A Theology of Power

Author: Gailyn Van Rheenen

Missionaries and church leaders frequently emphasize power because the worldviews of the cultures in which they minister are power-focused.

In many contexts the cognitive structures of the worldview is multi-layered. Formal religion (Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, or Buddhism) provides perspectives about ultimate meaning and purpose in life; folk religion contributes answers to immediate problems; and science furnishes order to “human relationships and control of nature” (Hiebert, Shaw, & Tienou 1999, 74).

The folk religious heritages, which emphasize animism, are based upon manipulation and coercion of spiritual powers. Spiritual beings are propitiated, coerced, and placated. Rituals are employed to influence impersonal spiritual forces and personal spiritual beings. Shamans reveal to clients the source of powers which are influencing their lives. They use various methodologies of divination to determine which powers are causing misfortune or illness and what other power(s) must be employed to counter such negative power. Modern Westerners, and those trained by them, exclude this middle realm because it is not concurrent with their worldview (Hiebert 1982).

Many missionaries and church leaders typically respond to folk religious practices by using power methodologies to defeat the powers of Satan. Frequently Christian ministry is reduced to spiritual warfare: The powers of God defeat the powers of Satan thus facilitating the in-breaking of the kingdom of God. Kraft says, “Power-oriented people require power proof, not simply reasoning, if they are to be convinced” (2000, 775). God’s deliverance of the Israelites from Egyptian captivity by defeating of the gods of the land (Exod. 12:12) and the contest between Elijah and the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18) are examples of power encounter in the Bible. The rhetoric and tone of Christianity’s encounter with other religions is thus confrontational.

The traditional discussions about power, however, have left many questions unanswered: What is the essence of God’s power? Is God’s power and Satan’s power identical? When a pagan practitioner becomes a Christian leader, should his perceptions and practice of power change? To what degree and in what ways should missionaries among animists focus on power? How does God use ministers as mediators of divine power?

The Nature of Divine Power

God is Our Sovereign Lord!

The Bible acknowledges that God is all-powerful. He is the King of kings and the Lord of lords. God is El Shaddai, “God Almighty” (Gen. 17:1), “who created and sustains all things by his power, defeats the principalities and powers by the sacrifice of his Son Jesus, and brings all things into subjection to himself” (adapted from Hiebert 1999, 374). The kingdom or sovereignty of God is like a “scarlet thread” interwoven “through the biblical testimonies” (Moltmann 1981, 95).

Two central Old Testament metaphors graphically depict divine power. First, God is the Creator who made from nothing what is. From the beginning God, who created the world, is seen ruling over his creation. Humans must, consequently, see themselves as “his people, the sheep of his pasture” (Ps. 100:3). Second, God is the liberator who brought his covenant people into relationship to him. The Jewish confessional declares God’s mighty acts of deliverance: “We cried out to the Lord, the God of our fathers, and the Lord heard our voice and saw our misery, toil and oppression. So the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great terror and with miraculous sights and wonders” (Deut. 16:7-8). The Exodus narrative testifies to God’s mighty acts of deliverance. Moses was God’s messenger who declared to both the Israelites and Pharaoh what God was about to do. The mission succeeded by the mighty hand of God, not by any human initiative.

God’s Power is Manifest in Divine Relationship

These metaphors demonstrate that God’s power is not conveyed indiscriminately but in divine relationship. God sees human lostness, listens to his people, feels their pain, and compassionately responds. God’s relationship with his creation is seen after Adam and Eve commit the first sin. Rather than merely punishing them, God, out of his great compassion, walked in the Garden searching for Adam and Eve, calling, “Where are you?” The question is not one of location. All-wise God knew their location. The question denotes a loving God calling fallen humankind back to himself. When humans sin, God does not merely exercise his power to punish. He seeks to reestablish an intimate relationship with his creation. God’s searching reveals his basic qualities: His love, holiness, and faithfulness.

God’s rescue of the Israelites from Egyptian captivity was covenant deliverance: God redeemed from oppression those with whom he had developed a relationship. God had promised Abraham that he would become a great nation and that “all peoples on earth would be blessed through [him]” (Gen. 12:1-3). When the Israelites in Egypt groaned because of their slavery and cried out to God, he “remembered” this covenant and “was concerned about them” (Exod. 2:23-25). Through ten mighty plagues, Jehovah defeated the gods of the Egyptians (Exod. 12:12) and delivered the Israelites. Moses then acknowledged God’s superiority: “Who among the gods is like you, O Lord? Who is like you–majestic in holiness, awesome in glory, working wonders?” (Exod. 15:11).

This mighty God of power then formed a special covenant with the people of Israel: They were to be his “treasured possession” and “kingdom of priests” to all nations (Ex. 19:5). The Ten Commandments are predicated upon the covenant deliverance: Because God brought them out of slavery, they were not to have any other gods before them, they were not to make for themselves any idol, or misuse the name of the Lord their God (Ex. 20:1-7).

