Reflections on Power and Powerlessness

Spectrum of Power

I have struggled in my own heart and mind regarding the issue of Power and Powerlessness in the Christian Life and in Ministry. I have heard so many preachers who love to talk about receiving the POWER of God (and Yes, they will emphasize the term completely out of proportion to its value, in my opinion). It does not appear to be in line with the example of Christ who served and ministered in a fairly powerless fashion (at least powerless in terms of classic human power such as economic power, military power, and political power). On the other hand, in some ways, Jesus could be describe as possessing and exhibiting great power. That leaves me challenged on both sides.


  • Positively. The Bible describes us as possessing and exercising great power. Luke’s version of the Great Commission, for example, notes this, as Jesus says: I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.” Luke 24:49.
  • Negatively. The Bible also describes the weakness of the faithful, and God appears to connect more with the weak, the powerless, than with those in power. Paul in I Corinthians 1:27 states, “But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.” The epistle, and the other epistles of Paul seem to make the point that this weakness of those who follow Christ is more than a historical fact, but a state of being. As Ellicott’s commentary notes on this passage, “It has been well remarked, “the ancient Christians were, for the greater part, slaves and persons of humble rank; the whole history of the progress of the Church is in fact a gradual triumph of the unlearned over the learned, of the lowly over the great, until the emperor himself cast his crown at the foot of Christ’s cross” (Olshausen); or, as an English writer puts it, “Christianity with the irresistible might of its weakness shook the world.”


  • Positively.  The gospel of Christ has spread throughout the world borne on the back of political and economic power. A lot of wonderful things, such as hospitals and schools and such, have be built by missionaries coming in and exercising power.
  • Negatively. There has been a backlash to this sort of exercising of power. The connection of missions, on occasion, with colonial imperialism is still remembered by many, even where missionaries sided with the locally oppressed over the colonial oppressors. There have been calls, including by “missionary-receiving nations” to stop sending money. In many places, missionaries have assumed a position of coercive power over locals (even as acts of charity), and can create dependency. Because of this, Vulnerable Missions is becoming popularized. Truthfully, Vulnerable means functioning from a position of powerlessness— but some people are, wrongly I think, disturbed by the term “powerless.” Additionally, power encounter and emphasis on the attainment of power has borne, among other things, the so-called “Prosperity Gospel,” a horrible misreading to God and God’s Word.


  • Positively.  Many people classify cultures as fitting into a triangle of social motivators with the vertices of:   Guilt/Forgiveness, Shame/Honor, and Fear/Power. While no culture is at an absolute extreme, most tend to be closer to one vertex over the other two. I live in the Cordillera mountain range in the Philippines. While Shame/Honor is important, the driving motivator for most is Fear/Power. As such, “Power Encounter” is very important and effective as an outreach method. (I am not from a Fear/Power culture. I can intellectually acknowledge this motivation, but emotionally I cannot relate to this motivation). If God works in all cultures and has a message that meets the primary needs of those in all cultures (Forgiveness and Honor for those driven by Guilt and Shame, for examples) then it is reasonable to accept that God’s power revealed is an appropriate answer to the Fear of people.
  • Negatively.  Historically, the answers of the Gospel exist in a state of contradiction. Forgiveness from God exists for Christians who still live in a state of deserving to feel guilty (both before man and God). Honor is given by God to those who still live in a state of shame with respect to the surrounding culture. And the power of God exists while Christians still live culturally in a state of powerlessness. In other words, God’s gift takes away the need, not the condition. God takes away the need to feel guilt although we are not guilt-free. God takes away the reason to feel shame although we may may be still viewed as shameful. God takes away our need for fear, but not necessarily fearful things from our lives. Additionally, while God works within a culture, God also challenges the culture, counter-culturally. Guilt-focused societies may praise the morally perfect, but God points us toward a different goal– sinful but grateful. Shame-focused societies may praise those who are highly esteemed in society, but God challenges this by pointing people to the poor (or poor in spirit), the mournful, the little ones, that which is thought foolish, and the humble as the truly honored before God. Fear-focused societies may praise those who are seen as powerful, having control over situations and people. But again, I think that God challenges this and points people towards Jesus who was a suffering servant, lowly, and humble… A bruised reed He will not break, and a smoldering wick He will not snuff out.”

I think that part of the way of bringing this all together is to see power in terms of a spectrum. The spectrum at the top shows this. At one extreme, power is seen in terms of control and coercion. At the other end, it is seen in terms of ability to serve. That full range seems to be Biblical. The Greek word “dunamis” also can mean “Ability.” (Some note the connection between the word “dunamis” and “dynamite,” but the connection was in marketing. Dynamite provides no useful role in understanding the Koine Greek term “dunamis.”) In engineering, power refers to the rate of energy flow. “Energy” flow describes an essentially made up concept (that somehow manages to be useful) referring to the ability to do work. Power, then, is more tied to the ability to accomplish, than to mastery or control.

In the Luke passage, Jesus says to wait until they are clothed in power on high. One may take the “tongues of fire” on their heads as a somewhat literalistic answer to that. On the other hand, it can be seen more in terms of their sudden ability to serve God fearlessly, speaking God’s message in languages they did not know. Either interpretation seems sound, but classic human pictures of power would not be consistent with this event.

Likewise, Hebrews 11 describes doing great and mighty works through faith, yet it, equally, describes people succumbing to abuse and torture fearlessly (and in human terms, powerlessly) with those who accomplished the (“powerfully”) miraculous.


