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A Theology of Power

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jessica Tate and Linda Kurtz are curating a series written by participants in the first-ever Certificate in Community Organizing and Congregational Leadership offered by NEXT Church, Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary, and Metro Industrial Areas Foundation. You’ll hear from clergy, lay people, community leaders, and others reflect on the theology of power and how organizing has impacted the way they do ministry. How might you incorporate these principles of organizing into your own work? What is your reaction to their reflections? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter

by Cristina Paglinauan

A few weeks ago when a wicked nor’easter blew through town, “Do you have power?” was a common refrain.

Thinking about power is something I find myself doing a lot these days. Perhaps it’s because of the seemingly never-ending examples of abuses of power, rampant in the news. Perhaps because, as a parent and as clergy, knowing how to responsibly and appropriately use the power I have is paramount. Perhaps it’s simply because power, as a theological concept, is both interesting, relevant and important to noodle over and wrestle with.

The passage from scripture that first comes to my mind when reflecting on a theology of power grounded in the Christian tradition is from the second chapter of the Epistle of Paul to the Philippians:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
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.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.

This idea/concept/image, of the fullness and power of God, the Source of all things seen and unseen, emptying Godself into human form — the limitless, infinite God becoming limited, finite, human — in the service and for the sake of humankind, lies at the heart of traditional Christian theology.

Alongside this central image arise other images of power associated with God/Jesus/Holy Spirit: the power that flows through Jesus to cure the woman who had been hemorrhaging for 12 years (Luke 8:43-48); the power Jesus commands to silence the wind and the waves (Mark 4:35-41, Matthew 8:23-27, Luke 8:22-25), to restore sight to the blind (Mark 8:22-26, Luke 18:35-43, John 9:1-41), to raise people from the dead (Jairus’ daughter: Mark 5:21-43, Matthew 9:18-26; Lazarus: John 11:1-44); the power of the Holy Spirit that alights on Jesus’ followers on Pentecost (Acts 2:1-13), to inspire them to spread the Good News of Jesus’ resurrection; indeed, the very power of God to raise Jesus from the dead and to conquer death for all time.

It feels important to note that in performing healing miracles, Jesus acts in response to requests put forth to him by others, or only after having asked someone, “What is it that you would like me to do for you?” and listening to the response. In other words, Jesus uses his God-given power to heal in respect of and in accordance with the free will and free choice of a human being; Jesus’ power is relational.

Flickr photo by Dallas Epperson

Today’s most popular contemporary myths and stories centering around power, and the right use vs. the abuse of power, mirror a similar theology of power presented in scripture: power used in the service of and for the benefit of others, to heal, uplift, and empower them, in harmony with their own desires, free will, free choices, and self-identified needs, is “good”; whereas power used to control, manipulate, harm, take advantage of, abuse or oppress others, against their own free will and self-determination, is “evil.” Darth Vader and the Emperor in Star Wars mythology, and Voldemort in Harry Potter lore, are evil precisely because they view and use power as a tool to dominate and control others for their own self-aggrandizement, against individuals’ free will.

Power that empowers and uplifts others, to be able to “love one’s neighbor as oneself”, is Godly and goodly power; power that is accumulated for the purpose of being shared, given away and multiplied, for the healing of individuals and communities, likewise, is Godly and goodly power. Power that is accumulated, hoarded, and centralized in the service of a select individual or an elite group, at the expense of and against the free will of others, is not of God.

Lately, I have enjoyed learning and thinking about power through a new lens: the lens of community organizing. Thanks to a week-long training last fall co-sponsored by Metro IAF, NEXT Church, and Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary, and the work I’ve been engaged with through BUILD, the Metro IAF affiliate in Baltimore, I have come to understand an additional perspective of power. Power “in the world as it is” (as opposed to the world “as it should be”) = “organized people” and “organized money.” Further, the accumulation of power around people’s shared values and common self-interests — “self-interest” having to do with the true “essence” of each human being — and where these interests align, can lead to effective action, moving the “world as it is” bit by bit towards the realization of “the world as it should be.” In my view, this new understanding of power complements and helps to “ground” and “bring down to earth” the theology of power that I understand through the lens of Christian scripture. It provides a practical “how to” approach, to help realize more pockets and places of “heaven on earth” for all of God’s people.


