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Re-post: A Theology of Power

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Rev. Shavon Starling-Louis, NEXT Church interim communications specialist, will be sharing particularly timely past NEXT Church blog posts. These posts point to hope and wisdom for these days that you might have completely forgotten about but are faithful reflections. We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter.

This article was originally posted on April 23, 2018. The author’s ministry context may have changed since then.

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.

God, the Architect of Power

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jessica Tate is curating a series written by participants in the second Community Organizing and Congregational Leadership cohort offered by NEXT Church, Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary, and Metro Industrial Areas Foundation. You’ll hear from various church and community leaders as they explore the key organizing concept of power. How can these reflections on power shape your own work and ministry? What is your reaction to their reflections? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Lawrence Rush

When thinking about power, the first question you must ask is “what is power”? The dictionary defines power as: the ability to do something or act in a particular way, especially as a faculty or quality. Simply put; power is the ability to get things done. When viewed through that lens, power is neither positive nor negative, neither good nor evil. These values are added in the way that power is used. For example; Dr. Martin Luther King and Adolf Hitler are two of the most influential and powerful speakers of all time. They wielded their power to completely different ends. Again, power is neutral.

So how does power impact me? What is my theology of power? First of all, as a Christian, I believe that power, all power, comes from God. Not only is God love, God is power. I think that understanding this truth helps us understand why power can be positive or negative. Those who know that power comes from God tend to use their power in ways that they believe would be pleasing to God. Conversely, those who seek power for their own ends tend to wield their power in a negative, harmful way. Another aspect is power’s seductive nature. Since the fall of humanity we humans have been fascinated with power. Adam and Eve were forbidden from eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. When the serpent tempted Eve, he said it would make them like God. I think that was a major selling point for her and has been a continued selling point throughout the history of humankind. Power is seductive because it has the ability to give us more control and (seemingly) God likeness.

The saying is that absolute power corrupts absolutely. If you remove the concept of absolute from it (like a math equation) you learn that power corrupts. From this I conclude that the more power you gain, the more corrupt you become. I have struggled with this idea for all of my adult life. I have held numerous positions of leadership and I have always worked share and limit that power for fear of corruption. Power’s seductive nature makes it easy to forget where power comes from and that leads to all manners of abuse. This fear of the corrupting nature of power is also due to my interactions with it. Many times in my life I have had to deal with people with power who have wielded it in immoral and hurtful ways. I never wanted to be like that. So despite my cognitive understanding of power as a neutral, I saw it, experienced it, as a negative.

Another issue I had with power (this time, as it relates to the church) is the church’s activity in politics. When I was in college, my American politics professor said that “politics is the study of the acquisition and maintenance of power.” It’s how you get and keep power. The issue I encounter is the drive to acquire power. If we are servants to God who IS power, then we shouldn’t seek to acquire or maintain it because it is God’s to do with as God pleases. I have seen so much corruption and hurtful things come from politicians (many of which are signed off on by church leaders) that I don’t think the church and politics should be so closely linked.

My view on power has started to shift since the NEXT Church training in community organizing. The teachers went out of their way to illustrate the positive impact that power can have. They highlighted the differences between dominant power (which is more controlling) and relational power (which is more of a shared power). Getting back to theology, I believe that relational power is more God-centered. God calls us to be in community with one another just like the trinity is a community (3-in-1 and 1-in-3). However, even in that there is potential for power to be seductive. The accountability of community can counteract that if it is used. The accountability of shared, relational power is also the route through which the church can safely enter in and have a voice in the realm of politics. I mention Dr. Martin Luther King again in this regard. The civil rights movement was a political action that was born of and bolstered by the church. This is how it looks when it’s done right.

Power is something that has been a negative word throughout my life. Much of this is based on my personal experience with it and that tempered my theology towards it. However, now I have to re-evaluate my views. Perhaps power (having it and using it) is not something to be wary of. Power itself is neutral and acknowledging its source and using it properly will keep it from being a corruptor. The early church was all about building shared relational power, building up new leaders who would further spread the gospel and baptize. Perhaps I can acquire and wield power in positive, non-corrupted ways as long as I keep God (the architect of all power) first and foremost.


Originally from Cleveland, Ohio, Lawrence Rush received his MDiv from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary in 2009. Presently, he lives in Tampa FL with his wife of nearly four years. Lawrence is an ordained Presbyterian minister currently serving as a chaplain at Tampa General Hospital.