I am still a bit unresolved on this. The Bible says that the Jews seek a sign, while the Greeks seek wisdom. A sign often involves a visual manifestation of power. I don’t think that can be overlooked… it was a cultural need. I relate more with the Greek culture. I seek wisdom (and peace).

However, since power in and of itself is morally neutral, the exercise of power is morally ambiguous, a temptation for great evil as well as the ability to do great good.

Biblically, I believe that power is tied more to ability and servanthood than to mastery, control, and the miraculous. That is not to say that it is fully to the extreme (to the left side). But, when in doubt, Divine power is more tied to what the world sees as powerless. It seems like the church has been strongest when it has embraced its own powerlessness— fearlessly. Christian leadership is to be Servant Leadership… servant leadership not simply as a buzzword, but a lifestyle.

Because of this, the power of God as a concept should be tied to, and perhaps even be subordinate to, our call to be faithful, able, and humble servants of God.


Ghosts, Truth Encounter, and Things that go Bump in the Night

Occasionally, I watch these ghost hunter or ghost buster shows on TV. Some (I will call “ghost hunters”) claim that they are being objective… but clearly they are hoping to find evidence of the paranormal, thus evidencing the inadequacy of a naturalistic view of the world. The others (I will call “ghost busters”) also claim to be objective… but clearly they are hoping to debunk the paranormal and restore faith in a naturalistic model of the world.

Ghost Hunters
Ghost Hunters (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Both groups use the same tools (night vision, heat sensors, EMF detectors, etc.), go to the same types of places (those considered haunted or centers of paranormal activity) and both groups get essentially the same data (strange images and sounds, and difficult to interpret spikes on dials and such).

Both groups then try to link the phenomena to “natural” causes. Those phenomena that appear to have a very obvious link to natural causes are discounted. (Note: neither group actually proves such causation, but both feel it prudent to assume natural causation for many occurances.)

At this point in time, the two groups diverge.  What do you do when you find no obvious natural causation.

Ghost hunters tend to mark the unexplained as paranormal.

Ghost busters tend to mark the unexplained as potentially normal.

In truth, neither group is particularly convincing in their arguments. One group gets an EVP that sounds like static and they claim to hear a clear voice saying something. But is that true or just trying to force meaning into noise? The other group takes a EVP that actually does sound like a voice message and start talking about picking up stray human voices or signals from unknown origins. But solving a mystery by creating a natural source is hardly objective, is it?

Both groups drift into fantasy quite quickly. Ghost hunters will talk about paranormal activity increasing where there is high EMF and high EMF is common where there is running water. Is there any justification for this causation? Ghost busters talk about the possibility that high EMF causes hallucinations or paranormal activity inside the minds of people. But isn’t that simply creating a fantasy theory to deal with phenomena that doesn’t fit into one’s fit worldview?

I am a ghost agnostic. That is, I am believe in ghosts as a phenomena (something seen, heard, and felt by people) but I have no real opinion as to what they are… if they are anything at all. In other words, I have no faith of any sort as to the ghost question. But ghost hunters are true believers in ghosts (having faith in their existence, finding evidence for their existence compelling) while ghost busters are also true believers… but believers in naturalism (having faith in their non-existence, finding evidence against their existence compelling).

This of course is the problem with dealing with things outside of our own experience. When one says “You have no proof” he is saying “Your evidence is not compelling,.” It is essentially impossible to have evidence so strong that it is universally compelling. If a worldview or paradigm is so weak as to be destroyed by facts alone, it wasn’t a very robust worldview/paradigm in the first place.

Theists and Atheists essentially exist in the same world with the same facts around us. To be honest, neither worldview is particularly compelling. Both require a certain amount doubtful proposals to deal with evidence against. In Chemistry, the Phlogiston Theory lasted for a long time because evidence supporting it was pretty compelling and it was periodically adjusted to deal with evidence against. The same can be said of the Ether Theory in Physics. There is always evidence for and evidence against any system… so it depends on the faith convictions of each person as to what is more compelling. That is why it can be as easily said that an atheist lives by a form of faith as a theist. Each have faith but of a different type because of the difference in its object. The power of faith is in its object not its intensity.

When we share our faith, it is useful to understand this. When we talk to an agnostic, we are dealing with people with limited faith (unless they have faith in the “unknowability” of answer to the “God question”). On the other hand, if we are dealing with an atheist, we are dealing with a faith system every bit as robust (and often bigoted) as any theistic system. It is doubtful that facts will convince them (unless of course they have long been working through doubts… perhaps through God’s working in their lives already). Facts are more useful to give comfort to Christians that it is intellectually justifiable to be a Christian.

The inability of truth to be compelling is a limitation in Truth Encounter. In the past I have brought up the limitations and general failings of Power Encounter. Power Encounter tends to have ambiguous results and often utilizes the mistaken beliefs of the recipients. Additionaly, Power Encounter has limitations because of the limitations of Truth Encounter. Power Encounter provides evidence towards truth, but evidence can never of itself be compelling. Ahab and Jezebel did not become believers in Yahweh because of the failure of the priests of Baal. Why not? Because they did not find the evidence compelling. Who’s to say that Baal failed?  Clearly the priests failed (they could argue) not their god.

Truth Encounter has its place (and Power Encounter can have its place). But Love Encounter… challenging the selfish, self-serving, bigoted, ethnocentric mindset of people with the broad, selfless, abundant love of God has a much better chance of opening the doors to people’s hearts then impressing them with divine power or boggling their minds with God’s truth.