Cristina Paglinauan serves as Associate Rector for Community Engagement at The Episcopal Church of the Redeemer in Baltimore, MD. She enjoys spending time with her husband David Warner, their two children Grace and Ben, and their feline child, Olmsted the cat.

Ecclesiology Informed by Organizing

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jessica Tate and Linda Kurtz are curating a series written by participants in the first-ever Certificate in Community Organizing and Congregational Leadership offered by NEXT Church, Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary, and Metro Industrial Areas Foundation. You’ll hear from clergy, lay people, community leaders, and others reflect on the theology of power and how organizing has impacted the way they do ministry. How might you incorporate these principles of organizing into your own work? What is your reaction to their reflections? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter

by Ian Burch

I remember a chaplain supervisor years ago saying to our intern group, “I am a powerful person; it took me a long time to claim that.” He reflected that some people have charisma or passion that allows them to influence others. Power, in that sense, is related to charm and hopefully tempered by integrity. Our supervisor’s confidence and self-possession were a kind of power. His place higher than us in the organization gave him another kind of power. As baby chaplains, we were encouraged to think about the places where we have personal power — our gifts in ministry and our connections with others — and places where we have professional power — the collar, the title, the place in the institution.

That early introduction to personal and professional power has served me well in my ministry. I know that my ability to connect with others, my integrity, and my charm let me act persuasively in groups. I also know that my role in the church — as a priest, a senior pastor, a boss, a mentor — give me a place of power in the institution. From this position, I can influence policy, hire and fire, and release funds for projects I care about.

When we use the word power in community organizing circles, we’re talking about something different than the personal and professional power dialectic I was taught as a chaplain intern. The community organizer’s power can’t rest on charisma, and it certainly can’t rest on institutional position. To parrot back a common organizing mantra: power is organized money and organized people. Put another way, one person — no matter how gifted and no matter how well placed in an institution — simply cannot amass enough power for real change without first organizing money and people.

You might say that we’re not really talking about theology as classically understood — creation, sin, redemption, eschaton — rather, a discussion of an organizer’s power is really a kind of ecclesiology. What is the nature of the church? How is the Body of Christ organizing itself to be the hands of God in the world? In my Episcopal tradition, ecclesiology concerns itself with the proper roles and powers of bishops, priests, deacons, and the laity. It creates dioceses and provinces and calls councils to discuss pretty boring stuff. This is the inheritance of the church after Nicaea, with its mimicry of Roman hierarchies and state structures.

What if we looked at the pre-Nicene church for our inspiration to create an ecclesiology informed by organized people and money? I’m thinking about the book of Acts where Lydia is so moved by the preaching she hears that she brings her entire household — and her not insignificant checkbook — down to the river to be baptized (Acts 16). I’m thinking about the letter of Paul to the people of Philippi when he thanks them for their gift of money while at the same time sending them new co-workers for the building up of their church (Philippians 4). It seems that our pre-Nicene ancestors knew quite a lot about organizing money and organizing people to create change in the Mediterranean. Our ancestors created an archipelago of churches all over the world by connecting people and connecting money. That is a powerful witness that can inspire us today.

Church planters, by the way, know all this stuff. They meet, one-on-one, with people in the community to hear about their stories and share their own. Before you know it, four people are meeting in a living room and reading scripture. Those four meet four more. Now they are eight. Their concern is the connection between people. Those eight people each give ten bucks. Now you have some power to make some kind of change in the world. Eight Christians and $80 can do a lot, and not one of them has a fancy title. Organized people, and organized money — just like our sisters and brothers in the New Testament.

My modest proposal is this: our generation of theologians ought to look to the inspiration of the pre-Nicene church and their successes in organizing people and money as a blueprint for a new ecclesiology — one less concerned with rank and tradition and more concerned with being the Body of Christ as healing for a hurting world.


