The nature of power in Pastoral Ministry
A New Testament Understanding
As the New Testament forms the basis of the understanding and beliefs from which today’s church operates, or at least claims to operate, it provides us with a basis for examining the structures of power and of authority within which the present day Christian community works. The New Testament has much to offer in the way of encouragement and criticism to the structures of the church today, as Cyril H Powell (1963: 71) says
“No one has faced the full implications of the New Testament who has not realised that it is a series of documents witnessing to the inbreaking of power.”
In this chapter we begin with a detailed look at the concepts of ‘power’ and ‘authority’ in the life and work of Jesus, and in the records of what is commonly called the ‘Apostolic era of the church’, found in the New Testament, and the relevance of these ideas to Pastoral ministry in the Christian church today.
The first term that we will consider is that of dunamis, Grundmann (1964: 284) offers this, incomplete though useful, consideration of its meaning, “Words deriving from the stem duna- all have the basic meaning of ‘being able,’ of ‘capacity’ in virtue of an ability…” This definition, when considered alongside the meaning Harris gives to ‘power’, quoted at the beginning of this study, offers us a start in considering how those who wrote about Jesus considered his attitude to power.
As is nearly always the case with the church of the apostolic era, that is the years following the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, all major teachings are rooted and grounded in Christ, and any teachings are given their authority from the Incarnation and life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus. There are certain difficulties in approaching Biblical material of this time as we consider how much is authentically ‘Jesus’ and how much is the result of a generation of believers placing their own concerns on Jesus lips with half-remembered or heavily interpreted phrases. Whatever the case, the material itself has value both as an attempt to interpret the life of Jesus and as the record of Christian communities struggling with many of the issues we are considering here.
For the first generation of Christians, who received their witness from the Apostles and from others who actually knew Jesus, he was the example of one who had within himself the power of God, and through whom the power of God is exercised. Jesus ministry is guided, inspired and energised by the life of the Holy Spirit and his power is always exercised within the will of God the Father and in fellowship with God.
This power is what makes possible the life and work of Jesus. It is imparted as part of his relationship with God, and in relation to his obedience and working out the will of God. It is a power that depends on his aligning himself and fellowship with God the Father. It is a personal power and contains the ability to change the lives of those he encounters. It is not a magical power, it is the revelation of the will and purpose of God.
So for the author/editors of the New Testament, the basis for the ministry of Jesus, the reason for his successes in healing, miraculous works and exorcism are all rooted within his relationship to God. His power is part of, and the result of, his working within the will of God, a God of healing and love, of righteousness and might. This power was inherent in Jesus as a minister of God, as a person of ‘charismatic’ authority, as a mediator of God’s teaching and wisdom, and therefore as the one who manifested the will and purpose of God through the action of the Holy Spirit.
Beyond Jesus’ ability to make real the power and activity of God, comes an equally important understanding of the authority that allowed him to speak the way he did of God and to do the work he was engaged in. Robinson (1962: 26) says “Since authority is useless without the power to make it effective, the distinction between authority and power is often ignored…” The two terms have become entwined, particularly in the structure of the church where they are intimately bound together, but Jesus had an authority that was perceived by others and when he acted with a power that changed lives that authority was strengthened.
‘exousia’ - authority
Jesus ministry is marked throughout the Gospels by the recurring theme of authority, often in the guise of the wonderment of those who saw : “’What kind of utterance is this? For with authority and power he commands the unclean spirits; and out they come’” (Cf. Mt. 7:28-29, 21:23, Mk 1:22, 27, 11:28, Lk 4:36, 20:2, 8, Jn 5:27) It related not only to Jesus’ actions but also to his words “… he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.’ Mk 1:22 It is this authority that is the hallmark of Jesus distinctive ministry and a break with much of the rabbinical tradition that weighed up the arguments and interpretations that had built up around a passage and then offered an alternative or an addendum rather than a radical break.
Though Jesus was educated and grounded within a Rabbinical understanding and framework, his style was not that of a traditional Rabbi, he presented his teaching in a different way, with much of the past with statements framed in terms such as ‘you have heard it said…..but I say…’ It is this authority that astounds so many and challenges those both within and without the Faith of the Jews. It is this authority that is at the basis of Jesus pastoral encounters with those he meets during his itinerant ministry.
Charismatic and Institutional Authority & Power
According to the Gospel accounts Jesus’ authority and his power came from the security he gained from his relationship with God, and his certainty that all he did was within the will of God the Father. The authority with which he taught was the basis for his ministry, Shogren (1992: 52) examines at length the many different aspects of Jesus authority and his power in his teaching and his work, and includes the observation that:
“On several occasions, Jesus states that the Son of Man possesses unusual authority. At the Parousia the Son of man will appear in power and glory (Mk 13:26 par.) But in the present the Son of man can, for example forgive sins.”