God’s power is all around us, but is somewhat ambiguous as blessings and trials get mixed up in a mixed up world. God’s truth is all around us, but is still in many ways a mystery that we will never fully unravel this side of eternity. But God’s love… it leaves us in awe and gasping for breath when we truly see it. Since God’s love is usually shown through us… we must seek to first of all be a conduit of God’s love, then a conduit of God’s truth, and then a conduit of God’s power.




Ambivalent Reflections on Spiritual Warfare

Plate 22 of 22 for the Macklin Bible after Lou...
“SATAN BOUND” Plate 22 of 22 for the Macklin Bible after Loutherbourg. Bowyer Bible. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I often find myself on the side of downplaying “spiritual warfare” and “power encounter.” I see myself doing this not so much because I see these as purposeless. I have seen missionaries working in particularly difficult places coming down with horrible maladies. I am not sure I can simply chalk that up to stress and convergence disorder. They appear to have been drawn into a battlefield that they are challenged to survive, to say nothing of thrive. However, I find myself arguing against a certain Christ-paganism that has crept into the church and Christian mission. I don’t claim to be an expert in this area (and don’t plan to become an expert) but here are some thoughts I believe to find a healthy balance in Spiritual Warfare and Power Encounter for reflection.

1.  In Spiritual Warfare, the primary battle is with oneself. It has become popularized to externalize evil. We may talk about the spirit or demon of depression, lust, or hate. But really, Pogo (as written by Walt Kelly) was ironically correct when he said “We have met the enemy and he is us.” The Bible drama makes it clear that man sinned, man fell, man lives in a state of rebellion (warfare) with God. We need to be changed positionally, and renewed continually to be brought to where we are (at least on some level) at peace with God. Demons and Satan appear to have a fairly modest role in this, and much of that is obscured from us.

2.  In Spiritual Warfare, the secondary battle is with others. We not only sin (live in rebellion) but are also sinned against. Social Justice is not simply a nice thing for a Christian to work for, it is very much at the heart of spiritual warfare. Read the major and minor prophets and you will see how important social justice and challenging abuse of the poor, weak, and innocent is to God.

3.  In Spiritual Warfare, the heavenly/spirit realm cannot be discounted. As noted in Ephesians 6, the world we see is not the only world… we may live in rebellion, others may live in rebellion, but there is a grander story that we are part of, and we each have a part to play. Therefore, it is not correct to simply make our work to be only about self and other people.

4.  Our Ignorance of the battle in the heavenlies was intentional. God gave us lttle more than tiny snippets of information about the “spiritual” battle in the heavenlies. However, our primary  activity is focused in the here  and now. Our activity as Christians can be seen for the most part in God’s command to all mankind in Genesis 1 and 2 (multiply and rule… as a good steward), Genesis 12 (be a channel of blessing to the entire world), the Great Commandment (love God and, as a result, love people), and the Great Commission (act as witnesses of God’s good action and good news). Primarily speaking, the battle in the “spirit realm” is not our battle. Spiritual warfare is primarily dealing with evil here and now by those who do evil here and now.

5.  Our understanding of Spiritual Warfare should be built from the Bible. Certain individuals have popularized a form of “Christian Paganism.” There is a verse or two that suggest some sort of territorial spirit… but such references fall far short of the the fanciful imaginings that have sprung up. Such local demons (as well as the above-mentioned oppressive demons) generally have more in common with forms of Animism than with Biblical Christianity. I am not one who labels things as “pagan” to castigate them. Every culture has some truth in it. But when our doctrines are more firmly grounded in a different religious system than Biblical or Historical Christian Theology, there is reason for concern.

6.  Based on the Bible, Satan does appear to be a real being, and angels and demons also appear clearly to exist in an objective sense. Some have gone the other way, and have turned anything that is not judged as “natural” as metaphoric or mythic (mythic in this case meaning untrue stories). Yet the Bible does describe them as real, problematic, and active. The comment from C.S. Lewis seems appropriate.

“There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight.” (The Screwtape Letters)

7.  The Bible appears to be pretty ambivalent about power encounter as well. The two biggest power encounter events in the Old Testament (Moses and the Pharoah, and Elijah and the Priests of Baal) both had mixed results in their ability to effect real and lasting change. Jesus did power encounter, yet often did such activities in secret (asking that the activity would be kept private) or even actively refusing to do signs and wonders. The mixed record of power encounter compared with (I believe) the much better record of love encounter (battling sinful prideful abusive self-centeredness with divine love) clearly tells us where our priorities should be.

8.  We need to be open-minded about what we see and experience. Satan and demons may not (in fact probably don’t) work the same today as they did centuries ago. Today, some Christians see mentally ill people and assume they have a demon. Since demons are thinking beings, unlike viruses, corrupted genes, or bacteria, their symptomology is likely to vary based on effectiveness in a given culture. Two thousand years ago, a demon oppressed (I prefer that term to demon possessed… personal thing) person was effective by being wild, scary, and insane. Today, such a person would be jailed or drugged to hinder their effectiveness. If demons are at work today in and through people, expect to see that action in ways that are effective today, not ways that render themselves useless in spiritual battle. On the other hand, being too quick to label what we don’t understand as being demonic is risky. Labeling does not reduce ignorance… it can actually enhance ignorance and cause greater trouble in the long-run.