Ian Burch is an Episcopal priest and serves a medium-sized parish in Milwaukee. He is deeply interested in supporting and sustaining the growth of congregations and believes that community organizing principles have a lot to say about how to foster growth and vitality. The Presbyterians were very kind to let him crash the week-long community organizing training in Baltimore last Fall.

Power in Relationships

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jessica Tate and Linda Kurtz are curating a series written by participants in the first-ever Certificate in Community Organizing and Congregational Leadership offered by NEXT Church, Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary, and Metro Industrial Areas Foundation. You’ll hear from clergy, lay people, community leaders, and others reflect on the theology of power and how organizing has impacted the way they do ministry. How might you incorporate these principles of organizing into your own work? What is your reaction to their reflections? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter

by Jon Nelson

Reflecting on power in the context of my tradition, I immediately think of Paul’s correspondence with the Corinthian church. Paul inverts assumptions about power. He writes, “Christ [is] the power of God.” And yet, Christ was crucified. Paul concludes: “God’s weakness is stronger than [so called] human strength” and “God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong” (1 Cor. 1:18-31). This is Paul’s proclamation and he manifests it in his preaching, saying that God’s power is being revealed in even his weakness, fear, trembling, and faltering words (1 Cor. 2:1-5). Later, Paul writes that the whole ministry of the apostles is apparently weak. Apostles of Christ are of ill repute, hungry and thirsty, poorly clothed, beaten up and homeless, weary, reviled, persecuted, slandered — the rubbish of the world (1 Cor. 4:9-13). Paul is telling the Corinthians that what counts for power in the world is not the power of God. Any discussion of power, if it takes seriously Pauline discourse, must reckon with this inverse.

Since the summer of 2017, I have been involved in the organization of an Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) affiliate in Anne Arundel County, Maryland. Additionally, I have been involved in the Certificate in Community Organizing and Congregational Leadership training put on by NEXT Church, Metro IAF, and Johnson C. Smith Seminary. Through my involvement in these, I have encountered a use of power that at first seems counter to the Pauline presentation. I have been impressed by many stories of people of faith exerting power. As clergy myself, I have been encouraged by the manifestation of power among my colleagues. The stories that stick out are those where a pastor stands up and makes public demands of persons in political power. I have been inspired by people of faith who have stood up to powerful organizations and secured jobs. And I have been amazed by the way faithful people have organized large sums of money in responsible ways.

In an age where pastoral authority seems to be shrinking, I must confess delight in the assertion of will, clear demands and concrete actions by clergy. Community organizing enables people of faith to use power most commonly associated with wealthy institutions and federal government. And still, in the back of my mind, Paul’s depiction of inverse power has me wondering if stepping up to corporate and political power in this way is the way in which Christians ought to exert themselves.

However, those who have been in IAF organizations for long periods of time always insist on relational meetings as the basis for every powerful action. This is where I think there is an inverse. Our society places high value on positions of power that are gained by solitary means and are manifested by individuals. I am thinking of business executives and politicians who pride themselves on their own achievements. I am also thinking of the many corporations who are gaining strength by creating isolating job positions. Power, in the North American context at least, is solitary and personally secured.

IAF teaches the inverse. Power is achieved through relationships. Even the achievements wherein million-dollar deals are secured by organizers stand only on the ground of interpersonal relationship — the long slog of getting to know stories and passions, the tender moments where vulnerability leads to collective action. I suppose I am less and less impressed with the deals and public displays of personal and monetary assertion. I am more and more impressed by the many, many relationships that make for change. Here, people of faith are turning upside down and inside out power as it is often esteemed.

This seems evident in Paul’s discussion of the apostles. The “rubbish of the world” find strength in relationship. Think of the beaten apostle — the victim of abuse — who meets with the reviled apostle — the victim of systemic abuse. They find a mutual anger in meeting together. They have a mutual interest in disrupting patterns of abuse. United by faith in a crucified Christ, they find that the One who strengthens them is the One who was victimized by personal and systemic abuse. Their power comes from within and without. Power, in this Christian context, is realized as they meet the Crucified Christ in one another and commit to use their resurrection strength and will. The powers that be cannot stand against power that is built from the ground — even the grave — up.