Stinging Like Salt

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jessica Tate is curating a series written by participants in the second Community Organizing and Congregational Leadership cohort offered by NEXT Church, Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary, and Metro Industrial Areas Foundation. You’ll hear from various church and community leaders as they explore the key organizing concept of power. How can these reflections on power shape your own work and ministry? What is your reaction to their reflections? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Dwight Christenbury

We church people — we post-Christendom church people, at least — tend to be squeamish about power: we don’t want to claim it, use it, or even, for that matter, be in close proximity to it.

Even those of us who like to think we’re not nervous around power still probably wouldn’t know what to do with it if we had it, and there’s a decent chance it’s never occurred to us to think theologically about power. That is, while we may not think of power as something “dirty,” neither do we consider it to be more than a tool of last resort. We prefer to live in the world as it should be, rather than in the world as it is.[1] As a result, we feel that the rightness of our ideas and arguments ought to be enough to carry the day — and if not, if carrying the day requires the use of brute force, then there must be something wrong with our ideas and arguments.

The theory and practice of community organizing, however, tell us that it’s high time we church people began to develop a realistic theology of power and a (non-squeamish) understanding of its place in situations that call for positive change.

Elias Chacour’s Blood Brothers is an instructive study of one person’s lifelong struggle to come to terms with power and its use. Chacour is a Palestinian Christian, a priest and archbishop in the Melkite Church, who grew up as his Galilean homeland was occupied and then transformed into the state of Israel. As a young man, he struggled to reconcile his anger and urge to resist the injustices suffered by his fellow Arabs with his father’s seemingly endless well of patience and accommodation. Chacour reflects,

Here was that old question that had troubled me so long: As a Christian do you speak out against the actions of your enemies — or do you allow them to crush the life out of you? So many seemed to think that submitting to humiliation was the only Christian alternative. Should you not, sometimes, be stinging and preserving like salt?[2]

Chacour’s use of the metaphor of salt is helpful (as well as biblical): we often think of salt as a preservative, but it also stings. Might Jesus himself have had both aspects of salt in mind when he used the metaphor in the Sermon on the Mount? Chacour goes on to think of power in other terms growing out of Jesus’s teachings:

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” Immediately I thought of Moses, who was called “the meekest man on earth.” Yet he opposed Pharaoh and all Egypt, insisting upon freedom for God’s people. Meekness, then, was not weakness but relying fully upon God’s power as Moses had.[3]

What Chacour leaves unsaid is that one does not rely on God’s power by magic or wishful thinking but by cultivating the mindset, skills, and discernment required to wield it.

Finally, Chacour helps us to reflect theologically on power by telling the simple story of a march and rally that he led at the urging of the Melkite bishop Joseph Raya, who advised him:

It’s good that we’ve rallied these [Palestinian] people. It’s a first step of hope for them. But the Jewish people need the hope of peace, too. It’s time to march in Jerusalem and give our Jewish brothers the chance to walk at our side and show the world together that we are all against violence.[4]

A reminder that the use of power often involves significant risk, Raya’s words also point to the crucial role of forming and cultivating clear-eyed relationships among as many parties, on all sides of an issue, as possible.

Many of us will likely never confront forces such as those Chacour has dealt with over a lifetime of struggle in the Middle East, but he shows us that, whatever our context, our efforts to bring about justice and peace will fail, or at least be diminished, if we’re unwilling to claim and use the power we have. Power isn’t dirty. Rather, it’s a neutral but important tool for effectively organizing positive change.

As we look at our communities and congregations and the ways in which they cry out for growth and change, let’s not be squeamish about power. Instead, let’s be willing to identify and analyze the places where power resides and to use and grow power through relationships with others who have a stake in the outcome. Not every situation comes down to the choice between “submitting to humiliation” and “stinging … like salt,” but neither should we forget that the latter is often (or perhaps always) the way to be the Jesus-followers that we claim to be.

[1]An oft-cited distinction in community organizing circles, as described in chapter 2 (p. 33–46) of Going Public: An Organizer’s Guide to Citizen Action, by Michael Gecan (New York: Random House, 2002).
[2]Elias Chacour and David Hazard, Blood Brothers (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1984, 2013), p. 133.
[3]Ibid., p. 149.
[4]Ibid., p. 190.