9.  Our activities have eternal consequence. There is a battle going on and we, indeed, are a part of it. God’s word, God’s Spirit in our lives, and God’s love are vital equipments for us to incorporate into our lives. These are likely to make us more effective in spiritual warfare than prayer walking, prophecy events, and regional prayer exorcisms.

10.  Although our activities have eternal consequences, the battle (ultimately) is already won. We do not live in a dualistic universe. As Crowley says in Good Omens… God is playing solitaire, not chess. God is in control, even if He has allowed us to pilot the ship (poorly) for awhile. We are to be prepared for trouble, but not fearful for we are ultimately on the winning side and so we cannot (again ultimately) lose.

11. The war metaphor is important, but not necessarily the most important. The Bible appears to ultimately be a love story not a war chronicle. Recognizing the war metaphor is valuable… but it should be given its proper place. The book of Hosea appears to be a more important description of God’s relationship with us than the book of Joshua.

Anyway, these are my thoughts today.  Who knows… I may have new ideas tomorrow. One should be ready to learn and grow.

Wondering about Signs and Wonders

A statue in the Cave of Elijah. The cave is lo...
A statue in the Cave of Elijah. The cave is located on Mount Carmel, Haifa, Israel. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I was writing an article on crisis care within the context of the story of Elijah. It occurred to me how generally useless is miracles (as they are popularly identified). There are different ways to define “miracle” of course. However, I am using the most common, although doubtful, definition. That is, a miracle is a supernatural and visible demonstration of power that cannot be explained by “natural” (predictable/repeatable) means.

One problem with the definition is that any well-crafted paradigm can come up with an internally feasible explanation for nearly anything, so the definition above can mean nearly anything or nothing depending on who one is talking to. In other words there is likely no possible phenomena that could not be “explained” by the naturalist, or any other well-developed, paradigm (regardless of the validity of the explanation).

A second problem is that it implies that certain phenomena are more from God than others.

The definition above for miracles certainly seems to apply quite well with the story of Elijah – fire falling from heaven consuming a sacrifice drenched with water in a highly public event. Lightning or a meotorite strike stains credulity. Perhaps only the parting of the Red Sea fits this view of miracle better in the Bible. One is left with either attacking the historicity of the story, or assuming that chicanery is involved.

To me, however, the more important question is the long-term results of miracles. The writer of the Books of the Kings appears to give an ambiguous answer. The immediate response of the people bowing down to Jehovah God appears positive. However, there seems to be no general change in the trajectory of the people of the Northern Kingdom in their move toward idolatry. Additionaly, the king and queen (Ahab and Jezebel) appear to be unmoved by the event. Elijah runs off in fear feeling as if he is a failure. He runs to Mount Horeb (aka Mount Sinai where God presented His power to Moses). There, God does present Himself in power to Elijah and yet the writer appears to emphasize the ineffectivity of the show of power. First, it is mentioned that God was not in the powerful displays but in the gentle whisper speaking to Elijah. Second, the writer notes that Elijah’s feelings and complaints are identical before and after the “signs and wonders.”

That got me thinking. How effective were signs and wonders in the Bible? Again the evidence is ambiguous. Generally, miracles appear to be valuable in two basic roles:

  1. Miracles have value primarily in the direct result. The parting of the Red Sea achieved the direct goal of allowing Israel to escape from the Egyptian army. This was important and necessary at the time. Christ’s healing was most importantly a compassionate reponse to illness.
  2. Miracles get people’s attention, initially. Miracles get people to pay attention, but without a clear message to respond to, the miracle becomes lost.


3. Miracles do not appear to inspire long-term change. Love and truth inspire long-term change.

4. Miracles (as defined above) appear to be intentionally non-normative. This is a fairly obvious result of of reason #2 above. Miracles that are common-place no longer get people’s attention. As far as reason #1 above, one might imagine that miracles could always have value in direct result, but so many other means exist that better achieve the same result (Christians acting out of Christ-like sacrificial love is an obvious one), so, again, miracles only make sense if they are non-normative.

5. Miracles (even as defined above) are hard to identify. The main reason is that there is a vast gulf that cannot be bridged without faith. I am not talking about religious faith. Rather, it is the gulf between something being believable and it being compelling.

Lewis Carroll wrote “What the Tortoise Said to Achilles,” about the fact that syllogistic logic cannot be compelling. Any attempt to take logic to the point of being compelling without a leap of faith requires an infinite (never ending) regression. Douglas Hofstadter repeats and extends the idea in “Gödel, Escher, Bach.” Within the Christian understanding of faith, Søren Kierkegaard in “Fear and Trembling” repeats the same idea. Logic and evidence can only bring us so far. Logic and evidence can get us near the truth, but we ultimately need a “leap of faith” to embrace divine truth. Some feel that faith is only a religious thing, yet faith is needed (on some level) by everyone about pretty much everything because no evidence is inherently and completley compelling.

That is a problem with miracles. They don’t compel belief. In fact, their value appears to be pretty limited in this. Jesus did many miracles, yet few seemed to have been compelled to believe because of them. The Twelve appear to have followed Jesus because He had “the words of life,” not that He was a miracle worker. Many disciples fell away because of His words, despite His miracles. The skeptics kept asking for more signs and wonders, without becoming believers. In fact, Jesus did not do miracles on certain occasions when miracles were most sought after by the public.

