Power-With vs Power-Over

Back in 2016, I wrote a Banner editorial on “Power-With“. This is a concept I acquired from reading Jim Olthuis’ The Beautiful Risk. Olthuis didn’t really elaborate on the concept but used it evocatively in his descriptions about two different spiritual ways – the spirituality of control and the spirituality of compassion (p. 42). In his description, the spirituality of control manifests itself in one-directional power-over, while the spirituality of compassion manifests itself in multi-directional power-with.

I really liked this concept as I think it helps add a layer to our understanding and engagement of power in our lives and in our institutions. The old adage that “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely” is tired but also an overstatement. Power, in that popular idiom, is inherently corrupting, inherently negative. From a biblical worldview perspective, I will say that is only looking at power from the lens of sin and the fall. But God, of course, is powerful and used power to create the world and all of life. Power, originally, was good. God even built power into the fabric of creation. Here are excerpts from my editorial as I start teasing out this concept of power-with:

We all have power, to some degree—even those we often regard as powerless. Some, of course, have more power than others. If power is defined as the ability to achieve an outcome or goal, then power is an inescapable part of our creational lives, necessary for living, for serving God, and for doing good! But we know too well that power can also corrupt us and be used for evil. …

Power-with, however, emphasizes collaborative sharing of power, coming alongside others as partners or even servants. When I gave my children choices, I was delegating some power and responsibility to them. Although both forms can potentially be self-serving, exercising power-over is more likely than power-with to fall into that trap.

In this sin-tainted but wonderfully created world, we probably cannot do without both forms of power. But power-with seems to me a spiritually better option when it comes to working with our fellow human beings. I find that it is more consistent with the love command and with God’s own ways of dealing with us.

If we are to love our neighbors as ourselves (Mark 12:31), imposing our wills or coercing people against theirs seems like a poor way of doing so. If anyone has the right to coerce us into obedience, it is God. Yet God delegates power to us by giving us dominion over creation (Gen. 1:28). God chose to carry out his mission of reconciliation, not through coercing sinners into belief, but through fallible human ambassadors who implore and persuade people to “be reconciled to God” (2 Cor. 5:20). Furthermore, the image of Jesus on the cross is far removed from being a symbol of coercive power. There are many other biblical examples of God choosing to exercise collaborative power-with, rather than coercive power-over, when it comes to us human beings.

I ended my editorial by asking application questions on how the church has exercised power. Are our church structures, policies, practices, leaders defaulting to power-over or power-with? If we preach a gospel of grace and love, yet default all our use of authority and power to power-over forms, then, are we contradicting ourselves?

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