Putting Power in Its Place

June 27, 2012

I work at the University of Virginia, and today saw the resolution of a power struggle that, for better or worse, pitted the university’s first female president against its first female rector.

It got me thinking about power and women. For the better part of human history, power has resided primarily in the hands of men. In numerous cultures, men’s superior strength and privilege have enabled them to control women—their choices, behaviors, bodies, property, safety, health, and opportunities. Unfortunately, because power can advance selfish gain and can so easily corrupt, powerful people are susceptible to becoming exploitive, even abusive, of those without it.

Certainly in first century Palestine men held more power than women, both in the home and in the synagogue. This is the world Jesus entered, embodying not only male privilege with its superior education and physical strength but the miraculous power of Deity. Yet, Jesus demonstrated a different way to exercise power.

He used his power to bring comfort to the mourners, freedom to the captives, sight to the blind, and healing to the sick (Isaiah 61:1-2). He spoke bold truth to religious authority and brought good news to the vulnerable. He both defended and empowered the powerless, both women and men.

Even in the 21st century many of us women have less power than we would like. Our spheres of power may be limited by our cultural roles or by the more powerful people in our lives. Although I must acknowledge that men still exist, even in the West, who wield absolute power over their wives and daughters, I have observed that most women possess power in some areas of their lives. Power may reside in the running of the household or in the care and discipline of the children (or in access to the children when the family has split up). Women may acquire power in the community groups where they volunteer, in their job roles, in their relationships with family and friends, and sometimes even in church positions.

Because our opportunities for power are often limited, we may be tempted to grasp it wherever we can get it and hold on tight. We, too, must beware the temptation to be corrupted by our power, limited though it may be. We must be careful not to amass and abuse power when it comes within our grasp. Using power to exploit for selfish gain and wreak vengeance is just as wrong for women as it is for men.

In the areas of life where we do have power, we must be sure to use it as Jesus did—for the benefit of others. “Power under” is the way Gregory Boyd refers to this kind of power – not “lording it over” others or “flaunting” our authority but choosing to behave as servants (Matthew 20:25-27). “Participants in the kingdom of the world trust the power of the sword to control behavior,” Boyd says. Power under looks “to the interests of others (Phil. 2:3-4) and seeks not our own advantage, but that of the other (I Cor. 10:24). We bear others’ burdens (Gal. 6:2) and “outdo one another in showing honor” (Rom. 12:10). We belong to a kingdom where the “exalted will be humbled and humbled will be exalted” (Luke 14:11).

Power can accomplish great good or great evil. Women of God must be careful to follow the example of our gentle Savior who saved the world through the power of his sacrificial love.

(Check back in a couple of weeks for a follow-up post on power in our own lives.)

One response to “Putting Power in Its Place”

  1. Rebecca says:

    Thank you for such a right-on message as I prepare to speak to aeoman’s group your words hit home. The lord had caused me to seek out the verse humble yourself under the mighty hand of God and in due season he will exalt you. Praise the Lord for you continue to share our Gentle shepard!

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