Pentecost found the church growing from 120 to several thousand. There was a miracle involved, the ability to speak in languages that one had not previously learned, yet the value appeared to be its direct use… making the message of the gospel intelligible to people who have a different heart language. The miracle in itself appeared not to compel belief. After all, there was no way an outside observer could verify that it was miraculous. If someone began speaking in Farsi, I would have no way to be sure the person was speaking in Farsi (if I did not know the language), and I would have no way to know how the person came to speak Farsi in the first place (if I did know the language).

The early church did do miracles at times. The Bible text seems to downplay their role. The text that speaks most of signs and wonders (I Cor. 12-14) actually attempts to provide limits and perspective to their role. The post-NT church even gives a lesser role, only rarely mentioning them in the writings of the church Fathers.

Why does this matter? There has been a lot spoken on signs and wonders as an appropriate (or even necessary) method of missions outreach. I don’t see that as Biblically or logically sound. Some suggest that it is useful or necessary in animistic cultures. If it is true in animistic cultures then it is probably true in most cultures since folk religion in most cultures has a similar focus on manipulation of supernatural power for personal benefit. So… if power encounter/“signs and wonders” is a necessary part of God’s witness in animistic societies, it seems like it would have been a more common (and more effective) witnessing tool in the NT Jewish and Hellenistic cultures.

I am sure there is a place for “signs and wonders” in Christian work. However, the direct benefit of miracles (the immediate corrective nature of the act) and getting the people’s momentary attention seems to be the key values here. Actual change and faith will not come from miracles. Rather they will come from evidence of God’s love and God’s word. I fear that the focus on signs and wonders as an evangelistic tool comes from our own lack of of characteristics of godliness that can be seen by others.

Living out our call as the voice, hands, and feet of Christ will always be our best evangelistic tool in any culture.

Saint Boniface, Celsus, and Power Missions

English: A statue of Zeus, found at Kameiros, ...
Statue of Zeus. Image via Wikipedia

In some previous posts, I have looked at Saint Boniface as a traditional model for Power Encounter. He used Ecclesiastical power (orders from the pope) and Political power (letters from Charles Martel) to go into pagan German villages and (among other things) desecrate pagan shrines (a clash of Divine power).

I have questioned the value of this, but I admit that it might be effective in Animist cultures where religion is often strongly linked to control of supernatural power. The fact, however, that they eventually killed St. Boniface might be regarded as a vote against his methodology. But how might such behavior be perceived by a non-Christian from a culture that is not animistic?

A possible answer is from the writings of Celsus, an ancient Greek Philosopher (Middle Platonist… with perhaps a bit of Epicurean). He wrote against Christianity probably around 178 AD. He gives his interpretation of Christian Power Encounter via desecration. (True Doctrine: A Discourse Against the Christians, Section X)

“… they assume that by pronouncing the name of their teacher they are armored against the powers of the earth and air and that their God will send armies to protect them. And they teach that no demon, lest it be an evil one, could want to do them harm anyway. And they are quite insistent on the efficacy of the name as a means of protection: pronounce it improperly, they say, and it is ineffective. Greek and Latin will not do; it must be said in a barbarian tongue to work.
Silly as they are, one finds them standing next to a statue of Zeus or Apollo or some other god, and shouting, ‘See here: I blaspheme it and strike it, but it is powerless against me for I am a Christian!’ Does this fellow not see that I might do the same without fear of reprisal to an image of his god? And further, those who do stand next to your little god are hardly secure! You are banished from land and sea, bound and punished for your devotion to [your Christian demon] and taken away to be crucified. Where then is your God’s vengeance on his persecutors? Protection indeed!
You ridicule the images of the gods; I doubt you would be so brave were you to come face to face with Herakles or Dionysus himself; but that is hardly my point. I would call your attention to the well-known fact that the men who tortured your god in person suffered nothing in return; not then, nor as long as they lived. And what new developments have taken place since your story proved false– something that would encourage someone to think that this man was not a sorcerer but the son of God? What are we to think of a god so negligent that he not only permitted his son to suffer as cruel a death as this Jesus did, but who allowed the message he was sent to deliver to perish with him? A long time has passed since then, and nothing has changed. Is there any human father so ruthless as your god? Your answer, ‘It is God’s will that things should happen as they happened.’ And this is as I have said, your answer to everything; he subjected himself to humiliation because it was his will to be humiliated. I would be negligent indeed if I did not suggest that the gods you blaspheme might say it was their will, and better sense would come of the episode if I did. Or one could say that anytime a god is blasphemed he endures it, and that endurance alone does not prove someone a god: one endures unalterable situation as much out of necessity as by choice. Who is to say necessity is not to be reckoned in the case of Jesus? When one considers these things objectively, it is evident that the old gods are rather more effective in punishing blasphemers than is the god of the Christians, and those who blapheme the former are usually caught and punished: just how effective is the Christian god in that respect?”

So what is Celsus arguing?

To Christians who defile pagan statutes/shrines without repercussion:

  • If I, Celsus, defiled Christian religious artifacts would I suffer… probably not.
  • Christians regularly suffer… does their god lack power, or lack will?
  • Jesus was tortured and crucified but those that did it did not suffer punishment. Either Jesus was a sorcerer (and not the son of God), or God is ruthless and negligent.

To Christians who say that bad things happen to Christians because it is God’s will.

  • If it is the will of the Christian god to suffer and endure indignities, who is to say that it is not the same for the Greek gods. If the Christian god can endure blasphemies, who is to say that the Greek gods can endure them any less.
  • Looking at history, it seems like the Greek gods have done a better job of punishing blasphemers and evil doers than the Christian god anyway.