Shogren tells us, “…Jesus is demonstrating his personal authority to interpret God’s law” (Italics mine). This interpretation is only possible because Jesus has a relationship with God and because those he encounters are open to the transformative power that comes through that relationship. On many occasions Jesus explicitly cites the faith of those he encounters as the agent of change in the experience, for example in Mk 5:27-32, Mk 9:24 , Lk 7:2-10, 50. In other parts of the Gospel Jesus talks about the need for faith and prayer throughout his ministry he talks of the need to obey God in order to receive the power and authority needed to be ministers of the Gospel.
Jesus power was a charismatic power, it was based in himself, his relationship with the divine and the way he lived and acted. There was no institutional backing for his power, he took no authority from position or status, he held no title or office and his function was not clearly defined. He was a leader, a pastor, a teacher, but none of this was recognised by the institutions of his day. His pastoral relationships were based on his own authority, and seemed to need no recognition by the religious or social structures of his society.
Subverting misuse of power
Jesus did not hold on to power in such a way that he could be accused of controlling or manipulating others. He offered a critique of power by his words and his actions and left the church with an example of using power that did not take advantage of those in need or abuse those who sought help or guidance.
Jesus used the word servant about himself on many occasions and was, from very early in the church’s life, identified with the figure known as the ‘suffering servant’ in the writings of Deutero-Isaiah the . The Gospel of St Luke, 22.25-27, recounts these words of Jesus:
“But he said to them, ‘The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves.’”
Jesus himself lives out his radical critique of power in the way he speaks out against abusive religious structures or practices, in the way he touches those alienated and oppressed by society, and, ultimately, in the moving act of washing the feet of his disciples on the night before he died.
Actions such as the symbolic washing of feet at ‘the Last Supper’, particularly when held alongside Jesus’ teachings contradict expected notions of power which seek to place leaders over followers and masters above servants. Jesus life and teaching are all the more striking from the mouth of one who held such personal authority, and such obvious power to change people’s lives. Based, as many of his teachings were, in notions of radical subversion of unjust or abusive systems, Jesus is keen to prevent ‘power’ being used to enslave rather than to free. Early on in St Luke’s Gospel Jesus is said to have spelled out his agenda by quoting the prophet Isaiah. In the synagogue he is quoted as reading:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.
He has send me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.” Lk. 4:18-19
Jesus’ ministry was one characterised by a charismatic style of leadership, brought about by his own conviction of the authority, and the corollary of power, given to him by his calling. He acted decisively, often disturbing the preconceptions of those he ministered to and those who sought to criticise his work. But, alongside this confidence and the effectiveness of his pastoral care, the Gospel records tell us that Jesus was also aware of the fact that all of his ministry took place within limits, the limits of the faith of those who sought his help, and of this own human frailties. As part of this his life was lived in response to his understanding of God’s care and provision for human beings and was punctuated by prayer and reflection which allowed him to assess and direct his actions.
This model was passed on to the first followers of Jesus, who became the Apostles, leaders of the first generation of the Church. Following the earthly life of Jesus we see further developments in the way that power and authority come to be a part of the ongoing life of the Church.
The power and the authority that Jesus demonstrates throughout his ministry is conferred to the disciples both throughout his life and after his resurrection. Shogren (1992: 52) says
“…even while he (Jesus) is on earth he enables his disciples to duplicate his deeds: to preach and to do powerful acts in his name, such as exorcism, healing and raising the dead.”
Jesus also delegates to the Apostles the authority to forgive sins, as they are told they may ‘bind and loose’ (Jn. 20:22-23), and Jesus says that they will surpass him in the works that they will perform. They are to carry on the work of proclaiming and of living the Gospel, the good news, which means they will share in the work that Jesus declared was his, of freeing people from injustice, the misuse of power and of abuse.
The ‘charismatic’ authority given to Jesus by his relationship to God is, it seems, to be carried on by those who follow him, who also must continue in relationship with God, who will be guided and inspired by God and from whom all power that they might exercise will come. Those who carry on the work of Christ, who follow the example of his ministry and who perform similar healings, exorcisms and ‘signs of the Kingdom of God’ exercise their evangelistic and pastoral ministry within the framework of the power and authority that Jesus advocated. Not only this but they gain their identity and their raison d’être from this relationship with the Christ who they believe to be alive and active in their own lives and the lives of those they encounter.
Probably the greatest exponent of these apologetics is St. Paul, who through an encounter with the ‘risen Christ’ turns from persecuting the church to being an apostle alongside those who lived with Christ through his ministry, death and resurrection. St Paul himself has the experience of a life changed through the intervention of Christ and he adds to the debate on the nature of power in pastoral relationships as he teaches what he believes the church should be as Christians follow the example of Christ.
