The Power of the Powerless: Leading in His Presence (Nov-Mar 1997)

By Matt Dabbs

by Darryl Tippens
November, 1996 – March, 1997

Power is wonderful. Power drives the mighty engines of jumbo jets, lights the skies of New York, Caracas, and Tokyo. Power hurtles astronauts through space, drives my word processor, and speeds me to work in just minutes.

Power is deadly. Twisters and hurricanes level whole communities. Dresden, Hiroshima, and Pearl Harbor—50 years later—still bear the marks of the great bombs of World War II. Everyone knows the power of gunpowder, napalm, and atomic bombs. And many, too many, know something of the atrocities against the human spirit inflicted by a powerful, destructive, religious leadership. Souls brutalized and lacerated by raw power exercised in Jesus’ name may in fact outnumber all the victims of all the world wars. And these casualties are worse, for, as Jesus teaches us, those who destroy the soul are far more deadly than those who kill the body.

It would be wonderful to be able to announce that abusive religious authority has ceased in our enlightened times; but, sadly, it is a continuing reality. Though we have put away the chains, the thumbscrews, and the stake, spiritual abuse is everywhere about us. In fact, it has always been this way. In Jesus’ day there was profound misunderstanding about spiritual authority (see Matthew 20:10-28).

As Dostoevsky makes plain in his famous parable “The Grand Inquisitor,” set during the Spanish Inquisition, Christian leaders have for 1,900 years been undermining Jesus’ style of leadership. According to the aging Cardinal, the Grand Inquisitor, Jesus got spiritual leadership all wrong. He taught and acted as though human beings want freedom and responsibility. They do not, the Inquisitor explains. People want certainty, not freedom. People do not want to think, study, and pray for themselves. They want others to decide for them. Jesus overestimated mankind, and so the Cardinal tells Jesus: “We corrected your deed and based it on miracle, mystery, and authority” (257).

Dostoevsky’s parable is chilling because the Cardinal openly states what many people think privately: the people in the pew, the common folk, are better off if they are “managed.” If that requires a little coercion, well, it’s for a “good cause.”

And particularly disconcerting—this aggressive leadership always comes packed with its own impeccable logic. It seems so perfectly right, so efficient and effective. People who cast stones or chop off fingers (whether literally or figuratively) always do so with a kind of virginal sincerity. If a few people get hurt along the way, well, as friends of the Grand Inquisitor knew, long before Comrade Stalin, “You have to break a few eggs if you are going to make an omelet.”

But as Alyosha argues in Dostoevsky’s parable, there is another style of Christian leadership. Fortunately, we can see this other style today in the men and women who do not lord it over others, but who serve in kindness, gentleness, compassion, and humility. For years I have been nurtured by strong, caring, non-coercive spiritual guides, and I serve with a body of shepherds known for their gentle shepherding. How did these caring, redemptive leaders resist the temptation to become Junior Inquisitors like Dostoevsky’s Cardinal?

As He Is, So Are We in the World

Shepherds of the flock need not turn into Grand Inquisitors. One primary check on the abuse of spiritual power John calls “the original commandment” or “the commandment we have heard from the beginning.” It is loving as Jesus loved. It is most significant that John’s First Epistle, one of the greatest discussions of love in the New Testament, also contains one of the fullest explanations of what has come to be known as imitatio Christi, the “imitation of Christ.” John says that love is the central, defining characteristic of God and Jesus. John further asserts that it is even possible for Jesus’ followers to embody the same love that Jesus practiced.

Perhaps the central verse in the New Testament concerning spiritual leadership is 1 John 4:17: “As he is, so are we in this world.” The church’s failure to remember these words has scorched the earth, producing countless persecutions, pogroms, and inquisitions in the last 1,500 years. These nine words, if truly believed, would vastly alter the church’s behavior and thereby revolutionize how non-Christians view the church.

How could we ever have forgotten anything so simple, so important? “A disciple is not above the teacher, but everyone who is fully qualified will be like the teacher” (Luke 6:4). In these words reside the blueprints for the Christian’s unique ethical behavior. In the life of Jesus, we discover the template for our lives:

• God is love; therefore, we will love (1 John 4:11; 4:19).
• There is no fear in God; therefore, there is to be no fear in us (4:18).
• Jesus is righteous; therefore, we will do what is right (3:7).
• Jesus laid his life down for others; therefore, so we will lay down our lives for others (3:16).

Such discoveries change—radically and forevermore—how we treat our fellow creatures: “For we realize that our life in this world is actually his life [God’s life!] lived in us” (1 John 4:19, Phillips). Of course, we don’t achieve this high ground easily. Left to our own devices, spiritual leaders naturally degenerate into inquisitors. What are the checks upon the abuse of spiritual power? Consider two principles. Let us call them the principle of presence and the principle of possession.