Elsewhere, Celsus makes two more points regarding power:

  •  The Christian god is not all-powerful, else he would have been able to bring creation into line with his purposes.
  • The existence of a willful and disobedient creation that operates contrary to the will of the creator suggests that he is not good; he is ready to reward those who do his will, but is constrained to punish those who do not.

Now, getting back to the issue of Missions… or more specifically, “power missions” (the use of power encounter as a form for spreading the Christian faith):

I am not saying that God has no power. I am not saying that God doesn’t reveal Himself at times by power. Rather, I am suggesting that in many circumstances, power encounter is not missionally beneficial. Although there is evidence of occasional miracles during the centuries leading up to the time of the Emperor Constantine (and I would say up to the present), the moral character, conviction, and love shown to enemies and the needy were more instrumental to its spread (supporting its theology of hope). I really don’t think that has changed. The selfishness, bitterness, immorality, disunity, and (frankly) mediocrity of Christianity today has done far more to stifle its growth than any lack of power.

Demonstration of God’s love in a manner that can be understood and appreciated, tied to a clear presentation of God’s message of hope, should always be given priority. Almost always the power of God through Jesus was done, first of all as an act of compassion, rather than an act of proclamation. The Bible says that He healed because He had compassion on those who were suffering. On those occasions when He did miracles that were not directly linked to compassion (walking on water, the transfiguration, and the ascension, as examples) they were for His disciples, not for the unbelieving masses. Power missions may be appropriate in animistic societies, including such societies with a thin World Religion veneer. Nevertheless, such power should be motivated by, and directed towards compassionate meeting of needs.

Frankly, having to suggest that Christians should interact with the world primarily by expressing the character of God rather than (again primarily) the power of God speaks volumes to the degraded state of much of the church today. This really should be pretty obvious.

Power Encounter and Love Encounter… Elijah

I have been a bit down on “Power Encounter” as a missiological method… especially in this blogsite. Power Encounter has been popularized by Charles Kraft whose understanding has been affected by his work in West Africa. He found the animistic beliefs there made the people receptive to Christianity marketed in terms of power. And perhaps that is the best way to present God’s message in West Africa… I wouldn’t know. However, some people have sought to normalize power encounter to the point that some feel that it is a necessary or preliminary step to conversion. I don’t see this at all. Paul pointed out that Jews seek a sign and Greeks seek wisdom. To assume that everyone must go through a logical or philosophical argument of belief prior to conversion (based on Greek ideals) makes as much sense. But even within the Jewish ideal, the role of power encounter seems to be questionable as a missiological method. To demonstrate this, I would like to take one of the two clearest ex

The painting's story is from the Bible (I King...
Angel Caring for Elijah in Crisis. Image via Wikipedia

amples of power encounter in the Bible… Elijah and the prophets of Baal.

The story of Elijah’s encounter with the priests of Baal is in I Kings 18, while Elijah’s encounter with God is in I Kings 19. Please read these passages if you are uncertain about the details of this part of Elijah’s life.

Elijah won a power encounter with the priests of Baal. What were the results of this:

1. Over 400 priests of Baal were killed

2.  People on Mount Carmel fell facedown and said “Yahweh, He is God! Yahweh, He is God!”

3.  Apparently, prophets of God were able to minister somewhat more freely in the Northern Kingdom

These all sound pretty good, but there are some questionable points as well.

1. Having false priests executed would not be considered an acceptable missiological goal today.

2.  There is no real evidence that the people’s cries to God led to a long-term change of heart. The drift away from God continued in the Northern Kingdom.

3.  While King Ahab appeared to be more open to listening to God’s prophets, there was no major change, and his son was still a follower of Baal.

So, there is (in my mind) some clear doubt that power encounter is generally a good missions method. In fact, the use of power encounter (even in broad definition) is relatively uncommon in the Bible.

So let’s look further in this passage. If Elijah’s relationship with the priests of Baal was Power Encounter, then the relationship between God and Elijah was Love Encounter.

After the priests of Baal, Elijah went back to the royal court, probably part of his victory lap. But there he found out that Queen Jezebel was unmoved by the power encounter and planned to have Elijah killed (a reverse power encounter).

Elijah ran for his life. Some find this confusing or demonstrating lack of faith. But let’s be honest. Elijah did his most awesome miracle and thought he was done. He found out that he was wrong and could soon be killed. He had a CRISIS. His response was normal. It was a “normal response to an abnormal circumstance.”

How did God deal with Elijah? He dealt with him in a loving manner. Curiously, the way God did it was quite similar to the crisis response method taught by NOVA (National Organization for Victim Assistance). NOVA has a three step system:

          A.  Safety and Security

          B.  Ventilation and Validation

          C.  Prediction and Preparation

A.  Safety and Security. God allowed Elijah to escape a dangerous situation and go to where he felt emotionally secure and physically safe. Elijah was not running from God, he was running to Mount Horeb (Sinai). Elijah was running to God. God actually sent him an angel to feed him and give him drink so that he had the strength to continue his journey. During this time God did not speak to Elijah. Some would call this a “Ministry of Silence.” In a time of crisis, people need a time to get to a place of safety and feel emotionally secure. They also need some silence to begin to process their experience. This is exactly what God did. God gave him 41 days.