Dwight Christenbury graduated from Union Presbyterian Seminary in 2005 with dual M.Div./MACE degrees. He now serves as Associate Pastor of the Trinity Presbyterian Church of Hendersonville, North Carolina, where he’s been for a really long time. He lives in nearby Black Mountain with his wife, Carol Steele, and their children, Olin and Dean, and he may or may not be working on a book.

Power in Relationship, Community, Hope

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jessica Tate is curating a series written by participants in the second Community Organizing and Congregational Leadership cohort offered by NEXT Church, Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary, and Metro Industrial Areas Foundation. You’ll hear from various church and community leaders as they explore the key organizing concept of power. How can these reflections on power shape your own work and ministry? What is your reaction to their reflections? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Kathryn Johnston

My theology of power has three components:

  1. It is a power within and sustained by a community built on the foundational commandment: love one another.
  2. It is a power constantly aware of the inherent, sinful nature of humanity.
  3. It is a power thats driving force is hope based on resurrection; the assurance that justice and reconciliation will rise from brokenness.

These three components are illustrated in the telling of the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25ff).

Kathryn and IAF organizer Kathleen O’Toole demonstrate a one-on-one meeting

1. It is a power within and sustained by a community built on the foundational commandment: love one another.
A man, presumably because of his occupation as lawyer, has individual power that he decides to use to test Jesus. He asks what he must do to inherit eternal life, and Jesus turns the question back on him. The answer is: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself (NRSV).

The lawyer pushes: And who is my neighbor?

Jesus responds with what we know as the Parable of the Good Samaritan. In this parable, Jesus builds a case for a community that cares for one another simply because everyone is part of the community – regardless of ethnicity, class, or religion. Real power is shown through mercy to one another and building community together.

2. It is a power constantly aware of the inherent, sinful nature of humanity.
The priest and the Levite are good examples of sin being humanity’s default. I don’t think the two men who didn’t help were two evil men, but rather were two humans who made a bad decision. Their reasons for doing so undergird the reasons for relying on #1 – power sustained by community. Each one made a decision not to help the man based on their own individual needs (fear? prejudice? time constraints?). In contrast, the Samaritan acts with mercy, but that doesn’t mean he is without sin throughout his life.

The theology of power must include recognition of temptation and sin, and rely on the community for accountability.

3. It is a power thats driving force is hope based on resurrection; the assurance that justice and reconciliation will rise from brokenness.
At the end of the story, Jesus challenges the lawyer to act mercifully. Jesus doesn’t offer guarantees that if he does it will mean that robbers will no longer roam the road between Jerusalem and Jericho.

Jesus also leaves the power with the man who asked the question. When asked by Jesus: “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”
He said, “The one who showed him mercy.”
Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.” (Luke 10:36-37, NRSV)

Whether we choose to engage with our neighbor or not – there is power in that choice. The Good Samaritan had to make a choice to engage with his neighbor. And then according to the NRSV, he made many more choices after that one (He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ vv. 34-35), each choice building the power of relationship with the man he was helping, and potentially between their two communities.

There is power in the choices the two passers-by made as well. Both the priest and the Levite passed by on the other side (v. 31, 32). A decision not to engage is still a decision. It’s still a choice, and there is power and fall-out from that choice. The two men didn’t just pass by on the other side. They made the decision not to stop.

Feeling powerless while ‘the world as it is’ sloshes around us is a normal reaction. Power comes from and is sustained by a hope that passes all understanding, a hope based on the power of the resurrection.

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.

For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly (Romans 5:1-6).

There is power in making the choice to stop and notice our neighbor.
There is power in recognizing that we are all broken, we all need mercy.
There is power in relationship, in community, and in hope.


Kathryn Johnston is pastor of Mechanicsburg Presbyterian Church in Mechanicsburg, PA. A graduate of Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida, Kathryn earned her M.Div. at Princeton Seminary. She and her wife have four children (3 ‘adulting’ out in the world, 1 in middle school), 2 cats and a lively lab mix named Teddy.