‘kenosis’ - emptying
One of the most startling terms that Paul uses with reference to Christ is the verse from the letter to the Philippians in Chapter 2 verses 6 and 7, he states,
“who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.”
The key Greek term in this passage is ‘ekenwsen’ - from the root verb ‘kenow’ - ‘to make empty’. This is an important factor in St Paul’s understanding of power and authority in the Christian church.
For St Paul, one of the foundational theological understandings he held and taught was the divinity of Christ alongside the humanity of Christ. This contains the understanding that alongside the loss of ‘divine status’ in the incarnation Jesus allowed himself to lose the inherent superiority, power and control that is part of the divine nature. In this Jesus is an exemplar for those who seek to continue his ministry and continue the work of proclaiming the ‘reign of God’ in the lives of human beings, and its concomitants of bringing healing, love, liberation, peace and ‘life in abundance’ ( a paraphrase of Jn. 10:10) to those who respond to the ‘evangel’ - the good news.
This first generation of the Church took their grounding in the charismatic style of Jesus. They led from personal authority rather than from institutional backing. In one of the New Testament Epistles St. Paul even disparages those who rely on ‘letters of commendation’ to give them authority claiming that his authority came from Christ alone.
In this St Paul continues the charismatic style of leadership. Having no ‘institutional’ power or authority vested in him, he is keen to explain his credentials in terms of his encounter with Christ and his faithfulness as an Apostle. Many of his letters contain long passages concerned with spelling out his right to be called an Apostle and to exercise leadership in that manner. For St Paul the concept of being an ‘Apostle’ would seem to be a mainly functional concern, being an Apostle is something he does, it represents the task assigned to him by Christ. At this point there is no concern between clarifying the relationship between office, title and function: a concern that would arise in the next generation of the church.
This tension, between ‘charismatic’ and ‘institutional’ power is one that carries on through the first generation of Christians up to the church of the present day. In simplistic terms ‘charismatic’ aspects of power are personally based and gain their authority from the character of the individual minister. On the other hand, ‘institutional’ aspects are based in the structures within which the church, caring agency or community operates and mean that the minister is accountable beyond his or her self, as well as holding a certain depth of power offered by the minister’s place in a larger organisation.
The Post-Apostolic Era
As the church becomes established and grows, we see in the New Testament accounts the development of a framework within which leadership take place. In the time following the apostolic era, as those who had personally known Jesus died out, the authority given to leaders by virtue having been part of Jesus life on earth began to die with them. The Post-Apostolic Church of the second century would have been made up of many diverse groups who up to that point were in contact with an apostle, or one of those who was close to the first followers of Jesus.
With the death of the ‘Apostolic generation’ comes a need to bind the ekklesia, the ekklesia, together: moving from the ‘charismatic’ model of those inspired by their contact with Jesus to a more structural, ‘institutional’, model of leadership which would bind together the many groups of Christians spread throughout the Near and Middle East. It is in the light of this that the idea of ‘overseer’, the ‘episkopoV’, takes on more meaning. Those who were recognised as gifted leaders of small groups of Christians were probably given a structural role in the Church as they sought to bring together various separate groups of Christians under a more consolidated leadership.
As leaders take authority within the burgeoning church fellowships there comes a need to rationalise and explain their roles and create an apologetic for their function, authority and administration of power. It is widely accepted that initially the early church had two models of ministry , diakonoV (diaconos, deacon) & episkopoi (episcopoi, bishops), the former of these terms means ‘servant’ and the latter ‘overseer’. The individuals who filled these offices were considered to be the ‘ecclesiastical descendants’ of the apostles who were the original followers of Christ.
In the New Testament, however, we have no clearly defined roles for these individuals beyond their titles. It seems obvious that the bishop existed to bring together groups of disparate believers who lacked a common leader. Likewise within the small units of Christian fellowships there was a need to have certain individuals who ‘serviced’ the community, taking care of daily considerations and the care of the everyday running of the fellowship - these became ‘deacons’,
It is as this development occurs that we discover a tension between title, office and function. At what point did being a bishop become a recognised office over and above the general function of ‘keeping people together’, and therefore have an implicit role of being ‘in authority’ over Christian believers. Likewise, when did bishops become ‘title-holders’ in recognition of that ‘implicit authority’. These questions may be unanswerable, but asking them means we recognise that the structures of the church changed drastically in the time of the Post-Apostolic era.. Broadly speaking the church goes from being small groups loosely bound by allegiance to charismatic leaders to a structure that endeavours to hold itself together by transmitting authority through office and title, so the functions of leadership and the function of the church can continue.