B.  Ventilation and Validation. Elijah arrived at Mount Horeb and wanted to die. God asked him “What are you doing here?” This gave Elijah an opportunity to ventilate. Elijah expressed his anger (with God), his fear, his aloneness, and his frustration. God did not correct him at this time. God did not get angry. He did not try to justify Himself to Elijah. Then God did something kind of strange. He showed His power to Elijah, but it was made clear that these signs of power were not God or where God was. Rather, it was in a small voice with Elijah. Again, God gave Elijah the opportunity to ventilate without being criticized. The first step was a “Ministry of Silence”, but this part was a “Ministry of Presence.”

C.  Prediction and Preparation. After giving Elijah ample time to ventilate, Elijah was ready. He had worked through the past, he was ready to look to the future. God gave him new tasks. He was to anoint two people as kings. Then he was to get a helper. Not only was this a new task, but this was to prepare him for new tasks (since being alone is difficult for someone in ministry). Only at this point does God correct some of Elijah’s bad thinking (not during the ventilation/validation stage) when He tells Elijah that he is not alone… there are others also faithful to God.

This is a Love Encounter. God revealed Himself to Elijah in a way that contrasted the fickle world around him. What were the results of this Love Encounter?

1.  Elijah was revitalized for ministry

2. A second prophet was brought in and trained for long-term ministry

This is definitely missiological.

Reiterating, there may be times when Power Encounter is useful, but there are questions about its real effectivity. But Love Encounter is definitely missiological effective.

Power Encounter, Love Encounter, and Pandemic Love

One of the two most popular posts on this blog is:

From Power Encounter to Love Encounter

In that post, I argued that the common missiological model of encounters, Truth Encounter, Allegiance Encounter, and Power Encounter, is flawed.

Antonine Plague

Power Encounter, the challenging of the powers of evil with the power of God for missiological purposes is often ambivalent. Its use is often unbiblical, its purpose is often obscure, and its results are often doubtful. Even the two best examples of Power Encounter in the Bible (Moses and the 10 plagues, and Elijah and the priests of Baal) seemed to have little to no long-term effect on the people the method was directed towards. This is not to say that Power Encounter is without its usefulness.

Rather, it is better to say that its usefulness is far less than “Love Encounter”. Love Encounter is the challenge of Christian’s in modeling Christlike love that stands in clear opposition to the shallow and self-serving condition the world calls love.

An excellent article, one of my favorites is “Pandemic Love” posted by Charles Moore. It is a fairly short article, but uses the example of the early church during times of plague (pandemic) as a model for how Christians should respond today. The following is an excerpt from the article. To see the entire article go to Pandemic Love, an article on the website of Plough Publishing (“The Plough”)

“Our time is not unlike the twilight years of the Roman empire. The god of materialism provides no hope, the structures and institutions of society that are meant to address social needs are indifferent and cold, and the current adversarial atmosphere of mistrust, suspicion, and violence breed fear and loneliness.

In an age of impersonal medicine, fear of death, social isolation, and mounting catastrophe, today’s church has the opportunity to go beyond the precautions of quarantine and vaccine and trust in the ultimate protection: Love. Instead of retreating from the onslaught of pain and death, the church has the chance to demonstrate that Jesus is the resurrection and the life. Instead of fear, which makes it difficult to look beyond the precautionary, followers of Christ can show the world that it is in giving our lives away that we find life. How we live and how we die is our message. If we would but dare more in faith, here and now, then perhaps, like with the early church, an outpouring of new life and real hope, instead of terror and flight, will sweep the earth.” 

From Power Encounter to Love Encounter

<A related, follow-on article is Power Encounter, Love Encounter, and Pandemic Love.>

In Missions there is often 3 types of “encounters” discussed. Charles Kraft, in particular, has a lot in this area and include:

  • Truth Encounter

    St. Boniface and Power Encounter
  • Allegiance Encounter
  • Power Encounter

Truth Encounter is the challenge of God’s truth against the various lies that are encountered in this world. Allegiance Encounter is a volitional challenge. As Joshua stated in the Bible, “Choose you this day whom you will serve. As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” This encounter involves making a choice to stand with God or with the enemy. Of these two, I would place Allegiance encounter as the more important. Salvation or conversion is an affective or volitional act. Correct knowledge is important but secondary.

This leaves power encounter. This is where the power of God is put to the test against the powers of darkness. Many missiologists consider this to be very important, but I THINK all would have to agree that the challenge of power is secondary to truth and allegiance. In fact, generally power encounter is considered simply preparatory for truth encounter and eventually allegiance encounter. In a sense, power encounter always happens in salvation since the power of God must be exercised to give freedom from the bondage of sin and the powers of this earth. However, that necessary form of power encounter is behind the scenes. It is not an encounter that happens on a “missiological” level. On a missiological level, the necessity or value of power encounter is less certain.

I used to be in favor of power encounter, and I suppose I don’t wholeheartedly reject it, but I have had growing qualms. I do have to add the caveat that some cultures may need power encounter more than others. Just as the Ancient Greeks valued truth and reason (making truth encounter, perhaps, more necessary), Animists are commonly focused on the spirit world as a source of power (both as a desirable and an undesirable thing). Perhaps missiological power encounter is more valuable here. Additionally, in TRULY unreached people groups, power encounter may be important to “open the door.”