God’s Power is Demonstrated in Weakness

Paradoxically, God’s power is frequently manifest in weakness. For example, Joseph was sold into Egyptian captivity, was imprisoned unjustly, and was forgotten by those who promised help. Only in retrospect were God’s purposes and power evident. Joseph testified to his brothers that they “intended to harm” him, but “God intended it for good” (Gen. 45:6-7; 50:20). Likewise, Paul suffered a “thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment [him]” (2 Cor. 12:7). God allowed this so that Paul would not become overly conceited because of his many revelations (2 Cor. 12:1-7). Paul prayed that the thorn be removed. The answer, however, was not healing but the understanding that “when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:10). The ultimate example of strength in weakness is the incarnation of Jesus Christ, his response to Satan’s temptations for earthly power, and his sacrificial death for our sins.

God’s power is not always apparent in a world that is largely controlled by Satan (1 John 5:19). Followers of God ask, “Why do you hide your face?” (Ps. 44) or “God, my Rock, why have you forgotten me?” (Ps. 42). Christians participating in the sufferings of Christ (1 Peter. 4:13) cry out in anguish, pleading for God to intervene (Rev. 6:9-11). During these times of suffering, however, Christians must stand in faith, acknowledging God’s ultimate sovereignty.

God’s Power is Toned by Love

From a biblical perspective there is a great difference between God’s power and the power of Satan. Not only is God’s power greater than Satan’s, its quality is vastly different. Satan’s power is debasing–corrupting those who follow the cravings of their own sinful nature (Eph. 2:3). God’s power, based on his great love, raises believers above these earthly cravings into heavenly realms (Eph. 2:4-6).

Paul’s prayer in Ephesians 3:14-21 interweaves God’s power and his great love. Paul prays that the Ephesian Christians, “being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ” (3:17-18). This four-dimensional love enables Christians to discern the unknowable: “To know the love that surpasses knowledge–that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God” (3:19). Clinton Arnold writes, “Christ … roots and establishes the believer in his own love and strengthens the believer to follow the pattern of that love” (1989, 100).

Paul’s prayer does not say that Christianity is rooted and grounded in power but rather in love. He succinctly contrasts Christian perspectives of power and love with pagan Ephesian perspectives: “In magic, many of the recipes and spells were used for the purpose of gaining advantage over people–winning a chariot race, attracting a lover, winning at dice, etc. God’s power enables the believer to love after the pattern of Christ. The seemingly impossible demands of this kind of love require divine enablement in order for them to be fulfilled” (Arnold 1989, 100).

The world, which is “under the control of the evil one” (1 John 4:19), does not easily put together the words power and love. Only God, because he is both all-powerful and all-loving, and those who follow him can intertwine the two.

Applications to Ministry

Humans frequently misuse the power of God and contort it for their own selfish, egocentric purposes. The Willowbank Report says, “Power in human hands is always dangerous. . . . The recurring theme of Paul’s two letters to the Corinthians is that God’s power, seen in the cross of Christ, operates through human weakness (e.g., 1 Cor. 1:18-2:5; 2 Cor. 4:7; 12:9, 10). Worldly people worship power; Christians who have it know its perils” (Stott and Coote, 1980, 327). The power of God must never be used to give glory to human personalities or human institutions. Ultimate power is of God, and its use in defeating Satan must give glory only to God.

Human ego stands as a formidable obstacle to effective missions. Christian ministers with immense talent and creativity flounder when they rely only on their own power. To accomplish his purposes, God generally uses less talented missionaries, who look to him to empower their ministry. These missionaries realize that they have the light of the gospel in “jars of clay” thus illustrating that the “all-surpassing power is from God and not from [them]” (2 Cor. 4:7).

Four cautions are necessary relating to power and Christian ministry.

1. Many in the Christian world have been taught to look to human personalities as the dispensers of God’s power.

Some charismatic preachers, motivated by selfish, egocentric purposes, draw followers by projecting themselves as the conduit of God’s power. Christians, during the early centuries of the church, however, recognized that the common believer was able to trust in and pray to God to cast out demons (Skarsaune and Engelsviken 2000, 69). The consultation statement from the Lausaane meeting on spiritual warfare, entitled Deliver Us From Evil (DUFE), affirms the need and essence of spiritual warfare but adds this caution:

Engaging the Evil One is not the work of heroic individuals . . . . We were saddened by stories of people, emboldened by self-assured certainty and money, who come from outside, overwhelm local Christians and carry out hit-and-run ministries of spiritual conflict that (1) presume superior knowledge of the local reality, (2) treat local Christians as inferior or unaware, (3) claim credit for things that local Christians have been praying and working toward for years and (4) leave uneven results and sometimes, pain, alienation, and even persecution of the local church, while claiming great victory.
(Moreau 2000, xxiii)

Juliet Thomas of India asserts that Westerners come to her country regarding themselves as “experts in spiritual warfare” but “have only recently come in contact with this dimension of the powers of darkness. . . . Their language and approach have often been very offensive to people of other faiths. Their attitude has been arrogant and triumphalistic” (2000, 146-47). She says that intercessors from the West stand in front of temples and mosques praying that God will pull down the strongholds of the gods who are worshipped there. Multilingual Indians hearing these overtly militant prayers feel hostility because they believe that these Christian visitors are desecrating and cursing their holy places (2000, 1).

