Reformation insights on power

reformation-imageIn reading around the subject of the Reformation, I came across a summary of the issues that I would like to share with my readers. It has a simplicity about it which helps to make it useful to our thinking about the Reformation, as well to our interest concerning power and its abuse.

The classic principles of the Protestant Reformation (Anglicans like me have a somewhat ambivalent relationship with them) are threefold. First there is the principle of ‘justification by faith alone’. This is in particular read out of the Epistle to the Romans. In the second place there is the teaching that Christ on the on the cross died a substitutionary death in an act of atonement for the sins of mankind. Thirdly there is the doctrine of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. These principles of theology were read out of Scripture and proclaimed by all of the Reformers with different emphases throughout the 16th century and later. Even though my reducing so much theological writing into a small compass will probably meet with scepticism, I ask that the reader bears with me sufficiently as I observe that each of these principles has to do with power, particularly reclaiming power from the religious monolith that was the mediaeval Catholic church.

It is a commonplace to note that the Reformation was a movement of protest. This word ‘protest’ has a double meaning in modern usage. It contains the idea of objecting to and targeting an idea or principle, but also simply making an opinion known. The early Protestants were in fact doing both these things. They were attacking the power of Catholic authority and at the same time they were articulating (protesting) a new way of being Christian. This new vision of how to be a Christian stood on its own but it had, at the same time, the effect of attacking the monopoly of the powerful institutions of the Catholic church. How were the three planks of Reformation teaching undermining the power of the mediaeval church?

The first principle that I mentioned as a key to understanding the Reformation ‘protest’, was the rediscovery that faith, as understood by Paul, was a matter for the individual and his relationship with God. This possibility of a relationship of faith with God, without the mediation of sacraments and the entire paraphernalia of clerical structures, was deeply subversive to the old order. A second principle to challenge what had gone before was the new understanding of how Christ’s death had been an atoning sacrifice. This sacrifice did not need repetition and Protestants, by making their claim that Christ’s death was a once-for-all event, were effectively undermining the Catholic claims for its theology of the Mass. Why was it necessary to re-enact the death of Christ over and over again in the Mass, when the original event was decisive? If the Lord’s Supper was to be remembered, it was a mere remembrance of an event in the past. It did not involve some magical process as suggested by the teaching on transubstantiation. The third point was the inner relationship with the Holy Spirit as taught by Scripture. This did not need anything beyond the believer and his life of personal inner growth to make it happen.

In this way Luther and the other Reformers of the 16th century challenged the institutional power of the Roman church with their ‘plain’ reading of Scripture. Whether they were in fact handling Scripture correctly through these attacks is arguable, but I have to leave that point to one side for the moment. What is important to realise is that, at an important level, the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation after it were struggles for power. Theological ideas read out of Scripture had massive implications not just for the Christian faith but also for the world of politics, society and the whole course of history. John Calvin took political authority in Geneva in the name of the principles set out in his Christian Institutes. In every society in Western Europe since that day, power, political and sometimes military power, has often been exercised in the name of Christian truth. Arguably when Christian truth believes that it has the right to dictate to others, believers or not, how to live and behave, it then has the potential to become an abusive system. This is true whether it takes place at a national level or at the level of an individual congregation, or even at a family level. We can always imagine the authority figure being able to say: ‘God has given me the power to tell you how to live your life’.

The argument of this blog piece is simply to point out the way that power and thus power-games have infiltrated into Christian institutions at every level, sometimes to their enormous detriment. Obviously institutions have to have rules and order, but these rules and the order they promote, have often become instruments of control. Protestant and Catholic institutions have both failed in this area in many places. We need to remind ourselves, once more, that the Christian way, as proposed by Jesus, was a way that completely turned upside down the rules of power. Jesus stated quite clearly that while the kings and governors made people feel the weight of their authority, ‘it shall not be so among you’. The crucifixion, which is very much in our minds and imaginations at this time, was a powerful living out of a protest against conventional power and the way it is used. The way of God was to be the path of powerlessness and humility. Somehow we keep losing the plot over this call to learn the meaning of humility and love. Christian institutions should not be places where people are bullied sometimes and humiliated. I find it hard to understand why there is not within the churches a massive amount of knowledge and experience with which to put into practice the way of powerlessness as taught and practised by Jesus. We have had 2000 years to get it right. There are of course some places which seem to understand gentleness, true altruism and the way of service, but they are not as common as one would like them to be. Above all the Church should be far better at spotting very quickly when things are going wrong in terms of the failure to use power appropriately. Sadly the Church is better at leaving things to fester. Sometimes dysfunctional structures continue for decades before they are challenged, having left pain and abuse in their wake.