Jon Nelson is the associate pastor at Ark and Dove Presbyterian Church in Odenton, MD. He enjoys a rigorous running routine, a good book, his talented wife and hugs from his one-year-old son.

Hope on a Whole New Level

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Kate Morrison is curating a series featuring reflections on Advent and Christmas from our 2018 National Gathering workshop and post-Gathering seminar leaders. Over the course of the month, we’ll hear what this season means to them through stories, memories, and favorite traditions – and how they see the themes of Advent connecting with the work of NEXT Church. We invite you to share your own memories and stories on Facebook and Twitter!

Editor’s note: Folks from the Presbyterian Foundation are leading a post-Gathering seminar (a 24-hour opportunity to dig deeper into a topic, new this year!) called “Forming Generous Disciples.” It will take place from Wednesday afternoon through Thursday morning following the 2018 National Gathering. Learn more and register

by Rob Bullock

Hope has been hard to find lately. There’s precious little of it in the morning paper. Not much to be found during the drive-time broadcasts on NPR either. My friends on Facebook don’t seem very hopeful, judging by the posts that show up in my Facebook feed. There’s plenty of despair – about politics, world affairs, injustice, poverty, division, violence, and all of the other entries on our endless list of social ills. The stories of hope are much harder to find.

Sadly, the situation is not much better in the denomination. There’s anxiety aplenty – declining membership, departing congregations, shrinking revenues. Budgets are stressed. Pastors are stressed. A third of our churches don’t even have pastors to be stressed. Even the prayer times at my church on Sunday morning contain far more petitions and pleas for help than reports of hopeful praise.

advent, ornament, starAnd in the midst of all this stress and anxiety and despair, we come hurtling headlong into Advent. Oh yeah. Advent. That season of … HOPE. And PEACE. And JOY. All the bright and shiny feelings, warming our hearts and souls like the bright and shiny ornaments adorning our homes.

Everything changes in Advent: colors everywhere change from oranges and browns to reds and greens. The Halloween decorations are (finally) replaced with Christmas trees. The music on the radio changes. The cups at Starbucks change. The hymns we sing in church come from a different section of the hymnal.

And perhaps with all of these outward changes, we may start to sense some glimmers of hope. Hope that the presents we buy go over well. Hope that the presents we get are things we actually want or need. Hope that the charitable contributions we make will have real impact in people’s lives. Hope that the 40% of annual giving we know comes in every December will indeed come in again this December.

But is any of this really the right kind of hope? is this what Paul meant when he wrote in the fifth chapter of his letter to the Romans that,

Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

I think that’s hope on a whole new level. Real hope. Enduring, sustainable hope. And, perhaps, hard-earned hope. It helps me to think backwards through Paul’s logical progression. Hope comes from character, which comes from endurance, which comes from sufferings.

So maybe God has a plan for us in our current anxieties. Maybe these are sufferings that can lead us to that hope in God and in God’s Word which Ruth and Esther and Job and David and Solomon and Jeremiah and Luke and Paul and all the other Biblical characters keep talking about.

I don’t know about you, but that’s the kind of hope I’d like to have. That’s hope that will overcome anything on Facebook, or NPR, or in the morning paper, or the afternoon Presbyterian News Service email. That’s hope to get us through tight budget cycles and too many empty seats in the pews. (That’s the kind of hope my Presbyterian Foundation colleagues will be talking about in Baltimore at the NEXT Church National Gathering, sharing stories of real churches that are finding hopeful ways to overcome financial challenges.)

The “next” church should be a hopeful church. And Advent is a perfect time to start living that hope-filled life. We may be surrounded by sufferings, but we must not despair. As the psalmist wrote in Psalm 43:5, “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God.”


Rob Bullock is Vice President for Communications and Marketing at the Presbyterian Foundation. He is a ruling elder and hopeful member of the St. John Presbyterian Church in New Albany, Indiana.