In 1st millenium Frisia and Germany was St. Boniface, the “Apostle to the Germans”. A method he used was a form of power encounter. He would enter a pagan village, go to the sacred space, a holy tree, and cut it down. The argument was that if the gods Woden, Thor, or others of the Germanic pantheon, were so powerful, certainly they would have stopped St. Boniface from cutting down their tree… or at least smite him after the fact. This is power encounter through desecration.

This is not the only form of power encounter, and one could certainly argue that this wasn’t really a satisfactory test for power encounter. First, God’s power wasn’t really tested (unless one assumes that God was actually protecting St. Boniface from the other gods). Second, it may not be really testing the power of these gods but rather their allegiance to the sacred space. Just as Elijah, jokingly, suggested that Baal was asleep or too busy to get around to burning the sacrifice offered in that famous scene on Mount Carmel, inaction is not necessarily proof of lack of power. It could be lack of will or allegiance.

Regardless, however, history does point to an ugly side of power encounter. In the case of St. Boniface, desecrating a place without the concurrence of the local people appears to be without justification in the New Testament. 1st century Christians lived in a pluralistic society. They had plenty of opportunities to desecrate local pagan shrines. Yet they did not (Okay some did. There were reports of early Christians standing next to idols blaspheming pagan gods and spitting on the idols… but this does not appear to be a normative behavior). Additionally, history shows that when the Norsemen (Vikings) invaded Christian lands years after St. Boniface, they often targeted Christian structures such as churches and monasteries. This focus may have simply been due to the greater wealth and lesser defenses compared to other structures. Yet one could interpret their behavior as a reverse power encounter. And what would such circumstances demonstrate? Does God lack the power to prevent such desecration? (Some would obviously respond “Yes”.) On the other hand, it could be viewed as an allegiance encounter. God chose not to respond to the desecration is these “sacred spaces.” The end result is ambivalence. The fact that St. Boniface was eventually killed by pagans adds further question as to the insight gained from this experiment in power encounter.

The Bible also shows ambivalence to Power Encounter. The two greatest examples of power encounter in the Bible are Moses’ challenge to the sorcerers of Pharoah, and Elijah’s encounter with the priests of Baal. While Moses challenge proved to be a tactical victory, it did little to nothing as a cross-cultural mission encounter. With Elijah, the text also seems to express ambivalence regarding its effect. Jesus also did heal the demon-possessed. That could be looked at as a form of power encounter– battling with the forces of darkness, showing God is more powerful than the agents of evil. However, it is certainly not a classic form. First, the audience presumably already believed that God (Yahweh) was more powerful than the demons. Second, He often appeared to minimize that aspect of the encounter… such as minimizing the news regarding the healing, and requiring the demons to keep quiet as to His identity. It seems better to say that His healings were evidence of His relationship to God, partly, and His compassion for the suffering (love encounter).

With the propensity of charlatans of all sorts to peddle their wares… be they for God or against God, power encounter can point people away from God as much as point them towards God. Fake faith healers are likely to sour people to the truth, and may even lead people to question if God can actually heal.

Unfortunately, power encounter has often been mixed together with odd teachings like spiritual mapping. This does not make power encounter wrong of itself, but it does mean that power encounter often gets wasted on (what I believe to be) useless activities, such as attacking spiritual territories and strongholds. This seems to be more of a syncretistic Christo-paganism than genuine Biblical missions.

I would like to suggest that Love Encounter be moved into the top three, displacing power encounter at least one slot. Jesus did do miracles that were a form of power encounter. Jesus also shared truth that challenged the world’s truth. Jesus also challenged people to pick a side… follow Him or the world. Yet, in many ways, it was the love and self-sacrifice of Christ that most clearly challenged and contrasted the self-serving, shallow love and values that the world offers. In many cases, the love encounter with Christ was the most important to bring life change. I believe that this has not changed. There are times where Power Encounter may be beneficial. But Love Encounter is always valuable.

Another Kind of “Power Encounter”

Missionary Tom comes in and wants to start up a new ministry. Where does he go to get manned with the most competent, driven people? To other local ministries, of course. Tom has more money and so can lure the best people away from other local ministries. Maybe Tom’s group is effective, maybe it isn’t. It doesn’t matter. Even if he succeeds, he has done so at the expense of other groups.

A mission strategy used in some parts of the world (useful in some places, a waste of time in others) is power encounter. A missionary goes into an area and shows that God is more powerful than whatever local gods or spirits the people have. (More often, it is really “Volition Encounter”… but that is for a different post.) Sadly, some missionaries go in and employ their own form, a new kind of power encounter with local Christian ministries. They use money, local connections, and international connections to draw away people (or even resources) from local ministries for their own work. Missionaries develop a parasitic relationship to local churches and ministries.

All missionaries can be tempted by this… and I think it would be fair to say I have fallen into this trap at times. It understandable. Capable, trained, and motivated Christian workers are rare in the Philippines and most of these are very busy. Training new people is a gamble. But I have seen some extreme cases here. I have seen some missionaries who are VERY aggressive in trying to draw competent people away from other ministries… or try to slap their own name on the ministry or church that is succeeding. Some missionaries even come back and try to hurt the local ministry or give discouraging words to local Christians who turned down the lure of the missionary’s work.

Missionaries should build up good local ministries. They should encourage their growth and be willing to take on a helping (rather than governing) role in their development. Working with local ministries can build them up. Discipling believers and training them to serve can increase the missionaries own work without drawing down on other’s resources. Missionaries are supposed to fill a need, not try to justify their existence. Hurting other ministries to ensure your personal success is completely without justification.