Saturday, February 11, 2017

Christians and Power – the Ancient Sin


David spares Saul though he himself had been
anointed King by Samuel.
Follow the money.

 There is an old principal that police detectives have learned when investigating crimes, especially white collar crimes, drug crimes or political crimes. If there is corruption going on, usually it's easiest to track it through money behind the corruption. Another old saw states that money is power and money truly does seem to be the most tangible form of power that there is.

There is a reason that tracing the flow of power leads you to the source of trouble. Like electricity is needed to power your radio or lights, power of the temporal sort is needed to support evil. Like electricity, temporal power can be useful, but it can also be dangerous when misused. It's also tempting.

The lust for power dates all the way back to Eden. In the Garden, the serpent first tempted Eve by offering her the power to “be like gods”.  Eve’s real sin was not that she was hungry and ate some fruit. Hers was not the sin of appetite. It was the lust for power and control over her own life and future. Rather than trusting God to care for her needs, Eve wanted the power that belonged to God. It doesn’t say why she wanted that power. That’s the great mystery, but the lust for power pretty much underpins every other sin. It is, in effect, the first sin of all.

And it’s still a problem today. Politicians will lie, manipulate and steal to achieve political power. Business people will lie, cheat, manipulate and steal to protect their fortunes. Sadly, even Christians fall victim to the lust for power. Most obviously, we see television preachers building massive monuments ostensibly to God, but no one is fooled as to whose power such edifices celebrate. Preachers live in massive homes, build theme parks and drive expensive cars. Bishops live in massive homes, fly all over the world, and collect some of the most expensive artwork in the world in jewel-encrusted cathedrals. But lest we think that our simpler, more modest churches and congregations are safe from the sin of lust for power, it takes a pass through a mere handful of stars to find congregations torn apart because one group or one person or faction decides they should be in control and should tell all the other members how they ought to worship, what they ought to wear or how they ought to behave.

The wonderful thing about being an Adventist church member is that we have no church tradition of authoritarianism. Adventists tend to believe that they are responsible, not to bishops, cardinals and priests, but to Christ alone. So what do we do when an elder or a wealthy member of your congregation begins throwing his weight around?  Is a zeal for the purity of the church even a sin? After all, those who “run the church” believe they are doing so for our own good and who are we to challenge leaders that are chosen by God?  Aren’t they given such authority by God?

Fortunately, we have plenty of examples in scripture and history to guide us. These stories demonstrate the proper way to respond to those who assume religious authority that rightly belongs only to Christ. In fact, some of the greatest leaders in scripture were individuals who did NOT want power in the first place. Moses protested that he wasn’t the man for the job, when God sent him to the Egyptians. Joseph didn’t seek power in Egypt; he just did the best he could, even when he wound up in prison. David refused to take power even though he’d been anointed King so long as the old King Saul was still alive. Time and time again, God chose reluctant leaders like Gideon to step up and take charge. These great leaders all had one thing in common – they weren’t interested in holding power. Elijah had no interest in a position of power in Ahab's kingdom. God told him to go deliver a message. Elijah knew what might happen if he did.

And yet among our congregations there are those who take upon themselves the authority of Christ, which does not belong to them. I once moved to a church in which one of these authoritarian cliques had pretty much seized political control of the church. The church became very stiff and stodgy. No pastor could make the masters of the church happy. The first time the pastor wasn’t compliant with the bosses, the Conference office got a visit and he was soon looking for another job. The church had developed a reputation as a career killer for pastors because of the political masters of the church. We were losing our children who were leaving the church as fast as they turned teenagers.

With the help of a wise Conference President and the parents of the upcoming generation of youth and the grandparents of those children, the congregation stood up to the good old boy leadership. Our pastor, who was under attack, hung on and when the problem folks got mad and boycotted the services, we replaced them on the boards and committees and by the time we got a new pastor and they returned, they no longer had power. The church they returned to was at peace, the youth were being made an active part of the services and new members were joining and old members were coming back. We even paid off the school building in just six weeks.

That church is now a plum congregation for pastors, we have a strong school and a very active younger generation who take one of the Sabbath services every week. The strife and unhappiness that once darkened the life of the church is gone. Some of the folk responsible couldn’t stand it and moved their membership elsewhere.

Those who lust for power cannot stand the pure atmosphere of selfless love, kindness and joy that comes from heaven. They are either changed by it of flee from it. An SDA congregation serves Christ, not the pastor or the head elder or the Conference President or the GC president. If we see our church congregations being bullied by individuals or groups who feel they have the right to give orders to others and to force others to comply with their edicts about how to run the church, we CAN stand up to them. Sometimes, as David demonstrated, all it takes is one person having the courage to stand for what is right, to do what is necessary, and then to step aside, lay down his sword and let God rule. Ellen White spoke about this and she had her own difficulty with people in authority. That was one of the reasons I suspect that the GC was so interested in shipping her off to Australia. She had a way of speaking truth to power, in exactly the same way the Old Testament prophets used to upset the kings and got themselves murdered for their trouble. To counter the lust for power within the church, Ellen White said this.
  • "The greatest want of the world is the want of men - men who will not be bought or sold; men who in their inmost souls are true and honest; men who do not fear to call sin by its right name; men whose conscience is as true to duty as the needle to the pole; men who will stand for the right though the heavens fall. 

Here at the end of the world, is it not time for Adventist men to stand strong for Christ and to resist any who would seize authority that belongs to Christ alone, especially in our local churches?  The local congregation is where the rubber meets the road for our faith and it is there that we introduce Christ to the world.

© 2017 by Tom King

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