25 Mar 2021: Redeeming Power–a book review
Understanding Authority and Abuse in the Church
Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2020, 224 pages, $19.99
Assistant Director of the Doctor of Ministry Program
Denver Seminary in Littleton, Colorado
Many people think the abuse of power happens only between individuals. But systems can also be abusive…. Even when acts of abuse are perpetrated solely by an organization’s leader, his or her behaviors tend to be perpetuated by a systematic organizational response with the goal of preserving the system in reaction to a perceived threat.
The era of #metoo, #blacklivesmatter, and #MAGA ushered in a new awareness of the nature and dynamics of power in entertainment, society, politics—and the church. In the last few years, some of the most famous individuals and organizations in current Christianity have lost their pulpits, platforms, and credibility due to abuses of one sort or another.
This increase in awareness has spawned a number of books that address power in ministry contexts, including When Narcissism Comes to Church by Chuck DeGroat, A Church Called Tov by Scot McKnight and Laura Barringer, and Something’s Not Right by Wade Mullen. The most recent of these is Redeeming Power: Understanding Authority and Abuse in the Church by Diane Langberg.
A practicing psychologist with more than 45 years of experience with trauma, Langberg wrote Redeeming Power as the fruit of her lifelong learning about the nature, dangers, and effects of power in ministry. “We have read too many headlines about Christian leaders and Christian systems that look nothing like our Lord,” she writes. “Jesus invites us to stand with him and see—to feel the pain, the sorrow, the crushing, and the agony of precious sheep who have no shepherd, no caregiver, no comforter.”
Redeeming Power is organized into three sections, beginning with “Power Defined.” The word power, according to Langberg, means “having the capacity to do something, to act or produce an effect, to influence people or events, or to have authority.” Although all power is derivative—i.e., it is given to us under the authority of Jesus Christ—all of us have the capacity to use power either as a faithful steward, or to use it to dominate, coerce, exploit, and deceive those who are more vulnerable. In addition, we are all products and participants of cultural systems. “Every culture—even the culture of Christendom—is developed by people who are broken,” Langberg notes. Therefore, “In Christendom, we can use spiritual language to cloak selfish ambition, hide abuses of many kinds, and do incalculable damage in the name of God.”
In “Power Abused,” Langberg describes six types of power: physical, verbal, emotional, the combination of knowledge/intellect/skill, economic, and sexual. She then explains the systemic nature of power. “Many people think the abuse of power happens only between individuals,” she writes, “But systems can also be abusive…. Even when acts of abuse are perpetrated solely by an organization’s leader, his or her behaviors tend to be perpetuated by a systematic organizational response with the goal of preserving the system in reaction to a perceived threat.” In this section, Langberg also looks at power at play in gender relationships and race; the damaging effects of power abused in spiritual contexts; and the seduction of power within Christendom.
Langberg ends with “Power Redeemed,” a call toward true power found in likeness to Jesus Christ, exercised in love toward the restoration of relationships, the church, and the world. “When we are in Christ, no nationality, no government, no race, no gender, no status, and no prejudice rules our choices and actions,” she writes. “May we, the church, be known as those who, in likeness to our Lord, use the power he grants to expose evil and protect the vulnerable.”
Redeeming Power is a much-needed counter to the prevailing models of ministry leadership and success. Truth be told, the leaders who have dominated the news for their moral failings have often been elevated in our seminary classrooms as models of ministry effectiveness. “We tell ourselves that measures such as membership growth and financial gain in a ministry are proof of likeness to God,” Langberg observes. “We seem inclined to follow whoever glitters rather than carefully discerning their character.” In addition, we can be tempted to value the ends more highly than the means. However, as Langberg cautions, “Good words that describe a good process but that use the wrong substance in order to accomplish a good goal are no longer good.”
As DMin educators, we have the opportunity—dare I say the responsibility—to change unhealthy systems by developing ministry practitioners who have a healthy understanding of and relationship to power. There are a number of pathways to this end:
- Our teaching must emphasize transformation in the image of Christ, not just skill development or theology. “Character work and an understanding of one’s personal history are not usually emphasized in training for ministry. This is unwise given our heart’s capacity for deception,” notes Langberg.
- We must be careful about who we elevate as examples of “successful” ministry. The author of this year’s hot book may become next year’s headline. Our models should demonstrate proven ministry and proven character.
- We must warn students of the temptations of leadership and power. “Meeting the expectations of expertise and charisma puts tremendous pressure on a leader,” Langberg says. “The work of service is often seductive, luring us away from love and obedience to the Master.”
- We must be aware of our own power as leaders and educators, honest about our own sinful predispositions and temptations, and willing to speak out against abuse wherever it is present. “We are to be light in the darkness, exposing those things that are not like God no matter where we find them, even in those organizations we greatly love,” Langberg writes.
- We must pastor our students who have been victims of abuse by spiritual leaders and systems, helping them to find healing for their own wounds so they are less prone to wound others.
“Here are two words that should never go together: spiritual and abuse,” Langberg says. Redeeming Power is a worthy effort to separate them and a worthwhile addition to DMin class reading lists.Read More