Relational Power Over Coercive Power

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jessica Tate is curating a series written by participants in the second Community Organizing and Congregational Leadership cohort offered by NEXT Church, Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary, and Metro Industrial Areas Foundation. You’ll hear from various church and community leaders as they explore the key organizing concept of power. How can these reflections on power shape your own work and ministry? What is your reaction to their reflections? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Jim Honig

Twenty-five years ago, I was a young pastor in Naples, Florida, and got a hard lesson on power. Our congregation operated a preschool in a relatively small room in our church building and wanted to move it to a house that we owned next door to the church. The house had a wonderful open floor plan, a large backyard that would be perfect for a playground, and a circular drive out front to make drop off and pick up relatively simple. To move the preschool required a zoning variance. So, we hired an engineering firm and an attorney, and prepared to make our case. A few of the neighbors we enthusiastic supporters; most had no objections.

Most. One key neighbor was opposed to the notion, and he had friends on the city council. When we made our case before the city council, one of his friends actually got up and left the room during our testimony and came back just in time to vote no. And so did his other friends. I naively assumed that since we had good intentions, we were good neighbors, and the city needed more preschool spaces, we would get the zoning variance. I had my head in the world as it should be and neglected to pay attention to the world as it is.

Participants in the 2018 organizing cohort learn from a panel of clergy.

It’s not enough to have good intentions if we want to accomplish good things. In order to act, one has to have power. Broad based organizing is about organizing people and organizing money so that one can act. That’s the exercise of power, the ability to act. Since that difficult and expensive lesson, I have seen organized people and organized money get things done; it works.

A key distinction we make is the difference between coercive power and relational power, power over in contrast to power with. Coercive power operates from the place of position and privilege. Coercive power is like the manager who can make her employee do something unethical because she can threaten to fire him; the politician who can choose to make a decision that is good for his contributors rather than the ordinary citizens because his position and privilege allow him to. By contrast, the ability to act with rather than over is a way for ordinary citizens to push back against the coercive power that stems from position and privilege.

The exercise of relational power is countercultural and counter-intuitive. It is not the way we are taught or formed. “You can’t fight city hall,” we say, symptomatic of our willingness to give away our power and bow to the systems, structures, and powerful individuals. Building relational power is a way to take back the ability to act in the public realm.

The exercise of relational power is not demonstrated primarily through the big, dramatic public actions — although the public actions is where the hoped for change actually happens. The fundamental exercise of the relational power happens when we actually relate to others. The primary tool for building relational power is the one-on-one individual meeting. When we take the time and effort to relate to one another, we build a large and strong network of relationships and as a consequence have the ability to exercise that relational power.

Acts of resistance are also part of exercising this power, especially when resistance is undertaken in community. Part of our baptismal identity is to resist the structures and manifestations of evil, those forces that defy God. So, in this sense, it is also a subversive power, a countercultural means of throwing a wrench into the gears of the systems and structures that work against human thriving.

Though I am committed to doing the work of the kingdom by the arts and practices of organizing and exercising relational power, there are still points of tension for me. I still struggle with the paradox of exercising power vis-a-vis the theology of the cross. In the theology of the cross, power is exercised in the contrary — strength through weakness, wisdom through folly. The theology of the cross supposes that God acted most powerfully to reclaim, redeem, and reconcile the world through the humiliating and shameful crucifixion of Jesus. Paul builds on this notion in 1 Corinthians 1 when he says that God’s ultimate power is demonstrated through human weakness and God’s wisdom through human folly. God works not through coercion, but through love; inviting rather than coercing.

I believe God has intentions for the world and calls the church to work for the sake of enacting those intentions. In over 30 years of pastoral ministry, this exercise of relational power is the most effective means I’ve seen to get that work done.


Jim Honig is pastor with the people of Shepherd of the Bay Lutheran Church in northern Door County, Wisconsin. He is a writer, blogger, and the author of the novel, By Paths Untrodden. He is passionate about congregation based organizing and trying to figure out how that works in a new context after spending 15 years in the Chicago suburbs.

The Ability to Act

by Jessica Tate

May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the power of the Holy Spirit be with you now and remain with you always. Alleluia! Amen.

I say these words almost every time I’m asked to offer a benediction. I’m struck that in church we talk a lot about grace and certainly about love, but I don’t hear too many conversations about power.

Power is, simply, the ability to act.

Participants in the 2018 community organizing cohort are taught about power

The Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF), the oldest faith-based organizing network in the US, teaches leaders about power – what it is, how it works, how to build it and use it for the aims of justice. A key teaching from the IAF is that in order to make change in the world as it is, on behalf of the world as it should be, you have to build more power.

