On Power Part Three: Power That Is Polished And Precise

Edward Vaughan - 18 March 2022

A young church planter is attending a conference on mission which has been put on by an organisation that is promotes gospel growth and evangelism. Every session has been challenging, engaging and encouraging.

But then the MC announces the topic for the next session: ‘Now we are going to hear from a church leader who has years of experience in church governance.’

Our young church planter reaches for their phone and starts to post on Instagram about the church they dream of starting. Meanwhile, in the background the intricacies of how to encourage healthy organisational practice drifts into the ether…

Surely no one goes into ministry with a burning desire to have good grievance and HR policies. It’s just not the sexy edge of ministry. Yet behind these things lies the issue of power, and how its misuse leads to people getting hurt. And that, actually, is at the heart of a loving and Christ -centred ministry.

Previously I have written here about the nature of power; what it is, and who has it. In another blog I discussed how power shapes relationships and introduced the concept of Organisational Justice. In this third and final blog, I want to pull some of these threads together.

Bruce Cockburn sings in one of his songs about the ‘young men marching, helmets shining in the sun, polished and precise like the brain behind the gun should be[1] . It makes a startling change from standard rock ‘n’ roll fare of songs about cars, girls and self-medication. But what is he saying?

It’s an image of power. It’s an image of an army. They wear helmets, they wield guns, they march – normally an image that we find terrifying. But in Cockburn’s hands it’s an image which actually becomes reassuring because it’s about power wielded by people who are trustworthy, intelligent, well trained, well-disciplined, and thoughtful. It’s an image of power used well.

The reason why power is so problematic in the Christian community is because it is often not well thought out. We don’t realise we have it, and we haven’t thought about how to use it. It’s like a child who is waving a gun about. They have had no training in safe use of weapons, and they simply don’t know the potential harm that can be inflicted by the improper use of what they hold in their hands.

When it comes to power, you want the people who have it to know what they have, and to have thought long and hard about how it should be used. Otherwise, you never know when it’s going to explode in your face.

In healthy organisations, the leadership has thought long and hard about who has power and who doesn’t. They have thought about whether their organisation acts justly with regards to their staff members and volunteers. They are thoughtful and honest about power, because that is what people who wield power need to be. They need to be polished and precise. On the other hand, to the extent that we are oblivious about the power that we wield, we are increasingly a threat to others.

Governance, that aspect of community life that can seem a distraction from the main game, actually becomes really important as we think about whether power is being used justly.

Like our young church planter, for many of us the very word ‘governance’ smacks of eye glazing boredom. It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that no one really cares about issues of governance—until a church staff member is sexually harassed by a co-worker; or the CEO of the Christian organisation is accused of bullying; or a volunteer is verbally abused; or a staff worker is laid off in breach of their employment rights.

That’s when everyone goes looking for the constitution, or the grievance policy, or the employment contract, because those documents will have massive bearing on how the issue is resolved.

No one cares about governance—until they do. Then they care very much.

Just to be clear, the real issue here is not just about governance. It’s about justice and power—who has it, and how they use it. Governance is simply a way of thinking about the safe use of power, of protecting the weak, and providing remedies when power is misused.

We need to bring our best thinking to the issue of how we use power with one another. We need minds which are polished and precise, because that’s what people who are powerful need to be. They need to be self-aware, safe, and thoughtful.

We need to be polished, precise, and deeply thoughtful about the cross of Christ. The cross is a symbol of power, the brutal power of a totalitarian regime that is subverted by the stunning humility of Jesus into a symbol of eternal divine grace. It is the place where weakness becomes strength, and power is overwhelmed by love.

We will begin to be safe people to use power as we begin to deeply contemplate the power dynamic that lies at the heart of the crucifixion of Christ. With polish. And precision.

Edward Vaughan

1. ‘Wondering Where The Lions Are’, Bruce Cockburn