2. God’s power cannot be reduced to power phrases or coerced by magical formulas, like “in the blood of Jesus” or “in the name of Jesus.”

The phase “in the name of Jesus” connotes relationship with God in Jesus rather than being a mantra of exorcism. The DUFE Consultation concluded:

We call for discernment concerning magical uses of Christian terms and caution practitioners to avoid making spiritual conflict into Christian magic. Any suggestion that a particular technique or method or spiritual ministry ensures success is a magical, sub-Christian understanding of God’s workings.
(Moreau 2000, xxiv)

Scott Moreau cautions:

The emphasis on discerning and naming demons before we can have power over them is approaching a form of Christian animism. . . . The idea of needing the names to have power over spirits is found in magical thinking around the world. An Indian friend of mine who has long been involved in spiritual warfare on a personal and corporate level has told me that one of the most difficult problems he faces in sharing the claims of Christ with his Hindu friends has come after they see well-intentioned Christians engaging in what they believe to be simple magical practices. (Moreau 2000, 266)

3. Animistic power should never be equated with divine power.

Such a comparison was made by one presenter at Lausanne’s DUFE consultation. He suggested that when people become Christians only a change of power occurs. Although the forms and practitioners of religion may not necessarily change, the source of power does. Power that was under the dominion of Satan before conversion comes under the sovereignty of God when these people turn to God. Christian activities, such as healing, dedicating and blessing, look very much like those of animists–except that the source of the power is God’s rather than Satan’s (Kraft 2000, 295-297). However, the reality is that this type of thinking leads to syncretism. Pagan understandings of power continue to exist in Christianity.

Such was the case of Simon of Samaria, a powerful traditional practitioner taught by Philip (Acts 8:9-11). Drawn by the demonstration of power that accompanied Philip’s message, Simon believed and was baptized (Acts 8:13). Simon, as new Christian, could not refrain from seeking power and equating God’s power with the power of his animistic heritage. Simon, therefore, approached them about buying the power of the “laying on of the apostles’ hands” (Acts 8:18). Although he probably had received apostolic gifts through the laying on the hands of Peter and John (Acts 8:14-17), he now wanted the power to dispense these gifts. Peter was straightforward in teaching this converted practitioner that seeking a relationship with God was more important than being a dispenser of power.

4. These theological perspectives on power should guide the Christian’s understanding of both prayer and spiritual warfare.

Prayer should not be viewed as a power tool but as a relating to God, the source of all power. The difference is significant. When prayer is viewed as power, certain words or rituals are necessary to access the power. However, prayer, like conversion, is a turning to God, a trusting in him to act. Thus Christians wait for God to work according to his will and timing. Moreau writes,

Prayer is not intended to be a vehicle of violence, but a means of fellowship, growth and strength. One danger of an attitude of “spiritual violence” is that we may become the very thing we are fighting against.
(2000, 267)

These understandings also help us comprehend the nature of spiritual warfare. Spiritual warfare is not about fighting Satan; he has been defeated by Jesus Christ’s sacrificial death and triumphal resurrection. Spiritual warfare is standing firm in Christ’s mighty power. It is accepting by faith God’s victory through Christ and allowing God’s redemptive power to work through Christ. Using the concepts and wording of Ephesians 6:10-18, I would, therefore, define spiritual warfare as “standing in prayer with God against the principalities and powers to defeat Satan through truth, righteousness, the gospel of peace, faith, salvation, and the word of God” (Van Rheenen 2003).


There are times when Christian ministers must speak forcefully about animistic practices as did Moses in Deuteronomy 18:9-15, as Jeremiah did in Jeremiah 10:1-11, and as Paul did in Ephesians 6:10-20. More frequently, however, the Christian message is presented in such a way that God is proclaimed with little direct mention of the powers. Paul does this when he teaches that the fullness of deity is in Christ and in Christ alone, that Christians should live in the heavenlies far above the principalities and powers, and that all Christians must “wait on the Lord.” “Our goal should be to give Satan and demons a selectively appropriate inattention. Do not let the flaw of the excluded middle become the flaw of the expanded middle; major on God and minor on demons, not the other way around” (Moreau 2000, 270).

Copyright © by Gailyn Van Rheenen. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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