only throughout the Scriptures but in church history and in contemporary church practice, Fitch has rightly identified the dual nature of sin: It tells the truth, but only in part.
In Eden, the Serpent was right that the man and woman would have their eyes opened, would be like gods, would know good from evil. Worldly power likewise tells a partial truth: It can effect change—accomplish a great deal—perhaps even for objectively good causes. The question that Fitch wants us to reckon with is what else comes bundled with that promise of change, like how the Fall came bundled with the Serpent’s promise of knowledge.
To be sure, grasping “power over” has brought devils upon devils into a cleaned-out house (Luke 11:24–26). But it is unclear that “power over” and “power under” are—or can be—as far apart as Fitch claims. I have drawn attention to Fitch’s comments about the utility of “power over” for this reason, for they highlight how these two forms of power are frequently companions. The direction of “power over” often works in concert with the persuasion of “power under.”
And perhaps that closeness isn’t purely the failure of the flesh. Perhaps, sometimes, it is because Christians have a (borrowed and chastened) capacity to name sin and heresy and to offer an account of what can and cannot be part of the people of God. It is unclear to me, for example, how a church purged of all “power over” might preach something as difficult as the Sermon on the Mount, the Decalogue, or the Prophets. How can faithful church leaders “judge those inside” the church (1 Cor. 5:12) without some measure of “power over” the people in their spiritual care?
For the power of Christ is not only to serve but to bind (Matt. 18:18)—not only to forgive but, as Fitch himself notes, to tell the truth (2 Cor. 6:4–7). It is not clear, in other words, that creatures such as us can be free of the blurring Fitch wants us to abjure (even setting aside the fact that Christians are always sinners undergoing repair).
Put differently, it is not clear that the church can do without some form of “power over,” though we should aim to reliably wield it not as a sword but as a healing scalpel. Jesus’ own ministry offers not a few instances of service coupled with commands, of “power over”—a commanding of not only demons but of authorities and disciples. Jesus seems to couple the two types of power, albeit in limited ways.
This is not to say that the practices Fitch offers are futile, only that there is no safe means through which we can fully separate these types of power. The corruptions of power may appear in any number of ways. We cannot draw a tidy line between “power over” and “power under,” naming the former as worldly and evil and the latter as godly and good, and call the matter settled. “Power over” may be used in a Christlike manner to reprimand sin, and “power under” is not immune to corruption and may even become a whitewashed tomb (Matt. 6:5–8; 23:23, 27).
Indeed, as author Lauren Winner has observed, the very practices of God’s repair among us can themselves be subject to “characteristic damage.” The fractures of a fallen world persist even within gifts of grace. Acts of mutual submission may ultimately be strategic, for example, as people practice “power under” while secretly biding their time. And there are few words more laden with the expectation of ending disagreement and conversation than the “power under” tactic of “consensus.”
In the wake of so many publicized abuses of power, it is right to be concerned how we use power as Christians, to encourage accountability, to continue to talk about how it forms and malforms us, and to care for the wounded. Fitch writes with the passion of one who has seen damage and power up close, and his eagerness to call the church away from its temptations is to be commended.
But what we need is not a purer model of power but the ongoing bonds of forgiveness. We must assume that we will in fact harm one another, at least in unintended ways. We must not assume that we can somehow put off “power over” altogether.
I say this not because I wish to embrace a kind of Christian realism; on that, Fitch and I are in firm agreement. It is simply that the kind of power Fitch wants to reject cannot be fully put away, though we must certainly reject certain versions of it: Christians must always heed the warning of Samuel and not wish to have power like the other nations (1 Sam. 8:10–22). I say this not because Christians lust for control but because “power over,” in its best form, is the kind of authority Christ gives to his church. It is power over sin, death, and the devil (Luke 10:19; 2 Cor. 10:4), and to refuse to take it up with fear and trembling is a power failure of a different kind.
Myles Werntz is the author, most recently, of From Isolation to Community: A Renewed Vision for Christian Life Together and co-author with David Cramer of A Field Guide to Christian Nonviolence. He writes regularly at Christian Ethics in the Wild.