As people of faith, we dwell in the world as it should be. We are charged with sharing the promises of God where justice rolls down like water. Where mourning and crying and pain will be no more. Where love reigns.

As people of faith, we are confronted with the world as it is. Where people are suffering. Where we harm one another and are victims of harm. Where we forget our interconnectedness and become isolated. Where power reigns.

Again this key teaching: in order to make change in the world as it is, on behalf of the world as it should be, you have to build more power.

The kind of power we’re building matters. The IAF (and I would argue they borrowed this from Jesus) argues for building power with people. Not power over them or power for others, but power with people. This is the kind of power that is engaged, reciprocal, dynamic, expansive, open, and accountable, based on respect and trust. It is the kind of power Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. described when he said, “Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic.”

The church at its best builds power with people in order to alleviate suffering and move us ever closer to the promised world as it should be. I have watched as congregations –

  • built up trusted relationships between adults and teenagers and engaged in education around mental health, anxiety, and depression as suicide rates rose in the community;
  • worked together to lobby the county for a new bus line so that folks can get to and from the Department for Health and Human Services more easily;
  • came together in the wake of blatant racism on the part of elected officials to examine the legacy of racism and forge new ways of leading together; and
  • developed a strong enough coalition to demand that banks reinvest $250 million in principal reduction and loan modifications to keep thousands of families from losing their homes in one of the counties hardest hit by the foreclosure crisis.

There are countless other examples of congregations building their power to act in the world as it is on behalf of the world as it should be.

This month our blog will explore power through the reflections and experiences of members of the 2018 community organizing cohort. The reflections will range from scripture to theology to experiences with power and the lack of power to using power in ministry settings. Our hope is that their reflections will give shape and texture and nuance to the concept and use of power in the life of ministry.

People around us are suffering. As Christians, we claim good news. I am convinced that for this good news to be more than a nice idea, church leaders need to understand how power works and claim our own power to bring these values to life.

Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen (Ephesians 3:20-21)


Jessica Tate is the director of NEXT Church and lives in Washington, DC. 

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.

Growing Power by Sharing 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 Jan Edmiston

As a person with power in Chicago Presbytery, I sometimes saw my role as one in which I tried to share power with young pastors who didn’t think they had much – either because of their age or levels of experience. My hope was to get out of the way when it was clear that the Spirit was working and to shift the culture from a “gotcha” mentality (i.e. those pesky oral exams on the floor of presbytery just before ordination) to a culture of curiosity (i.e. what can we learn from this person?).

This brings me to the unnamed woman in Matthew 26 who poured expensive oil over Jesus head as he reclined with his disciples. The woman never said a word but the men immediately expressed their indignance. Everybody was talking about her. Nobody talked to her. But then Jesus said something that has been dissected and studied for generations:

“Why are you bothering this woman? She has done a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me.”

Jesus shared power with her despite her gender and their historical context. He lauded her theological chops, finishing with this:

“Truly I tell you, wherever this good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.”

The community organizing training I have received through NEXT Church has shaped the way I’ll be stepping into a new role in Charlotte Presbytery in the coming weeks. I’ve learned that building coalitions – both in and outside the institutional Church – is essential if we hope to transform the world for good in the name of Jesus. When we share power, we find that our impact for good grows expansively.

Developing coalitions involves organizing the power of obvious leaders and the power of not-yet-obvious leaders together. As I look towards starting my new call on May 1st, I have collected a list of people recommended by my General Presbyter Nominating Committee with whom I plan to have one-on-one meetings with in my first six months. It’s interesting what names they have suggested. Some are well-known leaders (e.g. the mayor, a retired college president) and some are lesser-known leaders (e.g. a long time elder from a rural part of the area, a person from a small congregation with strong ties with the school board). Instead of decrying that the world is increasingly chaotic, we can take this opportunity to face the chaos, united in authentic relationships with many different kinds of neighbors. Serving together, we can do more.

I hope to continue to grow power by sharing power. And I hope that power results in deeper relationships and broader justice for the people of God. This feels especially right as I consider how Jesus lived.


Jan Edmiston is co-moderator of the 222nd General Assembly of the PCUSA. She is a Teaching Elder member of Chicago Presbytery, soon transition into a new role as general presbyter of Charlotte Presbytery.