About Stephen Parsons

Stephen is a retired Anglican priest living at present in Northumberland. He has taken a special interest in the issues around health and healing in the Church but also when the Church is a place of harm and abuse. He has published books on both these issues and is at present particularly interested in understanding the psychological aspects of leadership and follower-ship in the Church. He is always interested in making contact with others who are concerned with these issues.

10 thoughts on “Reformation insights on power

  1. I do see the point Stephen is making here. Though I do think that one of the real keys to the reformation is the translation of the bible into the language of the people. This for me is the liberating factor – that and maybe the idea of the priesthood of all believers. These seem to form a watershed, one that is of great significance to those abusing spiritual authority. As the mediaeval church no doubt was.

    It deeply saddens me that these two key reformation truths are forgotten and still open the door to abuses of spiritual authority today.

    All men and women are in a sense priests of the new covenant. Nobody has to intercede. All have (to some extent at least) access to the writings at the core of the faith.

    Denying these principles opens the door to abusive power.

  2. Stephen really has a grip on the mind of Christ and the understanding of ‘powerlessness.’
    What God in Christ was living out here is a terrifying truth that cannot be watered down. What a dirty rotten shame that most Christian history has been involved with a mass evasion of that truth.
    There are times recently when I think I’m seeing Jesus for the first time?

  3. I found this an interesting read. I do have a question, though. I don’t think I really understand what you mean by the way of Christ being one of powerlessness. Humility, gentleness, these things I understand and see reflected in the life of Jesus, but I don’t see powerlessness reflected in any way at all. Am I just misunderstanding what you mean when you use this word? Can you give me an example or two???

  4. I think what I am talking about is the way that Jesus fulfilled the expectations of Isaiah about the sheep that is dumb. Whether Isaiah’s helped to shape the Passion narrative or not, it is clear that powerlessness of Jesus is a notable feature of the passion narrative . We have all the other Isaiah’s references to the Suffering Servant which are reflected in the portrait of Jesus during the Passion. Then there are other passages which show Jesus as someone who did not impose his will on people, even when it might have been done for their good. The tone of his ministry was one of invitation to the kingdom,never command. These are in contrast to the bullying rhetoric of some modern preaching. He spoke with authority but not with coercive power. The passion seems to be a continuation of this theme .

  5. Posey, Even St Paul who is held up in protestant theology as the liberator of the church, ‘Justification by faith’ etc, said; God has chosen the base things of this world, the things that are counted as nothing’ ?
    If God exists, God most certainly uses powerlessness. Peace, Chris

  6. I guess maybe it’s just a different way of using the word powerlessness. From where I am standing, there is a difference between powerlessness, as in lacking power, and in having power and yet choosing not to use it. As an LPC, one thing I teach my clients is that when you make the choice to step down, to become low, or to serve, you in fact, retain your power because you are making the choice to do something instead of having someone else’s will imposed upon you. Christ said (I think it was to Pilot?) no one takes my life from me but I lay it down. That sounds pretty powerful to me. Humility, yes, gentleness, yes, love, compassion, acceptance, I see all these things in Christ, but I still don’t see powerlessness. Yes, the scripture speak of him being as a sheep being dumb, but it doesn’t say as a sheep he was powerless. I guess I’m just not seeing it the same way. In no way do I wish to offend to claim to be always right! If I am misunderstanding something, or just plain missing something, I am open to hearing it….

  7. It is worth reading the passage from Philippians 2.5-11 in this discussion about powerlessness. The import of the passage is, as you say Posey, that Jesus chose to surrender his power ‘he made himself nothing, assuming the nature of a slave’. Also ‘he humbled himself, and in obedience accepted even death’. This voluntary humiliation is, as you say, different from never having had the power to start with. But it is still to my mind a genuine experience of ‘powerlessness’ which is very similar to that experienced by those at the bottom of the heap. I make this point again when I talk about Jesus being close to the oppressed in my Easter blog post. I think we can live with different understandings of this word ‘powerlessness’. My definition for the moment is the voluntary surrender of power as described in this passage from Philippians. I may need longer to think about it.

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