The Principle of Presence

The principle of presence may sound odd in the ears of contemporary, rational human beings, but it was a truism in the ancient world. Simply stated: You become like whatever you gaze upon. There were quaint, mythological versions of this ancient idea. For example, many primitive people guarded their pregnant wives’ eyes, for they believed that what expectant mothers looked at could deform the fetus. In the myth of Gorgon, three sisters’ glaring eyes could turn the beholder into stone. “To gorgonize” means to stupefy or petrify a person with one’s eyes. Then there was the basilisk, the legendary reptile whose stare was fatal.

Old myths are often extended metaphors expressing spiritual or psychological truths. In this case, the ancients were seeking a way to convey the truth that what we focus our hearts on changes us. What we surround ourselves with alters us slowly but surely over time. What we watch we become.

There’s a positive side to this way of understanding. When you gaze upon something beautiful, holy, and good, you are not only uplifted morally and spiritually. You are changed. If you live in the presence of Jesus, you become like him. Since the ultimate mission of the Christian is to look like Jesus, the New Testament emphasizes the need to look at Jesus and live in his presence.

“And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another, for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit” (1 John 3:2). (See also Philippians 2:5-11; 3:10-11; 2 Corinthians 3:17-18, 4:11; 1 John 4:17; Ephesians 4:32-5:2; Romans 15:1-7, etc.)

To say it differently, you don’t become like Jesus solely by living in the presence of rules, creeds, and laws. You become like him by living in his real presence. Bad spiritual leaders simply have not spent enough time with Jesus.

The National Gallery in Washington, D. C., recently featured an exhibit of some of the greatest paintings by the seventeenth-century French master Georges de La Tour. The “authorship” of some of La Tour’s paintings, however, is in doubt. Some of the master painter’s followers are so accomplished that art historians cannot tell for sure, in some cases, which works belong to the master and which belong to the proteges of La Tour.

Similarly, the works of our Master live on in the hands of his adept painter-disciples who have observed their Master at work. As apprentices, we have watched him at his craft, and so have been purified, and have acquired his “techniques” for living in the world. Our acts of mercy and love look like his acts. Indeed, our deeds become his own, fusing into one glorious panorama of God’s work in the world (Matthew 25).

The Principle of Possession

The New Testament envisions a second way in which we become like Jesus. We are “possessed” by him. Possession has two dimensions: it can mean ownership—holding something as property. (I own my car, my books, my computer, and so forth.) In a similar sense, we are owned by God. We were bought with a price, and have become his willing slaves. As good slaves, we enact the will of our Master. His will and ours become fused.

But we are “possessed” in a deeper, more mysterious sense. We are possessed by God in the sense that we are inhabited by him. If I take possession of a house, I not only hold title to it; I also dwell in it. Christians are houses indwelt by God: “For we realize that our life in this world is actually his life lived in us!” Amazing! Christ abides in us through his Holy Spirit, and this possession completely alters the “structure”—us. We begin to speak like, sound like, act like the Spirit that lives within.

Ancient Christians knew spirits lived inside people. The only question was, which spirits. The New Testament writers teach that the Spirit has taken up residence within us for a purpose—to shape us into the holy image of Jesus and to pour love into our hearts that spills out onto the whole world. This holy charity in us is the beginning and the ending of Christian motivation: “His love has the first and last word in everything we do…The very spring of our actions is the love of Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:14, The Message, Phillips).

The Grand Inquisitors Among Us

A tragedy in the Restoration Movement has been our forgetting the great principle of imitatio Christi: “As he is, so are we in this world.” Strangely, many well-meaning Christians have marginalized Jesus, preferring doctrinal formulations and outlines of God over the vision of God himself. For many, immersion in the Gospels for purposes of personal spiritual formation is an unknown practice. The consequences to spiritual leadership have been devastating.

Reuel Lemmons used to say that we have always had “secret admirers” of the Inquisition among us. When you read Dostoevsky’s “Grand Inquisitor,” you realize this brilliant writer knew exactly what happens to church leaders when they abandon Jesus as their guide and goal. Without Jesus as their template, they not only destroy souls, they do it with an innocent enthusiasm. Pascal, centuries ago, saw the horror inflicted by zealots: “Never does one do evil so fully and so gaily as when one does it as a matter of conscience” (#895).

Forgetting that Christ’s power is made perfect in weakness, we stop trusting people, and start managing them; we dictate truth rather than search for it; we turn the church into an anthill where iron conformity rules; we stoke the fires that burn our enemies to the greater glory of God. At night we sleep, like the Grand Inquisitor, confident that we have done the right thing.

How do we escape bad spiritual leadership? Only Jesus can save us from games of power and manipulation. Only by spending lots of time in the presence of Jesus, only by being possessed by his Spirit, can we hope to avoid becoming junior Grand Inquisitors ourselves. Only Jesus can teach us spiritual leadership that is bold but gentle: “A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out” (Matthew 12:20).Wineskins Magazine

– Darryl Tippens

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1583 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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